Before the 1998 NFL Draft, a San Diego Chargers scout delivered a warning to general manager Bobby Beathard, who was preparing to spend the No. 2 pick on a big, strong, rocket-armed quarterback from Washington State. “He said, ‘Forget Ryan Leaf,’ ” Beathard recalled.
The scout was Beathard’s son Jeff. But the Chargers still took Leaf, who was rated a shade behind Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning on most draft boards and by the presumed experts. With the first pick, the Indianapolis Colts took Manning, who one day will have his bust on display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Leaf, meanwhile, became the symbol for quarterback busts.
Asked whether his son saw some red flags that others did not, Beathard said, “I guess he did. I thought I knew [Leaf]. I didn’t have one negative on him. Then after the draft, I saw the [Washington State] trainer, and he said, ‘Ryan’s a horse’s [butt].’ ”
Few solitary actions can damage a franchise - or a reputation - like wasting a high draft pick on the wrong quarterback. But it frequently happens, which is why the first round of the 2008 draft, which produced Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, was unusual. Both quarterbacks, Ryan with the Falcons and Flacco with the Ravens, had excellent first seasons. Ryan was even named NFL offensive rookie of the year.
Will Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez, who are expected to be drafted early in the first round Saturday (Sanchez perhaps by the Washington Redskins), have productive NFL careers? Regardless of the endless speculation and analysis, no one knows. Among the approximately 950 quarterbacks picked since the first draft in 1936, there has been one constant: “Quarterback,” Beathard said, “is the hardest position to get right.”
The first round can be a danger zone for quarterbacks and the teams that pick them. Its familiar casualties include Leaf and Tim Couch, Akili Smith and Alex Smith, Jim Druckenmiller and Joey Harrington and, as Redskins fans painfully remember, Heath Shuler. Not to mention Cade McNown, Kyle Boller and David Carr and maybe Vince Young, Brady Quinn and Matt Leinart. And on and on.
Former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick said of the 43 quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 1990, only 13 can be considered a success.
“History tells you that this is a bit of a crap shoot,” he said. “That’s what makes it so interesting.”
Maybe too interesting for Billick. The Ravens drafted Boller with the 19th pick in 2003 with the hope of finally having found their franchise quarterback. It never happened, and Billick was fired after the 2007 season. He now is an analyst with Fox and NFL Network.
A failed quarterback can make smart people look less smart. Even Baltimore, an organization known for its outstanding drafts, blew it with Boller before apparently getting it right with Flacco. Former Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese built a Super Bowl team and was known for his shrewd personnel moves. Now he’s known as the guy who spent the No. 3 pick in the 2006 draft on Young, whose future as a quality NFL quarterback looks iffy at best.
Beathard always will be associated with the Leaf fiasco, but his prior body of work revealed a keen eye for quarterbacks. As player personnel director for the Miami Dolphins and GM of the Redskins, he drafted Joe Theismann (fourth round, 99th overall) and Mark Rypien (sixth round, 146th overall), who led Washington to three of its five Super Bowls. He also drafted Stan Humphries; the sixth-rounder ended up with Beathard in San Diego and took the Chargers to a Super Bowl.
Yet even with scouting methods, physical testing, film study and psychological evaluations becoming more sophisticated, people still get it wrong.
“It’s such a nebulous thing,” Billick said.
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said the biggest mistake teams make is overvaluing arm strength.
“It’s really easy to fall in love with a kid that’s got a big arm,” he said. “If I had a list of top qualities for an upper-level quarterback, arm strength would fall between [No.] 4 and 5.
“For me, the ability to process information and get the ball to the right place at the right time is what I want to start with. Sure, certain throws take bigger arm strength than others. … It becomes a matter of processing information, accuracy, leadership, toughness, work ethic. Those things are hard to quantify. It’s not measurable, but you want your quarterback to be the hardest working guy on tape.”
Leaf looked great on tape, but the Pac-10’s leading passer was hiding major character flaws.
“He was tremendous,” Beathard said. “I think he could have been successful because he had loads of talent, but he turned his own teammates against him just by being a slob. He was overweight and out of shape, and he thought he knew everything. He didn’t want to pay the price.”
Said former NFL executive Michael Lombardi: “What a guy gets in college is just a tenth of what he needs to know in the pros. A quarterback is like a fighter pilot. He’s got to go through a lot of simulations. It requires unique thinking, timing, anticipation. We may know more about the outskirts of a player, but we don’t know what ultimately drives him.
“It’s really about the intangibles.”
And intangibles are more subjective and harder to discern than physical attributes.
“But they’re not completely subjective,” former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer said. “Critical situations, goal to go, fourth quarter, third and fourth down plus-five [yards to go]. You have to look at how they do in adverse situations. See how he handles study hall and ancillary activities. When you do those things, you learn a lot about a kid’s intangibles.”
The odds are decent that a first-round quarterback will lead a team to a Super Bowl but only when compared to quarterbacks drafted later. Len Dawson, who started for Kansas City in Super Bowl I, was picked by Pittsburgh in the first round in 1957. Since then, 24 of the 104 quarterbacks taken in the first round started in a Super Bowl.
The list of Super Bowl quarterbacks includes prodigious talents like Manning, John Elway, Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman, all of whom were drafted No. 1. But it also has Rypien and Humphries, plus sixth-rounders Matt Hasselbeck and Tom Brady, Brad Johnson (ninth round) and Kurt Warner, who wasn’t drafted. Hall of Famers Bart Starr and Roger Staubach were 17th- and 10th-round selections.
In 2000, Giovanni Carmazzi, Tee Martin and Spergon Wynn were among the quarterbacks drafted before Brady. When Brady was injured last season, in stepped Matt Cassel, a seventh-round pick. The Patriots went 11-5. With Brady healthy, Cassel was traded to Kansas City, where he is expected to start.
Even the pleasant quarterback surprises reflect the capricious nature of the process.
“I hear the term, ‘inexact science,’ ” Dilfer said. “It bothers me, but it’s probably true.”
Dilfer, the No. 6 pick by Tampa Bay in 1994 who managed the Ravens’ offense six years later and ended up with a Super Bowl ring, said a crucial factor in a quarterback’s success is the team that drafts him.
“It’s about the environment you’re put in,” he said. “I see a lot of them not succeed because they haven’t been trained properly. When a kid has mental and physical talent, when he has the thirst to learn and when he can process information, there’s no reason not to be successful. But half the teams in the league have no concept how to train this.”
Dilfer said he was a “worse” player in Baltimore because he was injured that year. But in addition to the Ravens’ dominant defense and crunching ground game, he said, “I credit my intangible qualities. I got the best out of the people around me. I was mentally and physically tough. My intangible skill set surfaced. This game will always be played more between the ears and with the heart.”
When then-general manager Charley Casserly made David Carr the league’s No. 1 pick with the expansion Houston Texans in 2002, he believed he had a solid offensive line. But injuries cost the Texans their starting tackles, and Carr was sacked a record 76 times. He persevered and had his moments but never developed into a top quarterback.
“A quarterback is only as good as the players around him,” said Casserly, now a CBS and NFL Network analyst. “All of a sudden [Carr] was behind the eight ball.”
Casserly, who was the GM when the Redskins took Shuler with the third pick in 1994, said the team was almost “forced” to take a quarterback.
“I don’t think there were many people who didn’t think he would succeed,” Casserly said. “We didn’t think he was in the top three on the board, but we felt if we didn’t take a quarterback now, we were not gonna get one.”
As it turns out, they didn’t. At least not the one they were counting on.