The NFL Draft Is Still a Crapshoot

Probably the best one-two selection was in 1999 when the Cleveland Browns took Tim Couch while the Philadelphia Eagles went with Donovan McNabb. Couch was a solid professional for several seasons with an absolutely dreadful Cleveland Browns franchise and McNabb, despite the abuse heaped on him by Eagles fans, led his team to five NFC championship games and one Super Bowl.

The language used by most writers covering the 1999 draft sounds very similar to descriptions of Luck and Griffin this year. When I was writing about Couch and McNabb for ESPN Magazine at the time, Couch was a "pocket passer" and "student of the game"—expressions frequently applied to Luck. McNabb—and now Griffin—was described as "athletic" and "instinctive." In case you're wondering, these are generally code words among sportswriters who don't know how else to say "white" and "black." White quarterbacks, it was and still is commonly assumed, like to stay behind their protection and read opposing defenses, while black quarterbacks like to run with the ball—or at least scramble until they can find an open receiver.

These are prejudices that have lingered long after the circumstances which created them. As late as a generation ago most white quarterbacks came out of big high school programs where passers were encouraged to stay in the pocket and let the runners and receivers do their work; black QBs usually came out of high schools with smaller rosters and the most talented player was simply given the signal caller's job and allowed to advance the ball as best he could. Or at least, that was the argument usually made as to why white passers.passed more and black passers ran more. By now, college quarterbacks like Luck and Griffin are pretty much products of the same system—i.e., pro-type offenses which often feature just one running back and four and sometimes five receivers going out on pass patterns.

But what everyone wants to know this year is which of the two, Luck or Griffin, is more likely to succeed in the NFL. In terms of size, strength, arm strength, mobility, and all other NFL grading systems, the two are either very similar or, at the least, acceptable by NFL standards—this should be obvious, or they wouldn't have been the first two players drafted.

The most famous one-two quarterback draft of all—the one in 1998—produced both the best passer (arguably) in NFL history, Peyton Manning, and the biggest bust in NFL history, Ryan Leaf. Both scored equally well on virtually every test the NFL had and were rated by nearly everyone as the two best pro passing prospects of the decade. This year, Manning, who has taken his team to three Super Bowls, signed a five-year, $96-million contract with the Denver Broncos, and Leaf, after three horrible years in the NFL in which he pitched innumerable temper tantrums and indulged in countless mood swings, was finally bounced out of the league and was arrested a few months ago for breaking into houses.

Which is to say that the ultimate success of an NFL quarterback isn't measured by talent—by the time they reach the NFL they are all supremely talented—but by factors that no one has yet to find a way to quantify—such as "the eye of the bulldog" that Charlie Weis saw in Tom Brady. Bear Bryant was found of saying "It ain't the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog." In the 57 years since Johnny Unitas was passed up 101 times in the draft, no one has devised a test to measure that fight.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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