Man, 2020 has been a weird year, huh? Working from home, virtual school, Zoom parties, we’ve all had to accept things that in the before times we would have been uncomfortable with. But, such is life, right?
That philosophy of rolling with the punches during this global pandemic should apply to how we watch our favorite college football team as well. For example, I know that as fans, we are conditioned to hate seeing our team’s quarterback get sacked, and when said QB is as otherworldly talented as Justin Fields is, you doubly (triply?) hate the idea that any sack could potentially lead to a season-ending injury.
But, to paraphrase one of the sterling examples of the now nearly extinct genre of television theme songs, “You take the good, you take the bad, and there you have the sacks of Fields.”
One of the few complaints that fans had about Fields’ play in 2019 was that he had a tendency to hold onto the ball too long, leading to far too many sacks for a quarterback of his athleticism and with as many weapons as the Buckeyes deploy on each play. I certainly was one that would scream, “Just get rid of it,’” at the TV anytime a defender chased him down in the backfield.
But, as Ohio State head coach Ryan Day explained on Tuesday during his weekly press conference, he doesn’t mind the sacks too much, because they are a byproduct of Fields doing what he does best, making plays.
Day said, “For every sack, you’re going to get two or three extended plays,” meaning that If Fields is sacked three times in a game — like he was by the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Saturday — there are another six to nine nice plays that he is also making, because he is extending plays beyond what a normal QB would be able to do.
So for every sack, Fields is finding a late-breaking wide receiver, scrambling for a first down, and/or letting a route develop long enough so that he can hit a WR deep; and for Day that tradeoff is worth it.
Obviously, we all love seeing the crazy plays that Fields’ scrambling can create, but a lot of us are also terrified of what could happen if his knee is tweaked again like it was last year and he has to miss a drive, a quarter, or (Woody forbid) a game. Worse yet, what if he is hit in the head and sent into the concussion protocol for weeks on end?
With all due respect to Gunnar Hoak, Jack Miller III, and C.J. Stroud, the shape of the season would be irrevocably changed by having them behind center instead of Fields. So, there are ample reasons why hating Fields getting sacked makes sense. But, while I’m sure Day doesn’t particularly like it either, he’s comfortable with the risk, and honestly, that’s all we should need to know.
You might be thinking to yourself, “Self, isn’t there a happy medium between a Justin Fields sack-fest and him making insane street ball plays on the reg?” And, if you are smart, you might reply, “Self, that’s kind of what we are getting now, isn’t it?”
Fields was only sacked three times in the season opener, and if you trust him to make game-defining decisions on designed plays, you should trust him to do it when those plays break down as well.
For most of the last two decades in Ohio State football history, the program has played things safe. Whether that was Jim Tressel’s punt-focused approach or Urban Meyer’s obsession with J.T. Barrett right/J.T. Barrett left/J.T. Barrett up the middle. Now, don’t get me wrong, both of those coaches won national titles for which I am eternally grateful, but they both also underachieved more times than they would likely prefer to admit.
Winning 11-12 games per year and dominating the Big Ten is great, and there’s nothing wrong with that being A goal, but it shouldn’t be THE goal. To be able to not only get to the playoffs, but to actually play for and win College Football Playoff titles on a regular basis, you can’t take the safe, easy route.
Whether it’s Nick Saban changing quarterbacks at halftime in the title game, or Dabo Swinney hitching his wagon to a true-freshman, you have to be willing to take risks to chase the ultimate prize, and this is what Day is doing with Fields. Between scrambles and designed runs, OSU’s QB1 ran the ball 12 times on Saturday for a sack-adjusted 75 yards and a touchdown.
Conventional wisdom (and many on the OSU beat) would say that that’s too much; that the coaches are putting Fields in danger and jeopardizing Ohio State’s season every time he holds onto the ball sack or otherwise. And, if you are looking at it from the safe, old school mentality that we grew up on, sure, that makes sense. But we are living in a different era of football now.
By playing things as close to the proverbial vest as possible, what teams and players are actually doing is limiting their ceiling, putting a cap on their potential. Day knows that this year’s Buckeyes have the potential to be truly special, and he doesn’t want to do anything that could prevent them from achieving each and every one of their incredibly lofty goals.
Wherever the Buckeyes end up this season, there is no doubt that Justin Fields will be the one driving them; and sure, injuries could end up derailing the enter thing, and that would suck. But, if we want to see Ohio State reclaim the crown as college football’s best team, we have to trust both Fields and Day and get used to the idea that sacks happen, and that’s okay.
After some unexpected start and stops, I am back to posting a column every single day from preseason camp until whenever Ohio State’s football season ends. Some days they will be longer and in depth, some days they will be short and sweet. Let me know what you think of this one, and what you’d like to see me discuss in the comments or on Twitter. Go Bucks!