December 29, 1997 in Sports

Don’t Be Surprised If Birnbaum Really Has What It Takes

John Blanchette The Spokesman-R

Try as it might in this December of unprecedented delights, Cougar culture cannot completely shed its wait-‘til-next- year-skin.

What do you expect? It’s been growing for 67 years.

Not that Cougs here, up there and everywhere aren’t reveling in the moment, or that the hangover from the moment - win or lose on New Year’s Day - won’t linger for months, years even. But soon enough - probably seconds after the Rose Bowl clock ticks down to :00 - the inevitable question will get asked.

Is there life after Ryan Leaf?

Well, there will be for Steve Birnbaum.

We’re assuming, of course, that Leaf will be money-whipped into the National Football League - forgoing his final season of eligibility at Washington State for rewards both dubious (“Starting at quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, No. 16 … “) and tangible (“And the volume on the big screen TV in every bathroom automatically goes higher when the water is running … ”).

Leaf might be eccentric enough to play another year for room, board, books, tuition and a Heisman. But he isn’t certifiable.

“Like everybody says, why shouldn’t he (go pro)?” said Birnbaum, Leaf’s understudy these past two years. “We talk about it, but he won’t tell me. Maybe he’ll surprise you.”

Maybe Butch will wear purple pants on New Year’s Day.

This, then, is the last collegiate linking of Leaf and Drew Bledsoe. Call it the Pattinson Precedent.

When he left Wazzu after his junior season in 1992, Bledsoe offered as a partial rationale his desire to see his friend Mike Pattinson - who soldiered stoically through four seasons as a backup - get a chance to start. The sentiment was sincere, although with $8 million on the table sincerity is easy to afford.

Just whether Leaf’s heart is as generous, who’s to know? About all we know is that Birnbaum is his favorite video game foil.

In any case, the question haunts Birnbaum probably more than it does Leaf.

“Whether I play one year or two?” he said. “Yeah, I spend some time thinking about it.

“But whether he stays or goes, I’m going to bust my butt this spring and summer, regardless - working out, watching film, whatever. Because even if he does come back, he’s big and strong but luck only runs so far. And if he gets hurt in the second game and is out for the season, it’s the same as if he left. And I have to be ready.”

Which, of course, is the issue.

For most of Pattinson’s apprenticeship, we heard that he was more than ready - that he was probably a better quarterback than half the starters in the Pac-10, if only he wasn’t stuck behind Bledsoe. When the big chance came, he struggled a bit - but then, no other Cougar quarterback has ever had to make his starting debut in Michigan Stadium, either. By his sixth start, Pattinson threw for 400 yards against Arizona State, the fifth best game in WSU history, bettered only by Bledsoe, Leaf and Mark Rypien.

And then he broke his collarbone, two victories shy of getting the Cougs to a bowl game in 1993.

If Leaf tired of Bledsoe comparisons, Birnbaum may wish he’d never heard of Mike Pattinson.

But he likes to think he’s as ready.

“I look around the country and there’s so many good quarterbacks who aren’t even being put up to where Ryan is,” Birnbaum said. “And I’m right there behind him.”

A backup measures himself against the starter and sometimes surrender seems prudent. Birnbaum, a self-professed late bloomer who was recruited mostly by WAC schools, has quite admirably avoided the trap.

“It’s hard to compete,” he said. “I mean, he should be a tight end. He’s blowing records out of the water in the weight room and then you get on the field and he’s got a cannon. You think you’ve got to throw the ball harder and you just aren’t going to. I’ve come to see that I’m not like him - physically, in my mental approach, anything.”

How much different, though, we haven’t been able to gauge. Even in a season that’s included blowouts of 58-0 and 77-7, Birnbaum has thrown just 19 passes. We remember coach Mike Price giving Pattinson a series in the 1992 Copper Bowl, but you can hardly imagine a similar gesture this week.

Possibly Birnbaum’s already had all the opportunity he’s going to get this season.

“When Ryan had to leave for the Heisman presentation and the Orlando thing, I took every single rep in practice that he would,” Birnbaum said. “And just the mentality of being the No. 1 guy out there boosted me up a level. I mean, I was completing everything.”

People have poked around for signs of growth in Leaf for two years now, and perhaps the best evidence has been in the evolution of his relationship with his backup.

“When I first got here, Ryan was a hostile person - or let’s just say he’s not too great to newcomers,” Birnbaum said. “We didn’t bicker, but we weren’t the best of friends. But I think after a while, we asked ourselves where we were going to get with this. I think Ryan went through that for a couple of years when he was the backup and saw that didn’t help anybody.

“I’m just a whole different person than he is. I’m easy going, he’s intense. Maybe he’ll grab somebody by the face mask to get their attention, maybe I’ll slap them on the butt.”

It’s pretty hard not to like Steve Birnbaum - but maybe likability isn’t relevant. The most curious aspect of the whole Leaf-Bledsoe dynamic was that the low-key Bledsoe took far more verbal abuse from the critics in Martin Stadium than the brash Leaf ever did.

Not that we’re suggesting Steve Birnbaum rush out and strike a Heisman pose.

But then, maybe he’ll surprise you.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

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