Two weeks ago, they were the “it couple” of the football world – and no, I’m not talking about Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce. I’m talking about Caleb Williams and Lincoln Riley, the QB-coach tandem that, until consecutive losses to Notre Dame and Utah, had been lighting the college football world on fire. Now, with USC having been unceremoniously dumped from the College Football Playoff picture, it’s fair to wonder what’s next for the two – and if going their separate ways isn’t what’s best for both.
Things have deteriorated quickly. Before the Notre Dame game, Williams was the heavy betting favorite to win the Heisman and was in great position to become only the second-ever player to win the award twice, after Ohio State’s Archie Griffin. Williams was also well on his way to cementing himself as the obvious #1 pick in the upcoming 2024 NFL Draft. With his combination of exceptional arm strength, mobility, ability to make plays on the move and out of structure, and his outrageous college production, Williams – even now – made a very strong case to prospective NFL teams.
Williams’ success had been no less impactful for his head coach Lincoln Riley, who had been getting serious buzz as the next college coach to field NFL offers. And while normally the sound of a college coach making the NFL-leap wouldn’t excite too many NFL owners and general managers (considering the horrific recent track record of college coaches making that jump), Riley is a special case. It’s not just what he brings to the table – but who. That is (potentially) Caleb Williams himself.
That’s the pitch: a Williams/Riley package deal for whichever NFL team is lucky enough to finish with the worst record. And on the surface, it’s a deal that sounds pretty sweet. Williams looks like the complete package at QB: a player who can make every throw and make things happen even when the play breaks down. He’s got size, strength and speed, and he’s been elite for two years at two top-tier programs.
On the flip side, Riley has quickly established himself as one of the premier coaches in college football, a smart play caller and arguably the best developer of QBs in the country. Riley has somehow only been a head coach for seven seasons, and in that span he’s produced an incredible three Heisman winners (Williams, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray) and another who finished second in the voting (Jalen Hurts). A QB who can change my fortunes and a coach who pumps out Heisman winners like it’s going out of style? If I’m an NFL GM, sign me up, right?
As Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend.” It’s not just that a Williams/Riley package could fail at the NFL level, it’s that a Williams/Riley package might be disastrous for both of them.
Here’s the thing: individually, Williams and Riley are great. They’ve both been hugely successful at the collegiate level and each has plenty of merits for consideration in the NFL. But for all of their positives, Williams and Riley seem to bring out the worst in each other, and it’s caused their flaws to become ever more apparent.
Let’s start with the guy nicknamed “Superman.” Williams has a ton of the traits you look for in modern QBs. He’s been compared favorably to Patrick Mahomes, and I don’t need to explain to you why that’s a powerful comparison. If harnessed properly, there’s no reason Williams couldn’t quickly become one of the most threatening QBs in the NFL. But there’s a catch. That nickname? He leans into it waaaayyyy too much.
You know those plays where Mahomes runs around, bouncing off offensive and defensive linemen alike, ducking and weaving, dipping and dodging, until he chucks it sidearm across his body to an open receiver inexplicably standing uncovered in the middle of the field? Yeah, that’s how Williams plays, except all the time, not just in key moments. It’s not that Williams dislikes setting his feet before he throws, he just downright refuses to.
It’s so much more than that, too. Williams basically breaks every rule ever thought up for QBs. It’s (kinda) worked for him in college. It definitely worked during his Heisman season. But this year, in 2023? Not so much. Maybe he just happened to get lucky before, or maybe college coaches are catching on to his shenanigans, but either way, his style of play isn’t getting it done right now.
Sadly, the person he might turn to for help is also the person enabling him to play that way in the first place. Riley might have a reputation as a QB whisperer, but so far this season, he’s done more to harm Williams’ NFL stock than he’s helped it. Instead of reigning in his wildly talented, but sometimes just wild, QB, Riley has given him full authority to play however he wants. It worked last year, but this year has been a different story.
Riley also continues to use Williams as a crutch for a USC team that’s glaringly short on talent. This isn’t the Pete Carroll glory days of the early 2000s. USC today is a shell of its former self. And instead of coming up with a game plan that doesn’t ask his QB to be Superman to win, Riley has, well, let Superman be Superman. Only, Williams isn’t Superman – at least, not yet, and not all the time. He still needs some structure, and Riley isn’t giving him that.
Another massive issue is Riley’s utter inability to field a competent defense. Even during his time at Oklahoma, Riley’s defenses stunk, and it was always his offenses that had to be the trump card. At Oklahoma, a strong program in a conference that’s notoriously shunned defense for years, that formula worked. But now, the record show that USC is aching for some TLC.
Given all of those factors, if I’m an NFL GM, I’m saying no way to a Williams/Riley pairing. Frankly, I want no part of Riley. The recent performances of college coaches in the NFL are…unpleasant. Now I’m supposed to believe that this guy who’s 1 - 4 in bowl games and 0 - 3 in the College Football playoff, this guy who’s fielded a top 60 ranked defense once in his entire career, this coach who’s allowed Williams’ bad habits to fester for so long that they almost single-handedly doomed their games against Notre Dame and Utah? Yeah, no thanks.
The stink isn’t on Williams as much, but he’s not completely stink-free either. He really needs to clean up his game. His highlight reel may be incredible, but he makes plenty of mistakes. Mahomes gets away with sloppy footwork and mechanics because he only breaks the rules when he absolutely has to. But 90% of Mahomes’ throws look like every other QBs throws: feet set, eyes downfield, shoulders aligned with his target.
Williams can definitely get there, but Riley is not the coach to help him do it. If he was, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, would we? Williams is still a generational talent and worthy of the top pick, but any team that seeks his future services would be wise to get him away from his past. And that means no Riley. The Williams/Riley package was dead on arrival.