Oct. 4, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Following a legend may be the most unenviable task in sports.
Just ask the What's-His-Name who succeeded Vince Lombardi.
So while Michigan State coaches gave new starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell a tremendous vote of confidence by saying they expected him to continue the offense's evolutionary trend established under Kirk Cousins as a three-year starter from 2009-11, they were also making an educated leap of faith.
First of all, the baton was passed from a quarterback who holds four of six Spartan career passing records (completions, yards, touchdown passes and passing efficiency) and is second in the other two (attempts and completion percentage).
Secondly, Cousins was a highly polished college product by the time he was selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins, and as a senior had the immeasurable advantage of throwing to veteran receivers including fellow draftees Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham along with Keith Nichol and Brian Linthicum.
Thirdly, the extrapolations of head coach Mark Dantonio, offensive coordinator Dan Roushar and quarterbacks coach Dave Warner couldn't have been based on a prediction that the completely revamped receiving corps would still be sorting itself going into the Big Ten road opener at Indiana.
That said, there is nothing to indicate that Dantonio, Roushar and Warner weren't - and aren't - correct in their projections for Maxwell despite the premature negativity aimed at him by the habitual skeptics and critics.
To that end, it's instructional, if not fair, to provide an apples-to-apples comparison of Maxwell and Cousins at the same point in their careers as starters than measuring a finished product against one that's just getting started.
- Prior to making his first start as a third-year sophomore, Cousins, in 2008, completed 32 of 43 passes (.744) for 310 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
- Maxwell, a fourth-year junior, appeared in five games in '10 and four in '11. He completed 29 of 51 passes (.569) for 294 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
Here's where it gets telling.
In his first five games as starter, Cousins led MSU to a 2-3 record with wins against Montana State and Michigan sandwiched around three consecutive losses to Central Michigan, Notre Dame and Wisconsin.
He completed 78 of 125 passes (.624) for 1,002 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions including a disastrous pick in the waning moments at Notre Dame. Cousins had a long-gainer of 57 yards.
Maxwell has a 3-2 record going into Indiana with victories over Boise State, Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan, and losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State.
At the exact same point as a starter, Maxwell has completed 103 of 185 passes (.557) for 1,138 yards, four touchdowns, four interceptions and a long-gainer of 48 yards.
In some respects, most significantly wins and losses, Maxwell is performing better than Cousins did at the same juncture, and not appreciably worse in others.
Furthermore, Maxwell would likely be out-shining Cousins across the board if not for the double-digit number of dropped passes, including a few that probably would have resulted in touchdowns, by the young and inexperienced receivers who continue to strive to match the standards set by Martin, Cunningham & Co.
Maxwell isn't immune to the fact that quarterbacks get an inordinate amount of credit when things are going well and the lion's share of blame when they don't, which is why he's also dialed-in to what he can control, just as Cousins did heading into his sixth game with doubts swirling around him.
"I mean, you hear it, but you have no choice but to block it out," Maxwell said of the criticism. "If you start getting caught up in that, you start doubting yourself, you start not feeling well about how you play the game, not feeling well in the position you're in. The last thing you want to do is lose that confidence.
"What's important for this offense, myself (and) everybody on this team is just to have that internal drive. Coach Dantonio says you have to be an internal optimist. When everything around you, the naysayers, people criticizing, people saying you're not as good as you should be, as we thought you would be, that's just talk."
Warner didn't hesitate to say that Maxwell is coming off his best game as a Spartan (22 of 42, 269 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions vs. Ohio State).
"It was for a lot of different reasons," Warner said. "Our protection was good, even when there were bodies flying around I thought he did a good job of sitting in the pocket and moving in the pocket and keeping his focus downfield.
"Hopefully it's a step in the right direction of things to come."
Maxwell is still on his way up the learning curve. Just as Cousins, and Brian Hoyer before him, had to develop as the difference-maker in close games, so does he. Although his completion percentage has been thrown out of whack by the drops, he still occasionally misses open receivers.
"He was very accurate," Warner said of Maxwell's performance against the Buckeyes. "He put the ball where it needed to be. Obviously, he wasn't perfect, but he did a good job with his accuracy. As he feels more confident (with the protection), he's able to look off and go through his progression and get to his third and fourth receivers much easier.
"I thought he made a big improvement (last) week with his accuracy. I think it's a never-ending battle when you talk about a pocket presence and sitting in the pocket. One thing that comes to mind right now is that as he moves in the pocket, and scrambles, or attacks the line of scrimmage, he needs to be able to see down the field and create what Coach Dantonio calls a loose play by finding receivers downfield."
Warner said Maxwell is doing unexpected double-duty by also working through the frustration he's felt by seeing passes that should be caught dropped.
"He can't do anything about that," Warner said. "All he can do is his job and let those receivers know that by still coming to them, that he still has confidence in them. That's going to help those guys get better to the point where we can rely on them consistently."
Maxwell's reading of the game from breaking the huddle to surveying the defense while behind center has also been top-notch.
"He's been flawless for the most part throughout the season," Warner said. "He's very good from a game-management standpoint, the knowledge of our offense and what we're going against. That's never been an issue with him."
For the record, it should be noted that in many quarters, Cousins wasn't regarded as the answer to MSU's quarterback situation at this point in his career, and even beyond, right up to the Big Ten and Legends Division championships the Spartans won with him behind center.
Notable among the exception to those expressing that point of view were Dantonio, Roushar and Warner.