- The Washington Times - Friday, April 19, 2002

Peyton Manning is the mother lode. He's hard-working (coaches love that), talented (fans love that) and articulate (the media loves that). Trent Dilfer is no one's idea of the perfect NFL quarterback, but he wins, including Super Bowl XXXV. Drew Bledsoe lost his Super Bowl start, but until last fall he was generally considered the best quarterback under 30.

If Manning, Dilfer and Bledsoe are the shiny face of taking a quarterback near the top of the NFL Draft, Ryan Leaf, Heath Shuler and Rick Mirer are the dark side. Their names now give scouts the willies, but coming out of college they were viewed as franchise quarterbacks, just as Fresno State's David Carr is now. Which is why the expansion Houston Texans will make Carr the top pick in tomorrow's draft.

"No one can guarantee how a quarterback will perform in the NFL, but if you think he's the guy, you take him," said St. Louis general manager Charley Armey. "Heath Shuler wasn't a big mistake by the Redskins. Every team in the NFL would have taken him if it needed a quarterback.

"If we were all so sure of quarterbacks, Joe Montana wouldn't have lasted to the third round, and Kurt Warner would have been drafted in the first round instead of not at all. The speed of the game is so fast. You don't know how a guy is going to handle it. But if you fail with one guy, you have to keep trying. You can't win without a quarterback. You can't be afraid to make a mistake. You have to be willing to be bold."

Leaf, for whom San Diego paid a heavy price to move up one spot and draft him second overall behind Manning in 1998, was waived three years later as a result of his poor play and worse attitude. Cut by Tampa Bay last summer, Leaf is trying to save his career in Dallas having tossed just 14 touchdown passes compared to 36 interceptions. Meanwhile, Manning seen as more mature but less gifted has put together arguably the best first four years of any quarterback other than the legendary Dan Marino.

Instead of returning Washington to glory, Shuler the third selection in 1994 was often hurt before being beaten out by Gus Frerotte in 1996. Shuler was traded to New Orleans the next year. An aborted comeback because of a chronic foot injury in Oakland in 1999 was the last gasp of a career that included 33 interceptions and just 15 touchdowns.

Mirer, the second choice in 1993 by Seattle, surpassed top pick Bledsoe of New England for Rookie of the Year before his play began to deteriorate. Mirer was dealt to Chicago in 1997 and has thrown six touchdowns and 15 interceptions for four teams since.

"There was never any question about making Drew the number one pick," said Armey, then the Patriots' college scouting director. "Mirer wasn't even in the same tier. Drew had shown us that he knew how to manage a team. He came from a program [Washington State] that was one of the best at the passing game. Drew had a strong arm, but I've always thought accuracy was more important than arm strength. And if we didn't think Drew could have handled it mentally, he wouldn't have been on our draft board."

While the Texans see Carr as another Bledsoe, talented Oregon passer Joey Harrington who has been rated ahead of Carr by some teams could fall out of the top 10 even though Detroit (third pick) and Buffalo (fourth) could use a quarterback.

"There is so much attention paid to taking a quarterback high because he's going to be your team's focal point," Tampa GM Rich McKay said. "You have to get to know the person as well as the player even more so than with other positions because the quarterback will be under more scrutiny than anyone except your coach. A majority of the quarterbacks picked at the top of the draft lately haven't met those expectations. The odds aren't with you picking a quarterback high, and that can make a team very hesitant to pull the trigger."

In three of the four drafts since 1987 in which two passers were taken high and no others were selected for hours (excluding 1999 when quarterbacks went 1-2-3), the one picked first (Bledsoe, Manning and Steve McNair, who at No.3 was chosen two spots before Kerry Collins in 1995) has had a better career. The exception was Shuler, who became a Redskin three picks before Trent Dilfer went to the Buccaneers.

"A quarterback's success is based as much on the situation he comes into as it is on the player himself," McKay said. "It's tough when you're asked to play early, because you're going to have a tough time. Trent was our starter for six years because there were no expectations for the team when he got here. We had been down for a long time. Heath came into a situation where the expectations are always as high as any in the league. And then he held out, which made the situation even tougher.

"It's also tougher for a young quarterback today because salary cap issues come into play. How long do you go with a player taking up that much of your cap if he's not productive? The way that Heath's contract was written, the Redskins had to make a decision on him after three years. We were fortunate that Trent's contract gave us another year, which was the year [1997] that he took us to the playoffs."

Tennessee GM Floyd Reese, who drafted McNair with the idea of sitting him for a year or two, likes Carr and Harrington but maintains that the go-slow approach is best.

"It's not an accident that most of the top quarterbacks are in their early 30s," Reese said. "It takes that long to learn how to play the position at this level. People throw a young guy in there and expect him to play well right away. Then if he doesn't work out, the guy's a bust. His teammates get down on him. So do the fans and the media. Next thing you know he's gone, and hopefully he can make it with his next team.

"We didn't do what we did with Steve because he was from a smaller school [Division I-AA Alcorn State]. We would have done the same thing with any rookie quarterback. We let Steve sit for two years to let him get a feel for the NFL. A rookie gets hit in the back of the head and has no idea where the guy came from. We wanted Steve to know who hit him and what he could do to avoid it happening again. We feel better and better about our decision every day."

The GM who drafted Shuler, Charley Casserly, isn't worried about history repeating as he prepares to give the controls of his team's offense to Carr sooner rather than later.

"Shuler didn't work out for a lot of some reasons, but if you're going to worry about whether something works out to never do it again, you better get out of this business fast," Casserly said. "[Texans coach] Dom Capers [Collins coach in Carolina] has said our objective is to get David ready to play as soon as possible. The best way to learn is by playing. [Offensive coordinator] Chris Palmer's experience with [young quarterbacks] Tim Couch, Mark Brunell and Drew Bledsoe weighed heavily into this. We've certainly spent a lot of time scouting the players in this draft and we think David's the best player.

"How long does it take a young quarterback to become productive? We've tried to go to great lengths to give David an offensive line [the Texans chose proven tackles Tony Boselli and Ryan Young in the expansion draft and signed guard Steve McKinney as a free agent] where you could have some pass protection. We would like to add some more playmakers. If you can pick a position to pick, you pick quarterback. You don't find many safeties with $7million cap numbers, but there are a lot of quarterbacks with [big] cap numbers. Whoever you take that high will have a high cap number. That's just part of the system."

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