ATLANTA – I visited Fran Tarkenton at his Buckhead office Thursday to interview him and shoot some video for the “Georgia Greats” series I’m working on for DawgNation. As always, he had fascinating stories to share about his UGA and NFL days. But, if you know anything about the outspoken Hall of Fame quarterback you won’t be surprised to learn he also had strong opinions about the current football landscape and his Georgia Bulldogs in particular.
I’m going to make you wait until that package rolls out a little later this fall to find out most of what Tarkenton told me in his expansive digs on the 23rd floor of the Tower Place building. But when you have an audience with a quarterback that passed for more 47,000 yards in the NFL, was an All-American at Georgia and was an analyst on Monday Night Football, you have to ask for his thoughts on the Bulldogs’ current quarterbacks, Jacob Eason and Jake Fromm.
The specific way I phrased my question was, “what do you think of Georgia’s two quarterbacks?” Only I didn’t get it all the way out before he interrupted me with his reply.
“Well, I’m not sure that we have one,” Tarkenton said sharply.
Naturally, I asked him to expound.
“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.”
It didn’t take long to figure out the 77-year-old Tarkenton has a bit of an affinity for Georgia’s second-string quarterback. No surprise, when you think about it.
The 6-2, 225-pound Fromm is a little closer in physical stature to Tarkenton than Eason. Tarkenton, you may recall, played at Georgia and for 18 years in the NFL at a little less than 6 feet. And, if you’re familiar with Tarkenton’s UGA story, you know he spent a good portion of his college career as the second-team quarterback.
“You know, he’s got a little bit of the ‘it factor.’ Right?” Tarkenton said of Fromm. “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).”
Now it’s important to note that, as far as I could ascertain, Tarkenton hasn’t been watching these quarterbacks in practice or in the film room as they’ve been grinding through competition these last eight months. And I don’t believe Kirby Smart or Jim Cheney has been drop-boxing Tarkenton video clips and asking for his opinion on the subject.
That said, Tarkenton assures he keeps close tabs on the football goings-on at his alma mater, particularly at the quarterback position.
But mostly, it seems, Tarkenton is drawing his conclusions from watching Eason in action on the field while he started 12 of the Bulldogs’ 13 games as a freshman last season. Eason finished with 2,430 yards, 16 touchdowns and 8 interceptions while completing 55.1 percent of his passes.
Tarkenton claims he studied Georgia’s quarterback closely while watching those games on television last fall.
“I have a 120-inch flat screen in my theater room on the bottom floor of my house,” Tarkenton said. “I like to watch games by myself. I like to really watch them. I don’t go to Minnesota or Georgia, but I like to watch their games in my house. I watch the Bulldogs play every Saturday and the Vikings every Sunday. I’d rather watch it in solitude.”
Tarkenton said he didn’t like what he saw from Eason. Conversely, he likes what he’s heard about Fromm. Of course, Fromm hasn’t been thrown into the fire yet. But, Tarkenton said, he needs to be.
How the Bulldogs will utilize Fromm is unclear. Coach Kirby Smart hasn’t declared a pecking order, though Eason has been going first and running with the 1s and Fromm second and running mostly with the 2s in preseason camp. Senior Brice Ramsey has also been getting reps, but mostly with the third string.
Tarkenton’s viewpoint is one man’s amid a chorus of opinions as the Bulldogs draw close to the season opener. When it comes to quarterbacks, everybody has formulated an opinion at this point.
Of course, the head coach’s opinion is the only one that matters on this subject. Smart has been consistent in preseason camp with his support of Eason, tepid though it seems sometimes.
Tarkenton split time with Charley Britt as Georgia’s quarterback in the late 1950s. He played second string in deference to his upperclassman teammate in the era of two-platoon football. Nevertheless, it was Tarkenton who led the Bulldogs to so many come-from-behind wins in that remarkable SEC championship season of 1959. He earned All-SEC quarterback honors that year and All-America the next as the Bulldogs’ lone quarterback. He became a third-round draft pick of the expansion Minnesota Vikings in 1961, and then an All-Pro. So you see how Tarkenton might side with the underdog.
As for Eason, Tarkenton said the book is far from written on the tall kid from suburban Seattle. But, he said if Eason is going to be the quarterback everybody hoped he’d be when he inked with the Bulldogs as a 5-star prospect, it’ll be because of what’s between ears and not his height and weight or the miles per hour on his deep out-route.
“People figure things out,” Tarkenton said. “People figure out how to run companies. A quarterback just has to figure out how to play or you don’t. Most of them don’t figure out how to play at an elite level. You look at the SEC today, Alabama’s winning national championships not with their quarterback; they’re winning with everybody else. …
“But it doesn’t matter how far you throw it or how strong your arm is. It’s whether you figured it out. You just figure out how to make it work. Most don’t.”
Tarkenton did. Maybe one of these young guys will.