Throwback Thursday: The QB Controversy That Quincy Carter Couldn’t Run From
Quarterback controversies have been a fixture in Dallas for more than a half-century. Some of them are inevitable. Just ask Craig Morton and Roger Staubach. Others aren’t so much. Quincy Carter can wax eloquent on that subject.
For the 25-year old Carter, his battle with rookie Chad Hutchinson during the spring and early summer months of 2002 can only qualify as manufactured. Carter, the same player who only a year earlier was declared to be the second coming of Troy Aikman, was forced into an unofficial competition for his starting job with Hutchinson, and on a warm afternoon in Tempe, Az. finally devolved into a mound of savorless sausage in such a way as to render his reputation a pile of hot garbage, costing him his job and the Cowboys a season.
In a Week 7 game with the No. 2 Wild-Card spot in the NFC at stake, Carter tossed four interceptions in a truly dreadful 9-6 overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals. The loss dropped the Cowboys to 3-4 on the season, and prompted Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to make a quarterback switch that – despite his insistence to the contrary – had been months in the making.
A rookie class highlighted by Oklahoma safety Roy Williams and Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Bryant, coupled with the free-agent signings of La’Roi Glover and Kevin Hardy, gave the Cowboys reason to hope for improvement in 2002 after back-to-back 5-11 seasons to begin the millennium. But behind closed doors, Jones was busy seeking to undermine Carter, the perceived franchise quarterback.
First came the $3.1 million signing of Hutchinson, who was making his football comeback after four years in the St. Louis Cardinals baseball farm system. When the fine folks of Dallas raised their eyebrows at the acquisition, Jones merely blew it off as something of a high-priced insurance policy.
“When you try to pick a Pro Bowl caliber, or a championship-caliber quarterback in the second-round (Carter in 2001), your odds are slim,” said Jones in 2002. “I’ve always known that, but I thought when I made the decision last year, while there is risk there, with that pick there is also reward… But, as part of that, I know you have a better chance for the franchise to ultimately end up with a Pro Bowl, Super Bowl-type of quarterback if you have two opportunities rather than one. And there is the Chad Hutchinson rationale. It was just too good of an opportunity to pass up and, because of where Quincy is in his development, I didn’t see any quarterback controversy issues because by every standard you can think of, Quincy deserves to be the starting quarterback.”
Jones began to tighten the noose around Carter’s neck when he hired former New York Jets and Cincinnati Bengals head coach Bruce Coslet to replace Jack Reilly as the team’s offensive coordinator. Coslet had developed a prejudice against the scrambling type of quarterback (which Carter was) after a failed experiment with Akili Smith cost him his job with the Bengals. Coslet had enjoyed success with Boomer Esiason in New York, and Jeff Blake was voted to the AFC Pro Bowl squad following the 1996 season with Cincinnati, but a change in philosophy with Smith proved to be Coslet’s undoing as a head coach.
Upon arrival in Dallas, Coslet changed line-blocking techniques, implementing a zone-blocking scheme similar to the system employed by Mike Shanahan in Denver. It was a complex scheme, designed for each lineman to block a certain area, rather than a particular player. For a young and inexperienced Dallas offensive line accustomed to storming off the ball and laying a defender on the ground, this change in philosophy was mentally torturous and would take some time to adjust to.
With a break-down in pass-protection imminent, Coslet then ordered Carter to stay in the pocket and discouraged his tendency to tuck the ball and run for yardage, which just happened to be the one asset that defenses feared from him. Coslet wanted his quarterback to run the offense with his arm instead of his feet.
But all through the spring months it was Hutchinson that was treated like a star. Roger Staubach came to practice to inspect his spiral. Pat Summerall stopped by for a visit, and quite possibly an interview. The interest and the expectations increased significantly when Hutchinson was given the starting nod for the Cowboys’ third preseason game versus Atlanta. Jones and head coach Dave Campo said the decision didn’t mean anything as it related to Carter’s status. Their statements convinced nobody. Carter was on the hot seat, whether he – or anybody else in the audience – liked it or not.
Considering the circumstances, it came as no surprise that Carter was riding an extreme roller coaster through the early portions of his second season in Dallas. He played poorly in an opening-night loss to the expansion Texans, and further muddied the situation by trying to defend himself to the media. A week later, Carter led an upset of a good Tennessee team at Texas Stadium, before falling off the map again in Week 3 when the offense failed to produce a touchdown in a 31-point loss to Philadelphia.
Against St. Louis it was a late Carter-led scoring drive that nipped the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome and prompted his owner to allude to a “Donovan McNabb-type contract” on the way for the Cowboys signal-caller. But when that same Carter overthrew a wide-open Antonio Bryant down the right sideline late in their Week 5 game versus the Giants, Carter was roundly criticized by owner, coaching staff, and media for his inconsistent play. All was forgiven, forgotten and deemed but a foible of the memory when Carter made up for his mistakes the following week by leading two late touchdown drives to nip the Panthers 14-13 and move the Cowboys to 3-3 on the season, setting up a critical road matchup at 3-2 Arizona with possible playoff implications on the line.
Instead of rising to the occasion against the Cardinals, Carter continued on his see-saw pattern. “Carter was terrible from the start and gave the coaching staff every indication that this was not going to be his day,” wrote Dallas Morning News columnist Tim Cowlishaw in Monday’s editions. Of Carter’s four interceptions that day, two of them came in the Cardinals end-zone, effectively wiping out any chance for the Cowboys to post an all-important field goal.
Even with Emmitt Smith and Troy Hambrick churning out yards on the ground (they combined to carry 27 times for 116), Coslet continued to call on Carter to move the chains in critical situations. During the first quarter, the Cowboys faced a third-and-1 from the Arizona 14-yard line. Smith had already carried four times for 24 yards on the drive. Instead of going back to his No. 1 tailback, Coslet sent in the third-down passing personnel with Michael Wiley as the only offensive back. The result: Carter’s second interception of the day.
And on Dallas’ first possession in overtime, Smith ripped off seven yards on first-down to move the ball to the Cowboy 31-yard line. A sack and an incompletion later, and the Cowboys were punting again.
Jones could have placed the blame for the defeat at the hands of Micah Knorr, the team’s punter who dropped the snap on an extra-point attempt in the third quarter. Instead of leading by a point, the Cowboys remained tied 6-6, a score that held up into a fifth period. “But a lousy punter/holder is of major concern only to a good team, something the Cowboys are not,” observed Cowlishaw.
Or Jones could have pointed a finger at rookie place-kicker Billy Cundiff for missing a 49-yard field-goal attempt with 24 seconds remaining in regulation.
In the end though, Jones let his frustrations guide his thinking. After watching his quarterback suffer through another miserable outing, and after getting into a heated conversation with Carter on the sidelines after the game, Jones pulled the plug and made Hutchinson the Cowboys’ fifth different starting quarterback in their previous 22 games. The move, predictably, backfired in Jones’ face, as the Cowboys dropped seven of their last nine games with Hutchinson at the helm to finish 5-11 yet again.