Get Off Joe Ayoob's Back
by Glenn Dickey
Nov 14, 2005

THE REACTION by some of the more zealous Cal supporters has made me embarrassed to be a Cal alum.

Ayoob is an emotional basket case right now, and he’s admitted he has lost confidence in himself. Coach Jeff Tedford said after Saturday’s loss to USC that Ayoob’s football future is on the line now, and the emphasis has to be on building him back up. Ayoob’s teammates have supported him, even backup quarterback Steve Levy.

Tedford and the players get it. Too many Cal supporters do not. In fact, during Saturday’s game, when Nate Longshore,was throwing the ball on the sideline, fans (mostly students, I would assume) cheered. If they were thinking Longshore could play, they were deluded. Contra Costa Times beat writer Jay Heater talked to Longshore at practice last week, and Longshore told him that he still had pain and had no chance of playing in the regular season, though he might be able to play in a bowl game.

Meanwhile, I’m being assailed by e-mail from Old Blues who are just livid over Ayoob’s performance, many of them saying he should be benched and Levy should start in the Big Game.

That’s a possibility, but I think it’s more likely that Tedford will spend a lot of time talking to Ayoob, trying to bolster his confidence. It’s not just for the sake of the Big Game but to get Ayoob back on track emotionally, so he can harness his talent and have a big year next year.

The rest of us need to take a deep breath and stop this scapegoating of Ayoob, a very nice young man who doesn’t deserve the abuse that’s being piled on him.

Ayoob isn’t the only local quarterback to play poorly. The 49ers have tried four quarterbacks this year, and not one has played well. Kerry Collins was having his best statistical season until Sunday, when he stunk out the joint in a game the Raiders absolutely had to win.

But the 49ers/Raiders quarterbacks are pros, being paid millions of dollars a year. If they’re abused by the fans, that goes with the territory.

Ayoob, by contrast, is a 21-year-old collegian who is on an athletic scholarship. He’s not even playing for one of the “football factories” like those in the Southeast, where a fanatical fan base expects pro-like performances from players who are in school only because they’re auditioning for the NFL.

At Cal, players actually attend class. Though they may all have had NFL aspirations before they came to Berkeley, after they’re in the program for awhile, they realize the reality: Only a small percentage of college players ever make it to the NFL. Those Cal players who do not play professionally have a good education to show for their years of playing college ball, which is seldom true for those playing in the football-oriented schools.

Until Tedford’s arrival, Cal alums seemed to accept the fact that occasional successful seasons would be offset by many more off years. If the Bears win the Big Game, it will be the first time in more than half a century that Cal has had four consecutive seasons of seven or more wins. That’s not exactly a football-rich tradition.

But Tedford has raised expectation so high that some Old Blues have become as critical of poor play as the rabid fans of the Florida schools. And Ayoob is paying the price.

IN RETROPECT, many of us were unrealistic in our expectations for this team.

I felt this could be a 9-2 team – with losses to USC and Oregon – and that the soft easy schedule would allow the young talent on the team to develop into productive players for the much tougher second part of the schedule.

But there’s no defined time line for improvement by young players. Sometimes, it comes together for them early. More often, even the most talented freshman doesn’t put it all together until his sophomore year – or later. Robert Jordan, for instance, is a much better receiver than he was as a freshman. I would expect the same maturation for DeSean Jackson, who has enormous talent but still makes mistakes with his route running, as he did early in the first quarter against USC, which resulted in Ayoob’s first interception.

Injuries to the offensive line have kept it from maintaining the high level of play that was expected. Brandon Mebane, a huge play-maker in the defensive line, has either been unable to play at all or has been subpar when he has played since he was injured in the first half of the Oregon State game.

We were also spoiled by Aaron Rodgers, who made a seemingly effortless transition from junior college play. Rodgers had one bad game against Oregon State, but after that, he was outstanding.

Rodgers had the complete package: physical ability, intelligence (more than 1300 on his SAT) and, most of all, supreme confidence. Rodgers never doubted that he would be the best.

Ayoob isn’t like that. He has the ability. He was the No. 2-ranked junior college quarterback in the country, No. 1 in California, setting records in high-level competition. Tedford has noted that there usually isn’t much of an adjustment period for players coming from CCSF – as an example, Desmond Bishop has made a big impact this season – because the level of play is so high. Watching Ayoob in practice, I’ve seen him make all the throws.

But when a player’s confidence is shaken, that often translates into bad physical play and bad decisions. Ayoob seldom looks comfortable in a game, not setting himself right to make throws, throwing off balance.

Let’s be clear about one thing, though: Ayoob is not the only reason the Bears have had a disappointing season. But because he’s been scapegoated by so many Cal followers, he’s taken the responsibility for losses – though teammates repeatedly have said he shouldn’t.

Ayoob seemed to be settling into his role in the first five games of the season, despite that rocky 0-for-10 start against Sacramento State, as he completed 59.2 per cent of his passes, with only three interceptions. He played well in the sixth game, the loss to UCLA, which was the result of defensive and special teams breakdowns, and a coaching error which led to only 10 defensive players on the field when UCLA successfully ran a fake punt which started the Bruins on their comeback.

The Bears played poorly in every aspect of the game against Oregon State, but it was Ayoob who was blamed by fans, including those around the tunnel in the north end zone who heaped verbal abuse on him as players came off the field. Though Ayoob led a comeback to beat Washington State, he didn’t get the fans off his back. The loss in the rain in Eugene was also blamed on him, though, again, there were other contributing factors, breakdowns in pass protection and dropped passes.

Ayoob did not play well against USC, but the Bears had no realistic chance of winning that game. Remember that last year, Rodgers set a record for consecutive completions – and the Bears still lost. This USC team is much more confident and has more offensive weapons that last year’s team. I’d be hard-pressed to name a better team in the 50 seasons I’ve been watching west coast football.

NONE OF US can predict how Ayoob will play in the Big Game, or even if he will, depending on Tedford’s decision.

What we can do is back off on the criticism. A young man’s future is at stake here. That’s much more important than one season or one game, even the Big Game.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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