Was Stanback's Potential Stunted?

It is well known that throughout this season Isaiah Stanback struggled in practice. He often made mistakes that were staggering in their magnitude. Even on the last-gasp drive against the Cougars, his absent-mindedness incurred a delay of game penalty, and also induced him to run out of bounds on the game's final play.

This shortcoming has led the Husky coaches to keep him out of games. Gilby and company have been petrified of what blunders what might occur if they put #4 out there. Gilbertson has told Stanback that he doesn't feel he can handle the stress of being the starter. So they wanted to play it "safe", as coordinator John Pettas put it earlier this year. The coaches stuck long and hard with Casey Paus. They felt that he knew the offense better. They went with the old coaching maxim—to never beat yourself with errors.

But let's play Devil's Advocate for a minute and say that the coaches had finally decided that Casey Paus wasn't giving the team the best chance to win, and Stanback was named starter for the Apple Cup. The question to ponder is-- what was the worst that could have happened?

Let's answer that question by first taking an overall look at Isaiah Stanback. He has a cannon for an arm. He adlibs well and is fleet of foot. He also lacks a feel and understanding of what is happening on the field, and can freeze up under pressure at the precise moment when he needs to make an analytical decision.

Sometimes, though, he can create plays that are so astonishingly beautiful. That quality makes him a big play threat whenever he takes a snap.

So what was the worst that could have happened if Stanback had started the Apple Cup? Let's say for the most part, it was a disaster. Our worst fears were realized. Let's say that Stanback completed a paltry 10 of 24 passes and was intercepted 3 times, while fumbling away into the end zone a gift touchdown to the Cougars.

Those stats should sound pretty familiar, given that is exactly what Casey Paus' box score read. Hindsight is always 20-20, but even in a worse case scenario, Stanback couldn't have done any worse. And it couldn't have come as a surprise that Paus struggled against the Cougars, could it?

In continuing to play Devil's Advocate, with Stanback at the helm there is a high likelihood that he would have broken between 3 to 6 long gains from rollouts or escaping from collapsing pockets. I don't think it's a stretch to imagine that he would have completed an additional 3 to 6 medium to long-range passes to Craig Chambers and Sonny Shackelford downfield.

Back to what really happened, with Stanback subbing for the final 20 minutes of the game, the Huskies lost 28-25. Had Stanback played the entire game, Washington could have conceivably won the Apple Cup just as easily as they ended up losing it.

But now we'll never know, and the Cougars have bragging rights for a year.

Gilbertson has been the recipient of much appreciation for being the fall guy in this difficult post-Neuheisel/Hedges situation (and rightfully so). But his stubborn insistence on sticking with a futile QB to the detriment of the team speaks to his inability to make quality decisions under duress.

This was a long, miserable season with nothing for fans to hold onto in the way of enjoyable moments or hope for the future. But for everyone associated with Washington football, this season was a bloodletting. Come Spring Practice in 2005, everything will be new. We will be starting over. Players and fans will be better able to appreciate the victories in the coming years, because we've been to the pits of Hell and know how bad things can get. We won't be taking winning for granted anytime soon.

If Jeff Tedford becomes the next Washington coach, the most thrilled person should be Isaiah Stanback. Jeff Tedford could make the difference between Stanback realizing his potential and ending up in the NFL, or finishing out his career as an underachieving backup, and disappearing from the public radar screen. Just look what he did with Akili Smith a few years back at Oregon, or Kyle Boller at Cal.

Prior to Tedford's arrival, Smith was struggling mightily in games and there was question whether he would even stay in school. But when Tedford arrived at Oregon in the spring of 1998, he and Akili instantly clicked. Tedford utilized a checkerboard to simplify the complex lessons that Smith needed to learn. After persisting awhile, he made a breakthrough and the light came on for Smith and shone brilliantly. Suddenly the Ducks had access to the loaded vault of all that untapped physical and mental potential. Tedford's guidance and mentorship enabled Akili Smith to have a juggernaut campaign in 1998, and to be named the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year. He went on to become the third pick in the NFL draft.

He was a horrific bust in the NFL without Tedford, but that's not the point.

Now take a look at Isaiah Stanback, a player with immense physical talents and good intelligence. He lacks, however, the tools that need to be developed to become a quality QB. He is also a sensitive young man whose confidence has been battered. He needs a coach who will come in and build him back up. He also needs someone to persist with him until the light bulb can flick on-- and infuse the comprehension needed to become the field general the Huskies desperately need.

As Chuck Knox once said: "No football player is too dumb… Our football players are good enough if me and my coaches are good enough to teach them."

And who knows? With a new coaching staff and a look to the future, maybe Washington already has a perfectly good QB right on its roster.
Derek Johnson can be reached at uwsundodger@msn.com

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