Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why Andrew Luck is Far From a Sure Thing

It’s human nature to think that what comes next is going to be the best, and that newer is better. This is most true in the world of sports, where every year we pay attention to the drafts and the prospects and project championships on that year’s top prospects, just as we projected championships on to the previous year’s top prospects. In the NFL this mostly occurs with quarterbacks, and this year is no different with Stanford’s Andrew Luck being deemed as a “can’t miss” prospect, and has been compared to Super Bowl champion quarterbacks John Elway and Peyton Manning. In fact, some have even considered Luck the best quarterback since John Elway. A comparison that likely has nothing to do with both Luck and Elway attending Stanford.

Right now, the phenomenon that is Andrew Luck has captivated so many who have never watched Luck play that he has been a major storyline in a season in which he’s still playing in the Pac-12, not the NFL. To be fair, Luck was a major storyline this offseason when he decided to stay an extra year in college, thus shuttling Cam Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner, Maxwell award winner, and BCS National championship quarterback to the number one pick in the draft. Thus far, Newton has set a standard that would be next to impossible to match for Luck, yet Newton continues to be overshadowed by Luck, who remains in college.

But if there’s one thing any football historian has learned, it’s that for every Cam Newton there’s a JaMarcus Russell, meaning that for every franchise quarterback that goes in the first round, there’s (at least) a bust to go along with him. A lot of this has to do with the situation the quarterback falls into, but is that all?

Since 1990, 13 quarterbacks have been drafted first overall: Jeff George, Drew Bledsoe, Peyton Manning, Tim Couch, Michael Vick, David Carr, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, Alex Smith, JaMarcus Russell, Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford, and Cam Newton. Of those, George was a total bust for the Colts, Couch, Carr, and Russell have been outright busts. So that’s 4 out of 13 that are complete busts. Michael Vick and Carson Palmer had strong moments for the teams that drafted them, but at the end of the day were not able to deliver championships for those teams, and the good always came with the bad. So that’s 6 out 13 teams that didn’t get their “franchise” quarterback with the first overall pick. It’s too early to predict Smith, Stafford, Bradford, or Newton. Bledsoe took the Patriots to a Super Bowl (technically two), and the two Mannings have each won a Super Bowl. It’s important to note that of those thirteen quarterbacks taken first overall since 1990, only Peyton Manning is a guaranteed Hall of Famer, and if all of their careers ended tomorrow, Peyton would be the only one with a chance at Canton enshrinement.

So since 1990, 13 quarterbacks have been draft first overall, and only one of those quarterbacks has ever won an MVP award, only two of those quarterbacks have ever won a Super Bowl in which they were the starting quarterback, and only one of those quarterbacks is a Hall of Famer. Of course in each instance, we’re referring to Peyton Manning.

So if only 1 in 13 quarterbacks drafted 1st overall become Hall of Famers, what exactly defines a “sure thing,” which is what the media and the scouts have deemed Andrew Luck? Of the 9 quarterbacks who we can judge, 5 of them took their teams to the playoffs, making the odds 9:5 that the QB will become a “playoff caliber” QB. If a “sure thing” means playoff caliber QB, than I like those odds that Luck will become a “sure thing.”

But I don’t think that’s what the media is suggesting, unless there wouldn’t be talk of the Colts getting rid of the injured Manning for the young Luck. There wouldn’t be talk of the Rams trading the expensive Bradford for the cheaper-due-to-rookie-wage-scale Luck. And there wouldn’t be rumors that the Seahawks, Dolphins, and Redskins are all willing to trade a generations worth of draft picks for the rights to draft Luck. If you’re going to do that, then you have to be expecting more than the playoff career of Carson Palmer.

