Football intellectuals recently mulled the curious statistic that on Dec. 20, AJ McCarron of the Cincinnati Bengals became the first former Alabama quarterback to start and win an NFL game since Jeff Rutledge on Nov. 15, 1987, a 28-year span covering six non-interim Alabama coaches. It has spawned chitchat here and there, nowhere more vivid than on the website AL.com, where a brief story about McCarron’s win wreaked a spirited squabble between — who knew? — Alabama and Auburn fans.
In a vigorous defense of Alabama honor against Auburn heckling, one fan pointed out that McCarron stood 1-0 after one start, while in 2011 Cam Newton stood 0-1.
On the phone from Arizona where he coaches at Valley Christian High School in Chandler, Rutledge said Thursday, “I was surprised when it was me.” He also said, “I think it really tells you nothing at all.” He also said, “It’s not nearly as easy as people think it is to make it in the NFL.”
He also told a story that might lend some insight, just in case the stat does hint at something. When the 17-year-old Rutledge fielded a visit from Alabama Coach Bear Bryant in 1974, he was trying to choose between Alabama and Louisiana State.
“You want to win a national championship, don’t you, son?” Bryant said.
“Absolutely,” Rutledge said.
“Well, you won’t win one there,” Bryant said.
As Rutledge recounted the story, Bryant sported a ring.
Come Monday night, Alabama could win a college football national championship with quarterback Jake Coker just as, across the last 40 years, it won two with McCarron (three NFL starts and counting), one with Greg McElroy (two NFL starts), one with Jay Barker (zero NFL starts), one with Steadman Shealy (zero NFL starts) and one with Rutledge (10 NFL starts among 117 NFL appearances). Coach Nick Saban could win a championship with Coker just as, across the last 12 years, he has won two with McCarron, one with McElroy and one at LSU with Matt Mauck (one NFL start).
Yet as Alabama does tend to pursue national championships, the correlation between national champion quarterbacks and the NFL long has suggested these are two unique games. Of the 13 quarterbacks to win national championships in college this century, only five have started at least 10 NFL games. Only two, Vince Young and Newton, have started more than 18, though Jameis Winston (16 starts) figures to join them next year.
Of the 37 national-title quarterbacks since Joe Montana in 1977 (counting multiple winners and shared titles), 16 never made an NFL start and six more have started three times or fewer. One, Charlie Ward, started 285 games — in the NBA. Alabama has hardly had been alone. No NFL quarterback from Nebraska, for example, has started and won an NFL game since 1987.
For one thing, it’s harder than it looks. “I’m not patting myself on the back,” Rutledge said of his time in the NFL, “but I know that in 14 years as a backup quarterback, I never went into a camp, ever, where I felt sure I would have a job when I came out. You have to prove yourself.” Those 14 years included a season with Super Bowl champion Washington in 1991.
Every once in a while, Rutledge remarks to his brother how he wouldn’t have minded trying out the more dynamic system of the current Alabama offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin. After all, Alabama ran the wishbone offense when Rutledge played there, and he never threw more than 112 times in a season though he considered himself a better thrower than runner.
Saban’s Alabama is, in fact, generating what seems a stream of staggeringly good NFL wide receivers, from Julio Jones (136 catches this season) to Amari Cooper (72 catches as a rookie) to, potentially, Calvin Ridley (eight catches for 138 yards for Alabama in the national semifinal victory over Michigan State). Even as Alabama spent the season mainly pounding the ball with Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry with the idea of winning games, Kiffin might change things somewhat, NFL-wise.
“If Lane Kiffin sticks around there, you’ll see more quarterback prospects come through Alabama,” said Charlie Campbell, who evaluates the NFL draft for WalterFootball.com, and who said Saban “hasn’t seemed to go for the Tim Tebows or Cam Newtons, those kinds of do-it-all quarterbacks. The NFL wants guys with special skill sets.”
McCarron will be a starting quarterback in an NFL playoff game this weekend, as Andy Dalton’s throwing thumb remains broken. And Alabama could have an NFL prospect playing quarterback in Monday night’s College Football Playoff championship against No. 1 Clemson. Coker graduated from Florida State while playing behind E.J. Manuel and Winston before transferring to Alabama, where he spent a year as Blake Sims’s backup before becoming a fifth-year senior and first-year starter.
Coker moved along steadily this season while Henry carried the ball 359 times, averaging 198 passing yards per game. Then he captivated in the playoff semifinal in the Cotton Bowl with 25 completions in 30 attempts for 286 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. It had Kiffin reminding that Coker is just starting out and needed time, and it had Saban fielding the rational question of whether the output surprised him. Said Saban: “I wasn’t surprised at all.”
Come Monday night, Coker will finish up, exult in confetti snowfall if the oddsmakers have it right and move along.
“In a lot of ways, I think as an NFL prospect, you just wish he had another year there,” Campbell said. “He was consistent with how he finished up the season. I think that Coker has grown from week to week. You can see he’s playing with more confidence, looks more comfortable, has developed a better rapport with his receivers.”
Of the NFL, Campbell said, “I think Coker has the potential to be a late-round pick because he does have good size [6 feet 5, 232 pounds]. He has a strong arm. He can make the NFL throws. So I think there’s the potential to be a late-round pick, but with only being a one-year player, he doesn’t have a big body of work, so I don’t see him going in the early rounds. If he isn’t a late-round pick, he’ll be an undrafted free agent. He’ll be in an NFL camp next year for sure.”
Rutledge called Coker’s Cotton Bowl “awesome” and said, “Number one, he’s a tough guy. I love that. You give me a quarterback who’s tough, I’ve got a chance. If he gets in the right camp . . .”
If he gets in the right camp, he might get a chance at a different game.