Exercises in Patience: Anthony Richardson, Jim Harbaugh, Shaquille O’Neal, and the straw polls that broke the camel’s back

Every time I think about whether a franchise should keep a player, or perhaps more importantly whether a fan base has turned on a player, I can’t help but think about what went down in Orlando in the summer of 1996.

Fresh off his fourth year with the expansion Orlando Magic, Shaquille O’Neal had become a dominant force in the league.  At that point, as ridiculous as it sounds in retrospect, few could comprehend just how dominant he’d become.

They know now.

That summer, as his rookie contract was up for renewal, the Orlando Sentinel published a poll asking readers whether they thought Shaq was worth re-signing for what was then considered a ridiculous amount of money, around $100 million, a figure that pales in comparison to what athletes make today.  A young man who valued loyalty over anything else didn’t sense that loyalty in return.  Ultimately, the Magic said no, most fans agreed, and Jerry West’s Los Angeles Lakers made Shaq an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The rest, as the say, is history, as was Shaq’s all too short stint in Orlando. 

By no means am I comparing Anthony Richardson to Shaquille O’Neal but every time a fan base wedges a distance between themselves and a particular player, as is the case with Gator Nation and their sophomore quarterback, I can’t help but think back to the summer of ’96 and wonder whether those set on parting ways are cutting ties prematurely, as Magic fans did with Shaq way back when.

Richardson came into this season with a ton of promise.  The hometown product, at times, showed an uncanny ability to make a play when none seemed possible.  The problem, most felt, is that he did so far too infrequently.  Richardson went from rushing for three touchdowns in Florida’s opener and launching himself into Heisman consideration, to throwing four picks and neither rushing nor throwing for a touchdown in his next two games.  His Heisman chances vanished, as did his team’s hopes for a successful season.

Richardson’s Gators finished the regular season with six wins and six losses.  They lost four of their last six games and stare another pre-Christmas bowl game squarely in the face.  A lot of that is not Anthony Richardson’s fault.

Richardson is a 21-year-old, 6’4, 240 lb. sophomore who has a world of pressure thrust upon him every time he gets out of bed in the morning.  With an NFL draft staring him in the face, the possibility of him being taken by an NFL team is highly likely.  The likelihood of him starting for an NFL team any time soon is low.  The likelihood of him being a Heisman Trophy favorite if he returns to college is high.  The likelihood of an NFL team believing they can turn him into their quarterback of the future might be even higher.  At this point, that might be what Richardson needs to hear.

I asked quite a few Florida fans whose opinions about football I (occasionally) trust whether they wanted Richardson back for another season.  Not one of them answered with a resounding yes.  There were stipulations, no’s, ifs, and conditions.  Others felt the NFL would be better suited for the kid’s progress.  But none answered that they wanted him back 100%. 

Richardson knows this.  He feels it.  As badly as the fan base wanted to root for the kid, there were too many moments, and losses, that led them to believe it was time to make a change.  And I have this dreadful feeling the program will be sorry.

Playing quarterback for a school like Florida, that has three statues of Heisman-winning quarterbacks staring you in the face every time you walk in the building, can either do wonders for a man’s confidence or shake him to the core, the pressure unimaginable for us who play the position from our armchair.  A fan base with a trigger-happy commitment, that has run successive coaches out of town for failure to meet expectations, can only wear a kid down with every play that runs afoul of expectations.

About 1400 miles due north at another major football program, a former quarterback turned coach once felt a similar wedge.  Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and both parties are better for it.

In 2015, Jim Harbaugh was hired by his alma mater, the University of Michigan.  Harbaugh’s resume included taking the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl and a successful stint at Stanford.  Harbaugh showed immediate success in Ann Arbor, going 12-3 his first season, but lost bowl games the next four. 

There’s only one game that matters to Michigan, however, and that comes on Thanksgiving weekend.  Year after year, Harbaugh could not win that game.  Until he did.

