ATHENS — Around these parts, and in Atlanta especially, Fran Tarkenton is thought of kind of like that crazy uncle a lot of us have. You know, the one who likes to brag about how good things were was back in his day, how good he was back in the day and, frankly, how much he knows about everything. You love him, but you kind of take his proclamations with a grain of salt.
Well, all that may be true about Tarkenton, but he’s also right a lot. And he was dead on when it comes to Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm.
Way back in August, before Jacob Eason had gotten hurt or Fromm had taken a snap in a real game, Tarkenton told me in no uncertain terms that he thought the freshman Fromm was the better of the two quarterbacks and that the Bulldogs might have a hard time keeping him off the field.
So I decided to give Tarkenton a ring Monday. I thought I’d give him a chance to say, “I told you so.” As I suspected, the opinionated former NFL analyst is not one to pass on such opportunities.
“Here’s the deal: Quarterback is the most complex position in all of sport, by far,” Tarkenton explained. “And it’s the most misunderstood. That’s by coaches, by everybody. Everybody thinks they know everything there is to know about the position. But how can you judge a quarterback unless you’ve been a great quarterback? I’ve been a quarterback my whole life. If you’ve played that position, you understand what it takes to make it work.
“I thought Jake Fromm had what it takes. And he does.”
First, let’s review what Tarkenton said back in August. I was visiting Tarkenton at his Tower Place office in Buckhead to profile him for DawgNation’s “Georgia Greats” series. You can read that profile by CLICKING HERE.
But I ended up writing two other stories that we call “quick turns” off of that meeting because — as usual — Tarkenton had some newsworthy things to say. One of them was on his belief that Georgia should compete for national championships every year like Alabama and his good friend Nick Saban. The other was that he thought the Bulldogs need to play Fromm this season no matter what.
Keep in mind, this was during the Bulldogs’ preseason practices, a couple of weeks before they played their first game. I asked Tarkenton then what he thought of Georgia’s two quarterbacks.
“Everybody’s talking about Jacob Eason,” he said of the Bulldogs sophomore and incumbent starter. “Seems like a nice guy. All you heard about him when Mark Richt brought him in is, ‘Ah, he’s 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, he’s got a cannon arm, he can throw it 100 yards down the field.’ But can he play? We don’t know yet. He wasn’t on a very good team last year. He had some moments, but he hasn’t proven he can play. I hope he can.”
Then I asked him if he had an opinion on Fromm.
“You know, he’s got a little bit of the ‘it factor.’ Right?” Tarkenton said. “He doesn’t have the big body that the other guy has, doesn’t have the big arm that the other guy has, but he’s got that intangible thing that should help him figure things out. He’s a leader; the team responds; he’s prepared. I think that’s going to be interesting. I think they’re going to have a hard time holding him down. I think they’re going to have to play (Fromm).”
At the time, Kirby Smart hadn’t settled on a starter. As we all know now, he went with Eason. Then Eason went down with a knee injury in the first quarter of the first game, Fromm came off the bench against Appalachian State and has started every game since.
The rest, as they say, is history. Fromm completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,173 yards and 21 touchdowns with 5 interceptions. He also rushed for 107 yards and 3 TDs. More importantly, Fromm led the Bulldogs to a 12-1 record, their first SEC championship since 2005 and the semifinals of the College Football Playoff. No. 3 Georgia will play No. 2 Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.
Tarkenton said he would be lying if he said he expected the Bulldogs to have that level success as a team this season. But he insisted he’s not surprised at how well Fromm has performed.
He said it goes back to April when Smart invited Tarkenton to attend one of the Bulldogs’ spring practices.
“I’d watched the big guy (Eason) play the whole year, and I wasn’t enamored with him,” said Tarkenton, who was an All-SEC quarterback at Georgia and played 18 years in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants. “The kid from Warner Robins, I’d read up on him, and I was interested in getting a look at him.
“His arm wasn’t very good that day, to be honest. It wasn’t picture perfect. I think his arm was a little tired from all the throwing he’d been doing. But his accuracy was very good. I watched them for about 30 to 40 minutes. I realize that’s all. But I liked the way Fromm led, and I didn’t think he’d crap his pants in front of 92,000 people. When I came back, I told my people, ‘I think this kid is going to be better than Eason.’ ”
Of course, that’s a question that we may never get answered. While Smart insisted for a while that Fromm and Eason were still competing for playing time, Eason was sidelined for weeks with his left knee sprain and then played the rest of the season in only mop-up duty of decided games. Eason appeared in six games and handed off mostly. He finished with 28 yards on 4-of-7 passing and had minus-12 yards rushing.
Whether Eason returns for his junior season is unknown. After the SEC Championship Game, Eason said, “I’m just taking it a day at a time. I’m glad to be a Bulldog.”
But Tarkenton, like a lot of people, thinks fate worked in Georgia’s favor.
“If Eason doesn’t get hurt, I’m not sure this guy would’ve gotten on the field,” Tarkenton said. “You’ve got a guy with a year’s experience that has some ability. But I don’t think there’s any question that we’re better off with Fromm. He didn’t just play good for us, he played great. Does he have a rocket arm? No. Does he run like Deshaun Watson? No. … But he doesn’t have to. He played at a consistent level for a whole year. He was extraordinary. Tremendous accuracy and he always delivered.
“I think the kid just played played great. And I don’t think we’d be where we are without him.”
The Bulldogs and Fromm will be facing another extraordinary quarterback when they go up against Oklahoma and its Heisman Trophy-winning signal-caller Baker Mayfield in the Rose Bowl. Since Tarkenton has been so accurate in his predictions, naturally, I thought I’d ask him how he thinks that one will turn out.
“Well, I’m not an expert. I’ve never seen Oklahoma play,” Tarkenton said. “I know they play a different style of football where they throw for 600 yards and score 50 or 60 points a game. In the SEC you have to run the football and you have to stop the run. So it’s two different styles. But I think we’re going to run the football and play good defense. I do believe we’re as good as anybody in the country.”
And he believes Fromm is a big reason for that. Give the man credit. He was one of the first to make that call.