October 20, 2003 TALLAHASSEE Florida State coach Bobby Bowden has gone to great lengths to assure that the Seminoles don't suffer a repeat of last season's insurgence, which centered around quarterbacks Chris Rix and Adrian McPherson.
The institution of a Unity Council, a group of team leaders from each class, has helped improve communication between the coaching staff and those on the field. Bowden has closed his locker room to avoid any repeats of last year's post-Notre Dame meltdown. He's also limited his own access to the media, choosing instead to focus his efforts on rebuilding the program.
Those measures were put to a test when Rix turned the ball over four times in the first half of a 22-14 loss to visiting Miami. Fans again grumbled about offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden, and many wondered aloud what it would take to make a change at the quarterback position.
In the hours and days immediately following the game, the Bowdens both came to the defense of Rix. While they acknowledged that their QB was guilty of not protecting the football, they also attributed his struggles to a game-long rain, a patchwork offensive line that lost two starters over the course of the game and Miami's defensive prowess. All three explanations were valid, as were many of the criticisms of Rix.
While their public comments were designed to be supportive of Rix, the coaches inadvertently gave backups Fabian Walker and Wyatt Sexton a clear vote of no-confidence. The Bowdens continued to cover for Rix's mistakes, all the while proclaiming their starter far better than the team's other options at quarterback.
Meanwhile, Rix's turnovers have been at the root of FSU's problems for the past three seasons. He turned the ball over 20 times 12 interceptions and eight fumbles in eight losses over his first 27 starts.
He will run and we will discipline him (for fumbling), but he is clearly the best quarterback we have, by far, Jeff Bowden said. He is clearly the best quarterback we have and our best chance to win. Ö It's based on what we see every day in practice. He just makes better decisions in practice and better plays in practice day-in and day-out. That's even with Fabian improving at this point.
Walker, who very nearly transferred over the summer, may well re-visit that issue after the coaching staff stuck with Rix throughout the Miami and Virginia games.
I can't say the way I (feel), because obviously I'm a team-first guy, said Walker, who has taken the high road and refrained from stirring a quarterback debate. At the same time, right now I really feel like I'm ready to step in and help this team out. It just doesn't seem like that time is going to come for me. This whole (Miami) weekend was kind of a disappointment, being around people saying this, saying that in my ear. That didn't really make it any better. I'm holding in there, but it's getting really tough for me. I don't know how much longer I can take it.
After meeting with quarterbacks coach Daryl Dickey in the week following the Miami loss, Walker was given additional snaps with the first-team offense. Whether that was done to send Rix a message or simply to massage Walker's feelings remains to be seen.
Walker did not play in FSU's 19-14 win over Virginia, as Rix turned in an unexceptional but turnover-free performance. Rix was little more than a caretaker for the Seminoles' offense against the Cavaliers, completing just 12 of 25 passes for 189 yards. It was a familiar response for a Bowden-coached team following a loss: Take the game out of the hands of the quarterback and put it in the hands of the defense and the running game.
Afterward, Bowden was rather telling when asked about Rix's performance.
He's played good enough to win, Bowden said. Chis is one of those guys who's an exciting football player but is going to have good moments and is going to have bad moments. We pretty much have to live with him. He's usually going to make enough good plays to overrule the bad ones.
It was hardly a ringing endorsement. Meanwhile, Rix's teammates were surprisingly mum at least publicly about the quarterback's play following the Miami loss. They obviously feared repercussions from Bowden, who repeatedly has made it clear that he won't tolerate any finger-pointing by the Seminoles.
I think they know better, Bowden said.
Senior defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, who entered last season's controversy by advocating a change at the quarterback position, came awfully close to pushing the hot button again after the Miami loss.
We need to find a leader on offense, Dockett said. I'm not here to point fingers, but we need to find one.
Off the record, a number of veteran players openly wondered why Walker didn't replace Rix against the Hurricanes. One senior said he couldn't understand it, given Rix's history of choking in big games.
Dickey insisted that Walker is perfectly capable of handling the job, having regained the stroke in his arm after undergoing shoulder surgery last January following the Sugar Bowl loss.
I think Fabian has done well, Dickey said. I'd like to see, like all quarterbacks, more consistency as far as drill to drill, play to play and day to day. Fabian's arm strength is where it needs to be. His decision-making is solid at this point. He's an excellent leader. I'm pleased with Fabian.
While there has been plenty of private discussion within the player ranks about Rix's ability to lead the Seminoles back to a championship level, most agree that FSU can't get there as a divided unit.
This is not the team from last year or the year before last, senior cornerback Stanford Samuels said. This (Miami loss) is not going to cause us to break apart. Ö We don't need that on the team, period. We've been through that, and we saw where that takes us.
After dispatching the Cavaliers, the Seminoles appeared well on their way to an 11th ACC title in 12 years. A BCS berth, barring a season-ending meltdown, seems probable.
At the same time, Bowden can't dismiss the fact that his actions limiting Rix to 25 pass attempts against the Cavaliers speak volumes about his confidence in the quarterback. It doesn't make it any easier that Rix is one of the most physically gifted players ever to play the position for Bowden. His talents are so tantalizing, it's easier to overlook his shortcomings in reading defenses and making decisions on the run.
It appears the FSU coaching staff has painted itself into a corner, with no way out short of leaving their own footprints all over. They have demanded unity, perhaps fearing that benching Rix would open an all-too-familiar wound, and they have received it so far.
This team appears determined to live or die with Rix behind center.
Record Draws Good/Bad Publicity
With his victory over Virginia, Bowden collected career win No. 338, tying him with Penn State's Joe Paterno as the all-time leader for Division I-A victories. Despite tracking down Paterno, whom he trailed by 25 wins when their teams met in the 1990 Blockbuster Bowl, Bowden is uncomfortable talking about his place in history alongside his friend.
I'm thrilled to be with him, and if it ended that way (tied), I'd be happy, to be honest with you, Bowden said. But there's a lot of football left for both of us.
Interestingly, in the days after Bowden's record-tying victory, prominent columnist Hubert Mizell of the St. Petersburg Times wrote that Paterno's warm and fuzzy public comments about Bowden in recent years may not accurately reflect the sum of the coach's true feelings. Mizell wrote that his conversations with Paterno confidants over the years suggested that the Penn State coach had mixed feelings about Bowden respect for his pleasant nature and coaching ability, certainly, but perhaps also doubts about his discipline record and/or program management.
When Bowden moves in front, or perhaps when Paterno retires, it will be interesting to see which sides of Bowden the national media chooses to focus upon.
Jones Again Bounces Back Well
Senior tailback Greg Jones couldn't have picked a better time for his season-high rushing performance. Jones carried the ball 20 times for 96 yards against Virginia. Much of that came in the fourth quarter, when the Seminoles ran the final 6:19 off the clock.
Earlier in the week, running backs coach Billy Sexton suggested that Jones hadn't quite returned to form following last November's reconstructive knee surgery. Jones, however, appeared much more confident and determined against the Cavaliers after Miami limited him to 15 yards on 13 carries on a wet track.
The bounce-back effort against Virginia was reminiscent of how Jones responded after a subpar game in a driving rain at Louisville (13-32), with 165- and 189-yard efforts against Clemson and Miami the next two weeks.