Wednesday, April 13, 2005

You never can tell

The year grinds closer to draft weekend, the only meager oasis to be found between the Super Bowl and the Hall of Fame Game. For those of us who actually watched combine coverage on the NFL Network (or tried to) and have endured another round of Jaguars Summer (and loved it!), the idea of having honest-to-God football-related material to think about makes us positively giddy. All the chat boards are alive with draft talk, the mock drafts are being drawn up, the post-draft report cards are ready to be filled in.

To say that at this point the only thing certain about the draft is that nothing is certain is, well, obvious. No one can say which players will be superstars and which will be busts. Hell, no one even knows whom the 49ers are going to pick with the first selection, and that's the one thing that's usually nail-down-able by this time. (I don't think the 49ers are faking when they say they have no idea either.) The point is: The mock drafts and report cards? Harmless hokum.

There's a game football fans play regularly in which we look at players who have turned out to be stars, then point to the guys at their position who were drafted ahead of them, and then we cluck our tongues. It's fun, but to an extent, it's unfair, because you can time these guys in the 40, watch 'em bench press hunnerts o pounds and Wonderlic 'em from one end of Indianapolis to the other, and still some of them are going to disappoint to the tune of $45 million over seven years. Others will come out of college with no numbers of note, get taken in a round that doesn't even exist anymore and end up with a league-approved block of ice on their trigger finger. Just ain't no guarantees, mon.

Take our buddy Brad Johnson, for example. BraJo(!) will not be going to the Hall of Fame. This year he won't even be starting, if all goes as planned. But in his career, he's led three teams to the playoffs (including the only postseason appearance by the Snyder-era Skins), played in Honolulu twice, won the Super Bowl and been benched because of an inexplicable management obsession with Jeff George. (Being replaced by George is a reliable but hidden indicator of quarterback excellence, right up with being the guy who replaces Tony Banks.) Johnson, in short, is what you should want out of a quarterback.

Johnson was taken by Minnesota in the ninth round of the 1992 NFL Draft. This is a round, mind you, that doesn't exist anymore. These are the quarterbacks selected ahead of him: David Klingler, Tommy Maddox, Matt Blundin, Tony Sacca, Craig Erickson, Casey Weldon, Will Furrer, Chris Hakel, Jeff Blake, Kent Graham, Bucky Richardson, Mike Pawlawski. Take out Blake -- a guy whose career numbers are better than you may expect -- and the other 11 guys combined threw for just 6,000 more yards than Johnson has in his career. They're also all out of football (sorry, Tommy!) by now. So, was it a mistake to pick them ahead of Johnson? I don't think you can say so. Klingler and Erickson were Heisman contenders. Weldon had played ahead of Johnson at Florida State. Richardson was named Bucky, and that counts for something. In retrospect, sure, Johnson was better than all of them, but no one could have known that at the time. He was a steal in the ninth round, but the Vikings didn't know they were stealing him. (Johnson, however, was picked ahead of Ty Detmer, who had actually won the Heisman, which means he was a disaster waiting to happen.)

Tom Brady, on the other hand ...

In his senior season at Michigan, Brady went 9-2 in the regular season with an NCAA passer rating of 138. He ended his college career at the Orange Bowl. His line: 34 of 46, 349 yards, 4 touchdowns, no interceptions.

Brady wasn't taken till the sixth round. Now, the top quarterback picked in 2000 was Chad Pennington. Reasonable people can argue about whether Pennington was right for the Jets, but this was not a stupid pick. No, the stupid picks came later. I'm not talking about Pittsburgh's selection of Tee Martin in the fifth. Hell, Martin won the national championship at Tennessee that Peyton Manning couldn't. Though how he was going to help a team spinning its wheels between Kordell Stewart and Mike Tomczak is beyond me. I'll also refrain from saying something mean about Marc Bulger, who went before Brady in the sixth and has turned out all right -- though not for the team that drafted him, the Saints.

The real fun in looking at the 2000 draft comes in the third round, when the 49ers picked the first QB since Pennington. They chose, I shit you not, Giovanni Carmazzi. A thumbnail comparison:

This year the 49ers are once again trying to find the QB of the future. The Patriots are trying to find a trophy case with enough shelves. Other QBs taken ahead of Brady in 2000: Chris Redman (eh). Spergon Wynn (haw!).

Some other notable QBs taken while future Super Bowl starters were still on the shelf. I've left off guys like Heath Shuler ('94) and Jim Druckenmiller ('97), who were busts but nevertheless came out highly rated:
1997 (Jake Delhomme undrafted): Danny Wuerffel, Ronnie McAda, Wally Richardson
1994 (Kurt Warner undrafted): Doug Nussmeier, Perry Klein Jay Walker, Glenn Foley
1991 (Brett Favre, second round): Dan McGwire, Todd Marinovich
1983 (Dan Marino goes No. 27): Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason, Ken O'Brien
1979 (Joe Montana, third round): Steve Fuller
Honorable mention and cheap shot: 1967 (Bob Griese goes No. 4): Steve Spurrier

Somebody damn well take a chance on Timmy Chang.

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