Football followers have a natural curiosity about Eric Crouch.
We have to know if his quarterbacking brilliance disappeared the instant he left the University of Nebraska for the NFL. We have to know if the Heisman Trophy he won in 2001 indicated anything more than he was great at throwing a football and running with a football against defenses consisting of some players who have had or will have the chance to play in the NFL and many who are making or will make a living elsewhere.
Mostly, for our peace of mind and to settle those endless what-if arguments that are a staple of sports discussion, we have to believe Crouch is getting a legitimate chance to answer these questions once and for all.
That didn't happen after the St. Louis Rams drafted him a year ago. It is happening -- at least this week -- with his new team, the Green Bay Packers.
If Crouch can throw with sufficient authority and demonstrate, at the very minimum, a solid grasp of an offense defined by proficient passing, he will have a chance to show more of what he can do when the Packers reconvene at training camp this summer. And by then, we should know a lot more about how his magnificent college game stacks up with the highest level of football competition.
Crouch and his many supporters were understandably taken aback when, after making him a third-round pick, the Rams stripped him of his dreams of being an NFL quarterback by designating him as a wide receiver and kick returner.
The common criticism was that the Rams stuck too rigidly to ideal scouting profiles. On that basis, the 6-foot Crouch was deemed too short for the position in the NFL. But it was hardly that simple. I think it is safe to assume the Rams know quite a bit about identifying the necessary traits for an NFL quarterback (see the careers of Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger). They took into account other factors, such as the less-than-impressive strength in Crouch's passing arm and the fact he played in an option offense, which is virtually non-existent in the NFL.
The fact Crouch became only the third player in Division I history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 3,000 yards was impressive. But as far as the Rams were concerned, it spoke more about his overall skills as an athlete explosive enough, perhaps, to catch passes rather than throw them and, more likely, to contribute on special teams.
Rather than compromise his ambition to become an NFL quarterback, Crouch chose to retire and sit out the 2002 season. He intended to resume his QB pursuit this year, but in the Canadian Football League, where he figured he would have the chance to make a big enough name for himself that an NFL team would have to give him a second look at what he considered his true position. He was going to try and follow the Jeff Garcia/Doug Flutie /Warren Moon/Joe Theismann path to the big time.
Then along came the Packers with an offer Crouch couldn't refuse. They claimed him off waivers last month and offered him a chance to audition as a quarterback, which he began doing at their first minicamp of 2003.
The Packers know a thing or two about what it takes to play quarterback in the NFL themselves. And there is reason to believe that Crouch is in a better setting to display his particular brand of quarterbacking than he would have been had the Rams allowed him to play the position last summer.
In the Rams' scheme, the quarterback must be more of a straight drop-back passer who scans his options and fires from the pocket. He needs to have a better-than-adequate arm to get the ball deep and the accuracy to connect on long-distance throws.
The Packers certainly like strong-armed quarterbacks as well. However, their West Coast offense allows a quarterback to make a good deal of short and intermediate throws, and to move around while scanning for targets. He has plenty of room to improvise, which is what Brett Favre has done in a career that has guaranteed him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame where he will one day join other improvisational quarterbacks who thrived in the West Coast attack -- Joe Montana and eventual Hall-of-Famer Steve Young.
Of course, Crouch is light years from rating a mention in the same breath as any of those three quarterbacking giants. First, he needs to get through minicamp and then training camp. He is a long shot to win a backup spot behind Favre, but he could do well enough to earn another audition with another NFL team. Or he could end up in the CFL, where mobility and athleticism are major assets for a quarterback.
Crouch has tried to help himself by improving his arm strength. Packers coach Mike Sherman is "fairly encouraged" by what he has seen of Crouch so far.
"He has a live arm, a strong arm; the ball gets out of there," Sherman told reporters. "We know what type of athlete he is, so he's certainly an athlete worth working with. It's just a matter of him learning how we do things from an offensive standpoint in this type of offense, as opposed to where he was coming from."
Where Crouch came from was Nebraska. Where he ends up is what we're all curious to find out.