Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Curse of the Aggie Ring: Why do Aggie Quarterbacks Fail as Seniors?

For the better part of my life as a fan of college football, Texas A&M University has suffered from a curse. The Chicago Cubs can’t win the World Series, Sports Illustrated has the well-documented cover jinx, and the Aggies' quarterbacks fall apart as seniors, right about the time they receive their coveted Aggie ring.

Unfortunately, this has become a (quite depressing) trend. Wait a minute. If something happens twice in Aggieland, then it becomes a tradition, right? Let's hope that isn't the case here. I don’t ever want to see something like Reggie McNeal’s crash and burn ever again. But I will say this – there is a curse at Texas A&M, and it seems to have a stranglehold on every starting quarterback for the Aggies.

For a solid ten (TEN!) seasons now, fans of the Texas A&M football program have been incessantly teased by the starting quarterback. You know the drill by now: Texas A&M recruits some hotshot in-state QB, lets him mature for a year or two, then he explodes onto the scene in thrilling fashion, much to the delight of the 12th Man. After getting our hopes up, said quarterback then proceeds to crush us. It started with Reggie McNeal, it continued with Stephen McGee, then Jerrod Johnson, and most recently with Ryan Tannehill. None of the four quarterbacks lived up to their potential at Texas A&M. How is that possible?

Let us begin with young Reginald Parrish McNeal of Lufkin, Texas. McNeal was the total package when he signed with Texas A&M as a quarterback. Have you ever heard of Vince Young? McNeal was widely considered to be Young’s superior when they were being recruited in 2001. That should give you an idea of how great Reggie McNeal was in high school. McNeal burned himself into the hearts and minds of Aggies everywhere on November 9, 2002, when he led the Aggies to an upset of #1 Oklahoma. I still consider that game the biggest Aggie win of my lifetime. His performance against OU made it hard to believe that McNeal was a freshman. The next two years only elevated the hype for McNeal as he awed the 12th Man with athleticism that the program had never seen. After being selected as the first-team All-Big 12 quarterback by the Dallas Morning News as a junior, McNeal was supposed to take the logical next step and become an A&M legend. He was a legitimate preseason contender for the Heisman Trophy. Then came his senior season in 2005. Oh, boy. With (eternally) high hopes for the team, McNeal led the Aggies to a disappointing 5-6 record, missing the last two games with “injuries”. His statistics across the board were less than spectacular (that is an understatement) and an unproven, yet talented, redshirt freshman replaced him for the final two games of the season.

Which brings us to Stephen McGee, every Aggie fan’s personal source of high blood pressure for two-plus long (very, very, very long) seasons. The Burnet native began his career as Reggie McNeal’s replacement in 2005 and became the permanent starter the next season. Stories of McGee choosing Texas A&M over the University of Southern California seemed to inflate his talent level to the casual Aggie fan, as did the constant chatter of his “strong arm” and “quick feet”. What anyone who actually paid attention to the games quickly realized was that McGee had quite the affinity for never challenging the defense and checking down to his running back or tight end ALMOST EVERY SINGLE PLAY. I cannot tell you how many times I was left speechless by McGee’s inability to throw the ball downfield. While I nearly went bald during his tenure, I will say this for McGee – relative to other Aggie quarterbacks, he won. Especially against UT. The guy played with a lot of heart and laid it all out there on the field. But like Reggie McNeal before him, Stephen McGee lost his ability to effectively play quarterback as a senior. McGee’s 2008 season was eventually lost to a shoulder injury, but by that time, fans of Texas A&M had seen the light, and found the chosen one: Jerrod Johnson.

Jerrod Johnson arrived in Aggieland from Humble, Texas as a highly regarded quarterback who could also play a little basketball (that didn’t quite work out, but it is worth mentioning). Johnson redshirted in 2006 and served as McGee’s backup in 2007. Not much was expected of Johnson’s sophomore season in 2008 as McGee had secured the starting role in fall camp. But after a stunning early season loss to Arkansas State (which still makes me want to bang my head on this desk) and a shoulder injury, Coach Mike Sherman named Jerrod Johnson his starting quarterback, much to the delight of Aggies everywhere. Johnson was imposing, talented, and quite honestly, exciting. The offensive creativity Stephen McGee had been bringing to the table had grown stale, and Johnson offered a fresh alternative. Sure, he couldn’t throw a spiral any better than your typical JV quarterback, but Jerrod Johnson had the fan base sold from the moment he stepped onto Kyle Field. After capably filling in for McGee during a humiliating 4-8 finish in 2008, Johnson was named the starting quarterback in 2009. A&M wasn’t supposed to be anything special in ’09, but Johnson led the team to a 6-6 record (it pains me to somehow put a .500 record in a positive light). He also shattered many Texas A&M records, which justifiably raised the bar for 2010. Yet as the two Aggie quarterbacks did before him, Johnson failed to deliver the goods in his senior season. He was replaced by one of his receivers after an embarrassing loss at home to an inferior Missouri team. Ouch.

The receiver who replaced Jerrod Johnson and ultimately ruined six of my Saturdays this fall was Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill hails from Big Spring, Texas, the son of Texas Tech alums. He had originally wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and play at Tech (under the awesome Mike Leach), but the Red Raiders would only have him as a receiver, not a quarterback. That is where legendary A&M football coach Mike Sherman stepped in, and offered Tannehill a scholarship to A&M as a quarterback. After impressing the 12th Man with his skills as a receiver, many may have set their expectations a little too high for Tannehill as a quarterback. While he did lead the Aggies to six straight wins in 2010, including thrillers against OU and Nebraska, Tannehill was exposed badly against LSU in the Cotton Bowl. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I see why the LSU defense was so successful in shutting Tannehill down: they had an entire month to prepare for the Aggies, and had a decent amount of film to watch on Tannehill. (Having the “Honey Badger” and countless other future NFL stars on their roster probably didn’t hurt.) That game against LSU started an unfortunate trend, as it seemed in 2011 that Tannehill simply couldn’t adjust to the defenses that were being used against him. He definitely had his moments, but he ultimately made too many mistakes with the ball and missed too many receivers (especially in the second half) to give the Aggies a chance to win. Once again, an Aggie quarterback failed to live up to expectations in his senior year.

Why does this continue to happen? Seriously, is the Aggie ring that each quarterback receives from the Association of Former Students made out of kryptonite? No – it is a curse, plain and simple.

You could point to the fact that Reggie McNeal may or may not have had his head on straight at the end of his tenure in College Station. You might say that the limited play calling of Dennis Franchione led Stephen McGee to struggle. For Jerrod Johnson, maybe the pressure was simply too much. I believe Ryan Tannehill ultimately struggled because his coach had him playing wide receiver during mediocre seasons instead of giving him valuable practice time as the backup quarterback.

The bottom line, whatever the reason may be, is that the next starting quarterback at Texas A&M is inheriting a job that has been cursed for a decade now. I sincerely hope (and sometimes pray) that the next guy is the one that finally breaks this curse and leads the Aggies to sustained success in the SEC. We have been teased long enough.

No comments:

Post a Comment