It took Harbaugh seven tries to beat the Columbus powerhouse.  The heat elevated every season despite the frigid temperatures, with many calling for Harbaugh’s head.  We forget that now that he owns a two-game winning streak over his rival, with the Ohio State coach now finding it his turn under the heat lamp.

Do you know how many head football coaches the University of Florida has had since 2014, one year before Jim Harbaugh got to Ann Arbor?  Seven!  That includes interim coaches that led the team once the other head coaches were fired.  Florida is not an institution known for its patience.

Which brings us back to Anthony Richardson.  Unlike Michigan with Harbaugh, or basically any sports organization, college or pro, that has demonstrated any semblance of patience in developing athletes or a winning culture, Richardson, the Florida coaching staff, and its fan base are all at a crossroads.  Richardson will have countless people in his ear advising him which direction to take, and that direction seems obvious.  Only he knows whose opinions he’ll value or whether he’s already made up his mind.  You have (his former?) coaching staff who must determine whether they can turn Richardson into a better player by designing a gameplan that will allow that.  On top of that, you have a fickle fan base that must decide, if they haven’t already, whether Richardson is the young man they want behind center and as the overwhelming face of the program.

There’s an old saying that warns about firing someone unless you have their replacement and another expression about the other side’s grass being greener.  All those “Just Say No to Richardson” votes might be in for a rude awakening about how rotten the grass can become if it’s not cared for.

I think it’s too soon to give up on the kid.  Two seasons, with two altogether different coaching regimes, is not a conducive environment to winning football.  While instances of kids jumping to the pros for fear of injury is historically lengthy, student athletes now get paid handsomely to stay in school.  Another year at Florida, with a playbook designed for his skill set can only help Richardson become an infinitely better player if that’s in his sights, if this coaching staff can do so and if the administration and fan base provide an environment within which this young man can thrive.

That’s a lot of ifs.

We’ll find out soon enough if that’s the case.  As a straw poll of one, I’ve grown tired of the constant changes and overreactions this program has made in the past decade.  The school has gone from celebrating coaches, to admonishing them, to hiring another, to firing them, all the while lighting the carousel afire as the program falls apart.

I say embrace Richardson with next year, his junior year, serving as a season where he can develop into the potential he’s shown.  A lot of things must fall into place for that to happen, including an off-season of hard work and a fan base, and coaching staff, providing a modicum of support.  For that, it might even be too late.

Some decisions haunt franchises forever.  The Orlando Magic have never quite got over the moment they let Shaq head out west.  Let’s hope the University of Florida, a program already mired in problems, doesn’t regret the day it didn’t do everything in its power to embrace Anthony Richardson and provide him with a happy home.

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10 Replies to “Exercises in Patience: Anthony Richardson, Jim Harbaugh, Shaquille O’Neal, and the straw polls that broke the camel’s back”

  1. I am a pro Richardson guy in general and think his upside is top shelf, but I just don’t think has the football IQ. He only played 6 games in High School so maybe he is still learning the game in general. His general decision making I find questionable at best.

    I watched the NFL yesterday on the Red Zone. Play after play of terrible throws. Balls overthrown, under thrown, wrong side of hitting receiver in stride. The glaring difference was wide receivers catching more poorly thrown balls. So in a sense I think AR is judged harshly on poorly thrown balls more than a lot of QB’s. That said I don’t know if another year helps him. It might, but patience doesn’t guarantee success either. Good read.

  2. Chris,
    This is one of your very best my friend, and there have been plenty of good ones in the past. unfortunately, and I’ll just speak to the situation with Florida and Anthony Richardson. This kid has played I think as well as he could have and how he’s been coached up. I also think that Florida fans have, become so impatient, they want to win now, and if you don’t they are ready to move on to the next guy. Anthony Richardson will go in to the NFL draft next year get drafted probably in the second round and who knows become a really good player in the NFL . Meanwhile, Florida is ready to move on to this kid Kitna, who nobody knows if he can play or not but they are so dissatisfied with Anthony Richardson that they don’t want him to be quarterback anymore. We will see what happens. But, we all know, as you have said, so eloquently about Shaquille O’Neal and Jim Harbaugh both the Orlando Magic and the San Francisco 49’ers probably hate they let those guys walk out the door.

