The case for Chase Daniel as Missouri's savior
To understand what Chase Daniel means to Missouri, it might be good first to relive the wretched tale of OmniTurf. Back in the early 1980s, Missouri had a pretty decent football program. The Tigers won more than they lost most of the time. They often went to bowl games. They had great players like Kellen Winslow and coaches like Dan Devine.
Then, in 1985, the Tigers reluctantly put artificial turf on Faurot Field. At the time, the Tigers were the only football team in the Big 8 Conference to play on natural grass.* Thing is, Missouri liked being different, so they decided they would not go with plain old Astroturf like the other schools. No, instead, they would cover the field with something new out of Canada called "OmniTurf." The main difference between the two turfs is that OmniTurf used sand as a sort of stabilizer to hold the carpet together. Also, OmniTurf was cheaper.
*The Missouri stadium did not have lights either. If a television network wanted to broadcast a night game at Faurot Field, they needed to bring their own lights.
The benefit of the OmniTurf field was supposed to be this: When it rained, the sand would serve to drain the field more efficiently and help with footing. It worked as advertised. The problem was the dry days. Then the field was like an ice rink. Players fell down constantly. The joke went that Faurot Field was the Tigers' leading tackler AND their best blocker. And, fans could not help but notice, that Missouri players fell down even more often than their opponents. The Tigers did not win a single home game in 1985.
Missouri did not rip out the OmniTurf for 10 years -- the era was 1985-94 -- and the Tigers did not have a winning record even once over those years. It was on the OmniTurf that Colorado beat Missouri in the now famous fifth-down game, when officials gave Colorado a fifth down to punch in the game-winning score.
After the game, someone asked Colorado coach Bill McCartney* if he had considered forfeiting the game. He said no. His reason? "The field was lousy," he said, and this was an issue everyone could agree on. Colorado went on to be named the Associated Press national champs that year.
*McCartney, of course, had graduated from Missouri.
OmniTurf is just one of the many tales of woe Missouri football fans have endured. It had been a tough couple of decades. That's when Chase Daniel arrived at the accident scene. He had come from high school football in Texas, and he looked less like a quarterback and more like a guy who might have played fullback for the Chicago Bears of the 1930s. He was listed at 6-feet tall and was probably not quite there. He was listed at 225 pounds and may have been a couple of cheeseburgers over that. You rarely hear quarterbacks described as fireplugs. Chase Daniel is a fireplug quarterback.
And, right away, he showed what would become his trademark: An affable arrogance. That's another tough combination to pull off -- affable arrogance -- but Daniel just did not seem to consider the possibility that Missouri could lose. He had come from Southlake Carroll High, where his football team almost never lost, and he just seemed to think that's how it was supposed to be. Reporters would tell him every week about some new Missouri curse that he was trying to end. Just last week, Missouri went to Lincoln, Neb., and was trying to win there for the first time in 30 years -- the average margin of defeat over those three decades was four touchdowns.
Daniel will answer those questions politely and seriously, but he always has this great look on his face that seems to say: "Now, seriously, what does that have to do with me? All that stuff happened before I got here. Don't you get it? I'm here now." Missouri obliterated Nebraska 52-17 last Saturday, and afterward Daniel called the Cornhuskers the dirtiest team he had ever faced. The Cornhuskers denied the charge, but you could not help but notice again that the world has turned upside down. Missouri is the heavyweight champ, Nebraska the desperate underdog punching low.
The difference is Chase Daniel. Four years ago, with Missouri football drowning and coming off another losing season, coach Gary Pinkel decided that he had to do something to turn things around. He decided, against his conservative Ohio nature, to cut loose, open things up, put receivers everywhere, throw the ball all over the field, trick plays galore -- in other words, play an offense very similar to the one Daniel played in high school. Pinkel remembers when assistant coach Dave Christiensen came into the office and offered another suggestion. No huddle.
"You mean sometimes?" Pinkel asked.
"No, I mean we never huddle," Christensen said.
"My chair spun around five times," Pinkel said later.
But Pinkel went with it. No huddle. Lots of passes. Razzle dazzle. Hey, you need to take bold measures to break the OmniTurf Curse. And it worked beyond anyone's dreams -- Missouri averages 53 points a game. This is because Daniel throws the most catchable ball in college football. That's his gift. This year, Daniel is completing an astonishing 76.3 percent of his passes -- that's better than three out of four. He completed 20 in a row against Buffalo, a Big 12 record.
He has terrific targets -- tight end Chase Coffman seems a dead ringer for his father, former Pro Bowl tight end Paul Coffman, and receiver Jeremy Maclin might be the nation's best electrifying player -- but it all works because of Daniel. He finds the open man. He throws soft and precise passes that seem to come with a how-to-catch-me instruction manual. He understands the complicated offense well enough to coach it. He has a remarkable sense of time -- he almost never gets sacked, but he almost never throws the ball too early either. It all looks as well choreographed as a Jet Li fight scene.
And, to pull from the "Great Book of Football Coach's Cliches," the guy makes plays. Scouts will often compare him to Drew Brees, another relatively undersized quarterback from Texas, but Daniel sees himself as Brett Favre, as Donovan McNabb, as John Elway, as the guy who will find a way to beat you because, in the end, he's supposed to win. It's how he lives, too. Daniel exchanges emails with Warren Buffett. He writes a diary for The New York Times. He is right now, the presumptive nominee for the Heisman Trophy.
Last year, Daniel finished fourth in the Heisman voting, and it was an interesting experience for him. He went to New York for the ceremony and enjoyed himself even though he had no doubt that Florida's Tim Tebow would win.
"I hope to come back to New York again," he said after Tebow got the statue.
"To win?" someone asked him.
And that's when Daniel gave that great look -- a half smile, a quizzical squint of the eyes -- the look that has turned Missouri from OmniTurf to national title contenders. To win?
"Well," he said, "yeah."