Drafting Quarterbacks: An Historical Perspective Part III

In Part III, Doc Bear takes a look at John Elway and the Broncos' approach to drafting QBs and their track record thus far.

The Elway Changes

When John Elway came to the Denver Broncos front office, I saw what everyone else did. He was facing two big problems. On offense, Denver obviously needed to improve at quarterback. It was a fun ride to the Wild Card, but QB wasn’t a strong position.

Also, once the rest of the league figured out Denver's defensive blitz packages the players weren't of high enough caliber in one-on-one matchups to stop the opposing offenses. Gary Kubiak's and Wade Phillips' defense is a lot better.

In both the draft and free agency it’s clear that Elway has a rare perspective. He’s building the team that he knew would be successful around him. He started by redoing the team’s scouting and personnel system.

Given what’s being done in drafting now, the Broncos probably have specific guidelines for each position. It’s also fair to say that you toss out the manuals when you see certain players. 

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The solution that Bill Belichick came up with was helpful. He laid out what he saw as the 'perfect' team on paper. Then he drafted or acquired exactly those kinds of players to the extent that was possible given the group available each year.

This was, in very short, how he decided to try and overcome the 'crapshoot' aspect of the draft. Has it worked? Only as well as the coach/GM implementing it. The New England Patriots are still perennial contenders, which says a lot. How the franchise does when Tom Brady retires will be interesting. 

We already see specific body types, mental abilities and character traits at the various positions on many teams. It's the new way to try and defeat the 'luck' aspect of the draft as much as is possible. 

It also means that changing the perspective on the quarterback position — from the cannon-armed, mobile player who may or may not make the jump to the pros — to an emphasis on football intellect, accuracy (over 60% completion rate minimum) over sheer power and a balanced emphasis regarding intelligence over physical abilities.

What kind of QB a team will choose should be a more or less predetermined issue — if that QB is available.

The Evolution of the Draft

As mentioned, the first true scout was Eddie Kortal. He was hired by the then Cleveland Rams in 1941 by owner Dan Reeves. Coaches, owners and management have striven to change the course of fortune.

Each tries to overcome the problems of the draft and to devise systems that best employ new skills and new approaches. It's never been easy, and often innovation found itself the butt of jokes and jibes.

Those would turn to accolades if the new innovation worked. One was the use of computers, which were huge, unwieldy and expensive back then.

The first player chosen by the computer? Joe Namath. Apparently, even in those early days, some things were starting to go in the right direction. But, as any computer person will tell you, GIGO — garbage in, garbage out — is an essential concept to remember. 

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Dallas was one of the three teams to go in on the cost of the computer and they had set up a former hospital baby photographer and part time employee, Gil Brandt, as one scout. Brandt would later become Dallas' first director of player personnel, as the system evolved.

His work, and Tex Schramm's, went a long way into getting the scouting together to provide for the program the computer needed to give a smart answer. That's really what this is all about.

It's the story of the evolution of the game. Fans have noticed that over the past years, increasing levels of emphasis are being placed on two things. First, studying game film has always been important. People like Ted Bartlett and I have made it clear how valuable that was.

More fans get into that in some degree with the popularity of NFL.com’s Game Pass. Secondly, there are substantial adaptations to apply the science of statistics for football. That’s also been a huge addition to the fans’ knowledge. 

Picking high in the draft gives you more to choose from. It doesn’t improve your ability to choose. Despite the huge furor that a first round QB receives, the odds on his success aren't that good.

This isn't to say that if a head coach or GM saw a QB who matched their characteristics and was a first round choice that they wouldn't go after him. Of course they would. But here's something from Brian Billick's excellent book, More than a Game:

“I wrote that there have been 40- plus quarterbacks taken in the first round since '95. By any stretch of the imagination, 13 or 14 of them have been successful.  People say it's a 50-50 crap-shoot when you take a quarterback in the first round. Well, it's more like 70-30 against. Those are the odds. Recent draft choices are probably on par with the failures of first-round quarterbacks for the last 20 to 30 years in the NFL.”

Peyton Manning is one reason that John Elway decided to take a different approach to developing his quarterback — the old system just hadn't produced consistent results.

Manning wanted to come to Denver and Elway wanted a QB to teach and another to mold. Their choice of Brock Osweiler was a clear win — short-lived though it was. The system that is in place now in Denver has one key value that can't be overlooked.

Variants of the West Coast Offense have already won multiple Super Bowls and led to many more playoff years for its users. It's just one system (with many variations), but it's one of the most tested, intricate and successful approaches in the game today.

It's time to see if Coach Kubiak and company can use it to bring that level of success back to Denver. 

One thing is certain. It's going to be a heck of a ride.

Don't miss Part I (HERE) and Part II (HERE) of Doc's "Drafting QBs" series. 

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Doc Bear is a Featured Columnist for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @DocBearOMD.

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