Quarterback Chris Rix, in his fourth season as starter, will once again be the difference between success or failure.
By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published September 3, 2004
[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Chris Rix has confounded his coaches, his teammates and his fans with his penchant for trying to do too much by himself on the field.
TALLAHASSEE - The Florida State Seminoles seemingly had momentum in hand, the moment to seize.
Trailing Miami 16-14 midway through the final quarter of the New Year's Day Orange Bowl, the Seminoles recovered a Brock Berlin fumble at the Hurricanes' 30. Surely coach Bobby Bowden, the legendary riverboat gambler, would have quarterback Chris Rix look to the end zone, at least once.
Looking more like a Woody Hayes team of the 1970s, the Seminoles ran the ball three consecutive times, including a plunge by fullback James Coleman on third-and-3 that gained 1 yard and forced FSU to settle for a 39-yard field goal attempt.
A kick? After how many Wide Rights and Wide Lefts?
For those scoring at home, it's now five missed field goals against Miami dating to 1991.
"I know people think we're nuts," Bowden said recently. "I'm sure our fans think we're nuts. But the only way you could beat Miami was not to make mistakes."
So the Seminoles went vanilla, not just during that critical series but throughout the game. Rix threw 19 passes, eight in the fourth quarter, for a season-low 96 yards.
But the lingering, foreboding question for FSU fans: Did that conservative strategy have less to do with the opponent and more to do with FSU's faith in Rix to not make mistakes?
"The way a coach is going to call a game has a lot to do with the confidence level he has in his quarterback. There's no doubt about it," said Peter Tom Willis, a former FSU quarterback who played in the NFL and Arena Football League and is now a radio analyst for FSU. "Quarterbacks earn the confidence of the coaches by good decision-making."
Offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden insisted that the "totally boring" game plan against the 'Canes had nothing to do with Rix.
"Not after the Florida game and the N.C. State game," he said, referring to Rix completing 29 of 51 passes for 439 yards, six touchdowns and one interception in those dramatic wins that put the Seminoles in the Orange Bowl. "I turn on the projector and (think) I should have thrown the ball downfield in the Orange Bowl. There's no question. In hindsight. ... Looking at the film, I wouldn't do that again. I wouldn't do that again the rest of my life."
Still, prudent decisions haven't exactly been Rix's forte.
Despite possessing more naturally tantalizing ability than any of his predecessors, including Heisman Trophy winners Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke, Rix has confounded his coaches, his teammates and his fans with his penchant for trying to do too much himself.
He started the Orange Bowl completing passes to P.K. Sam for 10 yards and Chauncey Stovall for 9. He then halted the Seminoles' impressive opening drive with his third attempt, a long pass that safety Sean Taylor easily intercepted at the Miami 12.
That came on first down and, from that point on, the Seminoles grew more conservative.
Any quarterback can sense a coach's uncertainty and it makes him try to be perfect, which is usually when he's the most imperfect, football's answer to a self-fulfilling prophecy. And with fewer chances, those moments are magnified.
"I feel toward the end of last year I really started to come into knowing my role and executing and realizing I don't have to do it all," Rix said. "It's a matter of carrying that into this season."
Bowden historically hasn't shown unwavering confidence in many of his quarterbacks until their final year, if then. Rix, 23, is a fifth-year senior who's entering his unprecedented fourth season as the FSU starter.
"My pep talk to Chris is, "This is your year. ... It's your time,' " he said. "He does good things, (but I tell him), "Stop doing the thing that a junior high school player does that you can't do any more.' I think each year he's gotten a little better at that. He's got to eliminate all of that."
The Seminoles, ranked No. 5 in the Associated Press preseason poll, have an experienced, talented offense and a dynamic, albeit young, defense. To a man, they believe they could and should return to the Orange Bowl for this year's Bowl Championship Series finale.
"The only way we're going to get to that national championship game is with our fifth-year senior quarterback," senior offensive tackle Ray Willis said.
"I love that responsibility. I accept that responsibility," Rix said.
Rix, perhaps listening more intently to his coaches and teammates, also sought insight this summer from former FSU cornerback Terrell Buckley about what makes his one-time NFL teammate, Tom Brady, so good.
"He said two things: He's fundamentally sound and he takes what the defense gives him," Rix said.
Simple concepts, but Rix said experience and maturation have helped him finally, fully embrace them. The coaches seemingly believe him and promise their calls will reflect that. Even against Miami in the ballyhooed opener on Labor Day.
"We feel like he's ready now to do whatever we ask," the elder Bowden said.
"I felt that way all summer: He is ready to go. He's ready to lead us as our quarterback," echoed his son. "When you're executing and you're moving the chains, you're confident in anything you call. When he's in the groove, I feel really good and he's been doing pretty well so far (in practice)."
Even with an expanded offense.
After spending time with the San Diego Chargers and Dallas Cowboys during the offseason, Jeff Bowden has put together more pass plays for tailbacks Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker and the tight ends.
While such throws are short and easy to complete, the only way they work is if the quarterback makes the proper reads and looks off the defense. When a reporter observed Rix doing just that in a recent practice, Papa Bowden quipped:
"When did he do all of this? I haven't noticed it. I hope you're right. Can you see the future?
"(Really) the thing I like is he's making better decisions of who to go to with the ball. A lot of it comes with experience. He's just got to keep it up. He can't let down."