The NFL is more like Hollywood than you might think.
William Goldman is a famous screenwriter, most famous perhaps, for coining the phrase, ”Nobody Knows Anything.” It refers to the decision-making process in Hollywood, where choosing which film to green-light is a crapshoot. Every studio in town seemingly passed on Raiders of the Lost Ark. Well, one didn’t, and that Harrison Ford movie helped Paramount earn almost $400 million at the box office. Despite having ample research, experience and gut feelings, no one in Hollywood really knows how well a movie will do until it gets released.
Similarly, some of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL have been picked over and rejected. Nearly every team passed on future Hall-of-Famer Dan Marino, who went on to become one of the most prolific passers of all time. Every team passed on Joe Montana. Twice. It’s common knowledge that Tom Brady wasn’t snapped up until Round 6. And Johnny Unitas? He was drafted in the 9th round by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who then made the awful decision to cut him during training camp.
There have even been some sensational QBs who were never even drafted. Tony Romo made the Cowboys as a free agent, and was only elevated to starter because of the erratic play of Drew Bledsoe. Kurt Warner began his pro career in the Arena League; it was only a fluke injury to Trent Green that propelled him to the starting job with St. Louis, where he deftly navigated the Rams to a Super Bowl title. And Warren Moon had to demonstrate his greatness in the Canadian Football League before an NFL team would take a chance on an African-American QB. A few decades later, the Pro Football Hall of Fame was creating a space for Warren Moon in Canton.
But sometimes the league gets it right, and the first player selected in the draft goes on to become a fine player. John Elway was everyone’s number one pick. Joe Namath was hounded so much that a subsequent bidding war led to the merger of the NFL and AFL. Selecting Andrew Luck first in the draft was a no-brainer. And as much as everyone knowingly nods and smiles as they include Peyton Manning in this category, that pick was far less certain at the time.
In 1999, there were two extraordinary QB talents coming out of college. Manning from Tennessee and Ryan Leaf from Washington State. Manning was the heady, articulate Heisman-winner who grew up in a football family. Leaf was none of those things, but his great athleticism and rifle arm made a lot of NFL scouts drool. Much debate that offseason went into who would go 1st and who would go 2nd overall in the draft. Peyton’s famous warning to Jim Irsay was prophetic. He told Irsay if the Colts didn’t draft him, he, Manning would spend the next fifteen years kicking their butts. In the end, the Sheriff was correct, as usual. But most scouts were wrong about Leaf, whose immaturity and personal issues led to his becoming one of the biggest draft busts of all time.
Now Ryan Leaf was in no way the only highly touted QB to crash and burn. Tim Couch and JaMarcus Russell were also top rated talents. Russell was rumored to have been able to fling the ball 80 yards down the field, although being able to hit his receiver was another story. Neither player lasted more than three years in the NFL. David Carr had all of the intangibles, but he also had the bad luck to be drafted by the expansion Texans in 2002, where opposing defenses had great fun for five years, treating him as little more than a tackling dummy. To fully appreciate the importance of the team concept in football, imagine if Dak Prescott were drafted by the Browns last year and not the Dallas Cowboys. Rookie of the year honors would have been a pipe dream, trips to the emergency room might have ended up as more likely scenarios.
There does not appear to be one single indicator of whether a QB will make it or whether he will not. Plenty of measurements go into the decision-making process. Arm strength matters and passing accuracy matters. But so do less quantitative attributes such as leadership skills and being nimble. And it is equally important that a QB be handled by a knowledgeable coaching staff, one that is keenly aware of how to evaluate and nurture talent. Smart coaches make a difference. When Russell Wilson was drafted on the 3rd round by Seattle five years ago, he was supposed to come in and be the backup to Matt Flynn, who had just signed a big free agent deal. But Pete Carroll long ago decided that the best players play, so when Russell Wilson out-shined Flynn in the 2012 preseason, Carroll named his rookie as the starter. The following year, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, and today Wilson is close to being an elite QB. Matt Flynn is out of football.
Hooking a QB up with the right team, the right coaches and the right schemes can not be overstated. Much credit goes to John Fox when he was coaching Denver, and inherited a 1st round draft choice, Tim Tebow, as his QB. Rather than try and jam Tebow into his system, Fox adjusted his system to mask Tebow’s limitations and highlight his strengths. The result was a magical 2011 season where Tebow led the Broncos to a playoff win over the Steelers, and achieved legend status for leading the Broncos to some very memorable comeback victories. But when Denver signed Peyton Manning, Tebow became expendable, and future stops with the Jets, Patriots and Eagles revealed inhospitable situations. These awkward moments highlighted how most NFL teams are reluctant to change their offenses to fit the talents of a very unusual QB. Tebow is now playing minor league baseball.
College experience matters too — but only to a certain extent. There are plenty of Super Bowl winning QBs who played at mid-majors, Ben Roethlisberger at Miami (of Ohio), Joe Flacco at Delaware, and Trent Dilfer at Fresno State are good examples. But while Carson Palmer came out of USC with a Heisman trophy and has spent almost 15 productive years in the league, Matt Leinart came out of the same USC program, earned a Heisman as well as a pair of national championships. Yet Leinart ended up starting just 18 games in the league before evolving into a career backup, playing for the Cardinal, Raiders, Texans and Bills, before seeing his career flame out in an atrocious preseason nightmare with Buffalo.
And Vince Young, the Texas QB who beat Leinart in what some have called the greatest college football game of all time, was yet another dynamic athlete who seemed to have all the tools to be great. Young was big, strong, fast, and had that huge arm. He was also rumored to have scored a 6 on his Wonderlic test, giving a certain amount of credence to IQ being a gauge for success. But that said, there have been plenty of QBs who graduated from Stanford. Most do not get to the level of John Elway or Andrew Luck. Most are closer to Kevin Hogan. And Harvard’s Ryan Fitzpatrick scored a near-perfect 48 on the Wonderlic test, but his career record as a starter in the league is 46-69. Clearly, brainpower only takes you so far.
This brings us to the 2017 draft. The hot QB names right now are DeShawn Watson, who won an NCAA title at Clemson, and Mitch Trubisky, whose one season starting for the North Carolina Tar Heels resulted in an 8-5 record, culminating in a Sun Bowl loss to Stanford. Trubisky’s three turnovers included an embarrassing fumble where the ball was inadvertently poked out of his hand by a referee. Will one of these QBs become the next big thing? The jury is still out as to the winner of last year’s rivalry between Jarred Goff and Carson Wentz. It sometimes takes a few seasons for the wheat to separate from the chaff. There are so many intangibles, that no one has an accurate crystal ball on who will emerge as a star.
And yes, like in Hollywood, it is fair to say that when it comes to NFL teams getting the right QB into the right system with the right scheme, nobody knows anything.