JaMarcus Russell Busts

April 30, 2011

NFL fans love talking about draft busts.

Ask any fan about the biggest draft busts of all-time, and he or she will rattle off Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell, Tony Mandarich, and Lawrence Phillips without even thinking about it. Ask who the best draft picks of all-time are and the same fan will say Tom Brady was drafted in the sixth round and…um…

This shouldn’t be surprising: draft busts get way more coverage. A Google search for “best NFL draft picks” pulls up 75,000 results. “NFL draft busts” pulls up 504,000.

I’m not exactly sure why we love talking about busts. Maybe it’s because busts are easier to quantify. We could go back and forth on which team got the better end of the Eli Manning/Phillip Rivers trade in 2004, but we can all agree that the Colts made the right move in selecting Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf in 1998.

Or maybe we just like picking on teams when they screw up. Sure, it’s easy to pick a Hall of Fame quarterback with the first pick of the draft – it’s the first pick! – but to destroy your team’s playoff chances for five years by screwing up the second pick? Now that’s worth talking about.

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There are two basic types of busts. The first kind are the retrospective busts. Retrospective busts are the busts that no one saw coming. Only after the pick flamed out of the league do we realize why the pick is a failure.

Ryan Leaf is an example of the retrospective bust. Every NFL fan knows this story – Manning and Leaf were neck-and-neck heading into the draft. One was going to the Colts at #1 and the other was going to the Chargers at #2.* It was pretty close to a coin flip. You know how the story ended. The Colts made the playoffs 12 of 13 years following Manning’s rookie season and won Super Bowl XLI; the Chargers drafted Drew Brees and Phillip Rivers before they returned to the playoffs and Ryan Leaf was last seen getting arrested for selling painkillers to West Texas A&M football players (Go Buffaloes!).

* Interesting sidebar that no one seems to mention any more: the Chargers traded up from #3 to #2 to pick Leaf. The Cardinals picked DE Andre Wadsworth at #3, who turned out to be almost as big of a bust as Ryan Leaf. The #4 pick? Future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the Ryan Leaf pick went so wrong. Manning is the consummate professional – not only does he have a great arm, he works and studies more than anyone else. Leaf is a socially awkward crybaby who you wouldn’t trust to coach your kid’s Little League team, let alone lead an NFL team. At the time, we didn’t know that. We thought he could be just as good as Peyton Manning.

The list of these picks are endless: Brian Bosworth and Tony Mandarich (too much ‘roids), the aforementioned Wadsworth (noodles for knee ligaments), Andre Ware and David Klingler (before teams realized that being a system quarterback is a bad thing), and Heath Schuler (couldn’t throw).

These busts aren’t that fun to pick apart. Sure, we can get mad at our own general manager for these picks, but we would have made the same move. This is the same reason why no one talks about busts in the MLB draft. In every draft in every sport, teams work with incomplete information. You can’t really know if a high school senior can hit a breaking ball because no high school pitcher can throw a particularly nasty curve. NFL busts get more attention because we have three or four years of college to work with. But even with those extra years, teams miss qualities that haven’t shown up yet. It happens.

The more interesting busts are the prospective busts – the busts that you can see coming from a mile away but, for one reason or another, teams pick them anyway. I’ll call these the JaMarcus Russell busts.

I find these picks fascinating. They are the equivalent of going to a restaurant and having a large piece of cheesecake after you’ve already destroyed two plates of appetizers and a steak. You know that there’s no way you’re going to feel like living within about five minutes after you’ve eaten it…but damn it looks tasty.

JaMarcus Russell is the MVP of the JaMarcus Russell All-Star bust team.* The Raiders couldn’t help but pick him at #1. He could throw the ball farther than any other quarterback in the league and he was extremely hard to sack. Never mind that he could barely beat out Matt Flynn for the starting quarterback job at LSU. Or that LSU fans spent the majority of his career ripping on him, save for the last seven games of his Tiger career. Or that he looked impressive in exactly one career college game against a decent opponent (the 2007 Sugar Bowl at home against an overrated Notre Dame team). Or that giving $32 million guaranteed to a 265-pound guy with no discernible work ethic might not be the best idea.

* Thank goodness…might have been awkward if someone else won the MVP award on his own team. Who knows how many cheeseburgers JaMarcus would have eaten in his depression.

I remember thinking that Russell was going to be a colossal bust at the time. If I was blogging back then, I would have devoted 1,500 words to the subject. Pretty much every single red flag was there, but the Raiders just couldn’t help picking that cheesecake (neither could Russell), simply because he could throw the ball really, really far.

For my own team, the Packers’ best known bust is Tony Mandarich in 1989. The Packers selected Mandarich with the second overall pick, just ahead of Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders. Those three players make the Mandarich pick exceptionally painful for Packers fans. Yet the guy was the cover story of Sports Illustrated’s NFL Draft people. Pretty much everyone thought he would be a great NFL lineman. No one knew about the detriment his massive steroid use had on him, just how abrasive his personality was, or how he much he liked drugs and alcohol.

The bigger JaMarcus Russell-style bust happened in 2001 for the Packers. The Packers traded up to the tenth pick in the draft to pick defensive end Jamal Reynolds.* More precisely, they drafted the 6’3″, 265-pound defensive end Jamal Reynolds. With that size, Reynolds would have been an excellent pick in 1978. Not so much in 2001. Predictably, he played 18 games and had 3 career sacks before exiting the league following the 2003 season.

* The Packers traded Matt Hasselbeck and the #17 pick (Steve Hutchinson) to Seattle, which worked out fairly nicely for the Seahawks.

Then there is former Husker Lawrence Phillips, who the Rams selected with the #6 pick in the 1996 NFL Draft. Phillips is batshit crazy. He missed most of his final season at Nebraska because he pushed his girlfriend down a flight of stairs. He was such a terrible person that Husker fans were upset when he was allowed back on the team. To most teams, that would be a red flag. The Rams couldn’t help themselves. Unsurprisingly, he finished with almost three times as many years sentenced to prison (41) than NFL touchdowns (14).

The other reason JaMarcus Russell busts are interesting is that sometimes they work out. Donovan McNabb was booed at the 1999 NFL Draft by Eagles fans clamoring for Ricky Williams. That pick turned out pretty well for the Eagles.

I thought Josh Freeman would be a colossal bust for Tampa Bay after three unimpressive years at Kansas State. It’s still early, but it certainly looks like I am wrong about that one.

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That brings us to this year’s NFL Draft and the four quarterbacks drafted in the first 12 picks. I’m sticking with quarterbacks because this post is getting too long already. And if you think I analyzed the top four so I can make fun of the Vikings in about four paragraphs, you know me too well.

Cam Newton was selected first, but I don’t think he qualifies as a Russell bust. He’s certainly got some concerns, but the guy is a winner. He didn’t lose a game in college. Maybe he has accuracy issues, but he has more natural leadership, poise, and confidence than any quarterback I’ve seen in years. I just can’t picture a guy like that as a loser. He might be a bust, but not a Russell bust.

Eighth overall pick Jake Locker, on the other hand, kinda sucks. Locker is a strange case, because I’m not entirely sure why he was ever projected to be the #1 pick in the draft, other than Mel Kiper told me so. Certainly I wouldn’t have thought that by looking at his Washington Husky team that went 16-34 in his four seasons, including 0-12 in his sophomore year. And I definitely didn’t see it in the first full game I saw him play, when he went 4-20 passing for 71 yards and 2 interceptions in a 56-21 loss to Nebraska last season. I am not persuaded that Locker was even a good college quarterback, let alone an NFL prospect worthy of the eighth overall pick.

Likewise, I’m not sold on tenth overall pick Blaine Gabbert, but I’m a bit torn. Gabbert and Josh Freeman both committed to Nebraska before they changed their minds and attended a different Big 12 school. Both weren’t all that impressive in college, but were high on every NFL expert’s draft list. I expected Freeman to fail in the NFL, just like I expect Gabbert to fail. But now Freeman is actually pretty good and I’m all kinds of confused. Let’s just move on…

To Christian Ponder. I applaud the Vikings’ strategy, but only because I’m a Packer fan. Apparently their thinking was that we need a quarterback, so why change things up when all the good quarterbacks have already been drafted?

I admit to not following the draft as well as I should have beforehand – I’m just too bummed about the lockout. I didn’t read a lot of Mel Kiper or Todd McShay before the draft, so I don’t know how high Ponder was on their draft boards. However, I do watch a lot of college football and I can say that at no point over the last four years did I think Ponder was an NFL quarterback, let alone a top 12 draft pick.

