DALLAS — Let’s start with a few numbers: Over the last 20 years, there have been 46 quarterbacks taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. Of those, the majority (28) were Top 10 picks. And 12 of those 28 were No. 1 picks overall.
Which is to say something you already know: Teams have invested a whole lot of money and time and effort to find the next great quarterback. All but four teams — Dallas, Kansas City, Miami and New Orleans — have spent first round picks on quarterbacks in the last 20 years. Cincinnati alone has spent three Top 6 picks on quarterbacks.
So, teams are trying to hard find the future. And, to be blunt about it, mostly they’re failing. You know how many of those 46 quarterbacks have been named first team All-Pro? One. Peyton Manning. Just 10 have played in multiple Pro Bowls, but even that’s deceiving because the Pro Bowl is quirky and doesn’t necessarily point to great success. Vince Young has played in two Pro Bowls, and nobody would consider him to have been an especially triumphant draft choice.
Every time a team drafts a quarterback in the first round, especially in the Top 10 or so, they place the team’s future on young shoulders. You don’t draft a quarterback that high to get a backup or an ordinary player. These quarterbacks are all gifted, obviously.They all have good arms. They are mostly big, all strong or fast or both, all winners. They are handled differently, of course — some get thrown into their careers right away, some sit on the bench and learn for a while — but they are given the best instruction, training and coaching available.
And, most fail and fail rather spectacularly. We tend to focus on the No. 1 overall picks (and some of them like JaMarcus Russell and Tim Couch and were disastrous, others like Alex Smith and David Carr not too good), but perhaps an even better gauge is to look at the No. 2 and No. 3 picks over the last 20 years.
— Rick Mirer (No. 2 pick in 1993): Disaster.
— Heath Shuler (No. 3 pick in 1994): Disaster.
— Steve McNair (No. 3 pick in 1994): Good quarterback, led Titans to Super Bowl.
— Ryan Leaf (No. 2 pick in 1998): Beyond disaster.
— Donovan McNabb (No. 2 pick in 1999): Very good quarterback, led Eagles to Super Bowl.
— Akili Smith (No. 3 pick in 1999): Disaster.
— Joey Harrington (No. 3 pick in 2002): Not a disaster, but close enough.
— Vince Young (No. 3 pick in 2006): Bright spots, but overall a disappointment.
— Matt Ryan (No. 3 pick in 2008): Looking good.
So, that’s nine quarterbacks taken with the second and third picks — a spot where you would figure NFL scouts would NEVER miss — and four are undeniable disasters, another two are big disappointments.
This is the challenge of drafting quarterbacks in the NFL. Nobody seems entirely sure what traits it takes for success. This is a league where one of the best quarterbacks of the last decade wasn’t drafted (Kurt Warner), another was generally thought too small (Drew Brees), and a man making his case as the greatest quarterback ever was not taken until the sixth round (Tom Brady). This is actually pretty consistent with NFL history — finding the best quarterbacks has always been more art than science. Joe Montana wasn’t taken until the third round. John Unitas was taken in the ninth round by Pittsburgh and released. Warren Moon wasn’t drafted at all and had to go succeed in Canada before given a shot to start his Hall of Fame career.
But, yes, it does seem in today’s world — with the quarterback position so specialized and so dangerous and requiring skills that are not easily named or isolated — that predicting a quarterback’s success is harder than ever.
Which leads to another question: What does Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers have that others don’t?
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Aaron Rodgers was the 24th pick of the 2005 NFL Draft. You might remember that was kind of a strange year. The two big quarterbacks coming out that year were Alex Smith from Utah and Aaron Rodgers from California, and they really seemed to be about equal as prospects in the mind of NFL scouts, at least for a while.
Alex Smith was 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, good arm, played in Urban Meyer’s spread offense, which was really built along the lines of the old Bill Walsh West Coast offense.
Aaron Rodgers was 6-foot-2, 223 pounds, a bit stockier than Smith, big-time arm, played for quarterback guru Jeff Tedford and led California to a 10-1 season, though California could not quite put the ball in the end zone against USC at the end of the game to make it an undefeated season.
