Dabo Swinney’s goal is to make Clemson #1 in the country again this football season. Former Clemson #1 quarterback Kelly Bryant believed he was the guy to make that happen. Freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, however, has been more productive and is now #1. Everyone at Clemson is looking at the #1.
That’s why this decision by Swinney to name Lawrence the new starter ahead of Bryant is not as complicated as America’s sporting talking heads would lead you to believe.
Coaches have to make decisions for the whole of the team, not for the good of a particular individual. Anyone who watched Saturday’s game at Georgia Tech could see Lawrence made a big difference with his big arm. He energized an offense that stagnated under Bryant in the first quarter.
Swinney and his offensive brain trust made the decision to stick with Lawrence beyond what had been the normal quarterback rotation and he responded by leading the offense to four touchdowns in five possessions. That convinced Swinney and company the time for change had come.
You could sense in the postgame interview with Swinney that something was up. In his opening monologue, in which he mentioned practically everyone on offense, he did not mention Lawrence or Bryant. Only when directly asked about Lawrence’s performance did he offer up an evaluation, And when asked about the quarterback position, Swinney hedged by saying that was not the time to discuss the depth chart.
A hint of what was to come.
No fair minded observer can criticize Swinney for this move. It was made for all the right reasons. It was made, not for October, not for November, but for late December and January.
Swinney well remembers how Clemson beat Alabama in the 2016 national championship game and lost to Alabama in the 2017 semis. The Tigers beat the Crimson Tide with Deshaun Watson passing for 420 yards and averaging nearly 12 yards per completion. The Tigers lost on New Year’s Day with Bryant passing for 124 yards.
And don’t doubt that he’s not aware of what Alabama is doing on offense with Tua Tagovailoa. The Crimson Tide are 13th nationally in passing offense. Clemson is 36th. For that matter, Ohio State, another strong national title contender, is 6th in passing with its new quarterback darling Dwayne Haskins.
Swinney is no dummy, and he can see the big picture.
As for the question of fairness to Bryant, anyone who has played team sports understands that, unless your dad is the coach, your job is on the line every day. Bryant’s feelings and ego were crushed by the news. And why wouldn’t they be. As Corporal Downey said in A Few Good Men, “What have we done wrong?”
That answer would be, nothing. Bryant rose above all expectations to win the job last year. He led his team to another ACC Championship with a splendid performance in the title game. He was 16-1 as a starter when healthy. Hard to find any warts on that resume.
Swinney could have left well enough alone. Clemson, with its overall offensive package and that dominating defense, likely would have won all of its remaining regular season games with Bryant starting and Lawrence relieving. But Swinney answered the fairness question to Bryant by making the move now. With the new redshirt rule, he gave Bryant the option of staying and playing as a backup or leaving for greener pastures.
Bryant chose the latter, and he really shouldn’t slam the door on the way out. Telling the Greenville News that he felt he was treated unfairly and the move was a slap in the face just does’t fit the narrative. Bryant’s big picture view just did not jive with Swinney’s.
It’s all about looking out for #1.