It's very hard to resist a first-round quarterback as the college all-star games start to wind down and a few athletes look like 'franchise' players who could take a team to the promised land. But look no further than at the quarterbacks in this year's, and a few recent Super Bowls and you might ask yourself ... why go that route?
Fourteen teams ended the 2003 season with their own first-round pick under center. Of course that also meant 18 teams didn't have a homegrown multi-millionaire first-rounder leading the team. During this postseason, only three of the 12 teams -- Indianapolis, Tennessee, and Philadelphia -- took the field with the guy they believed were the real deal coming out of college.
As we all know, Peyton Manning, Steve McNair, and Donovan McNabb came up short once again and the stars in Houston will be a sixth-round pick Tom Brady (New England) and undrafted free agent Jake Delhomme (Panthers). What's up with that? Brady proved his star status two years ago winning the Super Bowl and now proves he was no flash in the pan.
Before I get into what a few NFL people think about the quarterbacks in this era, it is important to mention that this is not something new. There has been a very clear pattern developing over the past few seasons. Last year, it was Brad Johnson (Tampa) and Rich Gannon (Oakland). Johnson was a ninth-round pick coming out of college who was on his third NFL team when Tampa won the big game. Gannon was a fourth-round selection of the Patriots who got to the Super Bowl with his fourth team.
The year before that the Super Bowl was contested by the sixth-round rookie Brady and a undrafted Kurt Warner (St. Louis). The year before that the Ravens and Giants battled with two former first-round picks who were thrown out by their original team -- Trent Dilfer outdueled Kerry Collins in the battle of fired first-rounders.
In fact, you have to go back to the 1999 Super Bowl to find a first-round franchise QB who won the game. Not since John Elway has it happened. Before Elway, go back to 1996 and Troy Aikman for a winner. That being said, maybe it's no surprise that it's another year of signal callers the college scouts didn't deem good enough to select early.
I asked a number of people who evaluate players, study trends in the NFL, and some old timers who believe things are stacked against the top quarterbacks. One general manager said, 'do you realize there are only three starting quarterbacks in the NFL with a Super Bowl ring -- Brett Favre, Brady, and Johnson -- and none of them were first-round picks. Another point was there's so much pressure to perform that winning a Super Bowl doesn't even guarantee future work'. Warner, and Dilfer are now on the bench with little-to-no light in the tunnel.
Another personnel man chimed in with, 'there are only six starting quarterbacks in the entire league who have played in the Super Bowl and only Steve McNair was a first-round pick playing for his original team'. Okay, there is a lot of money spent on the position and it might be harder and harder to justify doing it at the risk of weakening the team.
I asked a few of the people who manage the salary cap what their takes are on the problems teams with first-round quarterbacks are facing. The first comment I got was the Eagles have McNabb locked up in a long-term deal and they have cap space and before the window of opportunity closes they need to get him a better supporting cast. At least they can do it and I suspect the Eagles will spend some money this offseason at least on a top-flight wide receiver. But not every team with a superstar under center can afford to buy him help.
The next comment was very insightful. A retired coach said, 'look at [Michael] Vick, [Rex] Grossman, [Tim] Couch, [Joey] Harrington, [Daunte] Culpepper and [Patrick] Ramsey ... they are already on their second head coach. There's just not enough stability'. That's true, but I brought up two places with stability and they have other problems.
The Colts and the Titans have former first-round picks playing at QB and are the NFL Co-MVPs. Both teams are projected to be over the salary cap in 2004. Tennessee could be at least $15 million over the cap with just 39 players under contract and it will be hard to even provide McNair as many weapons as he had this year. The Colts don't have Manning under contract for next season and he is expected to command the highest contract in NFL history. If they get Manning signed long term, at what price will it be? A top receiver next year? A running back the year after? A cover corner or a pass rusher?
Here's one former head coach's view, 'believe me, I think Manning and McNair are great players and would love to have them on my team, but I know our defensive line wouldn't look like Carolina's D-Line'. Maybe that's the point! No longer can the star QB command so much money that there aren't enough weapons to give him a chance. The recent Super Bowls, including the 2004 version, sure suggests that it might be true.
As for this year's participants in the game, the good news for the Panthers is they are projected to be $12 million under the cap in 2004. Can you imagine how much Carolina can do to solidify this franchise with a Super Bowl championship, a winning QB and space to recruit more players?
Eventually the Panthers will have to pay Delhomme the big bucks like those first-round picks got way back before they won, but at least head coach John Fox will be able to build up the rest of the team along the way. The Patriots' good fortunes are catching up with them, but they seem to make the right decisions when it comes to cutting players for financial reasons. They sure looked like geniuses letting safety Lawyer Milloy go and then winning 14 straight.
Finally, there is no right answer as to why first-round quarterbacks don't get in the big game with their drafting team and win it, but it is worth discussing. Could it be luck that guys named Delhomme, Brady, Warner, Johnson, Gannon, Dilfer and Collins find their way to the big stage? I don't think so.