Needle in the Haystack

November 22, 1999
Needle in the Haystack
By Ric Sweeney

In 1993, the first pick of the NFL Draft was used on a quarterback. It would be five very long years until another quarterback was drafted as high — 1998, to be exact, when the Colts tabbed Peyton Manning to be their franchise signal caller. That year seemed to open the floodgates. What had been a barren cache of quarterbacking talent for most of the nineties was suddenly reborn and reinvigorated. Ryan Leaf was taken only moments after Manning and this past year, both the Browns and Eagles repeated that feat, once again taking quarterbacks with the top two picks in the draft. In fact, the top three picks were quarterbacks last year, and two more would follow before the first round was even 15 picks old. Next year promises to bring as many as four more quarterbacks into the NFL fold (if Drew Brees elects to forgo his senior season) and there are several highly thought of juniors and sophomores currently among the NCAA rank. 

It is, officially, one of the richest and most dynamic eras ever for quarterbacks. They’re bigger, stronger, smarter, tougher and faster than at any other time in our history. And maybe one of 20 will truly blossom into an elite NFL player. The rest are destined to join the Ken O’Brien’s and Todd Blackledge’s of yesteryear’s scrap heap. Picking a quarterback is one of the riskiest, most diabolically impossible procedures facing NFL general managers. Pick the right one, and you have a cornerstone for your team’s foundation for years to come. Pick the wrong one… and watch that foundation crumble faster than you can say, “Andre Ware.”

Back in 1993, the Patriots held the first pick in the draft and coach Bill Parcells was sold on Notre Dame’s Rick Mirer. He was eventually talked out of choosing Mirer and “settled” for Drew Bledsoe instead. At the time, it was considered a no-lose situation. Four years later, while Bledsoe was throwing New England to a Super Bowl, Mirer was throwing away paper cups left behind by Bear starter Erik Kramer, stuck with perpetual clipboard duty. 

In all, 20 quarterbacks have been selected in the first round during the last decade. And for every one Bledsoe, there are at least 5 Mirer’s waiting for a team to waste a pick, and subsequent millions of dollars on. Even more unsettling is how often a true superstar is unearthed in later rounds. Dan McGwire and Todd Marinovich were both first round picks in 1990. Some guy named Favre went in the fifth round that same year. David Klinger and Tommy Maddox were drafted 8 rounds prior to Paul Tagliabue finally calling Brad Johnson’s name in round 9. Mirer, of course, was the #2 overall pick in 1993. Mark Brunell was #127. Jim Druckenmiller went in the first round, Jake Plummer didn’t.

Meanwhile, CFL and AFL cast-offs such as Doug Flutie, Jon Kitna and Kurt Warner were leading teams while first-rounders Kerry Collins and Jeff George were carrying clipboards at the season’s outset. The list goes on and on and on. The Houston Whatevers will have the league’s first pick in 2002. And the quarterback du jour will be the one fans salivate over. It could be Drew Henson or Michael Vick or some current high schooler on the fast track to NCAA glory. But Bob McNair and company had better be sure beyond a doubt that the quarterback of their choice is the right one. He is paying too much, and asking us to invest too much, if his pick is going to go the route of Ryan Leaf. 

How do you know? You don’t. No one does. But one thing is for certain — no stone should be left unturned in their research: his college system should be examined, along with his personal life, his friends, his attitude, his demeanor, his anger management, his confidence, his fears, his intelligence. There is a lot more to quarterbacking than just a cannon arm. And who knows how much more advanced, and how much faster and stronger, defenses will be three years from now. The risk, and thus, likelihood of failure, will increase as well.

The Seattle Seahawks, after all,  have now wasted three first round picks this decade on quarterbacks: Kelly Stouffer, McGwire and Mirer. They’re currently off to their best start in years, being led by the undrafted Kitna.

The first player personnel move this team makes could sink it, or send us on our way to Super Bowl nirvana. There is rarely a middle ground. I will end with a thought: the Jaguars, known as the defending AFC Central champion Jaguars to most, took an offensive tackle with their first ever pick. The Panthers, also known as cellar dwellers in the NFC West after briefing flirting with success a few years ago, took Kerry Collins. Which team would you rather Houston be four years into its existence?

Ric Sweeney was recently inducted into the Tackle the Man Hall of Fame for his bruising, uncompromising running style. Feel free to send him a note of congratulations.