Will Jake Locker play Saturday at UCLA? University of Washington coach Steve Sarkisian describes the Huskies quarterback as “questionable,” acknowledging a decision on Locker’s status might not be made until the morning of the game.
“We need to be smart with this,” Sarkisian said Monday.
It’s reassuring to learn that the Huskies are determined to be smart with Locker, because the moment he suffered his latest injury – a deep thigh bruise sustained during the first quarter of the Oregon game – I made a left turn into the intersection of Dumb and Dumber.
Instead of trusting instincts that gave me the sense Locker appeared to be a step slow and seemed unable to accelerate when chased out of the pocket by the Ducks, I left it up to Sarkisian to share information on Locker’s health. Instead of speculating on what my eyes had seen, I made a judgment based on what my ears heard.
When asked why Locker’s progress within the team’s new pro-style offense had apparently stalled, Sarkisian offered no clue that his quarterback’s disinclination to run could’ve been physical.
“We’re going to have some growing pains, and obviously this was one of them,” Sarkisian said after the 43-19 defeat. “The challenge for us, and for Jake, is to learn from these games and learn from the style of play, and where’s the happy medium? Where can he take the running style he had previously and where can he fit in the scheme that we’re running?”
Sarkisian’s words sounded like a thoughtful answer to a legitimate question. Except the words turned out to have the density of puffed rice.
Two days after suggesting Locker was struggling with “growing pains,” Sarkisian revealed Locker was a victim of a more tangible pain – the kind produced when the helmet of a hard-charging free safety crashes into a leg that’s hard charging in the opposite direction.
In any case, there was some pain involved, enough for Sarkisian to eliminate every play from the playbook that distinguishes Locker from less dynamic quarterbacks.
“It sure did affect it,” Sarkisian said of Locker’s injury on the Huskies’ scheme. “If you notice, the rest of the game there weren’t any real designed quarterback runs. That’s football. You take hits.”
As do coaches. Because reporters weren’t told about the deep thigh bruise that limited Locker’s mobility until two days later – because Locker followed Sarkisian into the postgame interview room and insisted nothing was wrong – I took the Huskies’ play-calling strategy to task in a column published Oct. 25.
My specific gripe was with the first-and-goal sequence inside the Oregon 5-yard line during the second quarter, when a pair of Demetrius Bronson carries were sandwiched around a Locker incompletion on first down and a Locker interception on fourth down. Why not put Locker in a shotgun formation, I asked, and give him a three-stride head start on ramming the ball into the end zone?
Running a healthy Locker in that situation makes sense. Running Locker on a bad leg doesn’t make sense, and explains why none of the four goal-to-go plays found Locker taking advantage of his power and speed.
So, OK, my analysis was mistakenly critical of Sarkisian, whose choices were limited by his quarterback’s injury. It wasn’t the first time I’ve taken a swing and missed, and it won’t be the last.
But why wasn’t Sarkisian more forthcoming about Locker’s thigh bruise? Why did he wait two days before letting the public in on the rest of the story? Why did he speak of Locker’s need to achieve a “happy medium,” between running and passing, in the revamped offense?
I can understand a reluctance to give the opposition more specifics than it needs to know before kickoff. Coaches, by nature, would rather distribute printouts of their most recent bank statements to the press than divulge the details of pertinent injuries. As Sark would say, that’s football.
But the Oregon game was long gone when Sarkisian met the media on Oct. 24. The Huskies were looking ahead only to last Saturday’s open date, followed by UCLA. Did Sarkisian think news of his quarterback’s thigh bruise could be kept hidden for two weeks?
Or maybe he just wasn’t thinking. Maybe it never occurred to him that fans might want to learn why a dual-threat quarterback was rendered one-dimensional during the first quarter of the most anticipated rivalry game on the Huskies’ 2009 schedule.
That Washington is still eligible for a bowl invitation, 11 months after he inherited a train-wreck of a team that had forgotten how to win – or even have fun – makes Sarkisian a Pacific-10 Conference Coach of the Year candidate. Regardless of how the final four games turn out, he’s already rescued a moribund program.
With the confidence he radiates, and the poise he exudes, it’s easy to forget Sarkisian is a rookie head coach capable of committing rookie mistakes. Delaying the announcement of a star player’s significant injury for two days can be considered a rookie mistake.
It’s also worth a reminder: When a new coach shows up and installs a new offensive system, the incumbent quarterback isn’t the only guy susceptible to growing pains.