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MnB B1G Preview: Purdue -- Is the Cradle Empty?

(Time to kick off Purdue week in the MnB B1G Preview. Be sure to check out Hammer & Rails, SBN's Purdue blog for all things Boilermaker.

And for Purdue fans coming here this week: enjoy the previews.)

Purdue University, the self appointed "Cradle of Quarterbacks", finds itself in an interesting situation wherein that calling card seems to no longer apply. The school that once produced such prolific passers as Drew Brees, Jim Evertt, and Bob Griese is now routinely looking at passing lines that barely flirt with 150 yards a game and include as many touchdowns as interceptions. Most games nowadays the team can't even settle on a single quarterback. A far cry from the days when Drew Brees was burning through the Big Ten passing record books.

Even if you look past the long term draft success of Purdue quarterbacks (five quarterbacks taken within the top ten picks -- not including Drew Brees who at 28th overall has put together the best pro career of the bunch) the Boilermakers produced one of the most productive series of quarterbacks in the Big Ten during the Joe Tiller era. Over the course of Tiller's twelve seasons he had essentially three starting quarterbacks: Drew Brees, Kyle Orton, and Curtis Painter. Those three players combined to throw for over 30,000 yards and 200 touchdowns over that twelve year span and were the cornerstones in Purdue's run of ten bowl games in twelve years under Tiller. All three ended up in the NFL in some capacity (some more successful than others).

That, however, is disingenuous. It isn't just the quarterback that makes the team, but the coach who molds the quarterback, and there were few more able to do that than Joe Tiller.

Years before Rich Rodriguez ever strolled into Ann Arbor preaching the virtues of this new-fangled "spread" offense thingy that made everyone in town wince, Joe Tiller was employing his own version of the spread offense to great success in West Lafayette*. Tiller was an assistant coach for 25 years before getting the opportunity to take over a D-I program, and he was able to do enough with the Wyoming Cowboys -- including a 10-2 season in 1996 -- that he was given the chance to return to Purdue, where he had been an assistant in the early 80's.

Once at Purdue Tiller and assistant coach Jim Chaney set about building the Purdue spread offense. It was predicated on quick passing concepts out of four- and five-wide sets that allowed the quarterback to quickly distribute the ball to play makers in favorable positions. This was a novel concept in the Big Ten, and the offense was perfectly suited to the quick-thinking Brees, who set Big Ten records in just about everything having to do with throwing the football (passing yards, total offense, completions, attempts, and touchdown passes).

Kyle Orton was the next in line and while Purdue wasn't able to match the team success of the Brees years, Purdue still went to four straight bowl games in the Orton years, and Orton finished his career with nearly 9000 passing yards and over 60 touchdowns.

With the arrival of new assistant coach Ed Zaunbrecher, Tiller tweaked his offense toward more longer developing pass plays out of single back. Chris Brown explains the way Tiller's offense grew from its initial spread concepts:

If I had to compare [Purdue under Zaunbrecher's] offense to anyone else's in terms of structure and schematics it likely would have been the New England Patriots under Belichick/McDaniel one-back sets with a tight end, shotgun, and lots of base, simple 5-step concepts like the snag, all-curl, three-verticals, four-verticals, underneath option routes, and smash. This was slightly different than the original Tiller model with Chaney when Drew Brees and Kyle Orton had been there, which was more no-back and more three step drops.

Even though Tiller's last quarterback, Curtis Painter, struggled at times with decision-making, he was still able to put together an impressive career with 11,163 yards passing and 67 touchdowns, but his inability to compete with upper tier teams** would be a black mark on his career and serve as the unceremonious end to the Joe Tiller era.

Despite going out with somewhat of a whimper Joe Tiller's Purdue years stand out as an unmatched success for the school. Only two coaches since WWII posted better career win percentages for the Boilermakers, and most coaches weren't close. The end of his career saw the Boilermakers fade -- Tiller's Purdue teams missed bowls in two of his last four seasons -- and the growing inability of the spread to provide the kind of schematic advantage that would allow less talented teams to compete against powerhouses on the basis of unfamiliarity, after all, by this time passing spread concepts were fairly widely employed all over college football. The passing spread was more of a known commodity which gave defensive coaches a chance to adequately approach the problems it created. Chris Brown one last time, "Maybe his biggest fault was that his idea was so good it got copied and assimilated too quickly."

Purdue's most recent success -- and its very identity as a football program -- has been predicated not just on good to great quarterback play, but on the very players that took the snaps. Purdue football was Drew Brees before it was Kyle Orton and Curtis Painter. These players simultaneously gave the team not only its face, but its CPU and its motor (to mix analogies between human, computer, and machine). Purdue's fortunes rose and fell with the play of one man. It is no wonder the success of the early Tiller years is equated with the success of Drew Brees in the same way the failure of Purdue to beat winning teams late in Tiller's career was an essentially Curtis Painter problem. These three men were Purdue football -- for better or worse -- and Tiller was the man behind the curtain.

