First Round Quarterbacks – Chapter Two

Now that your eyeballs have stopped spinning in their sockets from yesterday’s lengthy – and often turgid – offering, let me get back to business. [Aside: I promise this will not be nearly as long as yesterday.] I recognize that folks will differ on some of the judgment calls I made yesterday regarding individual players. I also recognize that some folks would prefer to use something other than a 4-point scale to categorize the individual players. I have no intention – or interest – in trying to convince anyone that my way is the only way to do this or even the best way out of many ways to do this.

Having said that, the categorizations I proposed and populated yesterday represent the way I think about this issue. Now, if I am going to try to expand on the outcomes of taking QBs in the first round of the NFL Draft, I will certainly be in the best position to do so if I start from my own way of thinking about the subject. As they say on the car ads on TV:

“Your mileage may vary…”

Based on yesterday’s data dump, there have been 80 quarterbacks selected in the first rounds of the NFL Drafts since 1980 – not counting the 2016 draft that happened last week. In case you did not do the counting – and assuming that I counted correctly – here is the distribution of QBs in my 4 categories:

    There were 18 Franchise Players
    There were 15 Good Players
    There were 16 Straphangers
    There were 31 Busts.

The first thing that I notice about those statements above is that they do not represent anything resembling a “normal distribution”. There are about as many Busts as there are entries in the “Top 2” categories. If I were to collapse the categories to a 3-point scale and combine the Franchise Players and the Good Players into one category – let me call it Worthwhile Selections – the distribution would look like this:

    There were 33 Worthwhile Selections
    There were 16 Straphangers
    There were 31 Busts.

To use a baseball analogy, that looks like a “Dave Kingman Distribution”. Teams either hit a home run with a first round pick or they strike out. However, with all of the scouting and scrutiny and analysis that goes into these sorts of selections, it is not intuitively obvious to me how that is the outcome. However, I have a hypothesis here …

First, I am not trying to take sides in the ongoing argument about whether “modern analytics” is superior to the “old eyeball test”. I believe that both schools of thought have merit and have limitations. My suggested explanation for this “boom-or-bust” distribution of draft outcomes takes into account teams that may favor either methodology in terms of building their draft board.

Here is the basis of my hypothesis:

    College football is fundamentally a different game situation from NFL football.

The game itself is basically the same in terms of the size of the field and the length of the game and the majority of the rules that govern the game. However, the on-field aspects of college football and NFL football are quite different in much the same way that college football is different from high school football or Pop Warner football. Today, I just want to consider differences between college and pro football because that is where I believe the vagaries of the selection process reside.

I believe that the enormous difference in the overall talent level between college games and NFL games creates a distortion that is difficult to compensate for whether a team is using advanced analytics or grizzled veteran scouting reports. Focusing only on the quarterback position here, a college quarterback will sometimes face a defense that has no one on the field with sufficient athletic ability ever to play in the NFL. If that quarterback is from Lake Woebegone High School – and therefore above average like every other kid in that school system – he ought to look pretty good. He should have a nice stat sheet for the advanced analytics folks to feed to their algorithms and he should look “poised” “dominant” and “in command” to the veteran scout up there in the booth.

Sure, there are a few teams every year that can field a defense with 5 NFL quality athletes but none of them puts 11 defenders of that caliber on the field. So, a young QB who was a standout in college still has never seen or had to deal with opposition that is nearly as competent as the ones he will face in the NFL. The performance of many college QBs “looks better than it is” to the eyes of a scout and the stat lines gathered up by many college QBs “produce numbers that will never be close to duplicated” when faced with NFL defenses. My point here is that the evaluation process is inherently flawed no matter which approach a team chooses. The basis of that inherent flaw is the fundamental difference between college football and NFL football.

    [Aside: I believe this is the same “problem” that faces the “analysts” who assign five-star ratings to high school players as they graduate to college football and why so many five-star recruits turn out to be something less than that.]

If my hypothesis is correct, that would explain to some degree why teams drafting QBs in the first round have a roughly equal chance of making a Worthwhile Selection (41.25%) as they do in drafting a Bust (38.75%). The reason you are not likely to read many reports that champion this hypothesis is that the logical consequence of this hypothesis being correct has significant economic consequences – none of them positive – for segments of the sporting world:

    All the folks who spend months trumpeting their “draft boards” on radio and TV leading from the kickoff of the college season to late April would lose stature – – and income.

    All the folks who produce Mock Drafts – there is at least one out already for the 2017 NFL Draft! – would have to do so in sotto voce.

    All the folks who earn their livings traveling to college campuses to watch practices and then college games and talking to coaches might see their expense accounts curtailed.

There is little reason for lots of people even to think along the lines presented here. That does not mean they are right any more than it means I am right. I said what I put forth is a hypothesis not a law.

Another aspect of the drafting of first round QBs that is interesting based on the data from yesterday is that there are good years for QBs and there are bad years for QBs. However, the “bad years for QBs” break down into two categories:

    Bad Year Alpha: No QBs taken in the first round at all indicates that whatever methods of analysis were used to evaluate the crop of eligible QBs in that year found all of them “wanting”.

    Bad Year Beta: Teams that took a QB in the first round got a bust – no matter where they took their QB in the first round.

There were 4 Bad Year Alphas:

    1984: Despite the fact that no QBs went in the first round, there were 3 QBs taken in later rounds who had significant success:

      Boomer Esiason (Round 2) and Jeff Hostetler (Round 3) both took teams to the Super Bowl game.

      Jay Schroeder (Round 3) took a team to the AFC Championship game.

