In 1998, the story of the NFL draft was the prospecting being done at the top. The Colts, in need of a quarterback, had the first pick, and there were two promising candidates. Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf? Bill Polian, newly named general manager in Indianapolis, had a devil of a decision to make—or so it seemed. In reality Polian knew he wanted Manning 16 days before the draft, and spent the rest of the lead-up time double- and triple-checking his pick.
"At the scouting combine in 1998," Polian says, "Leaf missed his appointment with us, though there was some dispute about the reason. Manning used his appointment to interview us. He had a yellow legal pad with all these questions—what was our offensive philosophy, how would we build the team. Talk about a harbinger of things to come. Then we had their workouts, Manning at Tennessee and Leaf at Washington State, on back-to-back days. There were all these tales out there at the time. Manning had zero ceiling, average arm, bad athlete. Leaf had the high ceiling, rocket arm, better athlete. We saw that the opposite was true. Actually, we were shocked at Leaf's workout. He wasn't in really good shape. He was heavy. Much less lively arm than Peyton. And when we talked with them, we just felt there was a huge difference in the maturity of the two guys. Peyton was much more ready to handle the burdens of being a rookie starter in the NFL. So before the draft, I told [owner] Jim Irsay, in sort of a jocular way: 'If we miss on Leaf, that'll be a gigantic miss. If we miss on Manning, we'll have [the next] Bernie Kosar, which isn't so bad.'"
Polian, of course, took Manning, his first-ever pick for the team. And he didn't miss. Fourteen years later, with Indy in a similar situation, he was preparing to draft Manning's heir—but never got the chance. Throughout the fall of 2011, Polian, then the Colts' president, worked with his son Chris, the team's G.M., scouting the two best quarterbacks in college, Andrew Luck of Stanford and Robert Griffin III of Baylor. By December, as the Colts limped toward a 2--14 finish with an injured Manning watching from the sideline, they knew they were preparing for the stunning possibility of having the first pick in another draft with two quarterbacks of immense potential at the top. Bill Polian watched Luck in person three times and Griffin twice, and he was deep into his film and personality study of both prospects when Irsay called him into his office on Jan. 2 and fired him. Chris was fired too. They never saw it coming. And there went all the work on Luck and Griffin.
This would have been a much tougher call than Manning over Leaf, Polian said last week. Both Luck and Griffin are extremely talented players with Eagle Scout characters. Both have the football brain to process offensive adjustments quickly and under pressure. But in the end the quality that would seem to be Griffin's greatest advantage—his tremendous mobility and speed—could end up being what makes Luck the first pick. Here's why: All quarterbacks get hit and are subject to injury, obviously. But mobile quarterbacks are especially vulnerable. Michael Vick has played all 16 games in a season just once. Tim Tebow was repeatedly slammed during the Broncos' playoff loss at New England in January and came away from that game with rib and chest injuries.
So, given the choice in 2012, whom would Polian take? "Probably Luck," he said. "When you boil it down you worry a little about running quarterbacks getting hurt. But it's close. Very close. If Manning and Leaf were apples and oranges, I'd say Luck and Griffin are McIntosh and Red Delicious."
When you meet Robert Griffin III, you're instantly impressed with his genial presence and his savviness. He's not just a glad-hander. He answers questions expansively and earnestly. "He's got a way to make you feel at ease when you first meet him," says Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel, who interviewed Griffin at the scouting combine in February. "Not only he is very sharp about football, but he's sharp about life. He's not going to have trouble adjusting to our game."
It's all but a lock that Luck goes to Indianapolis first in next week's draft, followed by Griffin to Washington. Griffin has met at length with Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, and more with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who has visited Griffin in Texas and spent sessions going over the Washington offense. And, of course, the Redskins pulled off one of the biggest trades in history last month to move up to the No. 2 spot, swapping first-round positions with the Rams and giving them first-round picks in 2013 and '14 and a second-round pick this year. And Griffin is ready to adjust to whichever team takes him. "I'm going to assimilate to the culture of the team that picks me, on the field and in the locker room," he says. "I'm not coming into the NFL with, let's say, five plays from Baylor that I love and saying to the offensive coordinator, 'Hey, we have to run these.' That's not my job. I just want to fit in."
As for how much he runs, and gets exposed to big hits, that's going to be a balancing act in the NFL. Mike Shanahan would be foolish to tether to the pocket a man who was a semifinalist in the 400-meter hurdles at the 2008 Olympic trials. But the one aspect that worried two personnel men last week was Griffin's ability to protect himself outside the pocket. He rushed 179 times last fall for 699 yards, and because he has such a physically imposing upper body, he didn't shy from open-field hits. Against Texas A&M last October, Griffin scrambled toward the sideline and was two steps out of bounds when he was blasted by an Aggies defender and sent flying hard into the bench area, prompting a personal-foul flag. Those are the kind of scary hits that mobile quarterbacks often absorb.
It's a game of roulette. Three quarterbacks had more than 75 rushing attempts last year, and two got hurt. Cam Newton ran the ball 126 times in 16 games and stayed healthy. Tebow had 130 attempts in 13 starts (including the playoffs) and was beat up by season's end. Vick had 76 carries in 13 games; he suffered a concussion and missed three games with broken ribs. In the 32 games Shanahan has coached in Washington, his quarterbacks have run the ball 62 times, total. When Shanahan had the mobile Jake Plummer in Denver, Plummer missed only five games in four seasons due to injury. He knew how to protect himself outside the pocket, and Shanahan didn't put him at undue risk very often. That's the way the Redskins will have to use Griffin, who must expose himself to fewer big hits at the NFL level. Shanahan won't want to take away Griffin's ability to improvise on big third downs, but you can be sure his coaches will stress to him that he must be a pocket passer—which is what Griffin, in an interview with SI at the combine, said he wants to be.
Mike Shanahan, who was Steve Young's offensive coordinator from 1992 to '94, should show Griffin video of Young as he matured into a great quarterback. In his last five NFL seasons Young averaged 47 rushing attempts a season. He is the last mobile quarterback to play at a Hall of Fame level. Last week Young said that he'd tell Griffin one thing above all: Do the work. "Most guys who are mobile use it as a crutch," Young says. "When a play looks like it's breaking down, they take off. And they win games that way, so they begin to play that way. But if you know the offense inside and out, you're most often going to find somewhere to go with the ball, so you won't have to expose yourself to the hits.