  3. I think that FL fans want what they want NOW and aren’t willing to allow Richardson or any player to develop. Then again, this kid like many others, have been playing their entire childhoods so it is somewhat fair to expect them to be rather capable when starting at a D1 powerhouse. I still think he deserves another season, give the coaches a chance to further develop his skill sets and as you are well aware, I’m still VERY bitter about Shaq.

  4. So much for moving on to the criminal, Jalen Kitna….
    I also think that you would have written a better article, by comparing Anthony Richardson to another quarterback who was in the news today. Trent Dilfer. And write an article about how it already sounds like Trent Dilfer’s stint as UAB’s head coach will be as short as UF football coach stints….
    I also wonder why you don’t just get the Orlando Magic out of your head. The Tampa Bay Lightning accomplished everything we could ever ask them to accomplish. The Lightning pushed us to the brink of never caring about sports again. The Orlando Magic’s existence is bottled up in a barrel.

  5. D…

    I couldn’t help but think about your comment on football IQ, which is something we throw around a lot when it comes to athletes like Luca Doncic and others.

    Is this something people are born with, can it be learned, or is it some concocted combination of the two?

    If it can be learned and improved upon through play and practice, does Richardson have a better shot to improve his game in college or the pros, where he legitimately may never be heard from again.

    For a change, the NFL is pretty good on quarterbacks right now. Whereas in the past, a ton of teams needed ’em, now not so much.

    That means Richardson will likely spend his time on the pine, learning but maybe not to the extent that he would in college? I’m not sure. I could be wrong.

    I’m just not as eager to give up on this kid as everyone else seems to be. Seems to me there’s still a little left in the tank that a junior season might hold in store.

  6. E…

    I can’t help but wonder how the Kitna situation will affect Richardson’s decision.

    It’s not like he was in jeopardy of losing his job but now there will be absolutely no looking over his shoulder if he stays.

    Like I said, I still question whether we’ve done the most for this kid and whether we’ve gotten the most out of him.

    Seems a little premature to say sayonara but hey, that’s what Florida does better than any program in the nation.

  7. BCole…

    It wasn’t all that long ago that no underclassman had won a Heisman Trophy. Then we went through a string where nothing but freshmen and sophomores won the award.

    I think indirectly that made us expect greatness that much sooner, not allowing these kids the damn chance to get an education and play some football.

    It’s ludicrous to expect a frosh or even sophomore to come in and perform immediately.

    I was listening to Danny Kanell’s radio show lately. He said there was more pressure on him to win at Florida State than there was playing for the New York Giants.

    Bizzare, huh? But not all that surprising.

    As I mentioned in the post, I’d like to see a little more patience on all fronts. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like the losing and I want to see measured progress. But it might be time to be a little more realistic about how long that progress might take.

    All we’ve done lately is damage the program by doing the opposite.

  8. Ah, Greg.

    My ultimate critic.

    I will try harder next time.

    The Richardson article speaks from experience and my take on how Florida might consistently be jumping the gun with its decision-making. No news of Dilfer had come out yet nor do I see how his new situation at UAB has anything to do with Richardson, Napier or how Florida has run through coaches lately.

    Trust me when I tell you, Dilfer will get plenty more time to build a program than any of the Florida coaches have had.

    And re: the Lightning, they’re still on at the bar every evening but other teams have caught up and have what they want, as we’ve seen the last two games that they’ve played against the scorching hot Boston Bruins.

    It’s a long season. Too long for the Magic. But Rome wasn’t built in a day.

  9. Bad look for the program, TM, but why not pile on.

    I wonder what’s too become of Kitna. Here’s hoping the kid gets some help because he’s gonna need it if he’s ever sentenced in the slam.

    Know a good attorney?

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