CRIMSON COMMENTARY: The upside of a junior QB

THE DEBATE RAGES on in cyberspace, as passionate in July as it was in November. Some see promise in the numbers Alex Brink has already put in the books, surpassing WSU greats Ryan Leaf and Jason Gesser at the same point after two years. Some see and feel only the sting of seven losses in '05. But the funny thing is, the naysayers would probably be all but silent if the QB had just one thing.

A howitzer for an arm.

Brink doesn't have the rocket of a Leaf or a Drew Bledsoe. And fans love the strong armed quarterbacks. A strong arm also buys a reprieve while a quarterback develops.

If Brink had that gun, and put up the exact same stats with the exact same win-loss record, the din going on now would be more a murmur. For some reason, football fans -- and plenty of NFL and college coaches, too -- equate arm strength with potential more than any other QB attribute, from field generalship to athleticism and beyond.

Bledsoe, Leaf and other Cougar quarterbacks who endured losing records early on also didn't have to contend with the internet, where things can turn vicious at the drop of a hat and where instant -- and enduring -- criticism is available 24/7.

Hogwash, they say. It's all about wins.

Is it? These days, the Cougar Nation remembers Bledsoe mostly for his junior season, which included Apple Cup and Copper Bowl wins. Long faded from the memory banks are the 3-8 and 4-7 slipshod campaigns of '90 and '91.

THE 4-7 RECORD during Bledsoe's sophomore season didn't generate the kind of uproar going on these days. So why the difference. Brink was a sophomore last year, too. Was it because Bledsoe's strong arm led more to believe in the promise of better days to come?

Turn the page. Bledsoe didn't start for but five games of the 1990 season. The freshman Bledsoe went 1-4 in those five starts. Brink, too, started the final five games his freshman year, going 2-3.

Old timers will recall Ty Paine was absolutely horrible his sophomore season, setting the Pac-10 record for interceptions as WSU stumbled to 1-10 in 1970.

Paine's junior season saw the Cougs go 4-7 but that was truly an epic improvement considering where the program was at that stage. The season included a win over defending -- and soon to be again -- Rose Bowl champion Stanford in a game The Cardinal was favored by 24 points. (For more, click HERE)

The Cougs went 7-4 under Paine the following year, cementing Paine's place in crimson history, getting the program back to a winning record and dominating Sonny Sixkiller and Washington 27-10 in the process.

ANOTHER COUGAR field general, one considered by many to be the greatest quarterback to ever don the crimson and gray, Leaf and Washington State dropped their final four games in 1996 --- Any one of those wins would have given them a winning record and sent them to the Hula Bowl.

If the internet of today existed in '96, imagine the possibilities. Oh, delicious.

Before the magic of '97, Leaf as a sophomore completed 52 percent of his passes on 194-of-373 passing for 2,811 yards. The sophomore threw 21 TD passes with 12 interceptions.

Brink's sophomore campaign was better in nearly every statistical category. Brink completed 57.3 percent of his throws on 205-of-358 passing for 2,891 yards. He threw 24 TD passes with 13 picks.

More hogwash, they say. It's the way those stats came about. Poor decision making and critical mistakes at critical times led to seven losses, five by four points or less.

For starters look back over just the 1990, 1991 and 1996 seasons. You'll find plenty of all that -- some of it eerily mirroring the 2005 season. Included will be some defensive woes, as the Cougs surrendered 40 or more points nine times over those three seasons.

Whither Jason Gesser, they say? He didn't have the strongest of arms.

In Gesser's sophomore year for the Cougs (4-7), he went 3-6 as a starter before breaking his leg against Oregon in Week 9. Long before Gesser's injury, the season had plummeted into a meltdown. It's easy, now, to see the three OT losses as a roadmap of what was to come over Gesser's career.

Back then, things were decidedly murkier.

A fiery leader, Gesser made some great plays in 2000. He made just as many that revealed a sophomore QB still learning the ropes.

AND REMEMBER, GESSER was given a huge amount of leeway -- benefitting from a decided halo effect in shortly following in the shoes of some of the lesser lights in Cougar quarterback history. The same holds true for Leaf.

But not for Leaf's cousin. A great crimson defense and Matt Kegel smacked people in the mouth in 2003. But he was absolutely vilified after the '02 season -- by friend and foe alike -- following the Apple Cup loss, a 2000 victory over USC as the starting QB long since rendered ancient history.

Month after month, Kegel's detractor piled on that offseason. And the growing disquietude became stronger still after a less than compelling win over Idaho and a loss to Notre Dame left the Cougs at 1-1. These days, few recall the maelstrom at that time. Fortunately, Kegel was at least as mentally tough as he was physically, and Washington State went 10-3.

Also stricken from the memory was just how many called for Josh Swogger to take over -- at various points -- during Kegel's 2003 year. Much of the clamor came from the same ones who now remember Kegel, correctly, with the fondness befitting the guy who quarterbacked the No. 9 team in the nation.

More? Timm Rosenbach in 1987 threw 24 interceptions against 10 TDs his sophomore season as Wazzu struggled to a 3-7-1 finish. As a junior, Rosenbach offered up a stunning reversal -- dropping that INT number to 10, firing 24 TDs, and helped guide the Cougs to a 9-3 season and No. 16 national ranking. Why?

The light bulb turned on for Rosenbach after a sophomore year of seasoning. What does Brink's junior year hold in store?

THE BOTTOM LINE is that winning is the only litmus test that matters. But it's how a quarterback gets there, the hard lessons learned, that gets lost in translation.

The QB receives more credit -- and blame -- than he ever deserves for wins and losses. But if Brink and Washington State this season storm the fields of Pac-10 battle the way junior quarterbacks Bledsoe, Rosenbach, Leaf and Gesser did, all will be forgotten.

And some now shouting the loudest might even take a moment, dare say, to beam in wonder, 'Well just look at what 'ol Brink did. The Cougs are going bowling. And he's only a junior. Imagine what the future holds.'

Imagine, indeed.

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