And while saying that Luck has a better chance at becoming Carson Palmer than Peyton Manning may be unfair, there are some comparisons between Palmer and Luck worth looking at, specifically the level of competition they face weekly in the Pac-10/12, a conference that has had a more than unstable history of first round QB’s since 1990, let’s take a look: Todd Marinovich (’91, USC, Raiders), Tommy Maddox (’92, UCLA, Broncos), Drew Bledsoe (’93, WSU, Patriots), Ryan Leaf (’98, WSU, Chargers), Akili Smith (’99, Oregon, Bengals), Cade McNown (’99, UCLA, Bears), Joey Harrington (’02, Oregon, Lions), Carson Palmer (’03, USC, Bengals), Kyle Boller (’03, Cal, Ravens), Aaron Rodgers (’05, Cal, Packers), Matt Leinart (’06, USC, Cardinals), Mark Sanchez (’09, USC, Jets), Jake Locker (’11, UW, Titans). Again, we have 13 quarterbacks. This time we only have one Super Bowl champion, who will also likely be this year’s MVP, and I project will one day be a Hall of Famer, that being Aaron Rodgers, who inherited a team that went to the NFC title game the year before he took over as starter; Luck likely won’t be privileged enough to have that sort of situation bestowed upon him. I also feel as though it’s too early to call Mark Sanchez a bust, although he’s certainly not a “franchise” QB, and it’s too early to look at Locker, who has yet to start an NFL game.

So let’s look at the other ten guys: Marinovich was a total bust, as were Maddox, Leaf, Smith, McNown, Harrington, Boller, and Leinart. That’s 8 of 11 QB’s drafted out of the Pac-10 from 1990-2006 who were absolute busts. I’d throw Palmer into bust category more than “hit” category because he never reached his potential, and there were more losing seasons than winning seasons when he was QB of the Bengals from 04-10. So that’s 9 of 11, with only Rodgers and Bledsoe being successful as Pac 10 QB’s drafted in the first rd of the NFL draft.

Before you say “that has to be the same for every league” let’s take a look at the SEC in the same time span: Heath Shuler (’94, UT, Redskins), Peyton Manning (’98, UT, Colts), Tim Couch (’99, UK, Browns), Rex Grossman (’03, UF, Bears), Eli Manning (’04, Miss, Giants), Jason Campbell (’05, Auburn, Redskins), Jay Cutler (’06, Vanderbilt, Broncos), JaMarcus Russell (’07, LSU, Raiders), Matthew Stafford (’09, UGA, Lions), Tim Tebow (’10, UF, Broncos), Cam Newton (’11, Auburn, Panthers). That’s 11 QB’s since 1990. Two Super Bowl champions, three Super Bowl QB’s, and only Shuler, Couch, and Russell can be considered busts at this point in time. That’s a 5 of 8 success rate, with Stafford and Newton looking like “franchise” QB’s more than Smith or Sanchez are.

What this tells us is that the SEC prepares QB’s for the NFL more than the Pac 10/12 does, and that because of the lower level of competition in the Pac 10/12 lesser skill position players can look better. Think that sounds harsh? Here are the non-QB Pac 10/12 skill position players to be taken top 10 overall since 1990: Tommy Vardell (’92, Stanford, RB, Browns), Curtis Conway (’93, USC, WR, Bears), J.J Stokes (’95, USC, WR, 49ers), Keyshawn Johnson (’96, USC, WR, Jets), Reggie Williams (’04, UW, WR, Jaguars), Mike Williams (’05, USC, WR, Lions), and Reggie Bush (’06, USC, RB, Saints). While I wouldn’t call all seven “busts” I would say that none of the seven lived up to a top ten pick, given that none of the seven were ever amidst the top three at their position, with Johnson coming the closest in the 1998-2002 time span.

