The Great Quarterback Gamble - Part II

As we continue our look at the successes and failures of NFL teams in their attempts to acquire "franchise quarterbacks," we see a continuation of the same pattern: there are quarterbacks to be had, but proceed at your own risk.

In the last column, we finished with the 2002 NFL Draft, featuring a quarterback bust trifecta of David Carr, Joey Harrington, and Patrick Ramsey. As we will see, the horror stories do not end there.

It has become almost an annual tradition in the NFL, waiting to see which highly-drafted quarterbacks amount to something, and which quarterbacks cause significant damage to the present and future of their franchises.

Let's wade back into the swamp to discover the fortunes of more first-round quarterback draft picks...


2003
Pick #1 - Carson Palmer - Cincinnati Bengals
Pick #7 - Byron Leftwich - Jacksonville Jaguars
Pick #19 - Kyle Boller - Baltimore Ravens
Pick #22 - Rex Grossman - Chicago Bears


In a first round that brought back memories of the infamous 1999 "Year of the Quarterback" draft, NFL teams went passer-happy in 2003. There was little question that Carson Palmer (a highly-productive Heisman Trophy winner at USC) was the leader of the class. Palmer possessed the prototype size, arm strength, and pedigree sought by NFL teams. Cincinnati, still stumbling through each season since their failed selection of Akili Smith, took another bite of the quarterback apple, and this time they got a good one...somewhat.

While it's easy to point to Palmer's statistics and call his selection a success, he has not been the "savior" that many fans expect franchise quarterbacks to be. Through six seasons (including a 2008 season in which he was limited to just four games), Palmer has posted 65 starts, a 107-67 touchdown/interception ratio, and an 88.9 quarterback rating. Palmer started one playoff game, against the Pittsburgh Steelers following the 2005 season, but suffered a serious knee injury on the second offensive snap of the game (a 66-yard pass completion). He has posted strong numbers in several seasons, but stands as a strong piece of evidence that a "franchise quarterback" does not a successful team make.

Byron Leftwich was graded nearly as high as Palmer by many prognosticators leading up to the draft. His strong throwing arm and history of leadership and toughness in college made him an attractive choice, and he likely would have been drafted higher had other teams in the top 10 been looking for quarterbacks that year.

Despite his initial promise, Leftwich's career stalled quickly. He started 46 games in four seasons for the Jaguars (never starting 16 games in any single season), posting a 24-22 record and a pedestrian 80.3 rating. After being dumped by Jacksonville in favor of David Garrard prior to the 2007 season, Leftwich has wandered his way through backup duty in Atlanta and Pittsburgh. In relief of Steelers' starter Ben Roethlisberger, Leftwich has earned praise for his play, so perhaps there is hope for his future, but whether he can ever achieve the level of success expected from his draft status is an unanswered question.


Kyle Boller's arm was more impressive than his career.
Rick Stewart - Getty

The Ravens - after previously selecting defensive end Terrell Suggs with the 10th pick - traded back up into the first round to select Boller, coach Brian Billick's chosen quarterback for the future of the franchise. Boller, a product of quarterback guru Jeff Tedford, wowed pro scouts in the months leading up to the draft by performing well in workouts.

Shockingly, being able to throw a football through the uprights while on his knees at the 50-yard line did not come in handy in the NFL. Boller spent five seasons in Baltimore, starting 53 games, posting a 20-22 record, and a 71.9 quarterback rating. He never truly staked his claim to the quarterback job with the Ravens, and found himself out of the NFL in 2008 after the team hitched their wagon to rookie Joe Flacco.

When looking for a poster child for injury-prone quarterbacks (other than Brodie Croyle), one must look no further than Rex Grossman. Hailed by former Packers' general manager Ron Wolf as the quarterback who "reminded him most of Brett Favre," Grossman turned out to be the antithesis of Favre in the durability department. During his six seasons in Chicago, he has started more than seven games only once - starting all 16 games of a 13-3 2006 season in which Chicago's defense carried the team to a Super Bowl appearance.

It was Grossman's most productive season by far, but he still threw 20 interceptions and only managed a 73.9 quarterback rating. Grossman's constant entering and exiting of the starting lineup due to poor play and injury has had the Bears on a near-continuous search for a more dependable replacement. Kyle Orton, treated by the Bears as an unwanted dinner guest for much of his time in the Windy City, seems to have finally earned some breathing room as the starter, leaving Grossman's future in question.

Will any team be willing to take a flyer on a quarterback who promises all of the poor decision-making and interception-throwing of Brett Favre, without all the fuss of durability and leadership?

Yes, 2003 was a big year for quarterbacks. And by "big," I'm referring to both the millions of dollars wasted by NFL franchises and the damage to their own progress from poor selections. The league would redeem itself to a degree the following year, with the most successful draft in terms of first-round quarterbacks in decades.


2004
Pick #1 - Eli Manning - San Diego Chargers (traded to New York Giants)
Pick #4 - Philip Rivers - New York Giants (traded to San Diego Chargers)
Pick #11 - Ben Roethlisberger - Pittsburgh Steelers
Pick #22 - J.P. Losman - Buffalo Bills


Intrigue surrounded the top of the draft in 2004, as Eli Manning and his representatives made it known that Manning was opposed to playing for the Chargers, and requested the team not draft him. The Chargers smiled, nodded their heads, and then promptly drafted Manning first overall. Many still remember the painfully awkward photo-op that resulted following the pick, with an obviously-agitated Manning holding a Chargers jersey while posing for a stilted picture alongside NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. It had become known that the Chargers actually preferred Philip Rivers, and once the Giants selected Rivers at #4, the plan came into focus and the trade was quickly announced.