    1985: The best NFL QBs from this crop were Randall Cunningham (Round 2) and Doug Flutie (Round 11).

    1988: Stan Humphries (Round 6) led the Chargers to the Super Bowl once.

    1996: In retrospect, there is a good reason no team took a QB in the first round this year. When you have to debate “Who was the best QB taken this year?” and your choices are Danny Kannel and Tony Banks …

Call those “Bad Year Alphas” bleak all you want, the six Bad Year Betas listed below are much worse because in those years, teams that needed QB help spent a valuable asset – a first round pick – and no matter who they chose, they came up dry.

    1981: The Packers used the #6 overall pick on Rich Campbell. I must confess that I had forgotten the name “Rich Campbell” in the context of “football player” at either the college or NFL level until I did the research to write yesterday’s data compilation.

    1991: The Seahawks took Dan McGwire at #16 and the Raiders took Todd Marinovich at #24. Not only did both of them miss badly with those picks, they managed to pass on Brett Favre who was drafted in Round 2.

    1992: The Bengals took David Klingler at #6 and the Broncos took Tommy Maddox at # 25. Neither team got much of a return on their investment here…

    1997: The Niners took Jim Druckenmiller at #26. If he was the answer for the Niners, I do not know what the question was…

    2002: Talk about a Bad Year Beta for first round QBs… I doubt that anyone unrelated by blood to these three draftees would suggest that they had laudable NFL careers:

      David Carr #1 to the Texans
      Joey Harrington #3 to the Lions
      Patrick Ramsey #32 to the Skins

    2007: The Raiders spent the overall #1 pick on JaMarcus Russell and the Browns used the #22 pick to take Brady Quinn. That is simply depressing…

Before I wrap this up, allow me to let a bit of sunshine into the discussion here. There were banner years/vintage crops of NFL QBs in 3 of the drafts over the last 35 years. The first round in those years was highly productive:

    1983: John Elway, Jim Kelly, Ken O’Brien and Dan Marino

    1995: Steve McNair and Kerry Collins

    2004: Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger.

The data suggest that taking a QB in the first round of the NFL Draft is a gamble. Sometimes it hits and the return on “investment” is huge; other times you go home with a hole in your pocket. Therefore, it seems appropriate at this point to offer up a few observations that folks have made with regard to the subject of gambling:

“In gambling the many must lose in order that the few may win.” (George Bernard Shaw)

And …

“Luck, bad if not good, will always be with us. But it has a way of favoring the intelligent and showing its back to the stupid.” (John Dewey)

And …

“Luck never gives; it only lends.” (Swedish Proverb)

And …

“A gambler never makes the same mistake twice. It’s usually three or more times.” (Unknown) [Aside: the Browns have drafted a QB in the first round of the draft 4 times since 1999 and all of them have been Busts.]

Finally, I hope these last two Topical Rants have been satisfactory to “david” whose comment 6 weeks ago got me started. I enjoyed the data compilation and the fact that the data got me thinking about why only about 40% of first round QBs turn out to be Good Players or Franchise Players was a plus. So, let me say that if any other readers have thoughts about what might be interesting topics in the future, I remain happy to entertain them.

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………

4 thoughts on “First Round Quarterbacks – Chapter Two”

  1. you did a great job. I agree totally that the overall lack of NFL talent in the college ranks contributes to some QB’s looking better than they are. I also think some college QB’s can’t grasp the mental complexity of the NFL game. My only disagreement would be your evaluation of Chad Pennington. Definitely a straphanger.

    1. david:

      Thank you. If our only disagreement on the 80 first round QBs taken over a 35-year period is Chad Pennington, I have bad news for you.

      You and I think alike. You should be very afraid…

  2. “yesterday’s lengthy – and often turgid – offering”

    Lengthy, certainly. Turgid, not at all. It was very much worth the read.

    Your chosen timeframe (starting in 1980) missed one of the most under-rated college QBs ever. In 1978 Warren Moon was something like the 10th-rated college QB in the draft and decided to come to the CFL (race issues may well have played a part in his decision). He tore up the CFL with much gratitude to his mentor, one of the most unlikely looking professional QBs you’ve ever seen — Tom Wilkinson. He then went on to a reasonably successful NFL career. 😉

    1. Bones:

      Thank you for your kind words. Glad you enjoyed …

      I had to decide to stop somewhere in the history of the NFL draft and I knew that I wanted to be sure to get back before the “vintage crop” in 1983. When I got back to 1980, I figured that was a “nice round number” and by that point I was starting to fade a bit in terms of data gathering.

      Indeed Warren Moon is a great story and it supports my hypothesis that scouting college QBs is an inexact “science” if in fact it is a “science” at all. In addition to not getting to mention warren Moon, I can think of several other stories of QBs taken before 1980 even without gathering all the specifics:

        Phil Simms came from a small school to be a Hall of Fame QB. He was taken in the first round but I know he was not the first QB taken in whatever year he came out.

        Sonny Jurgensen went in the 4th round of the draft back in the 1950s; he is in the Hall of Fame.

        Steve Spurrier was a first round pick. He was a really good coach in college but not much as an NFL QB.

        In the early 70s the top two picks one year were Jim Plunkett and Archie Manning; those were quality selections.

        Steve Grogan had a long career and he lasted until late in the draft in his year of elgibility – maybe 7th or 8th round?

        Dan Fouts was a mid-round pick in his year; he is in the Hall of Fame.

      Those are just from memory; imagine the 75-100 other selections I have forgotten. I had to stop somewhere…

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