Do big-time college quarterbacks make the best pro prospects?
That's the question that has been debated in NFL front offices for years, as the league has seen countless hot-shot quarterbacks flameout as pros after enjoying stellar collegiate careers.
These Saturday all-stars enter the league with so much promise and potential, but fail to deliver the performance or production that often precedes their arrival in the pros. Whether it is the pressure of being the face of the franchise or the slow transition to the pro game, these sure-fire prospects wilt under the glare of the bright lights in pro stadiums.
Matt Leinart, Alex Smith and Vince Young are the latest examples of college stars failing to make the grade at the next level. On the surface, their struggles are surprising considering the tremendous success that each enjoyed in college.
Leinart, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2005, led Southern Cal to a national title and another appearance in the championship game while directing the Trojans to an unfathomable 37-2 record as their starting quarterback. Moreover, he passed for 10,603 yards with 99 touchdowns and only 23 interceptions. With such an impressive resume in tow, it is not surprising that many scouts proclaimed him the most "pro ready" quarterback in the 2006 draft.
In Smith, scouts watched an athletic triggerman direct an explosive spread offense at Utah with aplomb. The former Ute amassed big numbers (Smith threw 32 touchdowns with only four interceptions during his final season at Utah) while guiding the team to an unbeaten record during his final year. More impressively, Smith led a team with few pro prospects to a 22-1 record during his two seasons as their starting quarterback.
Young became a star of epic proportions during his three-year career at Texas. The Houston native became a fixture on the college highlight shows, and eventually led the Longhorns to a national championship by defeating Leinart's star-studded Trojan team in 2006 Rose Bowl. While Young was never regarded by scouts as an accomplished passer as a collegian, his athleticism, intangibles and improvisational skills intrigued many who had witnessed his dazzling performance in the championship game. With that image fresh in their minds, scouts were quick to slap high marks on the gifted athlete.
Although each of the former stars enjoyed a small measure of success as pros, the trio has collectively struggled to match the hype that preceded their arrival.
Leinart lost his starting job to former league MVP, Kurt Warner, and has been relegated to mop up duty since faltering during training camp last season.
Smith, who recently lost a training camp battle to Shaun Hill, has been unable to secure his status as the Niners' franchise quarterback. Although some of Smith's failures can be attributed to the revolving door at offensive coordinator and a host of shoulder injuries, the former No.1 overall's shortcomings extend beyond those challenges, as he has failed to consistently display the confidence and leadership skills typically associated with the position.
While Young earned Pro Bowl honors as a rookie, his career has also been plagued with inconsistency and underachievement. The third-year pro has completed only 57.3 percent of his career attempts, and has tossed 32 interceptions compared to only 22 touchdowns in his career.
Although those stories are not uncommon when examining the careers of some highly drafted quarterbacks, they speak volumes about the difficulty in projecting the success of college quarterbacks.
While every position has its fairy tale stories, the plight of quarterbacks appears to be rooted in the patient development of their skills on the practice field.
In looking at the success of Romo and Brady, the common denominator is that they weren't rushed on the field to play before they were ready to handle the responsibility of being a starter.
Romo, who went undrafted after a stellar collegiate career at Eastern Illinois, spent three seasons as a backup before earning his first start in the middle of the 2006 season. The slow approach paid off handsomely as the six-year veteran earned back-to-back Pro Bowl honors in his first two seasons as the Cowboys' starter.
Brady enjoyed similar success after earning his stripes as Drew Bledsoe's back up in New England. The former sixth-round choice ran the scout team for a year before emerging as the Patriots' backup quarterback in his second season. When finally given the opportunity to play due to an unfortunate injury to Bledsoe, Brady performed admirably as the starter on the way to guiding the team to the first of their three Super Bowl titles won under his direction.
Furthermore, the nine-year veteran has consistently put up stellar numbers while directing an offense that has become one of the league's most feared during his time as the starter.
While the patient approach has worked well for unheralded players, it has also been a boon to the careers of a pair of former first rounders. Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers spent the early parts of the careers on the bench learning behind more established veterans. Though the time spent on the sidelines was surely frustrating to each, the countless reps on the practice field enabled them to prepare for the speed of the pro game away from the spotlight. And each appeared ready for the big time when they received the starting nod.
Rivers, who has a 36-18 record as the Chargers' starting quarterback, has completed over 62 percent of his passes and sports a lofty 92.9 passer rating in his five-year career. Moreover, he is coming off a stellar season where he passed 34 touchdowns, which was tied for the most in the league, and posted a league-leading 105.5 passer rating.
Rodgers enjoyed similar success in his first season as a starter in 2008. The four-year veteran completed 63.6 percent of his passes, and tossed 28 touchdowns against only 13 interceptions. If the preseason is any indication of his continued growth, Rodgers is well on his way to moving into the ranks of the elite.
Of course, the success last year of rookie starters Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan has bolstered the claims of some who favor playing quarterbacks immediately. However, it is important to note that their triumphs are the exception rather than the rule. In addition, both first-year signal-callers benefited from playing behind a strong running game and a solid supporting cast, which keyed their success.
Former top picks Joey Harrington and David Carr were not afforded the opportunity to spend a year learning on the sidelines and they had the unenviable task of playing without a great supporting cast. Without those luxuries, both players struggled and their underachievement should provide a cautionary tale to those teams who rush the former college star quarterbacks onto the field.
Given the probability that Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, and Josh Freeman will start games at some point this season, it is not likely that front offices are heeding the message.
Scouts and coaches will continue to debate whether a quarterback's collegiate achievements translates to the success as a pro, but creating a better development plan for their franchise player may be the answer to that complex question.