I briefly questioned my own thoughts when I looked back at his stats. He clearly isn’t bad, although he was injured much of his career. But I shouldn’t have to do that for the #12 pick in the draft. Before the draft, Ponder was just another in a long line of disappointing, highly recruited Florida State quarterbacks.

Judging by the comments on the Minneapolis Star Tribune website, Vikings fans agree with that sentiment. Ponder makes this year JaMarcus Russell bust All-Star team.

And I get to make fun of the pick for years.


Cam Newton: Stud or Bust?

March 4, 2011

In recent memory, perhaps no quarterback prospect has been as polarizing as Cam Newton. In the past three days alone, I heard Colin Cowherd saying he would be a shoo-in as the #1 overall pick, Mel Kiper Jr. dropping him from seventh to tenth on the Big Board (and dropping him from first to second among quarterbacks in the process) because of a poor performance at the draft combine, and KC Joyner argued that Newton should not even be drafted in the first round. That is what you call diversity.

You could make an argument that Tim Tebow was fairly polarizing last year, since nearly every analyst ripped the Broncos for taking him in the first round. But even that doesn’t really work, because it was only the Broncos who thought Tebow should have been a first round pick. Nobody else outside of Gainesville would have drafted Tebow in the first round.

Maybe Vince Young was that polarizing. I seem to recall that people had concerns about his throwing motion. The 2006 draft was weird though – three teams in the top eleven picks drafted quarterbacks. 2004 was the only other year in the past decade that happened. Young was clearly one of the three best options at quarterback that year, so you couldn’t really make an argument that he was not a first round quarterback.

As I have pointed out in this blog before, drafting quarterbacks is largely a crapshoot. For every Peyton Manning there is a Ryan Leaf. For every Donovan McNabb there is an Akili Smith. And so on.

Analysts have been trying to figure out which quarterbacks will succeed since the inception of the NFL Draft. Now there is a mini-industry around projecting NFL draft picks, the draft combine is actually televised, and analysts start writing up mock drafts within days after one draft ends. Yet they haven’t really gotten much better at predicting successful quarterbacks. JaMarcus Russell with the first overall pick, anyone?

The most egregious recent example is Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers in 2005. Check out this gem of a report from Alex Smith’s pro day in March of 2005. At the time, the 49ers were expected to take the hometown Rodgers with the first overall pick. Then Smith wowed with his arm accuracy and footwork at his pre-draft workout. It would be the last time he wowed anybody. You know how the story ends: Rodgers won this year’s Super Bowl with the Packers and 49ers fans actually chanted for David Carr during a game this season.

Which brings me back to Newton. Apparently Newton was less than impressive at the combine this past week. I can’t figure out why anyone should care. Newton is a freakishly good athlete who just put up ridiculous stats en route to winning both the Heisman Trophy and the National Championship. He is exceptionally fast and elusive and has the size of Big Ben. How is the best quarterback in the draft up for debate? If you know that drafting a quarterback is a crapshoot anyway, do you want to go down in flames with Blaine Gabbert or Cam Newton? Seems that the answer should be pretty simple.

Yet Mel Kiper writes gems like this on his Big Board when bumping Gabbert over Newton: “Strong arm, excellent accuracy, prototypical size and physical skills. Smart not to throw in Indy, though proved he’s probably an underrated athlete.” That’s not a knock on Kiper – he just writes what NFL teams are thinking. The knock is on NFL teams for thinking that, and if the Alex Smith debacle taught us anything, it’s that NFL teams actually are thinking on those lines. What use is a draft combine when someone who DOESN’T THROW AT ALL comes out looking better than someone who did step up and throw. That doesn’t even border on anything close to logic.

Then there are the straight-up Newton haters like KC Joyner. In the second sentence of his column, he points out that the NFL Draft is full of physical specimens who didn’t pan out, like Brian Bosworth, Mike Mamula, and Lawrence Phillips. Two sentences in and Joyner has already lost me. He just compared Newton to a) a linebacker who ingested enough steroids to take down a horse; b) a guy who was never considered good until he bench pressed a lot of weight at the aforementioned combined; and c) the worst person ever. Assuming Newton isn’t on the ‘roids, none of those three situations are at all comparable to his situation.

Joyner then goes on to point out all of Newton’s flaws. Things like he overthrew a pass after he took an eight-step drop when he was supposed to take a nine-step drop or taking too long to throw a ball because he lingered too long with his running back on a play fake. Who cares?

As you can tell from my blog posts, I hate under-thinking things. I have spent time thinking about minor nuances in sports that no one else ever bothered to think about. But my pet peeve is over-thinking things. That is exactly what Joyner and the rest of the people that question Newton’s draft stock are doing here. When a guy like Newton is out there and you spend time dissecting his eight-step drop versus nine-step drop…well, that’s over-thinking.

With a physical specimen and proven winner like Newton, you draft first and worry about minor footwork issues later. Maybe Blaine Gabbert will end up being a better quarterback. Maybe Newton will end up being a huge bust. Maybe the whole “pro-style” quarterback ranking that puts Gabbert at #1 is really all it is cracked up to be. I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that in three years, half of the analysts will get to say “I told you so” no matter what happens. Those analysts don’t know any more than the rest of us, they will just happen to guess right.

So if we’re guessing anyway, which of these two do you draft:

Player A: 14-0 record, 30 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 2,908 passing yards, 2nd in nation in QB rating
Player B: 10-3 record, 16 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 3,186 passing yards, 69th in nation in QB rating

I thought so.


Score one for football and the University of Minnesota Law School

March 2, 2011

It took nearly ten months after I graduated, but finally I am proud of something the University of Minnesota Law School produced: 80-year old Judge David Doty. This something to be proud of comes from an unlikely source, to be sure, but if Judge Doty turns out to be the guy who puts the 2011 NFL season back on track…well…go UM Law School.

Judge Doty dealt NFL owners their first big blow in the 2+ years of labor negotiations that will culminate in the expiring of the Collective Bargaining Agreement tomorrow. The decision comes a bit too late to get anything done by the CBA deadline, but for the first time, there is a positive step towards an NFL season for 2011.

It turns out that the NFL owners have been secretly plotting for this lockout for over two years.* Part of this plan consisted of hoarding $4 billion in TV revenues that would help the owners withstand the lost revenue that would come with a lockout. Judge Doty did not think this was particularly fair. Ostensibly, it was because the owners violated their agreement with the players’ union. In reality, the biggest factor is surely that it was a total dick move by the NFL owners.

* Which makes Commissioner Roger Goodell look even more incompetent than normal. Seriously, what was that guy doing for the past two years, other than spouting off every now and then about player safety? I suppose that’s a column for a different day.

The owners are still in a way better position than players to withstand a lockout. It isn’t even particularly close. But $4 billion is quite a bit of money. The owners had stockpiled that money as a sort of “loan” from their television deal. They were banking on the NFL maintaining its popularity after a lockout, so they would make the money back on future TV deals. Now that money is gone.

The $4 billion might not make much of a dent…but then the union might de-certify tonight…leaving the case in Judge Doty’s jurisdiction…and Doty has proven to be pro-union in the past…and if all these things keep adding up, we might just have a season if we keep our fingers crossed.

Most of that is beyond my comprehension. I originally thought I would use my legal background to cover the NFL labor negotiations before I realized that a) a bajillion more competent people are already doing that; and b) I have literally no expertise in any of the areas of law in question. Instead I’ll move on to Judge Doty.

When I first read the article, I thought the name David Doty sounded familiar. It turns out that I recognized him from all kinds of other sports-related lawsuits. The guy has been dominating sports leagues for a quarter century. From my perspective, his ruling on the NFL free agent system in 1992 takes the cake. This lawsuit led to Reggie White signing with the Green Bay Packers in 1993, which then led to the Pack winning their first Super Bowl in my lifetime in 1997. So yeah, I already like the guy.

Since then, he has presided over several more disputes between the players and owners, generally coming out in favor of the players’ union. The owners are putting on a brave face because they knew that Judge Doty would rule against them. On one hand, the owners are right – they can appeal and it isn’t like they were counting on a victory in the first place. On the other, you better believe that they are terrified of these issues remaining in Judge Doty’s jurisdiction.

