- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bobby Beathard knows something about quarterbacks. As general manager of the Washington Redskins and San Diego Chargers, he helped build Super Bowl teams by making smart decisions and finding a snug fit for the position. Several of them were the right evaluation, he said.

Then he added, And another was the worst evaluation in history. That would be, of course, Ryan Leaf.

Going into the 1998 NFL draft, Tennessee’s Peyton Manning and Leaf, from Washington state, were ranked Nos. 1 and 1-A. Manning generally was considered the better quarterback prospect, but not by enough to discourage a healthy debate over the merits of each. Neither one could miss.

The Indianapolis Colts took Manning with the first pick, leaving Leaf for the Chargers. Beathard was fine with that. Leaf was big and strong with a rocket arm, the prototypical NFL drop-back quarterback. He could take a hit and bring his team back in the fourth quarter. His coach, Mike Price, could not say enough good things. He was a heck of a college player, Beathard said.

We all know what happened. With his mind-numbing passing numbers and a Super Bowl victory tucked away with maybe more to come, Manning, the affable guest host of Saturday Night Live and ubiquitous TV pitchman, might be considered the greatest NFL quarterback in history by the time he retires.

Leaf, meanwhile, for all his measurable skills was a surly, uncoachable, injury-prone bust of epic proportions, the all-time flameout. Popularizing the term, character flaws, he played, or sat, for four teams before retiring in 2002. Today he is, of all things, a quarterbacks coach toiling in near-obscurity at Division II West Texas A&M; in Canyon, Texas.

It never worked out, said Beathard, who is retired and living in California. He alienated teammates, he alienated coaches.

No tale better illustrates how hard it is not only to play quarterback in the NFL but also to find a good one. Leaf is hardly alone. There are similar, countless stories that include such names as Heath Shuler, Akili Smith and Tim Couch, to name only a few, a litany of top picks and All-Americans and Heisman Trophy winners (sometimes all three) who failed as professionals.

It is a cautionary tale, repeated often enough to make anyone with a vested interest in the NFL, including and especially fans, well aware of the pitfalls and obstacles encountered in the development (or lackthereof) of an NFL quarterback. Like, say, the Redskins’ Jason Campbell, who acquitted himself well as an untested second-year player after replacing Mark Brunell in 2006. But as he opens this season as the starter, Campbell still faces a huge challenge.

I think it’s probably the most complex job requirement in all of sports, said Redskins assistant head coach-offense Al Saunders, voicing a popular sentiment. It entails not only physical, mental and emotional abilities, but the abilities of everyone around you. The other thing is, it is such a violent position. … You have to be very courageous and tough. When you get hit by a 300-pound lineman running as fast as he can, you’re usually not protecting yourself.

“Football is a very physical game and the consequences of the people you trust around you breaking down are monumental,” Saunders said. “The mental requirements of playing quarterback in the National Football League, the knowledge he has to have about his position and the people around him are much greater than in any other sport because of the intricacies from a mental standpoint. And it’s multiplied by the number of people you have on the field.”

Then there’s the off-the-field stuff.

“You have to be mentally tough,” former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. “That’s the single most important thing. You’re being scrutinized, criticized or analyzed by family, coaches, the media, or yourself. You’re under a constant microscope, whether it’s self-imposed or from outside forces. And the responsibility of the success or failure of an entire organization rests on your shoulders. Like it or not, that’s the nature of the position.”

Theismann said there are essentially four stages of a quarterback’s development. In simple terms, they are understanding your offense, recognizing what the defense is doing, taking both of those concepts and applying them and then, “when you put those three together, when a quarterback finally reaches a point where he can actually be the guy you saw in college,” he said.

But without a good defense, a strong running game and a solid offensive line, it’s that much harder. It is almost amazing that anyone really succeeds at it, or in finding someone to do it. “There is no foolproof test for a quarterback’s ability,” Casserly said.

“You can measure height, weight, the velocity of the ball, technique and mechanics,” said Saunders. “When it comes to everything else — studying, how he deals with failure, the growth process, learning the system — is when quarterbacks have difficulty. They’ve been No. 1 for so long. Then they come into the National Football League and it’s a learning process, and that’s difficult for them.”

