Finding playoff-caliber quarterbacks much harder than it looks
PHOENIX — The discovery of Russell Wilson, a third-round pick of the Seahawks in 2012 who shed the label of “game manager” about as quickly as his feet move running the zone read with Marshawn Lynch, set an example for what roughly half of the NFL seeks on an annual basis.
There are the haves and have-nots across the league when it comes to quarterbacks, and to borrow from former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, those in need are “fixated” on the position.
With Wilson squaring off against the Patriots’ Tom Brady on Sunday in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., neither quarterback is a former first-round pick. It’s the first time that has happened in 11 years dating to Super Bowl XLVIII in Houston, where Brady, a sixth-round pick in 2000, faced the Panthers’ Jake Delhomme, an undrafted journeyman. However, it’s difficult to build a case that a third-rounder versus a sixth-rounder offers hope to organizations and coaches under fire, scrambling to fill the position or locate an upgrade.
Brady is a once-in-a-generation find for the Patriots with a career that is unparalleled in many ways. Entering his sixth Super Bowl, his 20 lifetime playoff victories are the most all-time, and with a triumph Sunday he will join Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks to win four Super Bowls.
Wilson seemingly represents the more realistic model as a mid-round selection who required some projecting because of his height — officially 5-foot-10-5/8 at the NFL scouting combine in April 2012, more than 1-1/2 inches shorter than Saints quarterback Drew Brees. If it only were that easy.
Casting for QB
When coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider took over the Seahawks in 2010, veteran Matt Hasselbeck was at the end of his 10-year run as the team’s quarterback. Tarvaris Jackson followed him the next season, and for 2012 Schneider figured he had to explore all avenues — at once. The Seahawks signed Matt Flynn, whom Schneider had been with in Green Bay, to a big contract in free agency, seemingly making him the guy. The Seahawks, driven by early interest in Wilson from Schneider, doubled down in Round 3 with the 75th pick, and the incumbent Jackson returned.
“We just believed that the coach and the quarterback are the most important people in the building, and you are going to be constantly searching for a guy every single year,” Schneider said. “Our thing was like, ‘We’re going to keep doing this bridge thing, if you will, until we find our guy.’ Russell, well, he really stepped forward.”
As new Bears GM Ryan Pace looks to solidify the position over the long term, the Seahawks’ model is worth remembering.
For the Seahawks, Flynn was the big-money guy who didn’t make it to opening weekend as the starter. Now, Wilson has the opportunity to become the first quarterback to repeat as champion since Brady 10 years ago. The other six quarterbacks who have won back-to-back Super Bowls are all in the Hall of Fame.
Schneider fixated on Wilson during his final season of college football at Wisconsin after transferring from North Carolina State. He followed his instinct, ignoring conventional theories about short quarterbacks and their struggles seeing the field from the pocket. While it was Schneider’s call, and the Seahawks nearly pulled the trigger in the second round (instead they selected linebacker Bobby Wagner), offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell also was watching closely as a former Badgers quarterback himself.
“I watched all of those games, not scouting him but as a fan,” Bevell said. “The first thing that jumped out to me was his poise. It helped because that is a little more of a pro-style system. I got to see him drop back, got to see him stand in the pocket, got to see him hand off and run some bootlegs and those kinds of things. It just makes the process a little easier to say, ‘OK, we have seen him do that on tape.’”
Schneider wanted to see more from Wilson, so he attended the Big Ten championship in 2011, when the Badgers played Michigan State. He came away convinced, and there is no question a year in more of a pro-style offense helped Wilson after three seasons in a spread offense at N.C. State.
Hard to judge
The proliferation of spread offenses in college has made it increasingly difficult for NFL scouts to make accurate judgments on quarterbacks for a variety of reasons.
They’re nearly always in the shotgun, and that creates footwork issues that lead to questions about timing. The decision-making process in spread offenses is simplistic compared with what NFL quarterbacks are asked to do.
Often, quarterbacks will focus only on one side of the formation on a play. Windows are larger and timing isn’t as essential.
Robert Griffin III rarely had to throw a spiral into tight spots at Baylor because he could run the ball so well and saw so many single-high safety looks. His receivers would be wide open, especially off of play action. With the Redskins, he has been injured and he has struggled.
“The first thing you have to do is check for the skill set and what shows up on tape and then what is their knowledge of the offense, what are they (asked) to do?” Bevell said. “Are there check-offs, signals, all of the things you would like a quarterback to do? A lot of times now you can see what is happening, they call a play, they look to the sideline and they run another one.
“Sometimes our play calls in the huddle are like paragraphs. For them to go into the huddle and call it — all of a sudden that is totally foreign to them. You are checking their brain.”
The Patriots did exhaustive work last spring on Jimmy Garoppolo, who ran a spread system at Eastern Illinois. He didn’t run a lot like Griffin, but the issues of concern were similar. They wound up drafting Brady’s backup 62nd overall.
“Sometimes it is a difficult transition and you are trying to project a lot,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “You have to try to spend as much time with them as you can in the process leading up to the draft, but it isn’t easy because you don’t see them do all the things you want them to do. So you have to gather all of the information you can, watch as much tape as you can … and ultimately make a smart decision.
“I love turning on a college bowl game and see somebody with a quarterback under center and a back in the backfield. I enjoy seeing that because you know you are going to do that in pro football and it affects more than just the quarterback.”
Take your chances
Andrew Luck, the No. 1 pick by the Colts in 2012, is an exception now because he came from a pro-style system at Stanford under Jim Harbaugh. Who knows? Maybe it will be Harbaugh — now at Michigan, where Brady was developed — who will produce the next great pro-style prospect.
The Buccaneers own the No. 1 pick in the draft, and they surely will consider Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Florida State’s Jameis Winston, both products of high-powered spread attacks.
But it’s no sure thing. Johnny Manziel was a controversial prospect the Browns drafted No. 22 last spring, and it wasn’t just because of his off-field exploits. There were questions about his game in the Texas A&M offense and how it translated to Sundays.
There have been 120 quarterbacks chosen in the last 10 drafts — 27 in Round 1. Of those 27, nine (Alex Smith, Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Luck) have won a playoff game. Only three others drafted in the last decade have won one: Wilson, Colin Kaepernick (Round 2, 2011) and T.J. Yates (Round 5, 2011). So one in 10 drafted quarterbacks over the last decade has won in the postseason, and there has been a slew of first-round busts, including JaMarcus Russell, Matt Leinart, Brady Quinn, Josh Freeman, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder.
Wilson stands out now. He has a remarkable 10-0 record playing against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. He’s the face of the Seahawks franchise and likely in line for a contract in excess of $100 million at some point this coming offseason.
He’s evidence that projections can pan out and that winning quarterbacks can be found after Round 1. But the odds of finding that guy are daunting, which is why a quarterback search can be a cyclical process for so many teams.
The Seahawks found their way out of it by taking multiple swings and connecting. If you’re a have-not, it’s all you can do.
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.