Regardless of their opinion on unions in general, NFL fans support the players’ union, if for no other reason than no fan gives a crap on how much money an owner makes. They just want football. Judge Doty is a friend of football, so I already like him.

Then comes this fantastic tidbit: Judge Doty is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School. Score one for the Gophers. Finally I am proud of the company I keep as a fellow University of Minnesota Law graduate. Well done, Judge Doty, well done.


Twenty-five Years of #1 High School Recruits

February 24, 2011

ESPN the Magazine ran an interesting “where are they now” story a few weeks ago about the #1 ranked high school recruits over the past 25 years. The top recruits ranged from solid NFL players like Hines Ward, Shaun Alexander, and Anquan Boldin; to NFL busts like Tim Couch and Kevin Jones; to college busts like Randy Fasani and Kyle Wright; to busts in all walks of life like rape and incest suspect Xavier Crawford.

Top recruits have certainly met varying degrees of college and professional success. Some are still too young to tell how good they will be. Off the top of my head, the list of successful pros would look like this:

1. Hines Ward (WR, 1994, Georgia) – still active with 2 Super Bowl rings, 4 Pro Bowls, and 11,702 career receiving yards
2. Ricky Watters (RB, 1987, Notre Dame) – rushed for 10,643 yards and made 5 Pro Bowls in 10 seasons
3. Anquan Boldin (WR, 1999, Florida State) – one of best active receivers in NFL, has 8,357 yards, 51 TDs, and 3 Pro Bowls in 8 seasons
4. Shaun Alexander (RB, 1995, Alabam) – rushed for 9,453 yards and made 3 Pro Bowls in 9 seasons; briefly held single season rushing TD record with 27 TDs in 2005
5. Amani Toomer (WR, 1992, Michigan) – an above average receiver for 13-year career, retired with 9,497 career receiving yards
6. Jeff George (QB, 1986, Illinois by way of Purdue) – passed for 27,602 yards (154 TD, 113 INT) in 12 seasons
7. D.J. Williams (LB, 2000, Miami) – a solid starting linebacker for Broncos for last 8 seasons
8. Terry Kirby (RB, 1989, Virginia) – accounted for 8,471 yards as a returner/third down back for 4 teams in 10 seasons
9. Vince Young (QB, 2002, Texas) – two-time Pro Bowler has below average stats and may be on way out of Tennessee
10. Tim Couch (QB, 1996, Kentucky) – #1 draft pick bust wasn’t as horrendous as people remember (11,131 yards, 64 TD, 67 INT in 62 games)
11. Eugene Monroe (LT, 2005, Virginia) – already an established left tackle for Jaguars in second year in league
12. Kevin Jones (RB, 2001, Virginia Tech) – ran for 3,067 yards as starting running back for Lions for 4 seasons
13. David Givens (WR, 1998, Notre Dame) – 166 catches over 5 NFL seasons
14. Ted Ginn Jr. (WR, 2004, Ohio State) – #9 draft pick in 2007 is used primarily as a returner and is edging dangerously close to the “bust” label
15. Da’Quan Bowers (DE, 2008, Clemson) – projected #1 draft pick in 2011 Draft; that’s already a bigger accomplishment than everyone below him on this list
16. Chris Weinke (QB, 1990, Florida State) – after minor league baseball career, went 1-14 in 1 season as starter before riding the bench for his last six years in the league
17. Joe McKnight (RB, 2007, USC) – 189 rushing yards in rookie season as Jets backup (4.8 yards per carry)
18. Randy Fasani (QB, 1997, Stanford) – 44 passes thrown (0 TD, 4 INT) in 1 NFL season
19. Myron Rolle (DB, 2006, Florida State) – rookie spent year on Titans practice squad
20. Marquette Smith (RB, 1991, UCF by way of Florida State) – drafted but never played a regular season game
21. Ron Powlus (QB, 1993, Notre Dame) – saw some action in three preseasons; never played a regular season game
22. Kyle Wright (QB, 2003, Miami) – saw some action in one preseason; never played a regular season game
23. Xavier Crawford (RB, 1988, Memphis State) – never played in pros; currently an alleged rapist

Matt Barkley (QB, 2009, USC) and Ronald Powell (LB, 2010, Florida) are still active in college. Barkley has had an ugly USC career: the team is 17-7 in the 24 games he has started after going 72-7 in their previous six seasons (although we can’t really blame Barkley for all of that). Powell made the All-SEC Freshman Team as a linebacker in his first season with the Gators.

Interesting stuff. I don’t really have a whole article on the list, but I had a bunch of random thoughts.

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Five of the 22 #1 high school recruits that already graduated have made a Pro Bowl. I’m not sure if that’s a high number or a low number. On one hand, it seems low, as it seems to imply that 18 of the kids were busts. But on the other, that actually seems really high. Eugene Monroe seems like a great bet to make a Pro Bowl in the near future; D.J. Williams certainly might (he was an alternate in 2009). So we could be looking at seven of the best 18-year old football players in the country that could make Pro Bowl.

That’s really not too bad. Imagine picking 22 very good 18-year old football players that would make good professionals at some point in the future. If five actually ended up making the Pro Bowl, I feel like you’d consider that a success.

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I am sure that high school scouting overall has improved. It has become a huge industry in the Internet era: Rivals, Scouts, and every random football fan on the street has an opinion. I actually watched a game on ESPNU this year in which a potential Nebraska quarterback recruit played. High school recruiting is a BIG DEAL.

But with that said, these recruiting agencies have sure whiffed on a lot of #1 overall prospects. The six best pros on my list all graduated high school before 2000. Some of the #1 players from the past decade could potentially still crack the list, but that would be a long shot for most of them. D.J. Williams seems to have fallen into a role as an above average, but not great linebacker. Vince Young might be looking for a new team this offseason to try to resurrect his career. Eugene Monroe probably is a good bet to keep rising higher, but there’s not much of a chance for the rest of the #1 recruits of the 2000s. Kevin Jones and Kyle Wright have already left football; Ted Ginn Jr. has all the makings of a bust; Myron Rolle could not crack the Titans’ 53-man roster this season; and Joe McKnight is the Jets’ third-string running back. Da’Quan Bowers looks promising, but Matt Barkley hardly looks like a pro quarterback. That’s an awful lot of busts from this industry.

Compare that to the earlier years of recruiting, before the Internet turned recruiting into an entire industry. Jeff George, Hines Ward, Shaun Alexander, Ricky Watters, and Amani Toomer all put together great college and pro careers. At the same time, the busts were bigger than they are now. Marquette Smith, Randy Fasani, Xavier Crawford, and Ron Powlus were all huge busts. In the last twelve years, only Kyle Wright has been an overwhelming bust.

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I have an interesting theory on the type of college program these recruits go to. The highest picks in the NFL draft on the list were Jeff George and Tim Couch (#1 overall in 1990 and 1999), Da’Quan Bowers (will be top-three pick in 2011), Vince Young (#3 in 2006), and Eugene Monroe (#8 in 2008). Here are the records of the college teams that these players went to in the three years previous to each player’s first college season:

Illinois (Jeff George): 3-7-1, 4-7, 6-5-1
Kentucky (Tim Couch): 4-7, 1-10, 6-6
Clemson (Da’Quan Bowers): 9-4, 8-5, 8-4
Texas (Vince Young): 11-2, 9-3, 9-5
Virginia (Eugene Monroe): 8-4, 8-5, 9-5

All five of those schools struggled prior to signing the #1 overall recruit. Only Texas really carried any kind of national prestige at the time.* So far, George, Couch, and Young are considered busts, while the verdict is still out on Bowers and Monroe.

* I could count Clemson, but Bowers joined the Tigers in 2008. Clemson really hasn’t been relevant for the past couple of decades.

Each of these players was a rousing success in college. As a result, they were all drafted high. They have had better NFL careers than most of the #1 high school recruits, but how much of that comes from the simple fact that they were a high draft pick? Teams are much more willing to give their top draft picks a longer leash – what if these players really weren’t better than their fellow top high school recruits, but they just stood out in college more because their teammates weren’t that great?

