July 20, 2005
TALLAHASSEE -- Ravaged by mounting defensive injuries and an offense that rotates between average and stagnant, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden is sticking by his guns and his starting quarterback, Drew Weatherford.
Following the Seminoles' 24-20 loss at N.C. State, which virtually knocked the defending ACC champions from a shot at their 13th title in 15 years, Bowden was asked if he would consider replacing Weatherford with backup Xavier Lee.
"No, not right now," Bowden said. "(Weatherford) did have a good scramble for a 70-yard pass."
Sure enough, Weatherford did escape a seemingly certain sack and found tailback Lorenzo Booker all alone for a 73-yard pass play in the second quarter against the Wolfpack. That play aside, Weatherford completed 15 of 28 passes for 176 yards, and while he did throw a pair of touchdown strikes, he repeatedly missed open receivers in his progressions and held the ball too long.
N.C. State sealed the game when Weatherford offered up his only interception, forcing a throw to tight end Brandon Warren, who was double-covered. The ball deflected into the hands of DaJuan Morgan with 2:27 to play.
Could it be that Weatherford is playing like a quarterback afraid to make mistakes?
"I don't think so," Bowden said. "He wouldn't have thrown that interception if he (was), because our guy was covered pretty well and he tried to drill it in there. If he was scared of making a mistake, he wouldn't have thrown that ball."
Maybe the more appropriate questions of Bowden should go something like this: Is he afraid to replace Weatherford with Lee, for fear that it would upset a team whose fragility is apparent? How could a change hurt, especially with the Seminoles headed to Duke? Wouldn't it benefit everyone, short- and long-term, to know whether Lee is capable of handling the job?
Bowden hinted that he didn't think Lee was ready, even though N.C. State's decision to replace quarterback Marcus Stone with Daniel Evans provided the Wolfpack with a spark and a couple of wins.
"Well, you have to think you have got (a backup) back there somewhere and it is not a bad option," Bowden said. "But I watch these kids practice all day long. Who do I watch? I watch the quarterbacks, and if I think one is ready, I put him in there."
Bowden's reticence to make a move -- to shake things up, if nothing else -- could bring back ugly memories of 2002. That's when he stuck by quarterback Chris Rix until a near-mutiny erupted in the locker room, following back-to-back losses to Miami and Notre Dame. Only then did Bowden relent and give Adrian McPherson a go. That decision later crashed and burned famously, when A.D. ran afoul of the law a few weeks later.
While Weatherford should not carry the complete burden for FSU's offensive woes, his inconsistency is a component in those struggles. Even Bowden acknowledged that the sophomore starter, whose career record dipped to 11-7 following the loss at N.C. State, may have hit a "plateau."
Weatherford (81-135, 964 yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions) appears to be playing without confidence. Poor pass protection, dropped passes, the inability of receivers to get open, and the lack of a reliable running game all factor into that equation.
You could argue that N.C. State coach Chuck Amato was in the same position with Stone at quarterback, following consecutive losses to Akron and Southern Miss. Amato's decision to pull the plug on Stone appears to be prescient. Even Bowden admits that Evans has some special qualities.
"(Evans) is a winner," Bowden said. "I think when coaches look for a quarterback, the number one thing they look for is a winner. ... I believe they've got a winner there."
Bowden may have one on the sideline as well, but he won't know for sure unless he gives Lee meaningful repetitions, even if they come in a shared situation against Duke.
While angry FSU fans repeatedly have noted that rival Florida is thriving while playing both Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, the situations are a bit different. Tebow was recruited specifically to run the spread option, and his running skills are outstanding.
Lee, contrary to popular belief, is a passer first and a runner second. He may initially be more elusive than Weatherford, and he does have a stronger arm, but their styles are more alike than dissimilar.
Right now, the only assumption you can make is that Bowden is smitten with Weatherford, much as he was with Rix.
"He is a natural-born leader, and I think the kids are still following him and they work for him," Bowden said of Weatherford, repeating a line he once uttered of Rix as well.
Weatherford undoubtedly is more popular with his teammates than Rix ever was. Rix was 13-7 when he was finally benched, midway through his sophomore season. Rix returned after McPherson's dismissal to beat Florida, before he was suspended for the Sugar Bowl after skipping a final exam.
The Weatherford-Lee situation is entirely different. They like each other and both are popular among teammates, at least at the moment.
With this FSU team going nowhere fast unless its offense can carry its share of the load and then some, why not give it a shot?
Lee's combination of elusiveness and arm strength just may be the spark the Seminoles need to help bail out their battered defensive unit.
ONE SMALL OFFENSIVE VICTORY
It's only an educated guess, but it certainly appears that FSU offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden finally has been given complete autonomy when it comes to calling plays.
Against Rice and N.C. State, the Seminoles ran a couple of rare reverses (not to be confused with end-arounds), increased the number of formations used and put more players in motion than they had during the first three games of the season. There also was a smattering of other trick plays, something not seen with regularity since 1998. They also made a more concerted effort to run the ball, which set up more play-action passes. That would indicate that line coach Mark McHale and Jeff Bowden are working together more effectively as well.
What it also might mean is that Bobby Bowden grudgingly has given in to his son, much as he did with former coordinator Mark Richt, who lobbied for autonomy for years before finally earning the green light in 1998.
That move paid off handsomely for all involved, as the Seminoles played in three consecutive national championship games, and that team success opened the door for Richt to land the Georgia job.