I keep coming back to a thought I had after watching the post-game Anthony Richardson gave to the SEC Network last Saturday — on in which he said, in essence, “I’m glad we won, but I have to be better.”
Man, AR looks to me like a guy who is frustrated as hell but doing his damnedest to be a leader and representative for the program.— Alligator Army (@AlligatorArmy) September 18, 2022
Envy his talents, would embrace his task — but I suspect I would not enjoy the moments like these.
Last fall, it often looked like being Anthony Richardson was living out a dream. He was lightning in human form on the field, and exuberant off it, doing a standing backflip with a child after Florida’s opener and round-off handsprings before games. He got hurt, including a couple of times in games, but also while dancing. And he was more or less the living embodiment of the truism that the backup quarterback is always the most popular player on the roster, while Emory Jones largely shouldered the blame for Florida’s sideways season, at least among players.
If he wasn’t enjoying himself, that wasn’t at all apparent. And if that joy wasn’t part of his and Florida’s triumphant season-opening win over Utah, we were all fooled.
But to continue paraphrasing that one astonishing Jay-Z freestyle that I keep referencing: To be AR then, you have to be AR now.
Right now, he’s the starting quarterback, one whose offseason included endless conversations about his maturity — ones that, to be clear, come with the gig and were also exacerbated by both the sort of speeding ticket that lends itself perfectly to starting those conversations, the remarkable decision to drop a nickname that should have ended any bad-faith suggestions that he is not wise beyond his years, and precious little of the context that Richardson is by virtually every account a kind, hard-working, and uncommonly self-aware person who has shouldered the privilege of being a Gators quarterback from Gainesville — and whose season has included zero passing touchdowns and what has felt like dozens of overthrows.
Some small subset of Florida fans, surely including some of those who lionized him as a backup last year and as a starter after one game this year, have moved on to pining for Richardson’s backups — currently two players who have a combined zero passes as college quarterbacks — and at least one prominent voice in the Florida orbit has diagnosed his inaccuracy as an immutable fact.
Oh, and he’s hurt. Just how hurt is for Richardson, his doctor, and maybe (or maybe not) Billy Napier to know and disclose, but the same person whose fall of 2021 included a pulled hamstring, a concussion, and nagging knee issues dating to a high school injury — and maybe aggravated by that dancing, silly as that sounds — has shown apparent discomfort after defenders have contacted his lower legs, seemed to have things go haywire as a passer after those plays, and admitted he’s been holding himself back in remarks to media members on Monday.
As I’ve mentioned here and there over the last few years, I’ve been dealing with back pain that seems like sciatica and has often been debilitating just about since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. That pain is thankfully mostly an afterthought in my life at present, but I can still have days when I get into a position that turns out to be uncomfortable or in which something I do unwittingly unleashes pain that I cannot banish without downing a handful of ibuprofen and getting some sleep — and the latter happened literally on Saturday, as an hour’s round trip in a car made me uncomfortable for the latter half of the ride, then produced the sort of dull ache in my calf that had me stretching and shifting all day to no avail.
And I’m just a dude who writes about sports on the Internet. Anthony Richardson, who is probably more hurt than I am, is trying to play quarterback in major college football.
I think his job is harder than mine. Maybe. Possibly. Perhaps.
But I think the real tragedy of Richardson’s situation is this: He is Superman — and, arguably correctly, is being asked to be Clark Kent.
Florida’s quarterback depth is dire. With Ohio State transfer Jack Miller, who looked uncomfortable during Florida’s spring game, out due to injury, it is less a matter of who is behind Richardson than the quarterbacks behind Richardson eliciting “WHO!?” Jalen Kitna, son of NFLer Jon, is a long-term prospect akin to Kyle Trask brought in by Dan Mullen; Max Brown is a Trask-style project brought in by Napier.
And while Trask’s surprising ascendancy once finally elevated to the starting role has forever ruined the curve for Florida quarterbacks — among Gator Nation, if not Gators coaches — it is probably worth mentioning often that Trask, at the time he took over for an injured Feleipe Franks in 2019, had gone through three full years in a college program, two of them under renowned quarterback teacher Mullen, and had thrown passes on the field during games from time to time.
That’s not just more experience as a college quarterback than Kitna and Brown have — it’s more than twice as much as they have combined.
Yeah, there’s a chance that either or both could be sudden successes like Trask was, but there’s also a chance that Trask was a special case not only since he thrived as a starter after not starting but because he had as long to develop as he did, a rarity in a job market that quarterbacks are increasingly metagaming by chucking deuces to the programs that recruited them from high school. (In fairness, though, Jones also sat and learned under Mullen for years — and his play has been a significant part of Mullen and Herm Edwards being given pink slips.)
It is reasonable for Florida to want to avoid Kitna and Brown being thrown to the wolves in September of a season that has 75 percent of its scheduled games remaining. It is reasonable for Florida — and Richardson — to want Richardson to limit the collective impact on his body regardless of any consideration of Miller’s unavailability and Kitna and Brown being as green as the grass in The Swamp. It’s even reasonable — perhaps most reasonable — to expect and demand less from Richardson than his full brilliance if and when he is hurt.
But everyone — or everyone not operating in bad faith — knows that at his flying best, Anthony Richardson is Superman soaring.
All the accuracy concerns that people have had did not stop him from being an NFL Draft prospect prior to ever making a start in The Swamp. Anyone with functional eyes who has paid attention has had them pop at some of his plays. It’s factual, not arguable, that he’s one of the most physically talented quarterbacks that the University of Florida has seen in more than a century of quarterbacks — and arguing that he isn’t the most talented of those from the perspective of projected capacity just means suggesting he might not be more talented than Cam Newton, who only has a Heisman Trophy, a national championship, an NFL MVP award, and a Super Bowl start to his name.
Richardson, when he’s right, is him, to borrow the popular parlance. And he’s been doing Superman stuff for years and years.
But right now and in recent games, he isn’t right. And everyone, Richardson seemingly included, knows that he probably ought to hold off on the heroics.
Richardson is not really Superman; no one is, outside of fiction. But being an amazing athlete doing amazing things in college football is about as close as a mortal in reality can get — and I can’t imagine how it feels for that kind of guy to be actually or metaphorically stuck in suit and tie.
Other, that is, than wrong.