On the flip side, look at the schools of the top five players on my NFL list:

Georgia (Hines Ward, 92nd overall pick in 1998): 5-6, 10-2, 9-3
Notre Dame (Ricky Watters, 45th overall in 1991): 5-6, 5-6, 7-5
Florida State (Anquan Boldin, 54th overall in 2003): 11-2, 11-1, 11-1
Alabama (Shaun Alexander, 19th overall in 2000): 12-1, 9-3-1, 13-0
Michigan (Amani Toomer, 34th overall in 1996): 10-2, 9-3, 10-2

Notre Dame and Georgia are the weak links, but all five of those players went to schools with a fair amount of national prestige. We have a really small sample size here, but maybe this tells us something about which schools a top ranked player should go to. Better schools and better competition prepares players for the NFL more than lesser schools. But there is a huge risk and reward with going to a top school: leaving aside certified headcase Xavier Crawford, the other three players who never played in the NFL went to:

Miami (Kyle Wright, undrafted): 12-1, 12-0, 11-1
Notre Dame (Ron Pawlus, undrafted): 10-1-1, 10-3, 9-3
Florida State (Marquette Smith, 142nd overall pick in 1996): 10-2, 10-2, 11-1

I have a hunch that Matt Barkley (12-1, 11-2, 11-2) joins them soon. The common theme is that those top recruits that go to powerhouse schools are battle-tested. Those that have the talent to survive to make it to the professional ranks are likely to thrive. Those that don’t will be badly exposed in college.

On the other hand, it is quite a bit easier for the top recruits to stand out at lower programs. This is somewhat obvious – look no further than Matt Barkley and Joe McKnight for proof. Both were #1 recruits, both went to talent-laden USC, and neither has done much to show he was worthy of being the #1 recruit. If McKnight went to UCLA instead of USC, we could very well be talking about him as a first round NFL running back. Instead of focusing on his inadequacies, it would have been much easier to blame his teammates for his lack of production. The same goes for #1 picks Jeff George (16-7-1 in two seasons as a starter) and Tim Couch (12-11). Neither were battle-tested and both are considered among the biggest busts from the #1 draft slot.

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Finally, I was curious as to how far these players traveled to school. College away from home sounds good on paper and these guys have a chance to go anywhere in the country that they want. That can certainly lead to trouble: an 18-year old kid leaving to a different part of the country, living on his own for the first time, and pretty much being worshiped by everyone around them? Talk about a recipe for disaster.

But remarkably most of these players were not intrigued by the possibility of being a hero/partier in a different part of the country and instead stayed closed to home. Here is the list of players that went to school more than 500 miles away from home:

D.J. Williams (Miami): 3,033 miles from De La Salle High (Concord, CA)
Kyle Wright (Miami): 3,020 miles from Monte Vista High (Danville, CA)
Ronald Powell (Florida): 2,346 miles from Rancho Verde High (Moreno Valley, CA)
Amani Toomer (Michigan): 2,340 miles from De La Salle High (Concord, CA)
Joe McKnight (USC): 1,889 miles from John Curtis Christian (River Ridge, LA)
Chris Weinke (Florida State): 1,330 miles from Cretin-Derham Hall (St. Paul, MN)
David Givens (Notre Dame): 1,132 miles from Humble High (Humble, TX)
Myron Rolle (Florida State): 1,064 from The Hun School (Princeton, NJ)
Ricky Watters (Notre Dame): 568 miles from Bishop McDevitt High (Harrisburg, PA)
Ron Powlus (Notre Dame): 566 miles from Berwick High (Berwick, PA)

That seemed surprising to me at first, but I suppose it really isn’t. A kid that has worked hard enough to be the best high school football player in the country probably has a college in mind already. He is likely to stick close to home to go to the school he has been idolizing.

Looking at the list again we can discount the three players who went to Notre Dame because the Irish have such a large national presence. Wright, Weinke, and Rolle come from areas of the country where professional football is far more important than college football. Williams and Toomer both went to De La Salle, which fancies itself as the best high school football program in the country – in a way, high school football is the biggest game for De La Salle. So that really only leaves Powell and McKnight as surprising college choices.

Both Powell and McKnight were the #1 recruit in the last five years. Will the surprising college choices continue in the future now that recruiting is a huge nationwide industry? Or will local colleges still dominate recruiting? I’m not sure. That might be a post for another day.


How Sweet It Is

February 7, 2011

Wow.

What else can I write after a game like that? Fourteen years of frustration and, for one night anyway, it was all worth it.

Everyone has heard that the journey is more important than the destination. It’s a cliché, but it’s right. I will not be on cloud nine for anywhere near as long as the fourteen years it took to get there. But for now it feels pretty damn good. I just wish I had the eloquence and writing talent to write something more profound.

I thought about chronicling the pain of being a Packers fan the last fourteen years. There was the Super Bowl XXXII loss that didn’t feel painful at the time because we all assumed that Brett Favre would lead us back there soon; The Catch Part II after the referees blew a call on a Jerry Rice fumble; the short-lived Ray Rhodes era; 4th and 26; a loss to the Vikings in the 2004 playoffs; three Favre retirements; blowing the NFC Championship Game at home in 2008; three more years of Favre and Aaron Rodgers comparisons; and the Vikings and Favre coming thisclose to causing the entire state of Wisconsin to implode in 2010.

Then I decided that wouldn’t be fair. Only nine other teams have won the Super Bowl since Green Bay won in 1997. That means fans of 22 other teams don’t really care to hear about my thoughts on the Packers’ pain (not that anyone really wants to read my thoughts in the first place). To top that off, I live in Minneapolis now, where the Vikings have never won a Super Bowl and have more Super Bowls losses (four) than twenty other teams have appearances. And for most Viking fans, none of those Super Bowl losses would even crack their list of the top ten most painful moments in their history.

So yeah, I would be a little out of touch with my readers if I complained about the Packers’ stumbles. Instead I’m going to write about Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre for the first and only time. Unoriginal, I know, but at least this one is a personal story and not one of those canned columns that AP and ESPN writers crank out each week. This is a story about how Aaron Rodgers made it fun to be a Packer fan in Minneapolis again.

******************

I’m not the type of guy that loves or hates people I’ve never met. I did not really get the whole fascination with the Bill O’Reilly/Barack Obama interview before the game. If I don’t understand how a person can hate another person that he or she has never met, then I certainly don’t care to watch two people that barely know each other argue over who hates who.

For the same reason, I had trouble understanding the people that supported Favre when the Packers cut him loose after he waffled on retirement for three straight years (causing the Packers to waste two early round draft picks on quarterbacks). I liked watching him play as much as the next Packer fan, but the whole cult of personality thing? That’s Mao and Kim-Jong Il territory, not one-time Super Bowl winning quarterback that I’ll never meet territory.

Now obviously that’s adult me talking. Young me would vehemently disagree. I became a Packer fan after the 1992 season, Favre’s first with the Packers.* I stuck with them for the next three years even though they were knocked out of the playoffs by the Cowboys each year. This was brutal because the Cowboys were the bandwagon team of the decade, so there was no shortage of kids at school to rub each loss in. I’m nothing if not stubborn, so that just made me love the Packers and Favre that much more. I worshiped Favre, the only public figure before or since that I can say that about. By the 1996 Super Bowl season, nine out of every ten of the outfits I wore to school had some sort of Packer emblem on it (yeah, I was that kid).

* True story: I was a big sports and numbers guy. I literally stared at the statistics in our newspaper’s sports section for an hour a day. In 1992, I didn’t have any allegiance towards any NFL team, but I followed the standings religiously. The Packers finished 9-7 and lost out to the Washington Redskins on a tiebreaker for the final playoff spot. The Pack hadn’t been to the playoffs in eleven years, so I felt bad for them and starting rooting for them the next season. Eighteen years later, here we are. Oh, how an eight year-old’s mind works.

Time went on. I was still a huge Favre and Packer fan, but things change as you get older. I stopped wearing Packer clothes every day. I still loved Favre. Loved that the media dubbed him America’s quarterback. Loved every time he broke a new record. Loved that I happened to be in attendance when he threw his record-setting 421st touchdown pass. But I didn’t idolize him like I did when I was younger, partly because I was older and partly because, after the 2001 playoffs, I knew that the Packers would never win another Super Bowl with Favre at the helm.

For that reason, I was on board with GM Ted Thompson when he refused to let Brett Favre come back after his third flirtation with retirement in three years. I was apathetic when he went to the Jets. I wished him well, but I didn’t know the guy, so I didn’t really care. The Packers and Jets weren’t scheduled to play that season, so it was fine by me if he wanted to go play in New York.

