Two dirty little words have infiltrated the college football vernacular. If you have the misfortune of being labeled a “system quarterback,” then forget about convincing anybody about how good you truly are.
After all, system quarterbacks are a product of their offense. Anybody can throw for 5,000 yards when you pass 60 times a game. That means you, Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan and Graham Harrell.
Now that means you, too, Houston quarterback Case Keenum.
“The answer I always have to that question is this: Isn’t every quarterback a system quarterback?” Houston coach Kevin Sumlin asks. "You better hope you have some sort of system offensively otherwise you don't have an offense."
Sumlin has it right. To label a player as a system quarterback is to diminish his true talent, his praiseworthy accomplishments and essentially marginalize him.
What is fascinating about the label is who gets stuck with it. Florida quarterback Tim Tebow is the epitome of a system quarterback in the spread offense. But because he put up equally impressive rushing and passing numbers, Tebow was praised for playing the system to perfection.
Yet if he played in Houston’s offense, there is very little chance he would have won a Heisman Trophy.
What sets Chang, Brennan, Keenum and even Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore apart from Tebow is that they all play at non-AQ schools, where players have an increasingly difficult time being taken seriously. The schedules they play are not the same caliber as the ones players at Florida or Texas or USC play. So “system quarterback” seems to stick to those players who put up the really eye-popping passing numbers against lower-quality opponents.
Perhaps that is the reason no non-AQ player has won the Heisman since Ty Detmer in 1990. Houston’s Andre Ware won it in 1989 after throwing for 46 touchdowns and 4,699 yards, and he played in a system just as pass happy as the current Cougars’ offense. Of course, Ware and Houston played in the more powerful Southwest Conference then. There also is the fact that none of these prolific passers had any success in the NFL, adding to the perception that they can only play in a college system.
“For anybody who wants to call me a system quarterback, I’ll say that I am a system quarterback. I’m whatever system you want to put me in,” Keenum said. “Currently, I’m in the University of Houston offensive system and I think we’re pretty good at it.
“I‘ll do whatever it takes to win a football game, whether it’s throw the ball 70 times or hand it off 70 times. I don’t pay attention to the people who try to tell me I’m not as good a quarterback as somebody else. I’m confident in my abilities and I know I’m going to go out there and compete and do my best to win each game and be successful.”
What does he think when somebody calls him a system quarterback?
“I don’t really understand it,” Keenum said. “There’s a lot of different ways to get the job done. If you look at different quarterbacks around the country, everybody has a lot of different skill sets and can do it a lot of different ways.”
Even his opponents scoff at the label. “I don’t believe all that system quarterback stuff,” UCF linebacker Derrick Hallman said. “You’ve still got to make the throws. I don’t care if a guy’s wide open, you’ve still got to make the throw. He’s an excellent quarterback.”
Keenum threw for 5,671 yards, 44 touchdowns and 15 interceptions and completed 70 percent of his passes last season. That got him into the Heisman conversation, but he finished eighth. That was just behind Moore, who threw for 3,536 yards, 39 touchdowns and three interceptions and completed 64 percent of his passes.
Keenum did have three regular-season losses last season, and an off-kilter performance in the Armed Forces Bowl against Air Force, throwing for 222 yards and six interceptions, completing only 58.5 percent of his passes.
That is the last time anybody saw Keenum play, and he is eager to erase those memories. He goes into the season needing 4,123 yards to break Chang’s NCAA career passing record. He needs 32 touchdown passes to break Harrell’s all-time NCAA passing TD record.
Of course, if he sets those marks and throws for another 5,000 yards, the system quarterback label will continue to stick like flypaper. Unfortunately for Keenum, there is nothing he can do about that.