Both quarterbacks were viewed as smart. Both were viewed as competitive. Both had great talent and great college coaching. Smith was a few months younger, a little bit bigger, and came from a system that, perhaps, made it just a little bit easier to visualize how he might play in the NFL. One of the difficulties of drafting quarterbacks is that some college systems make quarterbacks look great — think Houston when high first round picks Andre Ware and David Klingler went there — but those same quarterbacks look like pale imitations in the tougher and largely gimmick-proof NFL. Truth is, Jeff Tedford’s quarterbacks had a history of looking great in college, not so much in the NFL. Five of his quarterbacks had been taken in the first round. Of the five, Trent Dilfer, by far, had the best NFL career and with all due respect Trent Dilfer was not a great NFL quarterback. This probably hurt Rodgers.
In the end San Francisco decided to pass on the somewhat local Rodgers and take Alex Smith with the first pick. They threw him out there for seven starts his first year, and he threw 11 interceptions and one touchdown pass. He has not been especially healthy or especially effective since, and the 49ers have not had a winning record since.
Rodgers then fell all the way to the 24th spot in the draft, where he was taken by an aging Green Bay team with an aging legend of a quarterback, Brett Favre. This is another thing about the NFL Draft … whispers begin circulating about players and suddenly their stock just falls. This happened with Dan Marino in 1983 when he fell all the way to No. 27, three picks after the Jets took Ken O’Brien. Rodgers’ stock kind of plummeted without anyone rally knowing why.
Right after the Packers took Rodgers, the Washington Redskins took Jason Campbell, a 6-foot-5, 223 pound quarterback from Auburn.
The point being that there seemed nothing that separated Aaron Rodgers then — certainly nothing that NFL scouts and coaches seemed to see.
But there WAS something. There had to be something. It now looks like Rodgers might be the best young quarterback in the NFL. The guy across the field from him on Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger, has his case, and Phillip Rivers puts up huge numbers in San Diego, and there are a bunch of young quarterbacks like Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman and Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford who still have promising and unforeseen futures.
But if you had to pick one young guy, 28 or younger, you would probably pick Rodgers. Passer rating isn’t a great statistic, but it says something that his 98.4 rating is second best ever for players in their first six years in the NFL, and No. 1 was a guy named Otto Graham. And Rodgers is putting up his numbers outdoors, in often terrible weather, for a good team, and he has done this under the added pressure of having to replace Brett Favre.
He has also been brilliant in the playoffs this year. He was breathtaking at Philadelphia, eluding defenders (“Aaron Rodgers is probably as good as in-and-out-of-the-pocket quarterback as there is in football,” his coach Mike McCarthy said after the game) and throwing three touchdown passes without an interception. In Atlanta, indoors, he was even better, just about perfect really, he hit 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdown passes, again without an interception. The next week in the snow of Chicago, he looked human — especially in the second half — but he also looked in control.
So, why him … what does Aaron Rodgers have that so many of the brilliant young prospects lacked?
When you listen to the quotes about him, you wonder if even now anyone really knows.
“I think he was prepared mentally and physically,” Packers GM Ted Thompson says. “He’s a good leader and a good teammate.”
These words mean just about nothing. Quarterbacks who are taken in the first round have all prepared all their lives to play quarterback in the NFL. Just about all of them are considered good leaders and good teammates in college.
“He stayed true to his craft and very true to his fundamentals,” Mike McCarthy says. “He’s an expert of the offense. He has the ability to run the whole offense, if needed, at the line of scrimmage.”
Yes, the old “He knows the offense” thing. But again — why does Rodgers have a better grasp of the offense than, say, Jason Campbell does? When Brady Quinn came out of Notre Dame, then Kansas City Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson told me that in all his years of interviewing players, Quinn most impressed him. His makeup was off the charts. His ability to understand schemes was unquestioned. Brady Quinn, taken two years AFTER Rodgers, was the third string quarterback for the Denver Broncos and did not play a single down.
“It is just his decision making,” Packers quarterback coach Tom Clements says of Rodgers.
“He’s such an efficient quarterback,” Steelers defensive back Troy Polamalu says.