Then came Favre’s move to the Minnesota Vikings. I grew up in Nebraska where there was not many Viking fans, for whatever reason. Our rival was the Bears. Obviously, that changed when I moved to Minneapolis in 2007. The Packers are the Vikings’ natural rival, but it goes beyond that. After years of failure, the Vikings have a serious inferiority complex going on. I’m used to it now, but I found it a bit bizarre at first. In Omaha, I only cared if the Packers won each week. In Minneapolis, Vikings fans still call it a good week if they lose, so long as the Packers don’t win. I can’t really pass judgment on this cynical attitude because being a Viking fan is borderline masochistic. The bottom line is that the Vikings have such low expectations of their own team that they take joy when the Packers fail.

So you can understand how much it sucked being a Packers fan in Minneapolis in 2009. 12 year-old Seth would have spontaneously combusted if future Seth could travel back to 1996 and tell him: “Hey, you know that whole Favre and Packer love you have? Well Favre doesn’t care about any of that. Thirteen years from now he’s going to join the Vikings in a blatant attempt to stick it to the Packers. Oh by the way, you’re going to live in Minneapolis so you will get to hear this EVERY SINGLE DAY.”

Now all of a sudden I turned into an unpleasant fan. I rooted for the Packers to make it to the Super Bowl, just like every year, but I couldn’t handle this Favre/Vikings love affair. When it turned out that the Vikings were actually pretty good, my biggest fear was that they’d win the Super Bowl. I wanted them to lose more than I wanted the Packers to win simply because of one guy that I had never met. And that wasn’t fun.

Every Vikings fan knows how this story ends. It took until the final fifteen seconds in regulation of the NFC Championship Game, but the real Favre finally showed up. The Vikings lost, Favre disgraced himself on and off the field the next season, with one magical playoff run Rodgers and the Packers brought the Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay, and I still haven’t gotten tired of watching SportsCenter for the fifth consecutive time this morning.

Last night a member of ESPN’s football crew mentioned something about Favre being “the elephant in the room,” to which Trent Dilfer replied that Rodgers’s career doesn’t compare with Favre’s yet. Well of course it doesn’t. Rodgers has been an NFL quarterback for three years and they are comparing him to the guy who holds pretty much every career quarterback record, both good and bad.

These analysts have missed the point for two years now. The elephant in the room has nothing to do with a comparison of the two – NOBODY in Green Bay thinks Rodgers’ career can be compared with Favre’s at this point. That’s insane. No, the elephant in the room was Packers’ fans fear that Favre would win a Super Bowl with the Vikings before Green Bay won another Super Bowl. Favre was the only public figure I idolized – and you can almost certainly say the same thing for every Wisconsin resident between the ages of 14 and 32. Do you realize what a Favre Super Bowl win with the Vikings would have done to the collective psyche of Green Bay fans? It’s tough to imagine…but it wouldn’t have been pretty.

********************

So this seems like a story about Brett Favre. Superficially, I suppose, it is. But Favre is only a small part of the story.

The real story is about sticking with a team, sticking with a group of players, and waiting for that one big game. The actions of one flawed man made thousands of Packer fans question why they followed a team whose leader turned out to be more concerned with spite than his own legacy. Why bother, when rooting for a team is irrational in the first place? Why bother, when there is a 31 out of 32 chance that we will end up disappointed? Why bother, when the face of the franchise for fifteen years apparently doesn’t care anywhere close to as much as fans do?

Aaron Rodgers and his teammates showed us why. The hope that the Packers will be that one team that ends the season with the Lombardi Trophy. The hope that your GM was right all along. The hope that through thick and thin, everything will work out and all the agony will all be worth it.

For one night anyway, all those hopes made sense.


Revisiting the Draft Classes of the Steelers and Packers

February 5, 2011

As readers are well aware based on my previous posts, I’m fascinated by the NFL Draft. Both of this years’ Super Bowl teams built their squads almost entirely through the draft. Neither team has made anything close to a free agent splash in the last several years. You have to go back to the Packers’ signing of Charles Woodson in the 2006 offseason for the last big free agent signing.

I decided to look back at the last ten NFL drafts for each team. Although both teams built through the draft, they took different routes to get there. The Steelers dominated the early half of the decade, knocking several drafts out of the park. Meanwhile, the Packers struggled in the first half of the decade and have built their team through successful drafts in the latter half of the decade. The Steelers have tended to nail the first picks of each draft while the Packers have struck gold in the later rounds.

A comparison of the drafts from 2001 to 2010:

2001 –

Green Bay: 6 picks (0 still with team)
1st pick – Jamal Reynolds, DE, Florida State (10th overall)

Best pick: Robert Ferguson, WR, 41st overall pick. Ferguson is the best of a weak Packers draft class. He contributed for five years with the Packers as a #3 or #4 receiver before the team cut him in 2006.

Worst pick: Reynolds. Many thought the undersized defensive end was a reach with the tenth overall pick in the draft. They were right. Reynolds never cracked the starting lineup and languished behind 2000 fifth round pick Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila for three years before the Packers cut him.

Other contributors: Not much. Only Ferguson, SS Bhawoh Jue (71st overall), and TE David Martin (198th overall) lasted more than three years with the team, and all were gone by 2006.

Pittsburgh: 7 draft picks (1 still with team)
1st pick: Casey Hampton, NT, Temple (19th overall)

Best pick: Hampton, by a mile. The five-time Pro Bowler has been the anchor of the Steelers’ front line for the past decade. Hampton is a proverbial “destructive force” and is instrumental in the success of the Steelers’ feared defense.

Worst pick: T Mathias Nkwenti (111th overall). Sure, the Steelers probably weren’t expecting a ton of production from a fourth round project. However, they probably were expecting more than eight games and zero starts in three seasons.

Other contributors: LB Kendrell Bell (39th overall). Bell was a Pro Bowl linebacker and had three productive seasons with the Steelers before injuries prematurely ended his career. Besides that, a pretty dry draft for the Steelers.

2002 –

Green Bay: 6 picks (0 still with team)
1st pick – Javon Walker, WR, Florida State (20th overall)

Best pick: Aaron Kampman, DE (156th 0verall). The fifth round draft pick anchored the left side of the Packers’ defensive line for most of the 2000s. Kampman had 54 career sacks for the Packers and made the Pro Bowl in 2006 and 2007 before he signed with the Jaguars in the 2010 offseason.

Worst pick: Marques Anderson, SS (92nd overall). The third round pick wins the worst pick by default. The Packers did not have a pick between Walker and the third round, so Anderson was the second pick of the Packers in this draft. He only played two seasons for the Packers and, according to Wikipedia, is currently coaching football in Norway.

Other contributors: Walker; RB Najeh Davenport (135th overall). Walker was a Pro Bowl receiver and potential star in the making before an ugly contract dispute in 2005. Najeh “Poopy Pants” Davenport was a decent but injury-prone backup running back for the Packers for four years.

Pittsburgh: 8 draft picks (3 still with team)
1st pick: Kendall Simmons, G, Auburn (30th overall)

Best pick: Brett Keisel, DE (242nd overall pick) with honorable mention to LB James Harrison. This was a great draft for the Steelers, but surprisingly, the best pick goes to seventh round pick Kiesel. Kiesel rode the bench for several years before he entered the starting lineup in 2006. Since then, he has been a mainstay on the Steelers line and made the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2010. Honorable mention goes to four-time Pro Bowler and 2008 NFL Defense Player of the Year James Harrison, who inexplicably went undrafted, so I can’t give him the best pick award. Currently Harrison is perhaps the most feared defender in the NFL. Any time you can get two Pro Bowlers in the seventh round or later, that’s a solid draft.

Worst pick: None. Although none of the Steelers’ picks became stars outside of Keisel and Harrison, there wasn’t a single bust in the group.

Other contributors: Simmons, Antwaan Randle El (62nd pick), Chris Hope (94th pick), Larry Foote (128th pick), Verron Haynes (166th pick). Simmons was a five-year starter at guard, including the Super Bowl-winning 2006 season. Randle El has never put up big numbers, but the college quarterback-turned-wide receiver seems to pull off at least one gadget play every game. Hope was a solid safety for the Steelers, but didn’t become a Pro Bowler until he left for the Titans in 2006. Foote was a starter at linebacker for six years and now provides backup support off the bench. And Haynes was a fun third down back for several years.

2003 –

Green Bay: 9 picks (1 still with team)
1st pick: Nick Barnett, LB, Oregon State (29th overall)

Best pick: Barnett. Although not without his faults, Barnett has anchored the Packers’ linebacking corps for most of the past decade. He started fifteen games as a rookie and hasn’t relinquished his starting role since then. Unfortunately, he was hurt in the fourth game of this season and will miss the Super Bowl.

