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How important is Jake Browning to Washington?

Has there been an overemphasis on quarterback play in college football? The Pac-12 Networks' Curtis Conway posed that very thought to me last week, and it was a question worth further scrutiny. And the more you dig into the facts, the more it seems that there is a kernel of truth to it. 

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Overemphasis may be a bit strong, because an offense can fundamentally change for the worse when a starting quarterback is suddenly unavailable. Washington fans saw it last year when Jake Browning couldn't play at Stanford and another brand-new starter - K.J. Carta-Samuels - was pressed into action. The offense just didn't quite click the way it had in the past under Browning. 

A quarterback's value can't just be rooted in numbers: the intangibles can often be a more important factor when looking at the whole offensive picture. 

As much as the trend in college football is to chuck it around on offense and spread people out, the fundamentals still apply: play great defense, control the ball on offense, and don't turn it over. The quarterback plays a fundamental role in those final two points. 

You do those three things, and chances are very good you will win a lot more games than you will lose. 

So how does the quarterback fit in to the total equation? It boils down to two main ingredients, and they should come as no surprise to those who have listened to Washington Head Coach Chris Petersen over the years: be accurate with your passes and make good decisions. 

But ultimately, how important has a top, top quarterback been to winning at the highest levels? Looking back at the last five national championship quarterbacks, only Florida State's Jameis Winston sticks out as close to being a household name. Alabama's AJ McCarron helped the Crimson Tide win back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012. Do you remember him? How about last year's quarterback for Alabama? It's Jake Coker, the future answer to a Jeopardy question 10 years from now. 

Ohio State used a third string quarterback to win their national championship in 2014, Cardale Jones. Jones was a fantastic athlete, but he was also an afterthought for the Buckeyes at quarterback when the 2014 season began. The two players in front of him were Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. 

Closer to home, the same trend can be applied to the Pac-12 Conference. 

The last five conference champions have all come from the North: Oregon in 2011 and 2014, and Stanford in 2012, 2013, and 2015. Not once did a quarterback from those teams lead the Pac-12 in passing or total offense. And in 2012, Stanford switched quarterbacks from Josh Nunes to freshman Kevin Hogan, so neither one of them qualified for any post-season statistics. But Hogan's 148 rating would have placed him fourth in the league that season behind Oregon's Marcus Mariota, ASU's Taylor Kelly, and USC's Matt Barkley. 

In fact, of the last five conference champions, only Mariota came close to the passing or total offense crowns when he lead the Ducks to the National Championship game following the 2014 season. But he did lead the Pac-12 in passing efficiency, the most important determinant when it comes to measuring a quarterback's impact on a team's overall performance. 

In 2011, Oregon's Darron Thomas was ninth in total offense but fourth in passing efficiency. In 2013, Hogan was 10th in total offense but fourth in pass efficiency. And in Hogan's final year with the Cardinal last season he was again 10th in total offense but second in pass efficiency. Yet despite leading his team to the Pac-12 title and a convincing Rose Bowl win over Iowa, Hogan was only a second-team All-Conference pick behind Washington State's Luke Falk and California's Jared Goff. 

"Alabama has proven time and time again that they have average to below average quarterbacks in my opinion, yet they still find themselves in the big dance," Conway said. "That’s what you’re going to find here with the defense playing the way they are playing and the running game at Washington. 

"You look at Alabama. They are basically the top dawg now and you don’t hear about any of their quarterbacks. You hear about Nick Saban’s defense. They always have a sold running back. And they’ve always got guys up front that can get it done. They lose two defensive linemen this year to the pros and we’re talking about the next guy on the defensive line. 

"So what Nick has done is, he’s understood that while you want to go throw the ball 50 times…David Shaw has done the same thing at Stanford. People can’t figure it out. How is Stanford winning? And they aren’t getting five-star guys, but they are building teams. They are building programs and they aren’t falling into the trap of - I need the best quarterback in the country to come in and throw it 35 or 40 times a game to win games. This is football, this is how we win, Stanford has proven it in the Pac-12 and Alabama has proven it across the country.”

If all this sounds like a bit of a throwback, it is. It smacks of the days when teams had 105 scholarships to give out and programs could stockpile talent and develop players over a number of years. 

"I think the game in general is cyclical, whether it’s a couple years, 10-12 years the game starts cycling back because there’s good schemes," Washington Offensive Coordinator Jonathan Smith said this week. 

Washington ran the ball 55 percent of the time last season, with true freshman Myles Gaskin accounting for 47 percent of those carries. That meant true frosh Jake Browning was in charge of the other 45 percent. 

For the year, Browning was seventh in the Pac-12 in passing yardage, seventh in pass efficiency, and seventh in total offense. 

Based on how the conference championship quarterbacks have done the past five years, Browning could still finish 2016 seventh in yardage and offense. But he cannot stay seventh in efficiency.  He would have to finish at least in the top-four in order to follow the trend set by Thomas, Mariota and Hogan. 

And that's a very doable goal. A rating of 152 would have gotten him there in 2015, and he finished the season at 139. The senior Hogan, by comparison, finished the year with a rating of 171. 

With the talk surrounding Washington's defense and the question marks dogging the Huskies' offense heading into 2016, the answers on that side of the ball appear relatively simple: stick to the run, move the chains, don't give the ball away, play great field position. 

Those are all things Browning can help the offense accomplish without having to stray too far beyond his current comfort zone.  

“I think the next step in his progression is everybody around him," Petersen said of Browning during Pac-12 Media Day. "Everybody wants to talk about Jake Browning and everybody wants to talk about Myles Gaskin and everybody wants to talk about John Ross III on offense…I think we need to talk about all the other unsung heroes that need to be unsung heroes. And if those guys elevate their game, if the o-line elevates their game, if the tight ends take the next step, if the wide receivers can start making some really spectacular plays, I think everything is going to change on our offense in terms of momentum."

Jake Browning doesn't need to be a superstar for Washington this fall. He just needs to be the glue that keeps the offense together. He needs to be the provider, he needs to be a consistent presence. He needs to be accurate and make great decisions. 

He doesn't need to throw for 4000 yards. 

The only Pac-12 Championship quarterback that's done that in recent memory is Mariota, and he did it in 15 games. If Browning plays in 15 games this fall, mission accomplished. 

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