Not Just a Pass­ing Fancy

Teams Of­ten Use High Draft Picks on Quar­ter­backs, Even Though They Rarely Pan Out

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sports - By Les Car­pen­ter

In the brief ex­is­tence of the Hous­ton Tex­ans, it was the fran­chise’s finest day. The team had yet to play a game, open a train­ing camp or pull on its new blue uni­forms, but on a hope­ful April Satur­day five years ago, it picked the face of the fran­chise. David Carr held his new jer­sey and beamed into the flash­bulbs.

This was the clear choice, the When: Where: TV: ob­vi­ous choice, per­haps the only thing cer­tain about the 2002 NFL draft. Carr, a star quar­ter­back at Fresno State, could zing passes across the field and was smart, charis­matic and will­ing to please. Ev­ery­one was thrilled. Owner “Bob McNair be­lieves in David Carr,” Charley Casserly, then the Tex­ans’ gen­eral man­ager, told the Hous­ton Chron­i­cle. Then­coach “Dom Ca­pers be­lieves in him. [Of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor] Chris Palmer be­lieves in him. We’re go­ing to have a plan for this guy, and we’re go­ing to stay with it even if there’s a bump in the road. There’s not go­ing to be any aban- don­ment of David Carr.”

Casserly, gone now from Hous­ton, chuck­led into the phone last week. He didn’t even last to see Carr dumped to the Carolina Pan­thers ear­lier this month.

“I think there’s a dif­fer­ence in what teams might tell peo­ple and what teams might think,” Casserly said. “No one is go­ing to say they only took a good player and not a great player with a top 10 pick.”

Such is the prob­lem with the NFL draft th­ese days. As the glare grows brighter and the pub­lic is flooded with a del­uge of draft shows, draft guides, draft Web sites, draft ex­perts and in­stant draft gos­sip, the pres­sure grows to find the next great quar­ter­back. Coaches and ex­ec­u­tives en­chanted with the lure of a per­fectly thrown spi­ral or a 6-foot-5 frame prac­ti­cally trip over them­selves to run the next great quar­ter­back’s name to the podium. And far more of­ten

than not in re­cent years, such a pur­suit has been fool’s gold.

For ev­ery Pey­ton Man­ning there are two Ryan Leafs. And while Dono­van McNabb took the Philadel­phia Ea­gles to four NFC cham­pi­onship games, Joey Har­ring­ton kept the Detroit Li­ons at the bot­tom of the NFC North. Mean­while, draft week­end af­ter­thoughts such as Tom Brady, Kurt Warner and Matt Has­sel­beck have six Su­per Bowl ap­pear­ances among them.

Once again this year, two tempt­ing prospects loom at the top of the draft that will be held next week­end. They of­fer all kinds of prom­ise along with their own share of ques­tion marks. Yet it seems al­most cer­tain that ei­ther Louisiana State quar­ter­back JaMar­cus Rus­sell or Notre Dame quar­ter­back Brady Quinn will be taken with one of the top three picks, with one prob­a­bly go­ing No. 1. Why? “Be­cause ev­ery­one knows if you have a quar­ter­back who can make plays you will be good,” said Gil Brandt, a for­mer gen­eral man­ager and now an an­a­lyst for the NFL Net- work. “If you don’t have a quar­ter­back who can make plays, you won’t be good.”

Or as Casserly said, “When you have a chance to take a [fran­chise] quar­ter­back, you take one.”

Even if pick­ing the right one has turned into an in­ex­act science.

Bobby Beathard knows. As gen­eral man­ager of the San Diego Charg­ers, he made Wash­ing­ton State quar­ter­back Ryan Leaf the No. 2 pick of the 1998 draft, a move Beathard calls “the big­gest bust in the world,” mainly, he said, be­cause Leaf never in­gra­ti­ated him­self with the team. Leaf missed work­outs, bick­ered with fans and did lit­tle prepa­ra­tion un­til some of the team’s most im­por­tant play­ers begged Beathard to get rid of him.

“When you looked at him play­ing, he did some great things,” said Beathard, in some ways still smit­ten by the Leaf who dom­i­nated the Pa­cific-10 as a col­lege ju­nior in 1997. “He could throw, but it was a char­ac­ter flaw with him. We should have spot­ted it.”

Too of­ten, though, teams don’t want to spot the flaws. Or at least they talk their way out of them. On draft day in 2002, the Tex­ans’ coaches as­sured re­porters that Carr’s three-quar­ter arm de­liv­ery, which con­trib­uted to sev­eral blocked passes at Fresno State, would not be a prob­lem in the NFL. Carr’s mo­tion was some­thing of a prob­lem in his five sea­sons with Hous­ton, but it wasn’t as big as the con­stant in­juries to the of­fen­sive line­men in front of him that kept him from grow­ing com­fort­able in the of­fense.

