When USC head coach Lane Kiffin announced on Saturday that, after months of evaluating redshirt sophomore quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Wittek, he was still unable to name a starter for the season opener, my initial reaction was to brace myself for the immediate, Twitter-induced backlash that predictably followed.
Fans and media members alike were quite unanimous in their disapproval of the embattled coach’s great indecision, feeling that someone already on the perceived hot seat did not need this kind of start to an apparently make-it-or-break-it season.
The criticism surrounding the extended quarterback competition has mostly come from those who believe that Kessler has outplayed Wittek for the better part of the offseason. The media’s coverage of Kessler’s perceived edge over Wittek has created a wave of fan support for a quarterback that most have never seen play a meaningful college snap.
As someone who has watched a handful of practices this offseason (say, between five and 10), I would have to agree with the masses that yes, Kessler appears to play better than Wittek most of the time. Based on what relatively little football knowledge I possess, he seems to make fewer mistakes and deliver accurate passes more consistently than Wittek, both in practice and during the team’s scrimmages.
But here’s the problem with that line of thinking: I don’t know anything about football compared to USC’s coaches, and I’d be willing to bet that neither does the rest of the media or fans weighing in on the Trojans’ quarterback battle.
Kiffin and the rest of the staff spend an enormous amount of time around their players, so the brief window that us outsiders have to watch the competition unfold for ourselves pales in comparison to the wealth of information Kiffin has to evaluate which player is best for the job. Who knows if Wittek stands out in team meetings, or if Kessler works harder in the weight room, or even if either actually had a better practice on a given day. Because it’s the preseason, and each player has little to no game experience, we have a very small amount of evidence on which to base our opinions.
When it comes to these types of decisions, it’s great fun for everyone to throw in their two cents, but the reality of the situation is that all of us are virtually just guessing. We don’t see what goes on behind the scenes (and now that in-season practices have been closed, everything will go on behind the scenes), and frankly, we are ill-equipped to decide for ourselves which player deserves to start against Hawaii. But fans who read how much better Kessler has played than Wittek use that knowledge as more ammo against a coach who they are already looking for reasons to dislike.
Kiffin’s refusal to name a starter has irritated USC fans everywhere, and I admit that I was initially perplexed when I heard the news. But after giving it some thought, his decision to hold off should be encouraging to the Trojan fan base.
The easy thing for him to do would be to simply name Kessler the starter and see what happens, as he would have the public’s opinion on his side. But when college coaches or professional sports team owners begin making decisions to appease the fans rather than to help the team win, that’s when you know the team is in trouble.
Kiffin could have gone with Kessler and made everyone happy, but he didn’t. Some believe his supposed favoring of Wittek is because of Wittek’s NFL body type: he’s 6-foot-4, 235 lbs. and has perhaps the strongest arm in the Pac-12. Kessler is 6-foot-1, 215 lbs., sturdy by normal means but small by NFL standards.
Maybe Kiffin really thinks that Wittek’s best attributes are his height and arm strength rather than his performance, but the point is that he has not named Kessler the starter because he does not yet believe that Kessler gives the team the best chance to win.
That is what’s so heartening about Kiffin’s decision. Though nearly everyone who follows the team believes his job is in jeopardy this season, Kiffin isn’t letting all the chirping get to him. If he were, Kessler would be the team’s starter already. The fact that Kiffin has the ability to not let speculation about his job security affect his decision-making should be applauded, not condemned.
Kiffin’s detractors are aplenty, and they all have their reasons. But among them should not be that USC’s head coach is a slave to popular opinion, for he has proven that clamoring from outsiders merely falls on deaf ears.
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