Worst pick: Take your pick. The rest of the Packers’ draft is littered with the names of players that most Packers fans don’t remember: Kenny Petersen, James Lee, Brennan Curtin, Chris Johnson (the cornerback), DeAndrew Rubin, Carl Ford, and Steve Josue. None lasted more than two seasons with the Packers. Fifth round pick Hunter Hillenmeyer has had a decent career with the Bears after the Packers cut him in the 2003 preseason.

Other contributors: Cullen Jenkins, DE, Central Michigan (undrafted). The injury-prone Jenkins is still contributing for the Packers. He was an average defensive end for his first several years in the league, but has come into his own under Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme. He had a career-high seven sacks in just eleven games this season.

Pittsburgh (5 picks, 2 still with team)
1st pick: Troy Polamalu, S, USC

Best pick: Polamalu. Only five picks in 2003, but the Steelers still knocked it out of the park. If Harrison isn’t the most feared defender in the NFL, then Polamalu certainly might be. Six Pro Bowls, three First Team All-Pro selections, and one Defensive Player of the Year Award, and my only thought when I looked that information up was: “he only has three first team selections?” Enough said.

Worst pick: Alonzo Jackson, LB (59th overall). Jackson never started a game in two seasons with the Steelers – a rare miss at the linebacker position from the Pittsburgh front office.

Other contributors: Ike Taylor, CB (125th overall). Taylor has started at cornerback for the last six seasons for Pittsburgh and has helped the team win two Super Bowls. Amazing to think that the Steelers only got two producers out of five picks and they STILL had one of the best drafts of any team in 2003.

2004 –

Green Bay (6 picks, 1 still with team)
1st pick: Ahmad Carroll, CB, Arkansas, 25th overall

Best pick: Scott Wells, C (251st overall). I promise, future drafts get better for the Pack. Wells is the only pick still with the team and is one of the stalwarts of the sometimes porous Packer front line. He started all 16 games for the team this season.

Worst pick: Carroll. Hands down the worst cornerback I’ve ever watched on a consistent basis. Carroll had a knack for a) getting burned and b) picking up a lot of penalties. Not the ideal characteristics you want in a cornerback. Carroll was abruptly cut after Week 4 of the 2006 season after he was beat for two long touchdown passes.

Other contributors: None. I suppose you could make an argument for sixth round draft pick Corey Williams’ four seasons as a backup defensive end and undrafted fullback Vonta Leach’s three productive seasons. But I won’t. Another crappy draft for the Pack.

Pittsburgh: 8 draft picks (2 still with team)
1st pick: Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Miami (OH)

Best pick: Roethlisberger. Another no-brainer. Two Super Bowl wins plus another appearance this season…all before he turns 30.

Worst pick: Ricardo Colclough, CB (38th overall). Colclough never started a game in four seasons with the Steelers. Although you can’t say that the Steelers don’t learn their lessons: they have yet to draft another cornerback from Tusculum University. So that’s something.

Other contributors: T Max Starks (75th overall), RB Willie Parker (undrafted). The 6-foot-8 Starks has been a starter at tackle for the better part of the last seven years. Fast Willie earned two Pro Bowl nods and was the main running back on both of the Steelers’ Super Bowl-winning teams in the 2000s. Funny how the Steelers tend to go boom or bust in these drafts. With Roethlisberger and Parker, this was another rousing success for the team despite the fact that four of the team’s eight picks never even played a down for the Steelers.

2005 –

Green Bay: 11 picks (4 still with team)
1st pick: Aaron Rodgers, QB, California (24th overall)

Best pick: Rodgers (duh!). The first of several strong draft classes for the Packers. Three players are starters on the Packers’ Super Bowl team: Rodgers, Pro Bowl FS Nick Collins, and LB Brady Poppinga. Still, the obvious pick is stud young quarterback Rodgers. As an aside, as Joe Posnanski pointed out today, drafting quarterbacks is a crapshoot. The Packers and Steelers are set for years to come because they were one of the lucky teams to draft a star QB in the first round.

Worst pick: Marviel Underwood, SS (115th overall). This award probably should go to second round pick Terrence Murphy. Murphy’s career unfortunately ended with a broken neck suffered in the first game of his second season. I can’t bring myself to put Murphy as the worst pick, so the honor goes to Underwood. Underwood actually had a productive first season, but missed his second season with an injury and was cut in the preseason before his third year.

Other contributors: Collins (51st overall), Poppinga (125th overall), C Junius Coston (143rd overall), DE Mike Montgomery (180th overall). Collins and Poppinga have anchored the Packers’ defense since they were drafted. Coston and Montgomery were decent backup contributors for a few seasons for the team.

Pittsburgh: 8 draft picks (4 still with team)
1st pick: Heath Miller, TE, Virginia (30th overall)

Best pick: Miller. For the third year in a row, the Steelers knocked their first round pick out of the park. The Pro Bowl tight end has been an integral part of the Steelers’ offense, starting all but six games since he entered the league.

Worst pick: WR Fred Gibson (131st overall). The fourth round draft pick out of Georgia never played a down for the Steelers.

Other contributors: CB Bryant McFadden (62nd overall), T Trai Essex (93rd overall), G Chris Kemoeatu (204th overall), WR Nate Washington (undrafted). McFadden was mostly a backup for his first four seasons with the Steelers before joining the Cardinals in 2009. He was traded back to the Steelers in 2010 and started every game this season. Essex was shifted to guard after he was drafted. He was a full-time starter in 2009 but has been mostly a backup since then. Kemoeatu turned into a decent steal – the sixth round pick has stared for the Steelers for the last three seasons. Washington earned two Super Bowl rings as the Steelers’ slot receiver before the Titans overpaid for him in 2009.

2006 –

Green Bay: 12 draft picks (5 still with team)
1st pick: AJ Hawk, LB, Ohio State (5th overall)

Best pick: Greg Jennings, WR (52nd overall). Another solid draft for the Packers. Perennial Pro Bowler Jennings might have been one of the steals of the draft. Drafted 52nd overall out of Western Michigan, the sure-handed Jennings quickly established himself as a favorite of former QB Brett Favre. He has been the Packers’ best receiver for the last five years and led the NFL in touchdown catches this year. Perhaps even more importantly, his emergence allowed the aging Donald Driver to drop into the #2 receiver spot and gave the Packers one of the best receiving crews in the league.

Worst pick: Abdul Hodge, LB (67th overall). Count me as one of the many Packer fans who thought the team got a steal with Hodge in the third round. He only lasted one season with the Packers and is currently a backup for the Carolina Panthers.

Other contributors: Hawk, G Daryn Colledge (47th overall), G Jason Spitz (75th overall), DT Johnny Jolly (183th overall), CB Tramon Williams (undrafted). Hawk is not the star linebacker that the Packers hoped for, but he has been a starter for five seasons. Colledge was a bit of a mess for a few years but have since become better than average guards. Spitz has served as backup for pretty much every offensive line position. Jolly looked like a potential steal after he was a dominant force for the team for a few years. Then the NFL suspended him indefinitely after he was caught trafficking codeine. And Williams, who first signed with the Packers in November 2006, has been so good that he inspired me to write this post.

Pittsburgh: 9 picks (1 still with team)
1st pick: Santonio Holmes, WR, Ohio State (25th overall)

Best pick: Holmes. Yet another strong first round selection from the Steelers. Holmes was the top receiver alongside Hines Ward on the Steelers’ Super Bowl XLIII winning team. For his efforts in the big game, he was named Super Bowl MVP. The Steelers traded Holmes to the Jets in the 2010 offseason because of legal troubles.

Worst pick: Take your pick. Five of the Steelers’ nine picks never played for the team and a sixth, WR Willie Reid, caught only four passes in two seasons. If pressed, the award probably goes to third round pick Reid, as the five players who never played for the team were drafted later than the fourth round.

Other contributors: T Willie Colon (131st overall). Colon started 50 consecutive games at tackle between the end of the 2006 season and the 2009 season before tearing his Achilles tendon in the 2010 preseason.

2007 –

Green Bay: 11 draft picks (6 still with team)
1st pick: Justin Harrell, DT, Tennessee (16th overall)

Best pick: LB Desmond Bishop (192nd overall). The 2007 class didn’t produce any stars, but did produce some solid contributors. Bishop gets the nod as best pick with his clutch performance this season. Prior to this year, Bishop was viewed as an undersized backup; his emergence as a decent player led to the team waiving Hodge. However, this season, with the Packers’ linebacking corps decimated by injury, Bishop has stepped in to solidify the defense and help lead the team to the Super Bowl.