For the sake of comparison, we’ll again look at the non-QB skill position players drafted in the top ten from the SEC in this time span: Garrison Hearst (’93, UGA, RB, Cardinals), Ike Hilliard (’97, UF, WR, Giants), Fred Taylor (’98, UF, RB, Jaguars), Jamal Lewis (’00, UT, RB, Ravens), Travis Taylor (’00, UF, WR, Ravens), Ronnie Brown (’05, Auburn, RB, Dolphins), Cadillac Williams (’05, Auburn, RB, Bucs), Troy Williamson (’05, SC, WR, Vikings), Darren McFadden (’08, Arkansas, RB, Raiders), A.J Green (’11, Georgia, WR, Bengals), and Julio Jones (’11, Alabama, WR, Falcons). Of those 11 players, there are two potential Hall of Fame running backs in Taylor and Lewis, a few pro bowlers in Ronnie Brown, Garrison Hearst and Darren McFadden, and a young WR who looks special in A.J Green. There are some busts such as Travis Taylor and Ike Hilliard, but of these 11 you could honestly say that 7 or 8 have been all star caliber players.

So does this mean that Andrew Luck will be a bust because he’s a first overall pick? No. Does this mean that because he plays in the Pac 10/12 and not the SEC he’s going to be a bust? No. But does it mean that the Colts should trade Peyton Manning? No. Does it mean that the Colts should draft Luck and keep Manning? No. If the Colts end up with the first pick they should cash the pick out for a couple of firsts, a couple of mid round picks, and even a veteran player or two. If the name of the game is to win championships, and Peyton Manning had this team in championship contention a year ago, think about what he can do with an upgraded team, instead of starting from scratch with Luck.

Does this mean that the Rams should draft Luck and trade Bradford? No, but the Rams situation is more delicate than the Colts. The Rams are in a bad cap situation, and Luck will come at a cheaper price than Bradford, who was drafted before a rookie wage scale. But giving up on Bradford after two years could be bad news for the Rams, who could learn from the Rivers/Brees situation in San Diego.

And what can the Dolphins take from this? The Dolphins need Luck because they need an identity, but they should be cautious if the Colts or Rams get the first pick to trade the entire franchise for him. You’ve seen the odds now, he’s not a “sure thing.” But if they have the first overall pick, they should absolutely take Luck. This is a franchise that could use a Carson Palmer, let alone a Peyton Manning.

There’s talk about teams with veteran or young quarterbacks in place that might make a trade for Luck. The Broncos are a natural fit because of Elway’s Stanford connection. The Jaguars can use an identity that they’re not sure Blaine Gabbert will give them, especially with a new head coach potentially coming in. Pete Carroll knows all about what Luck can do and wouldn’t mind bringing him into Seattle if the price were right, and the Redskins and Browns can use Luck as a chance to preserve the careers of Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan.

Of those options, it’s Denver and Miami that I believe would make the most sense for Andrew Luck and the franchise making the move for him. Denver wants out of the Tim Tebow situation ASAP, and unless Tebow finishes the season with a winning record as a starter, chances are that Elway, John Fox, and the rest of the Denver brain trust would love to cash him out for Luck. At this point Tebow should fetch at least a third round pick, and potentially a second round pick, and don’t be shocked if a team like Indianapolis, New England, New Orleans, or Philadelphia make that move in a move to not only give their teams another weapon, but also to protect their quarterback position. Sean Payton and Bill Belichick both contemplated drafting Tebow if the “spot was right.”

But at the end of the day the best thing for Andrew Luck is for Miami to finish with the worst record in the league, and they end up drafting him. That will alleviate a lot of the pressure that is being put on Andrew Luck right now, and a lot of the pressure that would come from a trade, or replacing Manning, Bradford, or Tebow.

Almost every year since 1998 there has been a new “Andrew Luck.” Not all Andrew Luck’s have gotten this much attention, but that’s because Andrew Luck’s of the past had to play against the celebrity of players like Eric Crouch, Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy, Ken Dorsey, Matt Leinart, or Jason White. In 2009 his name was Matthew Stafford. In 2010 his name was Sam Bradford. Last year, his name was “Andrew Luck,” but instead of getting the real Andrew Luck, we may have gotten the closest thing to what our imaginations project Andrew Luck to actually be.

And yet we don’t appreciate it, because what comes in the future is always better than what we already have.

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