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No guarantees

Late-round QBs have as much chance as top picks

Posted: Wednesday February 28, 2007 11:44AM; Updated: Wednesday February 28, 2007 2:25PM
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David Carr has been a disappointment since being taken No. 1 overall in the 2002 draft.
David Carr has been a disappointment since being taken No. 1 overall in the 2002 draft.
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I wrote the following nearly five years ago in this space:

Some guy named David Garrard was the Jaguars' fourth-round pick in the NFL Draft 10 days ago. David Garrard is a quarterback from East Carolina. With that sentence, I have completely exhausted my reservoir of knowledge about David Garrard. I don't know whether he's right- or left-handed, how fast he runs the 40, or if he has the arm strength to throw the deep out. But I do know this: There's a decent chance that David Garrard will have as productive a pro career as David Carr, the QB who went to the Texans as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
-- Hot Button, April 2002

Not surprisingly, nothing that's happened since has proven those words wrong. Garrard is a backup quarterback for the Jags who has had some impressive moments in relief of Byron Leftwich, and he's likely to start for someone in the future. Carr has had his moments too -- unfortunately many of them were spent on his back after the Texans' porous offensive line allowed another sack, and his future as Houston's starting quarterback is uncertain. The bottom line is that five years after the draft, the QB who was the top overall pick has an NFL future that's not much brighter, if at all, than the QB who was an obscure fourth-round choice. That shouldn't be a surprise; that's the way it is with quarterbacks.

The biggest crapshoot of any NFL draft is choosing a quarterback. Can't-miss hot shots (Tim Couch, Ryan Leaf) often turn out to be busts, and late-round lesser-knowns (Tom Brady) develop into stars. Granted, the same thing happens at other positions, but none of them are as unpredictable as quarterback, and no blunder is more obvious than wasting a No. 1 pick on a QB who doesn't have the right stuff. Yet for some reason NFL executives continue to pursue the near-myth of the franchise quarterback. They chase after the ideal of the Golden Boy QB the way little girls used to dream of marrying Prince Charming -- despite ample evidence that there are few of them, if any, to be had.

This year's quarterback debate is over LSU's JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn of Notre Dame. Which one should the Oakland Raiders take with the first pick of the draft? The answer: neither, because the odds aren't good on finding a star QB with the top pick. The Colts grabbed one with Peyton Manning in 1998, and the Bengals may have found another in Carson Palmer in 2003 (the jury is still out on him.)

Other than that? Since 1970 there have been 15 quarterbacks taken with the top draft pick, more than any other position. Of the 15, four became the kind of franchise player a team hopes to get with the top pick -- Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Troy Aikman and Manning, with Palmer showing encouraging signs. (Some might put Jim Plunkett in this group because he won two Super Bowls, although his NFL career didn't live up to the overall expectations.) The rest of the list is a group of wanna-bes, not-quites and flat-out busts: Steve Bartkowski, Vinny Testaverde, Jeff George, Drew Bledsoe, Couch, Michael Vick, Carr, Eli Manning and Alex Smith. Anyone you'd feel totally confident building your franchise around in that bunch?

But the Raiders will probably take Russell, even though their offensive line needs help and Calvin Johnson, probably the best player in the draft, looks like exactly the kind of game-breaking receiver they desperately could use. NFL teams can't help themselves when a quarterback catches their eye.

The reason they should resist the temptation isn't just that the chances are slim of finding another Peyton Manning or Elway, but also that it doesn't even take a great quarterback to win a Super Bowl. It took Manning nine years to win. Elway didn't do it until he was 15 years into his career. Meanwhile, guys like Brad Johnson, Trent Dilfer and Jeff Hostetler were winning rings.

How did those teams win with QBs who will never be considered stars? With strong defenses, balanced running games and intelligent, if not spectacular quarterback play. That's a much more reliable formula than chasing the latest big man on campus with the dream that he'll take you to the Super Bowl on the wings of his rocket arm. But the Raiders will probably fall prey to that fantasy on draft day, because they haven't learned. NFL teams never do.