Worst pick: Harrell. Harrell was viewed as a reach with the 16th overall pick. He has done nothing to sway critics since then. Although he is still on the team (thanks to injured reserve), he has only started two career games for the Pack. With the emergence of B.J. Raji this season, Harrell is unlikely to have a role next season. Fortunately for him, he will likely get hurt in July so the Packers will be able to move him to the injured reserve.

Other contributors: RB Brandon Jackson (63rd overall), James Jones (78th overall), FB Korey Hall (191st overall), K Mason Crosby (193rd overall). The Packers didn’t end up with a single starter (other than Crosby) in this bunch, but all are still contributing to the team. Jackson has been decent as a rusher and Jones has given the squad a talented #4 receiver that allows the team to run their beloved four receiver set.

Pittsburgh: 8 draft picks (5 still with team)
1st pick: Lawrence Timmons, LB, Florida State (15th overall)

Best pick: LaMarr Woodley, LB (46th overall). In just three seasons as a starter, Woodley already has a ridiculous 39 sacks. He finished third in the league with 13.5 sacks in his Pro Bowl 2009 season. Woodley gets the slight edge over the under-appreciated Timmons, who has been less dynamic but no less impressive in his two seasons as a starter.

Worst pick: None. Each of the Steelers’ top four picks in the draft are still key contributors. Hard to give a worst draft pick honor after that.

Other contributors: Timmons, TE Matt Spaeth (77th overall), P Daniel Sepulveda (112th overall), CB William Gay (170th overall). Spaeth is not the star tight end that Heath Miller is, but has still been solid for the Steelers. When he plays, Sepulveda is one of the best punters in football, averaging 43.4 yards per punt. Unfortunately, he has torn his ACL three times and his missed parts of two seasons. Gay sees plenty of game action as the Steelers’ nickel back.

2008 –

Green Bay: 9 draft picks (7 still with team)
1st pick: Jordy Nelson, WR, Kansas State (36th overall)

Best pick: Nelson (for now). The Packers did not have a first round pick in 2008 but still came up with solid role players. Nelson joined Jones as a slot receiver in the Pack’s four receiver sets. He figures to be a contributor in that role for years to come. He gets the best pick honor (for now) because fourth round pick TE Jermichael Finley emerged as a stud early this year before an injury ended his season early.

Worst pick: Brian Brohm, QB (56th overall). Funny how times change. The Packers drafted Brohm in the second round to challenge then-new starter Aaron Rodgers. Brohm couldn’t even beat out seventh round pick Matt Flynn for the backup job and was last seen throwing three interceptions for the Buffalo Bills as a spot starter in the 2010 season finale. And Rodgers…well, he turned out pretty good.

Other contributors: Finley, G Josh Sitton (135th overall). After years of wasting second and third round picks on guards, the Packers may have found their long-term solution in fourth round pick Sitton. He has started every game in the last two seasons. Four other Packers are still on the roster, but none have done much outside of special teams work.

Pittsburgh: 7 draft picks (5 still with team)
1st pick: Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Illinois (23rd overall)

Best pick: Mendenhall has been by far the best player of the Steelers’ weak 2008 class. He saw little action in his first season but has since become the running back that the Steelers expected when they drafted him. He entered the starting lineup for good in Week 4 of the 2009 season and has run for almost 2,400 yards since then.

Worst pick: Limas Sweed, WR (53rd overall). Sweed was a mess for his first two seasons and grabbed only seven career catches. He missed the entire 2010 season with an Achilles injury.

Other contributors: Not much. The Steelers grabbed a decent backup quarterback in the fifth round with Dennis Dixon and a backup strong safety with Ryan Mundy in the sixth round. Dixon has started three games and Mundy two games as spot starters.

2009 –

Green Bay: 8 draft picks (7 still with team)
1st pick: B.J. Raji, DT, Boston College (9th overall)

Best pick: Clay Matthews, LB (26th overall). This really was an amazing draft for the Packers. The obvious standout is Matthews. In two years, Matthews already has two Pro Bowl selections and finished runner-up this season for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Just a stud.

Worst pick: Jamon Meredith, T (162nd overall). Tough to name a worst pick this soon after the draft. Meredith wins by virtue of being the only Packer draft pick not still with the team.

Other contributors: Raji, T T.J. Lang (109th overall), FB Quinn Johnson (145th overall), LB Brad Jones (218th overall), P Tim Masthay (undrafted). Matthews and Raji are probably enough to make this an amazing draft for the Pack – anything else is just icing on the cake. Lang and Johnson are both valuable backups for the team and Jones could prove to be a steal based on his performances in spot starts over the last two seasons. Masthay has been only an average punter, but that undrafted looks a lot better when you remember that the Packers spent a third round draft pick in 2004 on a punter (B.J. Sander) who only played one season with the team.

Pittsburgh: 9 picks (7 still with team)
1st pick: Ziggy Hood, DT, Missouri (32nd overall)

Best pick: WR Mike Wallace (84th overall). The third round draft pick had a breakout season this year after the Steelers traded away Santonio Holmes in the offseason. The deep threat caught 60 passes for 1,257 yards this season. His 21.0 yards per catch led the AFC.

Worst pick: T Kraig Urbik (79th overall). In what appears to be an ongoing theme for the Steelers, their second pick in the draft never played a game for the team. He was released after the 2009 season and currently plays for the Buffalo Bills.

Other contributors: Hood, TE David Johnson (241st overall). Hood cracked the starting lineup midway through this season and looks like the Steelers’ potential defensive end of the future. Seventh round pick Johnson started seven games this year at the tight end position. The remaining players still on the team have seen little action.

2010 –

Green Bay: 7 draft picks (7 still with team)
1st pick: Bryan Bulaga, T, Iowa (23rd overall)

Best pick: Bulaga. Another year, another great draft. Amazingly, four of the seven rookies that the Packers drafted started a game this season (Bulaga, S Morgan Burnett, TE Andrew Quarless, and RB James Starks). Two more undrafted rookies started games (CB Sam Shields and LB Frank Zombo). The best pick so far has been Bulaga, who struggled early, but has shown enormous potential in his first season.

Worst pick: TBD. The early favorite is second round draft pick DT Mike Neal, who didn’t contribute at all for the Packers this season. It’s early though.

Other contributors: See above.

Pittsburgh: 10 draft picks (8 still with team)
1st pick: Maurkice Pouncey, C, Florida (18th overall)

Best pick: Pouncey. The center emerged as a star in the making in his rookie season. He was one of only five rookies to be selected to the Pro Bowl.

Worst pick: TBD. Early favorite is DE Jason Worilds (52nd overall). The second round draft pick saw very little action this season.

Other contributors: WR Emmanuel Sanders (82nd overall), WR Antonio Brown (195th overall). Sanders had a great rookie season as the slot receiver, catching 28 passes for 376 yards. Brown only caught 16 passes, but made the biggest catch of the year for the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.


Having Fun with the AP’s Coach of the Year Award

February 3, 2011

Bill Belichick won the Associated Press’s Coach of the Year Award yesterday, the third time he has won the award. This led to me taking a Sporcle quiz on the winners of the award since the first time the AP gave it out in 1957. Unfortunately, I only knew 29 of 54 offhand. I tend to know more about the NFL than most, which explains why I knew 51 of 54 MVP Award winners. Instead of admitting defeat, I decided to write this blog post making fun of the AP for some of their Coach of the Year selections.

The AP Coach of the Year Award seems to go back and forth between a Most Improved Team Award and a true Coach of the Year Award. That explains why Marvin Lewis won last year after leading the Bengals from a 4-11-1 season to a 10-6 season and a division title even though Super Bowl coaches Jim Caldwell’s (14-2) and Sean Payton’s (13-3) had far better records. On the other hand, Todd Haley did not win this year after he led the Chiefs to a 10-6 division title after finishing 4-12 in 2009; Belichick did after leading the Patriots to an NFL-best 14-2 record. Neither one of these awards is wrong because Coach of the Year means different things to different voters. At the time, I’m sure many of the winners throughout history made sense. Yet the ambiguous award definition sometimes leads to odd results, at least in retrospect.