To­day, Casserly still be­lieves Carr can be a good NFL quar­ter­back, blam­ing Carr’s lack of de­vel­op­ment on the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of tackle Tony Boselli, a prize ac­qui­si­tion be­fore the draft. Boselli’s body gave out be­fore he could play a game for the Tex­ans, and soon other key line­men went down as well. “David Carr has had the sin­gle tough­est sit­u­a­tion in the NFL the last five years,” Casserly said. “The jury is not in on him yet.”

But the jury has ruled on the ca­reers of Ak­ili Smith and Cade McNown, both seen as busts, and is quickly mak­ing the same de­ci­sion about Joey Har­ring­ton, taken with the third pick in the 2002 draft by Detroit even though Li­ons Gen­eral Man­ager Matt Millen ar­gued for cor­ner­back Quentin Jam­mer. But the Li­ons coach, Marty Morn­hin­weg, won out and got Har­ring­ton, and Millen told re­porters that day, “We have to have sta­bil­ity at the quar­ter­back po­si­tion, we just have to.”

Har­ring­ton pro­vided ev­ery­thing but sta­bil­ity, and even­tu­ally Millen shipped him to Mi­ami, where he had 15 in­ter­cep­tions in 11 games last sea­son.

Too of­ten, the prob­lem is pres­sure. Fans want their new quar­ter­back on the field. Team own­ers are im­pa­tient. Coaches know their jobs are on the line. Rarely does a quar­ter­back taken at the top of the draft get to sit a year and ab­sorb the of­fense the way Car­son Palmer did in Cincin­nati. Ev­ery­one de­mands to see him right away. Carr started the first game in Tex­ans his­tory, in part be­cause the team didn’t have any other ser­vice­able quar­ter­backs to let him wait.

“I think ideally [ex­ec­u­tives] would love to take those few years to get him ready when you are bring­ing up that fu­ture star,” Beathard said. “A lot of money has been put into those guys, a lot of peo­ple want to see them now.”

And usu­ally, be­cause the team that picked the quar­ter­back is in the top five of the draft, a lot of things prob­a­bly had gone wrong the year be­fore. Al­most al­ways, the holes still ex­ist and can’t be fixed by a quar­ter­back straight out of col­lege.

“That’s the age-old prob­lem for quar­ter­backs be­ing taken high in the draft,” Casserly said. “They aren’t very good.”

The predica­ment is fur­ther com­pli­cated if the quar­ter­back is not ac­cus­tomed to study­ing plays and watch­ing hours of op­pos­ing teams’ films. Sev­eral league ex­ec­u­tives said Pey­ton Man­ning’s end­less work in film rooms set him apart from sev­eral of the top picks who have failed.

“In many cases, to be a good quar­ter­back you have to work harder than any­one else,” Brandt said. “When they go to the league, it’s like hav­ing a kinder­gart­ner go to be­ing a grad­u­ate stu­dent. Some of th­ese guys don’t get into the habit of do­ing what they have to do.” Un­til it’s too late. Brandt has a the­ory that the quar­ter­backs who tend to do bet­ter in the pros are those who started for three or more sea­sons in col- lege. The rea­son, he said, is that they have gained game ex­pe­ri­ence that al­lows them to read de­fenses and see blitzes form­ing. They also have learned to avoid trou­ble. Those who might have started only for one or two years are that much fur­ther be­hind be­fore be­ing thrown into the fire of an NFL game.

Both Rus­sell and Quinn played sig­nif­i­cantly for most of three sea­sons in col­lege, giv­ing each a de­cent shot at suc­cess in the NFL. But chances are only one will be wear­ing a cap at the podium in the first two hours on Satur­day. Which one still is un­de­ter­mined, maybe be­cause teams are weigh­ing his­tory, try­ing des­per­ately not to re­peat it.

Beathard has a thought. It comes with­out watch­ing tape on ei­ther player or spend­ing any time as­sess­ing their arm strength or abil­ity to avoid pass rushes. Quinn has spent two years learn­ing from Notre Dame Coach Char­lie Weis, he said. Such train­ing from a re­spected for­mer NFL as­sis­tant is in­valu­able, Beathard said. “If you want a guy who will play quickly, that may be an ad­van­tage,” Beathard said. Or it could be a dis­as­ter. Chances are, we’ll find out fast.

April 28-29. New York. NFL Net­work (Rounds 1-3, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. April 28; Rounds 4-7, noon-7 p.m. April 29), ESPN (noon-8 p.m. April 28; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. April 29).

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