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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Why All the Fuss About Matt Barkley?

In the movie "The American President," the chief of staff (played by Michael J. Fox) once remarked to the President (Michael Douglas) that people dying of thirst in the desert might be so desperate that they would drink the sand.  

That scene came to mind -- and sometimes comes to mind -- when I think of Philadelphia Eagles' fans.  They can be as desperate as an employee of the U.S. embassy looking for the last chopper out of Saigon to emerge over the horizon and as optimistic as Sue Heck of Modern Family -- at the same time.          
A new tackle, a fast free agent, a new offensive scheme -- they'll latch onto it the way investors did to Bernie Madoff.  That's how desperate they are for a Super Bowl winner.

The latest in a long line of hopes -- from Mike Mamula to Jevon Kearse to DeSean Jackson to Nmadi Asomugha is fourth-round draft pick Matt Barkley, the USC quarterback who was the first player drafted on day three of the draft (last year, had he left college, he would have been in the top five players taken in the first round).  What's interesting about that, in and of itself, is that a college-educated press hails the decision to stay in college, instead of questioning the judgment of a guy whose career will be evaluated on his ability to make decisions within say three, four seconds of every snap he takes. So, out of the gate, one has to wonder what Barkley was thinking?

Was he thinking -- I really can get better?  Was he thinking -- boy, it's fun here in Southern California, the USC quarterback gets treated like a God, I want to be a kid for longer?  Either are okay, and my comments are not to judge Barkley the person, who by all accounts seems like a decent guy.  But it is to question the competitiveness, the "gotta/wanna/haveit" (as Sal Palantonio is wont to say) about Barkley.  Wouldn't you think that a guy who you want to play as though the house were on fire would have wanted to come out of college when his star was the brightest?  And doesn't the fact that he did not make you question his overall fire?  Atop that, he didn't get better last year; he didn't have a great season.

Barkley's own personal decision aside, it's not as though USC quarterbacks have lit it up.  Matt Leinart stayed an extra year so that he could take a ballroom dancing class in the fall and QB the Trojans after he could have been a higher pick after his junior year.  He has been a bust.  Matt Cassel, his back-up, had a good year subbing for Tom Brady in New England but then fizzled.  Mark Sanchez has had an enigmatic career, playing well in playoff games but sinking pretty far, especially after last season.  Carson Palmer also came out with great promise, but he's been an average quarterback at best.

While many of the press gets giddy (remember, they also were giddy about Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell and somehow overlooked the raw power of Colin Kaepernick and the field generalship of a "too short" Russell Wilson) about the prospects for Barkley (one likened him to Joe Montana), the history of USC quarterbacks and of those who waited a season too long to get drafted higher calls into question whether Barkley is an "absolute steal" and whether he'll be a superstar in the NFL.

Right now, the psyche of the average Eagles' fan is a mess.  Michael Vick has been a disappointment, and at times Nick Foles looks wooden out there.  They have some talent at running back and wide receiver, drafted a promising tight end and might have a healthier offensive line.  But that line still needs work, and the defense is a mess.  Linebacking has never been a strong suit, a once-proud secondary draws more references to sieves than stone walls and the defensive line gets pushed around.   So what a better way than to get one's hopes up than to pump up the prospects of a fourth-round draft pick with an average NFL arm who might have been a victim of circumstances than to face the fact that Chip Kelly isn't Merlin, the lines need work and the identity of the #1 quarterback remains a mystery.

It's a lot to put on Matt Barkley or on any fourth-round draft pick.  It's especially a lot to put on a USC quarterback, too, given their history in the NFL in the past ten years.  Sure, Barkley could be the best of the lot, but that doesn't mean that the best of that lot turns into a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback.  Then again, Barkley is a pretty smart guy, and he probably has thought about all this, and he's saying the right things.  Playing for an offensive innovator like Chip Kelly is a great opportunity.  Playing for a team that got close but didn't get there and is desperate for a turnaround is another great opportunity.  Playing in a city that is looking for another star to latch onto -- someone not named Bynum, Utley, Vick or Pronger -- is yet another opportunity.  So, there is plenty of upside for Matt Barkley.

But Eagles' fans have to be patient.   Because right now Barkley is a fourth-round draft pick coming off a so-so year.  He might have potential, but as one-time Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty once said, "Potential means you ain't done it yet."  So everyone should modify his expectations about Barkley, how quickly he can emerge and what he can do.

Or else, he'll end up on a heap with John Reaves and Bobby Hoying, among others.

But right now, history, hope and hype are colliding in a football fan's version of nuclear fission.  What will emerge?  No one knows right now.  

But something tells me that history has a stronger gravity pulls than the combination of hope and hype.

And that's why they play the games.

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