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Friday, October 12, 2007

The Unknown Quarterback Factor

In previous blog posts over the years, I've posited that there are about 75-100 guys in the country who could be (good) starting quarterbacks in the country but who for some reason don't get the chance. These guys played well in college, have the arm strength, etc., but something is held against them. For example, in Tony Romo's case it's the fact that he went to Eastern Illinois. Once-upon-a-time Dolphins QB Jay Fiedler went to Dartmouth (he could have gone to Purdue), and had Fiedler not gone to an Ivy League school perhaps the doubts about him would have been fewer.

The point of this conversation is that it's been conventional wisdom in recent years that for a team to have a good shot at a Super Bowl title, you need a great QB, and, at that, a QB who came in as a known quantity and was drafted in a high round. That said, there are NFL QBs who are doing well who flew under the radar screen or who, if known because they played at a big-time football school, weren't expected to do much in the pros. Romo is an example of the former, Tom Brady the latter. So, to examine this point further, the Mikes (Greenberg and Golic) reviewed each team's starting QB and evaluated whether they were known or unknown quantities coming out of college. The results might surprise you. Here goes (and I'm inserting my own opinions, and not those of the Mikes, and I'm also going with the guy who started the season for his team, with one proviso -- in Chicago's case, because Rex Grossman was replaced for performance reasons, I'm going with Brian Griese, but I'm not going with substitutes because of injury):

NFC East:

Dallas -- Tony Romo -- unknown
New York -- Eli Manning -- known
Washington -- Jason Campbell -- known (first-round draft pick, for those who might forget)
Philadelphia -- Donovan McNabb -- known

NFC West:

Arizona -- Matt Leinart -- known
Seattle -- Matt Hasselbeck -- unknown
San Francisco -- Alex Smith -- known
St. Louis -- Marc Bulger -- known

NFC North:

Chicago -- Brian Griese -- known (third-round pick out of Michigan; led team to Rose Bowl win)
Detroit -- Jon Kitna -- unknown
Green Bay -- Brett Favre -- known (second-round draft choice)
Minnesota -- Tavarious Jackson -- unknown

NFC South:

Atlanta -- Joey Harrington -- known
Carolina -- Jake Delhomme -- unknown
New Orleans -- Drew Brees -- known
Tampa Bay -- Jeff Garcia -- unknown

AFC East:

Buffalo -- J.P. Losman -- known
Miami -- Trent Green -- known
New England -- Tom Brady -- unknown
New York -- Chad Pennington -- known

AFC West:

Denver -- Jay Cutler -- known
Kansas City -- Damon Huard -- unknown
Oakland -- Daunte Culpepper -- known
San Diego -- Philip Rivers -- known

AFC North:

Baltimore -- Steve McNair -- known
Cincinnati -- Carson Palmer -- known
Cleveland -- Derek Anderson -- unknown
Pittsburgh -- Ben Roethlisberger -- known

AFC South:

Houston -- Matt Schaub -- (relatively) unknown
Indianapolis -- Peyton Manning -- known
Jacksonville -- David Garrard -- unknown
Tennessee -- Vince Young -- known

The tally: 21 known, 11 unknown. So what does this mean? It means that drafting a QB on the first round doesn't guarantee success in the NFL (okay, so that's not too profound). The year that the Eagles drafted Donovan McNabb, he was the third player taken in the draft, but behind two quarterbacks -- Tim Couch and Akili Smith. The Bears banked on Cade McNown of UCLA that year, taking him early in the first round, and there was talk in Philadelphia that the Eagles should have opted for him instead of McNabb. McNown was a big-time bust; McNabb has been very good when he's not been hurt.

So what's the formula? Romo excelled at Eastern Illinois, Garcia at Fresno State. Brady had trouble winning the job at Michigan and lost it to supposed wunderkind Drew Henson, who after flirting and failing with the Yankees' farm system then failed with Bill Parcells in Dallas. Hasselbeck played well in college and comes from a football family.

The Mannings both played great in college, ditto for McNabb, Young, Leinart, Palmer and many others. It's hard to determine precisely how to predict who will excel or who won't, except that in retrospect had one compared Peyton Manning's maturity and preparation with Ryan Leaf's you probably could have predicted that Manning projected better than Leaf, who is now a college golf coach, did (San Diego drafted Leaf right after Indy drafted Peyton). But what this does go to show you is that with any NFL position, you can find gems in later rounds.

The big difference, though, is that a head coach is much more willing to give a sixth-round cornerback a chance to replace an injured starter or even to beat him out than he would a fifth-round pick who excelled at Harvard, Mount Union or Rice (with apologies to Tommy Kramer fans). Suppose Drew Bledsoe hadn't gotten injured several years ago in New England? Would Tom Brady have gotten a chance to beat him out? It took a few spectacular failures in Dallas for Romo to get his chance, and for Pete's sake Kurt Warner played in the Arena League and was stocking shelves at a grocery store in Iowa before finding Mike Martz and becoming the star attraction in St. Louis's "Greatest Show on Turf" and becoming an MVP.

The conclusion: there are many guys like Brady, Warner and Romo out there, perhaps enough to populate back-up positions on half the NFL rosters. What there usually are not are head coaches with enough self confidence to make the call, give up on the guy with the big-time reputation who either is a step too slow, can't read defenses well enough or doesn't quite have the arm strength for a guy who might be slightly undersized, but who has the courage, leadership and savvy to simply make the plays. Analogously, Jimmy Johnson had the guts in Miami to draft a 5'10", 220 pound linebacker named Zach Thomas and make him an All-Pro. Why? Because when he looked at film, all he saw was that Thomas made the plays. In stark contrast, Ray Rhodes in Philadelphia once took a physical specimen named Jon Harris despite the fact that Harris seldom made the plays in college (he went to UVA) Harris bombed out after two seasons; Thomas is still playing.

There are Zach Thomas-like quarterbacks out there. Those who get the chance usually do so because of injury or desperation, and year after year they perform.

Perhaps it's time for this particular subset of the talent pool to get a more serious look.


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