In Defense of Georgia QB Aaron Murray: Why the "Choke Artist" Talk Is Unfair

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In Defense of Georgia QB Aaron Murray: Why the
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While Aaron Murray has quarterbacked the Georgia Bulldogs, the program has suffered some tough losses in big games. Talk has surfaced that Georgia will never win big games with Murray under center.

Joshua Cook of Rant Sports says Murray plays worse in postseason games than he does in the regular season. This decreased performance on the biggest stages has prompted Cook to call Murray a “choke artist.” Before we justifiably place that label on Murray, though, we should look at what happened in those games and see how much Murray should take the blame.

People like Cook use Murray’s 1-4 record in postseason games to support their “choke artist” argument. Quarterbacks are often the scapegoats for their teams’ performances, so singling out Murray is expected.

It’s only fair to Murray, and perhaps the rest of the Georgia program, to study these performances from a more positive perspective. This way, we’ll see that Murray shouldn’t carry the “choke artist” label heading into the 2013 season.

Cook correctly identified Murray’s decreased statistical output in these four losses compared to his regular-season production. Murray has a career 2.97 touchdown-to-interception ratio, but that ratio falls to 0.57 in the four postseason losses. The differences in passer-efficiency rating are notable too. Murray has a career 158.5 rating, but the ratings in the four postseason losses are as follows: 88.5, 72.5, 146.2 and 125.9 (in chronological order).

The data show that Murray has played significantly worse in the postseason, but he hasn’t “choked.”

Why?

First, Georgia was the lower-ranked team in the AP poll all four times. The only surprise loss was to UCF in the 2010 Liberty Bowl, where the Bulldogs were almost a touchdown favorite.

Second, Murray had no control over Georgia’s defense.

Third, Georgia’s passing attack was generally more productive than that of its opponents. The differences in the teams’ running games told the bigger stories.

Fourth, aside from the 2011 SEC Championship Game, Murray kept Georgia within four points of every opponent after the final whistle. In the blowout, the 12th-ranked Bulldogs faced top-ranked LSU, which was almost a two-touchdown favorite.

Let’s discuss the four losses and see how much blame Murray should get.

In the 2010 Liberty Bowl, Georgia dealt with key injuries in the running game. Caleb King, the team’s second-leading rusher, and fullback Shaun Chapas missed the game. This put more pressure on the passing game.

Despite this, Murray outplayed UCF quarterback Jeffrey Godfrey, and the Bulldogs outgained the Golden Knights. Murray was sacked three times, while Godfrey stayed upright, and that’s the only thing Murray did worse. A UCF rushing touchdown sealed the game, as the Golden Knights prevailed 10-6. Perhaps Murray didn’t make the necessary adjustments to overcome the injuries, but Georgia’s rush defense didn’t hold up its end either.

In the 2011 SEC Championship Game, Georgia was overmatched. The Bulldogs lost by more than what was expected, but nobody thought they had a chance anyway. Murray didn’t help matters, as he threw two interceptions to LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson’s zero. Jefferson’s passer-efficiency rating was over 10 points higher than Murray’s.

Despite Murray’s poor performance, though, he didn’t lose Georgia that game.

The Bulldogs defense couldn’t stop the Tiger rushing attack. LSU outrushed Georgia, 207 to 78, on just one more carry. Murray also threw a career-high 40 passes in the game. Considering the then-top-ranked team in the country beat them 42-10, I doubt a bigger commitment to the run would’ve made a difference.

In the 2012 Outback Bowl, Georgia was only a three-point favorite over Michigan State. The Spartans were ranked 12th in the AP poll, while the Bulldogs were ranked 18th. The pollsters and the oddsmakers couldn’t both have been right. Either way, the teams were so evenly matched that the game lasted three overtimes.

Even though Michigan State outgained Georgia, Murray outplayed Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins, as he was vastly more efficient. Murray would love to have those two interceptions back, but he still had one more touchdown pass and one less pick than did Cousins. Even though Murray couldn’t lead his team to a victory, he was the better quarterback.

The 2012 SEC Championship Game resulted in another Murray falter, or did it?

Georgia’s passing attack was again more productive than was Alabama’s. Murray and Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron were similar in the passing department, where McCarron had a negligible edge in rating. Again, the story was the opponent’s rushing attack. The Crimson Tide’s dominating ground game wore out the Bulldogs defense en route to a 32-28 win.

Even so, Murray did enough to keep Georgia ahead until Amari Cooper caught a 45-yard touchdown pass from McCarron with 3:15 left in the game. In fact, Murray was a tipped pass away from potentially winning the game with five seconds on the clock. Judging from the video, Georgia made a questionable play call in that situation, but Murray’s ability to go punch-for-punch with the eventual BCS national champion was remarkable.

Rather than view him as a “choke artist” in postseason games, Georgia should be happy to have had Murray for the past three seasons and to have him for the upcoming one.

Murray has the third-highest passer-efficiency rating (158.5) among qualified SEC quarterbacks since 1956. The guy doesn’t make many mistakes through the air, so his postseason performances stray from the norm. Only Tim Tebow and Danny Wuerffel have higher career passer-efficiency ratings in the conference than Murray since 1956.

Murray has the second-most touchdown passes (95) among SEC quarterbacks since 1956, and he still has one year of eligibility. This shows how much Georgia trusts Murray to get the ball in the end zone.

The Bulldogs have had some great running backs during Murray’s time there (Isaiah Crowell, Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall), so Murray’s not throwing the ball 50 times a game to rack up the numbers. In fact, Murray has never had more than 40 pass attempts in a game.

Under Murray, Georgia has improved significantly every season. The Bulldogs finished the season with a losing record and unranked in the final AP poll in 2010, finished 19th in 2011 and finished fifth in 2012. Murray started all 41 games played in those three seasons. Based on the trend, Murray and Georgia should have their best season yet in 2013.

Randy Chambers of B/R predicts Georgia will get the No. 5 ranking in the 2013 preseason AP poll. If the Bulldogs want to maintain that ranking throughout the season, they’ll need to win some big games.

Murray will do his part to win every game for the program, and based on the past, I wouldn’t expect him to be the deciding factor in any Georgia losses.

Even in Murray’s postseason collapses, he played not much worse—and often better—than the opposing quarterback. Murray couldn’t control the opponents’ offensive production or Georgia’s defense, and those two parts of the game often decided the Bulldogs' fate.

Finally, and most importantly, Murray has led Georgia to two straight SEC East championships. The Bulldogs weren’t supposed to win either SEC Championship Game, but getting there was quite an accomplishment. Murray might have lost some big games in his career, but he won many others to reach the conference title game twice.

I’ll take Murray in a big college football game over just about any other quarterback right now.

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