When projecting the potential of any quarterback, you have to look at the environment he is entering. Signal callers develop differently in different systems, and a QB's brilliance and development can be stifled by the wrong setup.
Archie Manning might have been every bit the quarterback and leader of his two Super Bowl-winning sons, but nobody was going to win many games with the New Orleans Saints of the 1970s. That wasn't a career; it was a prolonged death sentence. In the same manner, Tom Brady never would have won three Super Bowls if he was drafted in the sixth round by the Detroit Lions in 2000 rather than the New England Patriots.
Some quarterbacks don't bloom until they find the right setting. Jim Plunkett was left for dead after washing out with New England and San Francisco in the '70s, then he won two Super Bowls with Oakland. Len Dawson languished for five years on the bench in the NFL of the late '50s and early '60s, completely losing his polish and touch. Then he went to the AFL and found a coach in Hank Stram who could maximize his potential. Over the next eight seasons, he won three AFL championships and a Super Bowl for the Kansas City Chiefs, fashioning a Hall of Fame career from the scrap heap.
At the same time, you don't have to change teams to overcome a slow start in the NFL. Many were whispering that Matthew Stafford, taken first overall in the 2009 NFL Draft, was a potential bust after the 2010 season. He struggled in his first two NFL seasons. While his production was spotty, his biggest problem was just staying on the field. Stafford finished his rookie year on injured reserve with a knee injury and then played in just three games in 2010 due to a shoulder injury first suffered in the season opener. Of course, Stafford rebounded to have an elite season in 2011 with more than 5,000 yards passing and 41 touchdowns. He led the Lions to their first playoff appearance since the 1999 campaign, and did so with virtually no running game. Stafford showed strong leadership skills in college, and he's put them to good use in his first three professional seasons, overcoming plenty of adversity to guide Detroit to the promised land.
So what is it with great quarterbacks? Are they born that way or are they made through time and adversity? It's a hard question to answer, and it strikes at the heart of all quarterback debates.
If you ask 10 people to list their top 10 quarterbacks of all time, you are apt to end up with a composite of at least 30 names. If you ask a general manager, coach, owner, writer or fan to list the one thing that made each one great, you would find even wider and more varied perspectives. The nimble pocket presence of Joe Montana, the quick release of Dan Marino, the mechanical precision of Troy Aikman, the athleticism of Steve Young, the intelligence of Peyton Manning, the total command of Tom Brady, the toughness of Terry Bradshaw ... Every signal caller has unique qualities.
There are 23 modern-era quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame. The 1940s and '50s included Otto Graham, Y.A. Tittle, Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin and Bobby Layne. Then there was Johnny Unitas, Sonny Jurgensen, Fran Tarkenton, Roger Staubach, Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Bob Griese, Dawson and Bradsaw in the '60's and into the '70's. (Of course, George Blanda's career spanned four decades.) After that came Dan Fouts, Jim Kelly, John Elway, Warren Moon, Montana, Young, Marino and Aikman.
Bradshaw and Elway would probably head up the list of great quarterbacks with rocket arms. With six Super Bowl rings between them, they are certainly a part of any quarterback discussion. Yet Bradshaw never completed 60 percent of his passes in a full season and was a 51.9 percent passer for his career. (Bradshaw also threw just two more touchdowns than interceptions over his career.) Unitas failed to ever eclipse 60 percent in a season, too. In Elway's brilliant, 16-year career, he only cracked the 60 percent mark three times. Joe Namath was rarely above 50 percent in any given year and threw 173 touchdowns compared to 220 interceptions.
On the other hand, Montana had just two seasons in his 15-year Hall of Fame career in which he finished under 60 percent. Manning has only finished under 60 percent once (his rookie season), while Brady's career low is 60.8 (not counting his three-throw rookie cameo).
Arm strength has always been coveted in the NFL, with the mandate to hit the out route or fire the ball into the bang route or quick post. But since the advent of the West Coast offense, that perspective has changed a bit. Even the ability to throw the deep ball is more a question of timing than arm strength.
There is a story of Bill Walsh going to Kentucky to work out a strong-armed prospect from Morehead State by the name of Phil Simms. It was 1979 and Walsh was just beginning his legendary career with the San Francisco 49ers, so he wasn't considered a genius yet. As Simms progressed through the workout, he started throwing the ball harder and harder, trying to impress the future Hall of Fame coach. After a while, Walsh stepped in and instructed Simms to "try throwing it a little easier." After a few more tosses, Walsh insisted he ease up even more. "He just kept repeating, 'easier, easier,' " Simms said. "At one point, I thought about throwing it underhand." Walsh knew Simms had a big arm. What he didn't know was whether he had the ability to take something off the ball and be more accurate. The 49ers did not have a first-round pick that year, but Simms obviously impressed the New York Giants enough to be taken with the seventh overall selection. Walsh had to settle for taking a quarterback in the third round, with the 82nd pick overall. That player was Joe Montana.
When it comes to Simms and Montana, you could probably identify a single aspect of each of their games that many would attribute to their success. To some degree, each possessed the same combination of functional intelligence, athletic ability, arm strength, toughness and command. But each had these attributes in different combinations. One Hall of Famer's mixture of skills varies from the next, and each is impossible to duplicate. You either have a winning combination of abilities or you don't.
Walsh, in his usual outside-the-box perspective, used the analogy of the concert pianist: "Any person who knows how to read music and play the piano has the same basic skills as the most accomplished concert pianist. The difference is the truly unique combination of skill, passion, focus, competitiveness and dedication that separates one from the other." These are the same attributes it takes to play quarterback in the NFL -- and the hardest attributes to isolate, identify and quantify.
So we come back to William Goldman: "Nobody knows anything."
Every selection of a quarterback in the first round is, at some level, a multi-million dollar gamble. Find me a gym rat with a live arm, pinpoint control and a level head, though, and I'll take my chances. At least three teams will be taking the plunge in the first round Thursday night.
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick