Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 28, 2016

A Night Of High Hopes That Often Turn To Dust

Good luck Los Angeles Rams. Hope it all works out Philadelphia Eagles. The modern NFL revolves around the quarterback position, and long-suffering teams in need of a franchise savior are quick to look to the draft to find a signal-caller whose golden arm will carry the franchise and its fans to the promised land of playoffs and Super Bowls. The Rams, a team that recently abandoned St. Louis for the more temperate climate of southern California, have gone eleven years since last playing in the postseason. During that time they lost more than twice as many games as they won. Philadelphia’s recent record is not quite so futile, but despite topping the NFC East twice in the last six years the Eagles haven’t won a playoff game since 2008.

So each team mortgaged its future by sending a huddle full of draft picks, six from L.A. to Tennessee and five from Philadelphia to Cleveland, including two first-rounders in each case, in order to be the first and second teams on the clock when the NFL Draft began Thursday night. Once the requisite booing of Roger Goodell subsided after the league commissioner stepped to the microphone in Chicago, he announced that as expected the Rams had selected former California quarterback Jared Goff with the first pick. Shortly thereafter Goodell was back to inform fans that to no one’s surprise the Eagles had taken QB Carson Wentz, late of North Dakota State, winners of five consecutive national titles in the NCAA’s second-tier Division I Football Championship Subdivision.

A quarterback as the number one overall pick is hardly unusual. Thirty-one times the first name called has been a quarterback, including eleven in the past fifteen years. The total is more than any other position and equal to the number one picks for all other positions combined excepting only running back. Seven times, including twice in the four drafts prior to Thursday night, quarterbacks were taken at both one and two. But for all of the absurd attention paid to the draft, with intense coverage by ESPN and scores of mock drafts by both experts and wannabees around the Internet, this multi-day exercise in April seldom results in near term glory for teams with the top picks. No team has ever gone to the Super Bowl in the season it had the number one pick. Indeed only eight have made the playoffs.

That’s partly because franchises that are at the front of the draft order, either by virtue of their dismal record in the previous season or by a desperation trade up as with the Rams and Eagles, almost always have multiple needs that a single pick can’t possibly fill. But it’s also because of a reality that tends to be steadfastly ignored during the draft but often comes back to haunt teams later. For all the sophisticated analysis and vetting of players that now takes place, from scouting during their college careers through the annual NFL Combine and private workouts and interviews with teams, in the end there is still a large element of chance at play. Perhaps it’s appropriate that this year’s NFL Draft is taking place immediately after Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis announced his desire to relocate his team to Las Vegas. On draft day all thirty-two teams are engaged in high stakes gambles.

If having the top pick doesn’t offer the instant relief that some might think, there are teams that in time have won big by taking a quarterback with the number one pick. Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, John Elway and Troy Aikman heard their names called first in 1970, 1983 and 1989 respectively. Peyton Manning, who will certainly join those three in the Hall of Fame, was the first pick in 1998; and his younger brother Eli, the first Manning to win two Super Bowls, was the top choice six years later. Cam Newton, the reigning MVP and losing quarterback in Super Bowl 50, went first in 2011.

But just as not every gambler walks away from the craps table smiling, not every team has wound up with fond memories of the quarterback it chose with the first overall pick in the draft. One year after Aikman was chosen Indianapolis took Jeff George at number one. After signing what was then the richest rookie contract in NFL history George threw more interceptions than touchdowns in four seasons with the Colts before bouncing around the league, mostly as a backup. Oakland believed that JaMarcus Russell from LSU had the stuff to turn the Raiders around. But the number one pick in 2007 was out of the game just three years later. Earlier this month Russell reportedly wrote to all thirty-two teams, offering to play for free if given the chance to make a comeback. There have been no takers.

Inevitably there is extra scrutiny when quarterbacks are both the one and two picks. Each career is measured against the other, and it’s rare that fans of both teams that made the top two choices wind up happy. The best combined careers were probably those of Jim Plunkett and Archie Manning, who went one and two in 1971. But Plunkett’s greatest success and twin Super Bowl victories came not with New England, the team that drafted him, but later in Oakland; and while putting up solid numbers Manning had the misfortune to play with some truly awful teams. At the other end of the spectrum was the draft way back in 1954, the very first time the top two picks were both quarterbacks. If the names Bobby Garrett and Lamar McHan aren’t familiar there’s good reason. The former played just nine games in the NFL and the latter lost twice as many as he won.

Then there are the quarterbacks forever joined together who remind fans of the draft’s fine line between satisfaction and disappointment. Drew Bledsoe, a three-time Pro Bowl pick who led his team to the Super Bowl; and Rick Mirer who, well, didn’t. Donovan McNabb, who despite never being deeply loved in Philadelphia, fashioned a fine career with the Eagles; and Tim Couch, who put together an indifferent one with the Browns. Andrew Luck, whose star is still rising in Indianapolis; and Robert Griffin III, who flamed out in Washington.

Of course no combination was ever as stark as Peyton Manning and the quarterback picked right after him in 1998, Ryan Leaf. The former, who holds NFL records for career wins and both single season and career touchdowns and passing yards, was named to the Pro Bowl fourteen times. That’s equal to the total number of TD passes thrown by the latter in a career that included just twenty-ones starts and four wins.

It will almost certainly be a few years before we know whether fans in Los Angeles and Philadelphia celebrate or rue the day their general managers gave up so much for the chance to sign Goff and Wentz. Right now those fans are understandably excited and optimistic. But history says there’s a good chance that down the road they will discover that what they mistook for hope was really just so much hype.

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