“He’s an amazing, amazing, amazing leader,” Packers tight end Andrew Quarless says.
“He’s seeing the field,” Steelers linebacker James Harrison says. “He’s reading things out. He’s getting the ball to his people. He’s the hottest thing going right now.”
And so on … you can go to person after person and ask why Aaron Rodgers made it when others did not and they will almost always speak in generalities, in cliches, about leadership and field presence and efficiency. And there’s no doubt truth in all of what they say, but that doesn’t make it easier to find the next Aaron Rodgers.
Maybe that’s just how it has to be … because maybe what separates Rodgers is something ineffable, something that cannot be scouted. A couple of former NFL quarterbacks now say that Rodgers has the perfect throwing motion, but coming out of high school Rodgers did not get a Division I scholarship offer and ended up going to Butte Community College. He played well enough there to impress Tedford, who brought him in and worked constantly with him. What blew Tedford away, he has said many times, was how much the kid wanted to learn about playing quarterback. He wanted to know everything. He worked and worked and worked on his motion until it was, well, good enough to someday be called perfect.
He then went to the Packers and sat behind Brett Favre for three years. This has been listed as one of the reasons for his success — “He was able to sit and watch and learn,” Thompson says — but other quarterbacks have been eased into the league without great success. What seems to have separated Rodgers is that he never stopped wanting to improve, never stopped trying to pick up any hint he could find find wherever he could find it, never stopped searching for ways to make himself better as a leader or as a passer as a teammate. The quarterback position in the NFL takes so many physical and cognitive skills — accuracy, arm strength, maneuverability, mental dexterity, the ability to make quick and precise decisions, physical toughness, nerve — that there probably is no way to find anyone who meets them all.
So the key might be finding someone with a limitless ambition to improve. Listen to Rodgers on leadership:
“I learned a lot about how to motivate guys (in junior college). As a young 18-year old, you’re trying to be the field general to guys who have been there and done that – had life experiences, been in the work force, been in jail, been in the military, had leaders before.”
Listen to Rodgers on preparation:
“I spend a lot of time each week, just making sure I’m ready to play the game. I want my teammates to know I’m the most prepared guy on the field. That’s film study, that’s also studying the game plan and that’s practice.”
Listen to Rodgers on his perfect motion:
“Since high school I’ve been blessed to work with people who really understood how to coach the position. And in college, I think I got the best of the best with Coach Tedford. We honed fundamentals, we talked about the mental aspect of playing quarterback and I really think that time with him was invaluable.”
What you get from these quotes and just about everything Rodgers says — in addition to steady and pleasant boredom — is a sense of someone who thinks about things constantly, even little things that few others think about. He seems to be someone who simply cannot imagine staying the same, simply cannot imagine that he’s already good enough. There are so many potential distractions at the NFL level, some of them off the field (money, fame, fan fickleness …), some on the field (dealing with pain — Rodgers has a history of concussions — standing up to a heavy rush, the inner workings of a team …). And the most successful quarterbacks, bar none, are the ones who deal with those distractions and never believe the hype and continue to hunger for even the slightest improvement.
That is a lot tougher trait to scout than arm strength and how much a player can bench press.
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Before this season began, Aaron Rodgers went to Mike McCarthy and asked him to put photographs up of the Green Bay Packers championships in the team meeting room and leave an empty space up there for the 2010 team. It’s fair to say that nobody who plays for Green Bay is unaware of the team’s history. Lombardi and Starr and Nitschke are not underrepresented in Green Bay. And it’s also fair to say that everybody who played for the Packers in 2010 wanted to win a championship.
Still, Rodgers thought it might be good to have a little bit of that history in the meeting room and an empty space to get the players thinking big. How much did this have to do with the Packers being here? I would estimate 0.0%. But that’s not the point. Maybe it did help crystallize the goal in a few players minds. Maybe it inspired a whole bunch of guys. We can’t really know.
What we can know is that this is how Aaron Rodgers thinks … he is looking for every edge. He is thinking always, every single day, about becoming a great quarterback for a great team. And maybe that’s how he emerged from the huge casting call of talented young men who wanted to be the next great quarterback. It’s like he has never stopped auditioning.