Today I'm kicking off (belatedly, I admit) our series reflecting on the major storylines of the 2015 football season. Technically, I started the series with a call for comments last week and I thank you all for your feedback and ideas.
I'd like to emphasize before we begin the series that this is not a countdown. The point here isn't to stack rank the most important "things" of the season. Rather, the point here is to reflect upon those stories and happenings that gave character to or added drama to how the 2015 season unfolded.
As is tradition with football, we start with the Quarterback situation.
Besides editorializing on this blog, my interests in writing also extend into the realm of fiction. I've no accomplishments to speak of, but I have had a little bit of training. A basic tenet of fiction writing involves the importance of establishing an antagonist worthy of sharing the plot with your protagonist. In short, you can have no grand story without a grand villain.
Cyler Miles, I would argue, matches the merits of any other player in modern Husky history when it comes to perceived villainy.
Righly or wrongly, there can be little disagreement that few players have earned as much derision from a fanbase as Cyler Miles garnered from the Husky faithful following the 2014 season. Ignore for a minute the fact that he has a career winning record (7-5) as a starter. Forget for one second that his career completion percentage (65.6%) is the highest among Husky starting QBs with at least one season of starts. Dismiss the fact that his career yards per attempt (7.3) is greater than legends such as Warren Moon and Mark Brunnell and essentially tied with Husky greats such as Brock Huard (7.3), Keith Price (7.3) and Marques Tuiasosopo (7.2). Suspend your view on the notion that, relative to all other first year starters in the PAC in 2014, Cyler led them all in QB rating, completion percentage and yards per attempt.
The truth of the matter is that the 2014 Huskies didn't meet expectations. It couldn't be a coincidence this perceived underperformance happened in the same season that their funky-armed QB with a hitch in his giddy-up assumed the starting position. We are talking about a kid, after all, who was a ~~gasp~~ Denver Broncos fan.
That's perfect villain material right there.
I don't mean to belittle the legitimate gripes that fans have with the performance of Cyler Miles as the starting QB for the Washington Huskies. I've noted on several occasions that the biggest crime that Miles ever committed on the field was lacking an ability to carry the team when plays needed to be made. While we can argue all day long whether or not responsibility for not having beat a team with a winning record in 2014 lies with the new coaching staff, a young secondary, a sieve-like offensive line or solely with the QB, I think we can all agree that Miles showed precious little evidence that he could lead the team in times of adversity.
Thus, the announcement last spring that Miles would have to retire due to a chronic hip injury immediately became a dramatic story line underscoring the 2015 season.
Ding-dong, the witch was dead.
The plot for the season opened with a closing-out of the arc of the villain from the preceding story. It is a classic technique in storytelling that not only satisfies the reader's need for closure, but serves to create a sense of chaos as the conditions for a new challenge to the protagonist are laid out. With Cyler out, a new QB had to be groomed adding delicious intrigue to the offseason.
The prospect of breaking in a new QB for a second straight year was a grim one for Husky fans. There was already tremendous doubt surrounding the team given the graduation of several key defensive contributors from the season before, the injury to star playmaker John Ross and the daunting program rebuild that Chris Petersen seemed to be leading the Huskies down. The candidate pool was already compromised by the fact that the backup to Cyler Miles from the season before, Troy Williams, had already decided to transfer to a junior college.
Oh, the drama.
You all know how the story would play out. The spring opened with an epic 3-way battle royale setup between fan-favorite and hometown hero Jeff Lindquist, Petersen's first QB recruit K.J. Carta-Samuels and incoming national record-holder Jake Browning all vying for the opening game nod. The smart money was on one of Lindquist or Samuels. Lindquist had the physical tools and the most (only?) game experience of the bunch. Samuels was a "Petersen guy" and had a tool set that more closely matched what we all perceived as the one that led the staff to make Cyler Miles a starter the season before.
Few people, outside a few Dawg Pound lurkers who, I'm sure, will identify themselves in the comment thread of this article, thought that true freshman Jake Browning would emerge. While everyone was impressed with his instincts and his competitiveness, few thought he was either physically or mentally ready to take on an offense as notoriously complex as the one that Petersen and Offensive Coordinator Jonathan Smith have architected.
By the time that spring had concluded, however, it was clear that Browning was going to be a factor. Though the odds still seemed long, he had earned an inordinate amount of praise from the staff to hint at the possibility of UW opening a season with a true freshman QB for the first time in program history. As fall camp opened, rumors started to percolate rather quickly that Browning was turning heads. By the time the Huskies kicked off in Boise, those rumors had spread so broadly that few were surprised to see Jake take the field for the first snap of UW's 2015 season.
The rest, of course, is history. Browning experienced the ups and downs that one would expect of a true freshman. His numbers were, on a relative basis, similar to Miles' from the season before. However, his knack for making plays and carrying his team through crisis moments was a true differentiator. By the end of the season, UW's young QB looked like the second coming of Billy Joe Hobert both with his skills and his "winning" intangibles. He will enter 2016 projected as one of the top three or four QBs in the conference.
Imagine how this story would have unfolded if Cyler Miles had not had an arthritic hip and had not been compelled to retire. It is impossible to project how Cyler would have improved in an offseason between his sophomore and junior years, but it isn't hard to visualize Cyler being a near-lock to continue as a starter. Chris Petersen's own testimony confirm his belief that UW could win with what Cyler had brought to the table and we've seen definite proof that Petersen isn't lying when he says he values accuracy and efficiency over arm strength - Cyler's big Achilles heel - in QB play. We also know that Petersen has a strong preference for red-shirting freshman QBs, all else being equal.
The abdication of the QB throne by Cyler Miles created an opening that dramatically altered the course of the 2015 season. That makes him, and the resolution of his villainy, one my 15 in '15.