Were you to walk into any sports bar in the Seattle area over the past few weeks, the most heated exchanges you will have heard among sports fans would likely not have been about things like the Mariners fire sale or the Seahawks pass protection issues. Instead, the most heated discourses would have been about a 22 year old, 6’2”, 205 lb young man out of Folsom and the relative value that he has contributed as Washington football’s all-time leading passer and the most winning quarterback in conference history.
On one hand, the story reads like a football fairy tale. The son of former Oregon State quarterback Ed Browning, Jake grows up as a football junkie. He sets the all-time national record for touchdown passes at the high school level and commits to Chris Petersen on the promise of helping to rebuild a once great but then dormant program. In his first season, he becomes the first true freshman starter (Marques Tuiasosopo did not begin his freshman year as the starter) to open a season in program history. His first two seasons play out like a dream that results in the kind of milestones being achieved that fans could only dream about: the annihilation of the Oregon streak, a national record in touchdowns per pass attempt, more touchdown passes than guys like Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield and Deshaun Watson, a dark horse Heisman campaign, a PAC 12 championship, and a trip to the College Football Playoff.
But then the story took a turn. The devastating loss to Alabama and an injury to his throwing shoulder sent the QB into a slump heading into year three. All of a sudden, things quit coming easy. The offense struggled more than it did the year prior. The stats went down. Questions about whether or not he “could win the big one” began to be raised. Whispers of discontent as the program plateaued began to percolate in the periphery. Those whispers became full blown talking points when UW struggled in back to back games against national programs Penn State and Auburn where their QB failed to deliver results in key moments where outcomes of games could have been altered. By week 2 of the 2018 season, the debate about Jake Browning and his legacy was on.
It is hard to argue that the program hasn’t seen a “topping out” trend over the last two seasons, especially on offense. Nevertheless, it still seems odd that this discussion about Browning and his worth to UW in the context of history is even happening. The record books, the accomplishments and the sheer number of wins produced would seem to stifle such discussion. Yet here we are having it. One cannot avoid it.
Even from remote outposts like my household here in the frozen tundra of Minnesota, the debate happens. If it isn’t me getting exposed to it when I hear Softy and Dick Fain fight it out on the KJR podcasts I listen to during my commutes, my kids are prompting the discussion over dinner with questions like “why does he not ever throw it away?” (my less enthusiastic daughter) or “why don’t people appreciate those dimes that he can drop?” (my more enthusiastic daughter). It feels odd, if not regrettable, that we are smack dab in the middle of the lonnnnnggggggggg awaited rebirth of the program arguing about the merits of the quarterback who has led it as if this were 2016 and we were debating whether or not we deserve to see the tax returns of our presidential candidates.
At this point, it is a matter of religion.
But unlike religion where all of the most important historical happenings have been recorded and studied, the book of Browning has not yet been completely written. If this were a Broadway production, we’d just be in the second act. The Husky QB still has the opportunity to put his unique and compelling stamp on the Washington record book in a manner that will permanently shape how the body republic among Husky fans will recollect this particular stretch in UW football history.
Of course I’m talking about the Rose Bowl. But it’s not just the Granddaddy that is germane here. With today’s Apple Cup, the Huskies kick off a stretch of up to three games that represents an authentic playoff-like experience. Win and they advance to the next step. Lose and the hopes and dreams of the entire senior class, the one class most responsible for putting Washington football back on the map, evaporate into thin air.
Jake Browning hasn’t faced this kind of pressure since he claimed the role of starting quarterback four years ago. He’s never been put into a situation where he was the person most responsible for guiding his team through a multi-game situation with so much on the line and the odds seemingly stacked against them. It is a defining stretch for the most labeled person on the team.
That isn’t to say that there haven’t been big games. Nor is it to say that there haven’t been important stretches. I’m thinking specifically back to the three game stretch in 2016 where UW had to win three straight games following their loss to USC in Husky Stadium, including the PAC 12 championship, to qualify for the College Football Playoff. UW won those games by an average score of 44-15 including a 45-17 rout of #23 Washington State in Martin Stadium.
But this stretch is different. In 2016, fans were excited to be afflicted with their playoff fever while the players benefited from being the new kids on the block just happy to be invited to the neighborhood party. There was never a sense that UW was anywhere but at the beginning of an upward journey towards the greater arc in their story. 2018 was to be that arc not only in the minds of fans but also for all of those players who are now seniors preparing for their last Apple Cup.
The entirety of this season has been defined in our game threads and instant reaction comments by how this team, and by extension its quarterback, “looks” in both victory and in defeat. We’ve argued less about the job getting done and more about how it got done in determining whether or not we are satisfied with the product on the field. But the moment for that type of scrutiny has passed. Today’s Apple Cup, and should the Huskies win, the game(s) that come after, will simply be evaluated based on one thing: did the Dawgs win? Fans will look at each of these games as they looked at Auburn in week 1 with no expectations of dominating every down but every expectation of the Dawgs just “finding a way to win”.
That isn’t to say that Browning’s performance, even in victory, won’t affect the lasting perception that fans have of him as a leader and a performer. There are few among those of you reading this that aren’t aware of the fact that in the 2016 PAC 12 championship Browning was 9/24 for just 118 yards with a sub 5.0 yards per attempt. That game affects your perception of Browning despite the fact that in the two games prior, two games UW had to win just to get to the PAC 12 championship, he averaged 8.7 yards per attempt, threw for five touchdowns and completed 66% of his passes for over 600 yards. So, yes, I acknowledge that there remains a possibility that UW could go on a three-game winning streak in spite of possible poor play from the QB spot.
But I think we can all agree that this is highly unlikely. This Washington team isn’t so differentiated from the competition ahead of them that they can count on their pass defense to overcome deficits in so many other parts of the team. Not at all.
If UW is going to beat the odds and take this Rose Bowl run through fruition, they are going to need their senior leader at quarterback to convert third downs, hit open guys for field-flipping big plays and play at a level above what we’ve seen much of this year. And, yes, that involves taking a chance or two in keeping plays alive at a critical moment whether it be a third and long with the odds against us or a red zone possession where a FG simply won’t do. UW will win or lose these games as a team to be sure, but it can’t achieve its best outcomes without its quarterback having his best moments.
And that brings us back to the legend of Jake Browning. The first two acts have now been played. The underdog son of a quarterback comes from nowhere and experiences grand success only to fall on hard times and see those who once adored him turn on him. But the opportunity for redemption lies before him like a bed of roses. Can he deliver?
We are all about to find out. Grab your popcorn and cold ones. It’s about to get interesting.