*(I'll stop you right here: no, the two versions are nothing alike unless your main criteria for determining the type of offense you are watching is "what is the formation that the team is in for a split second before all of the action happens." If this applies to you, then you had better hurry up because the early bird dinner special at Dennys is about to finish up and you want to get home before the Matlock reruns start.)

**(Matt Hinton on Painter: "But one of the banes of my existence in preseason was the unfathomable hype for Painter, led by Mel Kiper, who anointed Painter the top senior quarterback prospect in the country despite his wretched mark (0-14 from 2005-07) as a starter against BCS conference teams that finished with a winning record.")

Things under Danny Hope haven't been nearly as rosy as the Tiller years. Joey Elliot, a senior that spent the previous two years as a backup quarterback behind Painter, had a solid year with 3026 yards passing and a 22/13 TD/INT ratio. Quarterback play after that has been a series of diminishing returns ever since.

Two years ago an early season injury to Robert Marve opened the door for Freshman Rob Henry to take over the starting quarterback position -- something that was far from a best case scenario as Henry threw for 996 yards, eight touchdowns and seven interceptions (at just 53 percent comp rate) as the replacement.

Marve returned from his ACL injury last year but was only able to pull around a quarter of the quarterbacking duties from the new starter Caleb TerBush (the previous starter, Rob Henry, was out for the year with, you guessed it, an ACL injury). TerBush surprised many by winning the job, and surprised even more by playing adequately in it. He finished the season as the wall-to-wall starter, amassing 1904 passing yards in 13 games, 13 touchdowns, and six interceptions while completing just over 60 percent of his passes. Marve chipped in with 633 yards, four touchdowns, and five interceptions.

All three quarterbacks with starting experience return this year. Robert Henry is back from an ACL injury, and presents probably the most running ability of the three options. Robert Marve will be nearly two year removed from his ACL injury come fall and for what it is worth anymore -- probably very little -- he is still the most "scout approved" option that the Boilermakers have, once a four-star recruit to Miami FL before a transfer saw him land in West Lafayette. TerBush is, well, a middle of the road Big Ten starter. While he held down the starting job for the duration of the 2011 season, there was never any fear that TerBush would be the force behind a win for Purdue. He averaged less than 150 yards per game and just one touchdown per contest. The low TD/INT ratio is comforting, but ultimately less so because TerBush spent the majority of the year throwing piddling underneath routes.

All of this raises the question, just what does the future hold for the cradle of quarterbacks?

While there are historical roots for the moniker, a great deal of credit for the fact that anyone outside of West Lafayette can say it with a straight face has to go to Joe Tiller. While he was blessed with talent at the quarterback position (an NFL Hall of Famer, an NFL starter, and an NFL backup), he also did a very good job developing those talents and creating a system in which each quarterback could thrive. While the passing spread offense that he helped legitimize around college football lost its novelty -- and with that its advantage for undermanned teams -- Purdue was still a middle of the road Big Ten team that was going to bowls more often than not under his watch. Even Joey Elliot -- the last 3000-yard passer for Purdue -- was a product of Joe Tiller.

Now, whether by circumstance (seriously, I can't talk about the ACL thing enough, it is downright freaky how often skill players blow out their knee for Purdue), design (Purdue's spread offense the last two years has had a lot more spread n' shred feel to it than air raid), or both (when you have Rob Henry at quarterback it behooves you to find some way to keep him from throwing the ball. Ditto Justin Siller) Purdue has become a team that doesn't have nearly the name recognition at quarterback that it once did.

Robert Marve turned heads early on, but that was due as much to his circuitous path to West Lafayette -- and a morbid curiosity to watch the man who couldn't beat Jacory Harris out for the starting job in Miami's tire fire of an offense a couple years back. Contrast that to the, albeit brief, Heisman buzz that surrounded guys like Kyle Orton and Curtis Painter.

Maybe this year is the year when the Boilermakers find a workable solution at quarterback. There are certainly options, and all of them have ample experience in the offense. If the rest of the team can stay healthy and the defense can rally behind Kawann Short, Purdue has an opening to make some noise in the Leaders division.

But this is beginning to look more and more like an identity crisis. Purdue, once the cradle of quarterbacks, is now facing a future where the quarterback is just another cog in an overall machine. Gone are the days of Brees engineering the offense like a man possessed before a switchboard, the panel whirring and buzzing and humming, the man nimbly manipulating the machine, fingers flying, ensuring maximum productivity and minimum waste. The quarterbacks now are simply another piece of equipment on the long assembly line. Prone to breakdown, slowdown, and error. Ultimately as faceless as the men who block for them, catch their passes, and receive their handoffs.

Can Purdue, a team for years dependent on quarterbacks as the engine for success (or failure) reinvent itself as a winning program that is devoid of this identity? The answer to this is not only the key to the future of Danny Hope's career as coach, but could also mark the dawn of a new era in Purdue football. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, at least we should get an answer to one question:

What happens when the cradle is empty?