Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf? During the 79 years of the NFL draft, no debate has been livelier than which quarterback ranked as the better long-term investment in 1998: Manning, a senior from Tennessee, or Leaf, a junior from Washington State?
In retrospect, of course, the conundrum seems absurd. Manning is a 13-time Pro Bowl selection and defending league MVP, and Ryan is serving a seven-year prison sentence in Montana for a burglary he committed while on probation for drug possession.
But draft analysts weren’t certain 16 years ago.
While Leaf had the edge in raw, physical talent, Manning’s poise and other intangible qualities persuaded the Indianapolis Colts to make him the first overall pick. Leaf went second to the San Diego Chargers, and I presume you know how that turned out.
Had the Colts followed Bill Parcells’ theory on drafting a quarterback, there would have been little suspense. A few years ago, the retired Hall of Fame coach outlined four rules any team should follow while measuring a quarterback’s NFL future:
1. The QB should be a senior because that indicates maturity and a willingness to be patient.
2. He should have a college degree, or at least be on schedule to graduate with his class, because that indicates he takes responsibility seriously.
3. He should have been a three-year starter because that indicates a certain familiarity with being “the guy” — the most important player on the field.
4. He should have played in 23 games his college team won because, um, I’m not sure.
Why 23 and not 22, or 24? Beats me. But Parcells decided 23 victories to be the magic number, and Parcells has forgotten more about football than I’ll ever understand.
Back to the great debate of ’98:
Manning was four-for-four on Parcells’ scorecard. Leaf was zero-for-four.
This doesn’t explain everything about why Leaf turned into the most disappointing first-round draft pick of all time, but it offers a clue.
Remember the 2012 draft class, which was as rich with gifted quarterbacks as any since 1983?
Six of them (Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson) would go on to participate in the playoffs as rookies, and of the six, only Ponder failed to pass the Parcells’ test. (Ponder won 22 games at Florida State but almost certainly would have won more had he not been injured as a freshman.)
The quarterbacks in the 2014 draft class aren’t quite as distinguished, but some intriguing trends have developed that suggest Parcells’ four rules aren’t regarded with a particular reverence for Bill Parcells.
Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, for instance, has taken a nosedive from early projections as the first overall choice to the possibility he won’t be drafted until the second round.
Bridgewater’s passing numbers last season were crazy — 31 touchdowns, four interceptions — and there are no questions about his determination to succeed.
But Bridgewater’s pro-day workout was a mess, and with the draft delayed by a scheduling conflict at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, scouts have used the extra time to convince themselves the spectacular player they saw at Louisville was a mirage. (It’s conceivable, too, that some old-fashioned, poker-faced deception is at work, with teams secretly hoping Bridgewater falls far enough down for them to acquire as a second-day bargain.)
In any case, Bridgewater embodies the spirit of Parcells’ rules, if not the letter. He was a three-year starter who won a ton of games and graduated last December, as a junior.
“A huge milestone,” Bridgewater, the first member of his family to graduate from college, has said of earning a degree in sports administration.
Some of the other quarterbacks in the 2014 draft who have aced the Parcells’ test: Fresno State’s Derek Carr, Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garappolo, Alabama’s A.J. McCarron and South Carolina’s Connor Shaw.
And one who didn’t: Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, he of the all-world nickname — “Johnny Football” — and insatiable appetite for the celebrity lifestyle.
Aside from Jadeveon Clowney, the South Carolina defensive tackle who either is a once-in-a-generation difference maker or an underachieving mope guaranteed to break more hearts than helmets, Manziel is the most polarizing player in the draft.
He’s electric, 209 pounds of sheer spitfire, and he threw 63 touchdown passes in only two seasons as an Aggies’ starter. Does anybody really care if he’s a TMZ staple, the football equivalent of Miley Cyrus?
Maybe Parcells cares. He’d point out that Manziel is entering the draft as a redshirt sophomore (violation of Rule One), has yet to graduate (violation of Rule Two), wasn’t a three-year starter (violation of Rule Three) and didn’t win at least 23 times in college (Manziel’s Aggies were 19-6 in games he started. Impressive, but a violation of Rule Four.).
It’s something to think about while Peyton Manning prepares for another NFL season, and Ryan Leaf sits in a Montana prison email@example.com