There is, of course, no more important position in football than quarterback. Which means there is no bigger decision a franchise can make than determining who will throw passes, hand off the ball, and serve, more than any other player, as the face of a franchise.
This, in turn, means that on Thursday night, when the 2011 NFL Draft gets underway, the franchises considering a quarterback will have an enormous amount of pressure heaped upon them.
Nothing, then, would be more useful than a foolproof and consistent method for drafting quarterbacks and a reliable formula for determining what kinds of successful players in college become stars at the professional level.
Over the last quarter century, there have been great quarterbacks who have fit the perfect physical mold (Peyton Manning) and those who have been undersized (Drew Brees). There have been athletic marvels who have flourished on the field (Michael Vick) and those who flamed out behind center (Pat White). Superstars from small schools (Ben Roethlisberger) and busts from big ones (JaMarcus Russell). Left-handers and right-handers from all over the map, put through more tests, interviews and evaluations for the job of NFL quarterback than nearly any other job in the world.
So, alas, there is no magical solution, no way to run the numbers to determine which candidates will work out and which ones will burn out. For everyone watching, it makes the process fascinating. For the teams themselves, it makes it maddening.
In a year when more teams than usual seem to be searching for a quarterback, a group of top, albeit flawed, candidates have emerged as potential first-round selections: Cam Newton, who led Auburn to a national championship, even as NCAA controversy swirled around him. Blaine Gabbert, who impressed at his pro day, but starred for a Missouri team that featured a system not used in the NFL. Ryan Mallett, who had a record-setting career at Arkansas, but who has raised questions with some off-field rumors. Jake Locker, who tantalized scouts at Washington with his athleticism but concerned them with his inaccuracy. And Florida State's Christian Ponder, who has had success in a pro system but struggled with injuries.
It is, if nothing else, a crapshoot.
A solid handful have gone on to stardom -- Vick, Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers -- and a few are out of the league, like Russell and Joey Harrington. Many of the others fall somewhere in the middle. But the key number to focus on is that 50 percent. For teams making those picks, it was, in the end, a flip of the coin.
Going back further, in the 1990s, 20 quarterbacks were drafted in the first round. Eight ended up lasting five seasons or more, and the other 12 were out of the league sooner, or at the least settled into roles as little-used backups. Again, the numbers are in the neighborhood of 50 percent -- lower, in fact. Maybe the small increase in more recent years is due to better scouting. Or maybe it's just luck.
But there are no sure things. After all, even today's successes were once yesterday's question marks. Roethlisberger, the 11th overall selection in 2004 -- and third quarterback picked in that draft -- has taken the Steelers to three Super Bowls and won two. But seven years ago, there were plenty of concerns about taking a QB out of a small school, Miami (Ohio).
Matt Ryan appears to have worked out for the Falcons and, with less of a sample, Sam Bradford had strong early returns for the Rams last season. But Ryan threw 19 interceptions as a senior and failed to wow scouts at his pro day, and Bradford, as you probably remember, was coming off a serious shoulder injury. Even Peyton Manning was no sure thing. Believe it or not, before the 1998 draft, legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh predicted only a solid career for Manning and said if he had the top pick, he'd use it on another position and take Michigan QB Brian Griese in the second round.
Do the concerns about Ryan remind anyone of Locker? Is Ponder reminiscent of Bradford? They're hard comparisons to make, because of so many other factors that distinguish every QB -- the pros and the prospects. What's more telling are the odds, with the names stripped away. The numbers that indicate drafting a quarterback is not only the biggest decision a team might make in a given season, but also, the biggest risk it will take.
A risk that carries the possibility not only of ample reward but also considerable regret.