Both of the quarterbacks involved in the trade have fared well in the NFL. Manning has had patches of inconsistency through his first five seasons, but came on strong when it mattered most. Following a 2007 regular season in which he threw 20 interceptions, Manning suddenly began taking much better care of the football. Stringing together strong performances in the playoffs, Manning led the Giants to an upset victory over the previously-undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Manning just finished his most productive season in 2008, quarterbacking the Giants to a 12-4 record and an NFC East title, while cutting his interception total in half and posting an 86.4 rating. While not matching the statistical totals of his older brother Peyton, Eli Manning has already matched his brother with one Super Bowl ring.


Sometimes everything goes horribly wrong, as was true in the case of JP Losman.
David Duprey - AP

Rivers spent two seasons on the bench behind Drew Brees before taking the starting spot in 2006, and has since shown proven worth the hype. In his three seasons as full-time starter, Rivers has thrown a combined 77 touchdowns to just 35 interceptions while notching a 33-15 regular season record. In 2008, Rivers was robbed of a Pro Bowl spot despite being statistically the best quarterback in the league.

The biggest - and earliest - splash of the 2004 quarterback class was made by Roethlisberger. Entering the NFL out of the "other" Miami University (in Ohio), "Big Ben" stepped in and was undefeated through 13 starts his rookie year, and he followed it up by winning a Super Bowl title with the Steelers to cap off the 2005 season. Roethlisberger bounced back from a disappointing '06 season to put up back-to-back outstanding years in 2007 and 2008. Sunday, he will be looking to win his second championship ring in his first five seasons. Not bad for being the third quarterback drafted.

Losman has started just 31 games in five seasons for Buffalo, and has struggled mightily. Starting for only one full season (2006), he has shown flashes at times, but was inconsistent enough for the Bills to replace him with Trent Edwards. Losman will look to find himself a new home, and a new opportunity to prove himself as a viable starting quarterback in the NFL next season.

With two (and possibly soon to be three) Super Bowl wins from Manning and Roethlisberger, as well as one of the league's most productive quarterbacks in Rivers, the 2004 class is one of the more impressive examples of what picking the right player can do for a team.


2005
Pick #1 - Alex Smith - San Francisco 49ers
Pick #24 - Aaron Rodgers - Green Bay Packers
Pick #25 - Jason Campbell - Washington Redskins


After the success of the previous year's draft, 2005 brought things back to "normal" (i.e., embarrassing busts). Heading into the draft, there was no clear consensus as to which quarterback was better, Smith or Rodgers.

Smith had put up tremendous numbers in Urban Meyer's spread offense at Utah, and was grading out to be one of the "smartest" quarterback prospects to enter the draft since Troy Aikman. Rodgers, meanwhile, was a product of the same Jeff Tedford quarterback-tutoring machine that gave the NFL such gems as Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, and Kyle Boller. A good rule of thumb when going into the NFL draft: if nobody can agree on a true, top-flight quarterback, it might not be the best idea to take one with the first overall pick.

After being chosen first overall by San Francisco, Smith was signed to a $49.5 million contract, half of which was guaranteed. Despite becoming abundantly wealthy, Smith has struggled in the NFL, due in large part to a total lack of any continuity in offensive schemes. He has had a different offensive coordinator in each of his first four seasons in the NFL.

Switching coordinators every year while learning news schemes and playbooks is too much to ask from any young quarterback, regardless of his intelligence level. Smith's battle with ineffectiveness and injuries, coupled with his enormous contract, has him in danger of being cut during this offseason.


Aaron Rodgers succeeded despite Brett Favre's shadow.
Jeff Gross - Getty

With the selection of Smith at the top, Rodgers began a free fall down the draft board, sitting in ESPN's draft "green room" for what seemed like days. Eventually, the Packers tabbed Rodgers as the heir to Brett Favre. That resulted in an annual song and dance as to whether or not Favre would retire, or whether Rodgers would spend another year on the bench.

Following the 2007 season, Favre gave a tearful farewell speech and retired from the NFL. For about five months. The Packers had spent the offseason moving full-speed to groom Rodgers to run the offense, and one could almost audibly hear Rodgers gnash his teeth when word came out that Favre was planning a return.

The Packers did all they could to dissuade Favre from making such a move, but were eventually forced to trade him to the New York Jets, rather than keeping Rodgers on the bench for another season. Despite the daunting task of replacing a legend, as well as the daily distraction during training camp about the Favre situation, Rodgers responded remarkably well.

Starting all 16 games in 2008, Rodgers completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 4,038 yards, with 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, posting a 93.8 quarterback rating. Despite the years of waiting and playing in Favre's shadow, Rodgers has placed himself high above Smith as the top first-round quarterback of 2005.

Campbell was selected by the Redskins, who traded back into the first round to select him. Backing up Mark Brunell his entire rookie season, and taking over halfway through his second year, Campbell slowly made progress. He started 13 games in 2007, followed by a full 16-game season in 2008.

Campbell had difficulty adjusting from the Joe Gibbs philosophy to the Jim Zorn "West Coast" offensive scheme early on, but rallied to have his strongest season yet (13 touchdowns, six interceptions, 84.3 quarterback rating). Zorn committed to Campbell as Washington's starting quarterback in 2009.

With only three drafts left to cover, things don't look any better now than they did after the last batch. If history has shown us anything, it's that first-round quarterbacks are as far from a "sure thing" as you can get in the NFL draft.

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