Comparing AJ McCarron to Alabama QBs of the Nick Saban Era

Image via Football-Austria/Flickr
Image via Football-Austria/Flickr

Stay tuned all season as we examine the top quarterbacks of the 2013 college football season to find out if they are “system QBs” or special talents.  Other articles in the series include:

Is Oregon’s Marcus Mariota Just Another Chip Kelly System QB?

Johnny Manziel, System QBs, and the ghost of Case Keenum

When you read the phrase “System quarterback” what comes to mind?  Is it Colt Brennan?  Is it Tim Tebow?  Is it Johnny Manziel?  Have you ever considered that maybe Alabama quarterbacks of the Nick Saban era are “system quarterbacks”?  Think about it, they consistently have elite offensive lines and amazing running backs.  The quarterback has all the time in the world to survey the defense and make the pass.  The run game is almost always the first priority for both the Tide and the defenses who are scheming against them.  With this in mind, let’s examine AJ McCarron’s Alabama career to decipher if he is an elite quarterback or just another QB succeeding in the Nick Saban “system”.

To establish a baseline for AJ’s career trajectory, let’s compare his 2011 season to what John Parker Wilson and Greg McElroy accomplished in their terms as Alabama QBs.  As a reminder, we are ONLY looking at games against bowl eligible opponents.  We don’t care about results posted in sacrificial-lamb games.  In this first chart you can see that McCarron completed a significantly higher percentage of his passes.  However, it looks like he was the safest of the passers, posting the shortest yards/attempt and yards/completion figures.  He was dinking and dunking.

QB Season Age College Comp Pct Yds per Att Yds per Comp
McCarron, AJ 2011 21 Alabama 65.1% 7.1 10.9
AVG Saban QB 2007-10 Alabama 59.8% 7.3 12.2

To further the point that AJ played it safe in 2011, notice how his TD ratios were about in line with historical Saban/Alabama QBs, but his INT rate was so much lower.  Connecting the dots with the previous chart, he was not threatening defenses downfield, but instead was throwing underneath routes which would naturally lead to a lower INT rate.

QB Season Age College % Games w/ 2+ TD pass TD % INT % TD vs INT
McCarron, AJ 2011 21 Alabama 38% 4.7% 0.9% 5.0
AVG Saban QB 2007-10 Alabama 45% 4.3% 2.4% 2.1

Now that we’ve established where AJ McCarron came from, so to speak, let’s see how he evolved from 2011 to 2012.  To this point, AJ has looked like the typical Saban QB.  Protected by an elite run game, AJ’s job was not to win games, but was to protect the ball and let everyone else do the heavy lifting.

In 2012, the kid-gloves came off McCarron and an elite quarterback started to blossom.  Note that the completion percentage remains remarkably high, but now he is being trusted to throw the ball further downfield.  His yards/attempt spiked by more than one yard per throw and his yards/completion jumped by two yards per throw.  On a micro level that seems like no big deal, but over the course of the game that’s 25-30 extra yards, which means more first downs, which means more time of possession, which means a fresher defense, which means…”uh oh” for everybody else.  (Note the Saban-era ranks in parenthesis, out of six QB seasons)

2011 2012 Saban Era Rank
Comp % 65.1% 64.5% #3
Yards/Att 7.1 8.4 #2
Yards/Comp 10.9 13 #1

Seeing as AJ McCarron was throwing the ball further down field, one would expect his INT rate to increase–which it did–but it remained low enough to still be the second best rate of a Saban/Alabama QB.  The interesting thing, however, is that McCarron was trusted to FINISH drives.  In 63% of key games, he threw for multiple TDs, the best of the Saban/Alabama era.  Similarly, his TD rate and TD:INT ratio were by far the best.  In 2012 Nick Saban trusted his QB more than ever before to throw downfield and to finish drives, and AJ McCarron delivered exceptional results.

2011 2012 Saban Era Rank
% Multi-pass TD games 38% 63% #1
TD % 4.7% 8.0% #1
INT % 0.9% 1.5% #2
TD:INT ratio 5 5.7 #1

AJ McCarron is undoubtedly the best QB that Nick Saban has worked with and should be seen as one of the best QBs in America for the 2013 college football season.  I’m a believer in AJ, which is why I ranked him my #2 quarterback prospect for the 2014 NFL Draft.  When you watch Alabama this year, keep an eye on McCarron to see if he is pushing the ball downfield and finishing drives with TD passes.  When combined with his exceptional track record of limiting turnovers, those two factors will continue to be the keys to AJ’s campaign to become a Heisman contender and first round draft pick.

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