NFL: Uncertainty Masquerading As Certainty
Starting last Thursday, the NFL put on an extravaganza they called the NFL Draft. They brought out all the pomp and circumstance that they could muster. They moved the draft from Saturday to Thursday night — prime time. The ordeal was held at Radio City Music Hall in New York. They got a high profile announcer. Finally, they persuaded several Hall of Famers to attend — Jim Brown, Joe Montana, Deion Sanders and others. All of this hoopla was surrounding the hope that a given NFL team would choose a 21- or 22-year-old who would make them not just slightly better but significantly better. The hopes and dreams of a team, of a city, land on this one guy.
Before I go on and on and how ridiculous it is to spend millions of dollars on somebody who’s never played professional football, let’s review some of the first-round draft choices over the last five years. I think everybody would agree that the NFL has become a quarterback-driven league. So, let’s look at the quarterbacks. In 2005, Alex Smith was the first quarterback taken by the San Francisco 49ers. He has clearly not lived up to expectations, but I’m not sure the book is completely written on him. Aaron Rodgers and Jason Campbell were also taken in the first round. Jason Campbell has been mediocre at best. He has suffered from multiple different offensive coordinators. Aaron Rodgers has been everything that the Green Bay Packers have wanted and more. Vince Young was the first quarterback taken in 2006. The jury is still out. I think the same can be said for Matt Leinart, but he will get his chance this year. Jay Cutler was the third quarterback taken in the first round of 2006. He’s had a very rocky career so far. The first player taken in the first round of 2007 was none other than JaMarcus Russell. I think that Oakland Raider fans get nauseated just hearing his name. Brady Quinn was taken at number 22. There were no other first-round quarterbacks taken in 2007. I think it’s pretty fair to say that Quinn and Russell have been complete busts so far. 2008 was a much prettier for first-round for quarterbacks. Matt Ryan was taken by the Atlanta Falcons and Joe Flacco was taken by the Baltimore Ravens. Both of these quarterbacks have had fine careers so far. Everybody expects more great things from them over the coming years. Finally, last year Matthew Stafford was taken at the number one spot and Mark Sanchez was taken at the number five spot. It is clear that Sanchez has shown flashes of brilliance. Stafford suffers from being in Detroit. Josh Freeman was taken at number 17. I think it is fair to say that he’s been relatively unimpressive at Tampa Bay.
So, in the last five years, I think one can say without a doubt that one, maybe two, quarterbacks are really solid — Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan. Two quarterbacks can go either way — they can either be great or awful — Vince Young and Jay Cutler. We’ll have to wait and see how good Joe Flacco can be. I’m not sold on him yet. I am not sold on Mark Sanchez, either. He has potential to be outstanding, but we’ll just have to wait and see. The other quarterbacks are mediocre to awful. So, from a business standpoint, spending millions of dollars on a first-round draft choice just doesn’t seem to be a sure thing. As a matter fact, far from it. From this small sample, it looks to be a 50-50 proposition at best.
I have read Brian’s outstanding analysis of quarterbacks as draft picks. He has come up with formulas, as usual, and then tries to use the data to prove his point. I think this method is overly complex. He looks at something called “adjusted yards per attempt” and gives quarterbacks a 45-yard penalty per interception and a 10-yard bonus for each touchdown pass. I have a problem with this formula. I think there’s more to quarterbacks than just his passing statistics. A quarterback’s presence in the huddle can at times make your offensive linemen block better and your running backs run better. The leadership of somebody like Ken Stabler or Roger Staubach I don’t think and be adequately measured by formulas. Was Terry Bradshaw or Roger Staubach the better quarterback in Super Bowl XIII? Should Staubach be penalized because Jackie Smith dropped a wide-open touchdown pass? Brian’s data suggest that coaches and owners are actually pretty good at picking quarterbacks. His data goes much further and suggest that quarterbacks that are picked in the first round are much better than those that are picked in later rounds. This again suggests that coaches do know what’s going on.
Every now and then, I think that statistics can fool us. Just look at the data I’ve presented above. We’re looking at the best. First-round draft choices. These guys are supposed to be good right out of the gate. We’ve seen that probably half of these quarterbacks are not great. As a matter of fact several of them aren’t even good. I haven’t even mentioned everybody’s favorite whipping boy Ryan Leaf, who held San Diego’s dreams as a first-round draft choice. He was paid $11 million. Not $11 million to play, but $11 million just as a signing bonus. So, I really couldn’t get excited over this year’s draft. Let’s see how these guys do in training camp. Let’s see who will emerge as a real player. (I didn’t come close to getting caught up in the Sam Bradford, Jimmy Claussen, Tim Tebow speculation. I didn’t care. Let me see what these guys do on the field. Then I’ll care.)