In some great intellectual, emotional or spiritual lapse, I actually thought the Colts would do well to draft Ryan Leaf in 1998. Many others felt the same way, though none of them would admit it now. They Colts picked Peyton Manning, of course, who just retired with every salient passing record in the book. Leaf tumbled down the dark alleys of his darker impulses, and never approached his potential.
After all the decades of the NFL Draft, a team is still just as likely to whiff as win when they hand that glittering card to the commissioner. And nothing has happened lately to indicate there’s some magic formula for success.
Enter Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, the twin cover boys of the 2016 NFL Draft, who will surely be picked first and second on Thursday.
They’ve been through the carwash of pre-draft auditions. And still no one really knows who’s better. Most of these are climate-controlled, leisurely practices, with QBs throwing to their favorite receivers under no duress.
They’ve been asked to sit, stand, jump, run and throw. They’ve been poked, prodded, quizzed and measured. And still no one really knows. The only quasi-concern is over Goff’s hand size, which feels like a long reach for a small problem.
Based on some film, workouts and their respective levels of competition, yours truly leans toward Goff. Give me the guy who played in the Pac-12 over the guy who played for North Dakota State in the Missouri Valley. But that’s hardly bulletproof analysis.
Yet the Rams and Eagles have hemorrhaged draft picks to get a crack at these two young men, neither of whom were even invited to New York City as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. Twelve months ago, no one was drooling over the idea of either QB tearing up the NFL. Now they’ve leapfrogged every stud on the board simply because of the position they play.
With all the film, data and scouting, there’s still no surefire algorithm to measure a football player — particularly a quarterback — or predict his pro career.
Why were Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason, and Ken O’Brien picked before Dan Marino? How did almost the entire league pass on Marino in the first round before the AFC champion Dolphins happily bagged him?
How were 198 players — and six QBs — plucked before Tom Brady in the sixth round? Bill Walsh, the modern offensive savant, picked Giovanni Carmazzi over Brady. (Carmazzi became a goat farmer.) Rumor is Walsh also liked Steve DeBerg over Joe Montana, if you can believe that. So if a Paul Brown disciple, who forever changed the way football is played, had no idea that Tom Brady was better than Tee Martin, how can we possibly plant our flags on a cornerstone quarterback?
Another decent QB from Goff’s alma mater was overlooked a few years ago, when 23 players were drafted before him. That player — Aaron Rodgers — is surely destined for the Hall of Fame.
Ryan Leaf was a big kid with all the physical bona fides. It was hard to look more like an NFL quarterback than he did. So why did Leaf fail while Montana, a smaller man, retired with four Super Bowl rings and the unofficial handle as the G.O.A.T.?
Because while we can take a tape measure and stopwatch to someone’s limbs and reflexes, we can’t quantify that big variable above the neck. Aikman and Peyton Manning handled the early drubbings and came out better, while Leaf snapped at local reporters after a few tough questions. And there’s no way to determine who has the emotional reserves and inherent wisdom to see the world three doors down.
Unless there’s the rare college monolith on whom everyone agrees — from John Elway to Troy Aikman to Andrew Luck — it’s still a QB crapshoot. Just ask the Cleveland Browns, who have started 24 different quarterbacks since they re-entered the NFL in 1999. The Patriots have started basically one since 2001.
Only seven active quarterbacks have won a Super Bowl. Let’s say another seven teams think they can win one with theirs. That leaves over half the NFL overtly or covertly fumbling for a signal-caller.
So you understand why the Rams and Eagles are so anxious to draft the next face of their franchise. It’s just quite likely they don’t know any better than we do if they’re about to get him.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.