The first thing one notices about the list of award winners is the lack of great coaches on the list. Sure, this is probably a little unfair, since we define a great coach as someone who wins the Super Bowl. The award is voted on each year before the Super Bowl takes place. So yeah, I’m being a bit of a jerk by counting eventual Super Bowl victories against the voters. But it is my blog, after all.

Still, fifteen Hall of Fame coaches served as head coaches at some point during the award’s 54 year history. Six Hall coaches (Sid Gillman, Marv Levy, John Madden, Paul Brown, Chuck Noll, and Hank Stram) all came up empty. Stram and Gillman only coached a few years in the post-merger NFL, so that’s somewhat excusable. Paul Brown’s best days were also behind him by the time the AP starting handing out the award. Of course with that said, he won the UPI Award in 1969 and 1970.

Madden twice led the Raiders to the best record in the NFL (1974 and 1976). In 1974, the award went to Don Coryell, who turned around the Cardinals from 4-9-1 in 1973 to 10-4 division winners in 1974. Coryell was deserving – this was only his second year with the team and the division win led to the Cardinals’ first playoff appearance since 1948. The 1976 award went to Cleveland Brown head coach Forrest Gregg, who led the Browns from a fourth place 3-11 division finish to a third place 9-5 finish. The Raiders went 13-1 and won the Super Bowl. That’s called a miss by voters.

Levy somehow never won despite a record-setting four consecutive AFC Championships. Between 1990 and 1993, the AP decided to give the award to coaches who turned a team around. None of the four coaches that won the award (Jimmy Johnson, Wayne Fontes, Bill Cowher, and Dan Reeves) made it to the Super Bowl. The Cowher selection was somewhat bizarre. In his first season with the Steelers, he led the team to an 11-5 record after they finished 7-9 the season before. They were promptly pummeled by the 11-5 Bills in the divisional playoffs.

But the most egregious omission goes to four-time Super Bowl champion Chuck Noll. How Noll never won an NFL Coach of the Year Award is beyond me. The winners during Noll’s four Super Bowl seasons are ridiculously embarrassing in retrospect: Coryell, Ted Marchibroda (Colts), Jack Patera (Seahawks), and Jack Pardee (Redskins). Marchibroda and Patera both ended their careers with losing records. As I mentioned above, Coryell was deserving. So was Marchibroda, who led the Colts to a 10-4 division title in his first season after they finished 2-12 the previous season. But Patera and Pardee didn’t even lead their teams to the playoffs in the seasons they won. Pardee’s selection might have made sense at the time; now it just looks insane. He “turned around” the Redskins from an 8-8 third place 1978 season (when he was also coach) to a 10-6 third place 1979 season.

Several more Hall of Fame coaches won only one award: Vince Lombardi, Weeb Ewbank, Tom Landry, Bud Grant, and Bill Walsh. Only Walsh and Ewbank won their awards during a championship season.

Lombardi is hands down the most famous coach in NFL history. As far as I’m aware, he is the only coach to have a Broadway show based on his life. He won five championships and finished runner-up a sixth time. Amazingly, he won the award only once – his 1959 rookie season, when he led the Packers to a 7-5 record, the worst of his career. Between 1960 and 1967, Allie Sherman, George Halas, and Don Shula each won the award twice.

If you’re wondering who Allie Sherman is, that’s because you’re either a) under the age of 55 or b) not a Giants fan. The Halas and Shula picks don’t look that back in retrospect, until he realize that Halas’ 1963 season was the only one in which either won an NFL title. Halas somehow won the award again in 1965, even though the Bears finished 9-5 (fourth best in the 14-team league) two years after they won the championship. I’ll return to Shula later – he is worthy of his own thoughts.

Ewbank’s one award was probably more than he deserved. He won the award in the Colts’ 1958 NFL Championship season. But he’s pretty much the black sheep of the Hall of Fame coaches. His career record stands at 130-129-7…or just slightly worse than the career records of Hall of Fame longshots Jack Del Rio and Steve Mariucci.

Tom Landry won the award in 1966, when the Cowboys won the NFL’s Eastern Conference but lost to the Packers in the NFL Championship Game. The Cowboys finished 10-3-1 for the first winning season in their seven year history. Landry was probably deserving even though he was the coach for all seven of those seasons, so he doesn’t really get credit for a turnaround. He did not win the award any of the five times that he led the Cowboys to the Super Bowl. In 1975 and 1978, the aforementioned Ted Marchibroda and Jack Patera won the award.

In 1970, Landry lost to 49er coach Dick Nolan. The 49ers have had a lot of great coaches in their history. Nolan was not one of them. He finished with a career 54-53-5 record. The record in itself isn’t terrible, but Nolan’s reign of terror continued well into the 2000s, when the 49ers hired his son Mike as head coach. Mike went 18-37 in four seasons, so Dick deserves credit for those as well.

The very next season, Landry won his first Super Bowl but somehow lost out to fellow Hall of Famer George Allen. The Cowboys won the NFC East with an 11-3 record. Allen’s Redskins finished second with a 9-4-1 record. In fairness, the Redskins started 5-0, so the voters that cast their ballots in early October probably picked the right coach.

In 1977, Landry lost out to Broncos coach Red Miller. I like to imagine that upon hearing this, Landry first said “who?” and then took out his frustration on the same Broncos team in Super Bowl XII (the Cowboys won 27-10).

Bud Grant won in 1969, which actually makes sense, because that was the first time that he led the Vikings to the Super Bowl (they lost to the Chiefs 23-7). Of course, the Vikings made it back three more times – 1973, 1974, and 1976 – and Grant came up empty each time. In 1974, Coryell won and in 1976, Gregg won. In 1973, he deservedly lost out to Los Angeles Rams coach Chuck Knox, who led the Rams to a 12-2 record after finishing 6-7-1 the previous season.

And then we get to Bill Walsh. If Lombardi is the most popular head coach in NFL history, Walsh might just be the most innovative. He was the first to run the West Coast offense, which nearly every NFL team has incorporated into its repertoire. He turned the 49ers into a juggernaut in the 1980s, but won only one Coach of the Year Award. That was in his 1981 Super Bowl-winning season, when the voters couldn’t help but give him the award – the 49ers finished with both the best overall and most improved record in the league (6-10 to 13-3).

In 1984, Walsh’s best team won the Super Bowl. That team finished the regular season at 15-1 and is one of three teams (along with the 1972 Dolphins and 1985 Bears) that top the list of best Super Bowl champions ever. The award instead went to Chuck Knox, who improved his Seahawk team from a second-place AFC West finish and AFC Conference Championship appearance to a second-place AFC West finish and AFC Divisional Round appearance. Well done voters.

The only other year that Walsh had an argument for Coach of the Year was the 1987 season. Although the 49ers finished 13-2, he was overshadowed by Jim Mora, who led the Saints to a 12-3 record, back when that didn’t really seem possible.

This leads to the most stunning stat (I think). The Saints have had three Coaches of the Year and the Seahawks have had two. The Cowboys (5 Super Bowls) and Packers (3 Super Bowls) have had two. The Steelers (6 Super Bowls), 49ers (5 Super Bowls), and Broncos (2 Super Bowls) have only had one. The Raiders (3 Super Bowls) have never had one.

George Allen, Joe Gibbs, and George Halas have all won two awards each. This seems about right for a Hall of Fame coach.

That brings us to the one outlier: Don Shula. Shula won the award a record four times. He somehow won the award three times in seven years as coach of the Baltimore Colts in the 1960s…the same decade that Lombardi won zero. In case you’re wondering, the Colts didn’t win a championship until the year after Shula left, when coach Don McCafferty led them to a victory in Super Bowl V.

Shula later won the award when he led the Dolphins to an undefeated season in 1972, but the AP decided that was enough. After four awards in his first ten seasons in the league, he went 0-for-23 to close out his career.

What does all this mean? Not a thing, other than a bunch of answers fun trivia question. No one really cares about the Award, precisely because a guy like Allie Sherman won more awards than all but six of the coaches in the Hall of Fame. Sustained excellence is a lot harder to maintain than one turnaround season, but it’s just not all that sexy to voters.

Still, it’s amusing that Lindy Infante, Dick Jauron, Buck Shaw, George Wilson, Wayne Fontes, Ray Rhodes, Jim Fassel, Dom Capers, Jim Haslett, and Marvin Lewis all have one thing that Chuck Noll doesn’t: an AP Coach of the Year Award.

Although I’m guessing they’d trade it for one of Noll’s four Super Bowl championship rings.