Not Just a Passing Fancy
Teams Often Use High Draft Picks on Quarterbacks, Even Though They Rarely Pan Out
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).