Casserly was the Redskins’ GM in 1994 when the club drafted Shuler, who became the franchise’s equivalent of Leaf. Taken with the No. 3 pick out of Tennessee, Shuler had all the tools or at least most of them. Although no one called him a can’t-miss prospect (Casserly preferred Trent Dilfer but was overruled by his coach, Norv Turner), he arrived in D.C. with glittering college credentials and enough apparent ability to provide hope.

A false hope, it turned out. Shuler held out for three weeks, was immediately overwhelmed when he showed up and never caught on. As with Leaf, injuries also got in the way. A smart guy off the field who is now a congressman from North Carolina, he was deemed to lack the special type of football intelligence that is required. All the scouting, testing and measuring, the interviews and the background checks, the big college numbers and Saturday successes meant little when it came to Sunday.

“Everybody wants to make it simple, but there are multiple factors,” said Casserly, now a commentator for CBS. “There are so many moving parts.”

Making things even harder have been recent changes in defensive philosophies that feature defenders blitzing from all angles. Responding to rules changes that give receivers an edge and juice up the offense, defenses focus mainly on neutralizing (i.e. assaulting) the quarterback. “The multiple things they’re capable of doing with the athletes they have is incredible,” Theismann said.

Constant film study helps, and Campbell, who was bequeathed Saunders’ famed 700-page playbook, has spent enough time in darkened rooms to acquire night vision. But nothing can simulate the speed of the game nor duplicate standing behind center and trying to figure out just who on the other side of the line wants to kill you the most.

“It’s so hard to see the field,” said Redskins quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor, who is largely entrusted with Campbell’s nurturing. “Any camera angle you pick, it will look a whole lot easier than when you’re standing in the pocket, guys taller than you are all around, fighting their butts off to keep you safe or fighting to get at you.

“There’s so much [defensive] pressure put on the quarterback,” Lazor said. “The coverage, blitzes, so many different things happening at once. It takes a special guy to perceive and take it in and calculate all the things that are happening and throw an accurate pass.”

Physical tools obviously are important, but many imposing, strong-armed quarterbacks who looked great in the huddle fizzled in the pros. Saunders said the late Bill Walsh, who helped turn Joe Montana into a legend despite his average arm strength, scorned the entire concept.

“That used to irritate him so much when you’d hear that a quarterback was a big man and has a strong arm,” Saunders said. “Bill would say that was probably the least important quality. The most important are courage, leadership, mental ability, accuracy.”

On the flip side of the busts are the quarterbacks, like Montana and New England’s Tom Brady, who surprised everyone when they got to the NFL. Besides their hidden talents, they took advantage of being in the right place at the right time in the right system.

Saunders worked closely with such a quarterback. Kurt Warner was undrafted out of Northern Iowa, worked at a grocery store stocking shelves and played in the Arena League before signing as a backup with the St. Louis Rams. When starter Trent Green went down with a knee injury during the 1999 preseason, the Rams turned to Warner, who went on to orchestrate the “Greatest Show on Turf” and lead St. Louis to two Super Bowls.

It helped that Warner was surrounded by the likes of such playmakers as Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. He also benefited from an innovative system. But he still had to make decisions and deliver the ball and manage the game.

“He did not have the prototype strong arm,” said Saunders, a Rams assistant back then. “He was outgoing, demonstrative. People thought that indicated leadership qualities and a level of confidence. But he was an extremely accurate passer who had the ability to absorb a tremendous amount of information and take that and use it on the field.

“And, he was involved in a system that allowed him to utilize his skills. Quarterback is a very dependent position and that’s why the position is so delicate. Now, all of a sudden, he had an opportunity to demonstrate the complexities of the offense. It was a very creative, very expansive offense, and it allowed Kurt to grow. But a guy who was not courageous in the pocket would not have the same success Kurt had.”

Who knew? With quarterbacks, even when you think you know, you really don’t.

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