The curious case of Bryan Bennett

By REED NELSON

Bryan Bennett signs autographs at Fan Day.

Chip had no choice. He really didn’t.

Once redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota’s spring performance (18-26, 202 yards and a touchdown to go along with 99 yards rushing and two more touchdowns) went viral, it was over.

Call now-backup QB Bryan Bennett a victim of the internet, a 24-hour media cycle, or the 21st century — just don’t call him the Ducks starting quarterback.

So, for the sake of the next thousand or so words, we are going to consider the quarterback decision a given, a gimme putt, one that requires no explanation besides this: In a world where we are all coaches biggest critics, the days of a marbled cut of athlete marinating on the bench for a year or two, soaking up valuable experience, are long gone. We have turned into a united front of Veruca Salt’s, only now, the man in the funny hat isn’t saying no. We wanted the world, and now we have it, all locked in our pockets.

Gone are the days where Todd Boeckman starts over Terrelle Pryor because of the unwritten seniority clause.

Gone are the days of the USC senior quarterback processional — that unfortunate era in which they could roll out a perfectly manicured and seasoned senior quarterback (see Palmer to Leinart to Booty to Sanchez. Pause for a John David Booty reflection…) every. Single. Year.*

Recently gone are the days of the “Quarterback in Waiting,” where guys like Tyler Wilson and Chase Daniels and Tom Brady could sit behind more experienced — but often less talented — starters as they let their own game develop.

Or the days where Trindon Holiday and Noel Devine could just be who they are without a “bust” label fastened to their backs: Really fast, shifty and talented Scuttlebugs who can hit a home run in a spot ball-carrying role. Now that level of talent warrants 25 touches, a few concussions and a couple of missed starts before we can admit they are slightly fragile, undersized return savants.

But YouTube can’t be ignored. And don’t worry, this isn’t a hate on YouTube thing. I love YouTube, and judging by the hit tallies on certain videos, I’m not alone.

But when we can YouTube a clip of a kid titled “The Next Reggie Bush” and that clip (while impressive) has reached over 1.7 million viewers, then it might be fair to say that we think he’s pretty good.

What if this kid didn’t slow down? What if he became the next Sam McGuffie?

Then whatever school this poor kid went to would have had the same innate obligation to play him early that Rich Rodriguez had at Michigan (RichRod’s personnel decisions are a story for a different day, however), and the NRB would have probably transferred back to a second-tier school back in his home state.

This has become slightly tangential, but the point is this: Marcus Mariota had to be The Guy. Once word of his spring game performance spread — a feat which no longer requires Paul Revere and a horse with remarkable endurance — the quarterback battle turned into a waiting game.

Bennett never had a chance. He was dead in the water after Mariota’s 84-yard touchdown scramble. But here is the shame: Bennett’s 2011 stats weren’t just good in his backup role, they were great. In his seven appearances, his Passing Efficiency Rating was a sparkling 164.8**, and in his lone start, he led the the Ducks to a 45-2 drubbing in Colorado. He threw a touchdown every 7.67 attempts last season and averaged 8.7 yards per carry.

Football isn’t a bureaucracy, it is marketed as a meritocracy. And for the most part, it is. For the most part, players earn and lose spots based on results, or lack thereof. And Bennett has handled the relegation gracefully.

But there might be something to be said for the slightly monarchic system that college football used to abide by. Just ask Tate Forcier, RichRod’s first mangled corpse. He was kicked to the curb of obscurity by a faster, more exciting player, too.

As a freshman in 2009, Forcier started all 12 games for Michigan, racking up 2,050 passing yards, 13 touchdowns and completing 58.7 percent of his attempts. He earned himself All-Freshman Big Ten team honors.

The next spring, however, Forcier was dropped to third on the depth chart, behind his classmate Denard Robinson and the unproven and untested freshman Devin Gardner.

During the opener, Forcier was caught sulking on the bench by television’s talking walrus, Matt Millen, and rumors of a potential transfer swirled. But a few weeks into the season, Forcier got a shot at Bowling Green, promptly completing all 12 of his pass attempts (12-12, a Michigan record) before leading Michigan to victory in the triple O.T., 67-65 shootout over Illinois.

He was then deemed academically ineligible for the Gator Bowl, and finally transferred after the arrival of new head coach Brady Hoke. He tried to transfer to San Jose State, but hit another academic hiccup. Then he gave the Canadian Football League a shot.

Why is this relevant?

It’s not because poor Forcier was recently released by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL.

It’s because the Bryan Bennett story could begin to look eerily similar. Just like Forcier, Bennett was The Guy until spring. Like Forcier, Bennett was supplanted by a stud that just about everyone*** wanted to see more than them. And just like Forcier, Bennett’s numbers could continue to warrant a QB-1 job, if not in Eugene, then elsewhere.

Darren Thomas saw the writing on the wall last season. It’s the only explanation that I can dredge up for what has to be one of the weirdest early-entry’s of the 2012 NFL Draft. Thomas must have known that what just happened to Bennett could’ve, and would’ve, happened to him.

Had Thomas stayed we would’ve clamored for Bennett, because we wouldn’t have known what we were missing in Mariota. And our demands would’ve eventually been vindicated; Bennett would’ve gotten the start next Saturday if the battle were between him and Thomas. Career record, performance and statistics would have been thrown aside (they always are), and we, as a ravenous fan base, would’ve been captivated by the highlight reel and hypnotized by the myth of the “What else?”, as in “What else can he do?? Is there anything that he can’t???”

It’s the plight of witnessing talent all the time; we become desensitized to it. We take the talent for granted, we always want more, shinier and fresher. With Mariota, they might need to borrow a flatbed to haul it all in. He makes Taylor Martinez of Nebraska look clunky, like the click-wheel iPod of mobile quarterbacks.

But the scary thing is, as guys like Tom Brady continually prove, there is a lot of talent out there but very few real quarterbacks. I have no idea if Bennett was a real quarterback, but barring injury, we probably won’t find out.

Footnotes

*Seriously. From 2002-2008 (the Palmer/Leinart/Booty/Sanchez Era) the Trojans went an astonishing 82-9. In the seven years prior, USC had only three winning seasons.

** USC’s Matt Barkley by comparison, in a much large sampler size, had a remarkable 2011 season and his rating was a mere 161.2.

*** Including me. I’m as guilty as the next Maize-and-Blue clad member of I-Hate-RichRod Club:  I wanted Denard Robinson under center, every series, every down, even when Forcier was getting as surgical as possible with the inferior tools around him. Robinson was just so much cooler. He didn’t tie his shoes, he had Predator dreads, his nickname was Shoelace and he was perpetually one off-balance linebacker away from the most amazing thing you could witness on a Saturday.



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