The League


Four Ways to Draft Day -- The Quarterback Problem

They each have Super Bowl rings -- all four of them. As assistant coaches, head coaches, general managers. Each of them has risen to the top of his profession, and though each of the four will be analyzing the 2009 draft instead of participating in it, few would be surprised to see any of them in a war room in 2010. They are respected names -- Steve Maruicci, Jon Gruden, Brian Billick, and Charley Casserly.

There's Mariucci, or "Mooch", who learned under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay before helping to turn the late-90's 49ers around and landing head-first in an epic disaster in Detroit. Gruden, the dynamic young coach who gave the Raiders his toughness and installed the West Coast Offense in Tampa Bay. There's Billick, like Gruden, an offensive mastermind who got his ring primarily through a dominant defense. And there's Casserly, Washington's GM from 1989 through 1999, and the first GM in the history of the Houston Texans. He held that position from 2002 through 2006.

All four men will be hosting coverage for the NFL Network this draft weekend, All four participated in media conference calls in the last week, and all four have one thing in common -- they can all testify that when it comes to quarterbacks, the draft process can be a confounding thing.

Of the four, Gruden famously refused to take the bat off his shoulder when it came to high picks on signal-callers -- he preferred veterans who could digest the complicated verbiage of his offensive system (some would say that he intentionally over-complicated the language in order to dissuade rookies from picking it up).

Mariucci, who grew up in the NFL with Gruden, in Green Bay, under Mike Holmgren, has been more quarterback-friendly, working closely with Steve Young, Jeff Garcia and Joey Harrington. It was Harrington, the Oregon prospect, who the Lions picked third overall in 2002, when the team was run by Matt Millen and coached by Mooch's predecessor, Marty Mornhinweg. Mariucci tried to win with Harrington for three frustrating years, but it wasn't enough. It was a harsh lesson for coach and quarterback -- without a complementary system, and players around him, no quarterback stands a chance.

This may be why Mariucci seems to view the draft as an exercise in risk management. "Some of your draft philosophy is based on your coach's contract. There are times when a coach is near the end of his contract, and just trying to hang on, those guys are typically going to be more active in free agency. Filling a need or two and having an impactful player right away. Whereas with a new coach -- last year with Mike Smith in Atlanta, John Harbaugh in Baltimore -- they took rookie quarterbacks and were not afraid to play with new guys that they have to groom. Because they have some time. You'll see some of that this year. What does a Josh McDaniels do? Can he afford to take a rookie quarterback in the draft, and have patience and groom him, being that he's a new coach?"

The evaluation process is no easier -- even Mooch and Gruden, who each had years under the best quarterback evaluator since Bill Walsh in Holmgren, seem to see quarterbacks very differently. Presented with the Matt Stafford vs. Mark Sanchez debate, each man showed his preference -- Mariucci for a system and schematic fit, and Gruden for the raw athleticism that would ostensibly fit in any offense.

"If I'm coaching the West Coast Offense in the National Football League -- let's say that they put an expansion team in Iron Mountain, Michigan (Mariucci's hometown), and I'm the coach, and I'm running the West Coast Offense, I like Mark Sanchez a little more than Matthew Stafford," Maruicci said. "I like them both, but Sanchez is a little more suited to do this right now.

"The style of play at USC is very much a pro-style offense. You see the quarterback under center most of the time. You see a quick game. You see play action and movement with this guy, like you like to do in the West Coast Offense. So, it's a pretty easy evaluation with Matt Sanchez. I know he only started the one year, but he's been coached in a pro scheme against pro-style defenses.

"He was coached very well in high school by Bob Johnson at Mission Viejo [High], and he runs a lot of the same drills that we [WCO-oriented coaches and coordinators] run all the time. I know he's very well-prepared for this."

Gruden preferred the Georgia man. "I've stuck by Stafford from the beginning, and I'll continue to do that. I just think he has an NFL body. I think that physically, he's going to be able to take the hits, take the punishment, and I think that he can hit the driver off the teebox. I think he can stick it in there between the corner and safety in double zone, and throw it downfield, and I think he's got functional mobility in the pocket. [He's got] rare, rare, arm strength. I really like that about him, Being 20 years old, he's got a really good background playing at the University of Georgia as a true freshman. I think he's going to be a fine football player." To Mariucci, the phrase "system quarterback" seemed to be a compliment. To Gruden, it was pejorative.

Brian Billick, who ran the combustible offense of the Minnesota Vikings in the 1990's, chased the concept of the franchise quarterback for nine years as the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. In 2003, the Ravens took Cal's Kyle Boller with the 19th pick in the first round. Boller had a rocket arm and questionable accuracy, and the latter trait never improved.

"Obviously, this is something that's been debated forever," Billick said of the evaluation process. "At the heart of it, it goes to being able to identify and quantify what makes a great quarterback in the National Football League. It's such a nebulous thing, because you're talking about the tangibles -- things like arm strength, athleticism, and things of that nature. But for a quarterback, more so than any other position, it really is about the intangibles. Something as simple as common football sense, leadership ability that obviously stems from production, but by the same token has to do with the innate willingness to the good.

"I think we tend to throw out that taking a quarterback in the first round is a fifty-fifty proposition, and in fact, it's not even that. If you go back and look, as any number of people have -- since 1990, there have been 43 first-round quarterbacks taken, And by any measurement, no matter how lax or strict you want to be, 13 of the 43 were successful. That's just at 30 percent. History will tell you that this is a bit of a crap shoot, and what makes this so interesting, particularly for a team like the Detroit Lions, you have to ask yourself... do you take that kind of risk? And that's what makes it so intriguing."

The Lions did take the risk, signing Stafford to a six-year, $78 million deal, with $41.7 million guaranteed the evening before the draft. Coming from the first 0-16 season in NFL history, the Lions now try to avoid two scenarios that Casserly faced through the years -- the need-based desperation pick, and the franchise savior idea with little team talent to sustain it.

"I think from our end, when we [the Redskins] took Heath Shuler [with the third overall pick in the 1994 draft], I don't think many people thought Heath Shuler wasn't going to be successful," Casserly remembered. "What happens is, you force the need up on the board. We didn't feel that he was a top-three pick, but we felt that if we didn't get a quarterback now, we're not gonna get one. We need to get one to get started here. We need to build a team, and that happens. In David Carr's case [Carr was the first pick in Texans history], when you're the quarterback for an expansion team, you're only as good as the players around you. We had an offensive line built when we drafted him, with Tony Boselli and Ryan Young, and neither one of them would up playing for us. All of a sudden, you're behind the 8-ball, and you don't have an offensive line. Trying to play a rookie quarterback with an expansion team. That's not fair to him.

"You always have to consider, when you're taking a rookie quarterback -- how good is the team going to be around him? Enough to give him a chance to succeed? Some players, if you sit them for two or three years, are better players because they get to develop and see what happens. The team gets better. Aaron Rodgers is an example -- if Aaron Rodgers went to the 49ers, [in 2005] would he be as successful today as he is with Green Bay? Probably not, because he got a chance to sit behind a veteran, and learn from him, and play with a good team. There are a lot of factors that go into this."

Four men with impressive and proven football knowledge. Four men who will be helping with draft coverage through the weekend. And if you see a hint of regret on those four faces when Sanchez and Stafford are discussed, you may understand why.

By Doug Farrar  |  April 26, 2009; 3:30 AM ET  | Category:  Doug Farrar , Draft Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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