Draft placement doesn't always equate to success in NFL
Johnny Manziel can only hope to be compared to Aaron Rodgers and Dan Marino as an NFL quarterback. For now, they share only miserable and embarrassing draft-day experiences.
Each was considered by draft analysts to be the best or one of the best quarterbacks available only to last until deep into the first round, enduring an agonizing wait during which millions debated their perceived flaws.
For Manziel on Thursday night, and Rodgers in 2005, the hours-long wait in the NFL Draft green room especially was uncomfortable because their every grimace, every sign of discomfort was televised nationally.
At least Marino escaped that distress in 1983, when the Pitt quarterback's freefall to the end of the first round took place in private.
Still, Manziel insisted after sliding to the Cleveland Browns at No. 22, or 21 spots lower than he was projected to go, that “there was no disappointment. I was drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. For me, it blows my mind.”
Now that the draft — one that drew huge TV ratings, in part, because the talent pool was the deepest in decades — is over, a different kind of analysis begins for one of the most-debated quarterback classes ever.
From this moment forward, it matters not that Blake Bortles went No. 3 to Jacksonville, Teddy Bridgewater lasted until Minnesota made the 32nd and final pick of the first round — quite the plummet for him, too — or that Tom Savage of Pitt went No. 135 to Houston.
Every quarterback has troubling minuses to go with their praise-worthy pluses, and there is no consensus as to whom will fail or succeed. Only the playing counts now.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said that, of the group, only Manziel can play immediately. He is one of the few draft experts who believes that. Others believe Manziel has mechanical flaws and is undersized and too reliant upon improvisation. Bridgewater dropped because of questions about his arm strength, accuracy and durability.
But the analysts — and teams — aren't always right.
In 1998, Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf were considered to be 1-2 at quarterback, and there was furious debate about who was better. Finally, the Indianapolis Colts picked Manning No. 1, and the San Diego Chargers chose Leaf at No. 2.
At the time, Sports Illustrated wrote that Manning “has done a great job of getting the most out of his abilities, but he is not quite as natural a player as Leaf.”
Manning, of course, became one of the greats in NFL history. Leaf became the No. 1 draft bust of all time, according to NFL Network, a player who couldn't handle on-field pressure from defenses or the off-field pressure associated with being picked so early.
There was no consensus about Marino in 1983, either.
Marino enjoyed a remarkable 1981 season in which he threw 37 touchdown passes and led Pitt to a stirring Sugar Bowl win over Georgia. His throwing arm was so good that he might have been a first-round baseball pick had he stayed with the sport — he had a 22-0 record at Central Catholic.
But 1982 proved to be a season-long contradiction for Marino, whose statistics dropped precipitously following the head coaching change from Jackie Sherrill to Foge Fazio. Pitt began the season No. 1, but Marino labored, throwing only 17 TDs, 20 fewer than in '81, and 23 interceptions. His 2,432 yards passing were 444 fewer than in '81.
There also were rumors Marino was enjoying college life too much off the field, impossible-to-ignore reports that, combined with his falloff in production, alarmed teams.
The rumors so discouraged the Steelers that, even with Terry Bradshaw at the end of his career, they refused to draft one of the great throwing arms of any era, a player whose pre-NFL career played out blocks away. Dan Rooney later called it one of the Steelers' greatest mistakes.
Rather than listen to rumors from afar, coach Don Shula's Miami Dolphins were gathering firsthand information other teams didn't have. Chuck Connor, their director of pro personnel, had Pittsburgh ties, and he assembled a deep scouting report on Marino after talking with numerous Marino associates. Shula spent hours talking with Fazio.
“Chuck Connor went to the same church Dan went to, knew his parents, knew Dan from grade school, high school, college,” Shula said. “There were some things that happened in his (Marino's) senior year that made people a little bit leery of him. But he was a great kid from a great family, and my guy, my scout, said, ‘This guy is a guy you don't have to worry about.' So we didn't worry about him.”
On draft day, Shula loved it as quarterback after quarterback went off the board — John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Ken O'Brien — and Marino remained.
Kansas City Chiefs coach John Mackovic, the former Cowboys QBs coach, worked out Marino and Blackledge the week before the draft and was convinced the Penn State quarterback was better. The New York Jets' pick of O'Brien, from Cal-Poly, was a true surprise. Shula hadn't even heard of him.
“Marino kept sliding and sliding, so when it came time for us to pick, Bill Arnsparger, our defensive coach, wanted to take a defensive lineman,” Shula said. “I said, ‘Marino's on the board. We're taking Dan Marino.' … And I'm very glad we drafted Dan Marino.”
Five years from now, the Browns, who have struck out while repeatedly drafting quarterbacks in the early rounds, hope they feel the same way about Manziel.
And what does Shula believe about Manziel?
“I don't want to sound like an expert on him, but he's a great athlete. They beat Alabama, so that's a feather in his cap right there, taking a team that wasn't nearly as talented as Alabama and winning the game,” Shula said. “I'd have to look at all the intangibles, but that's a big feather in his cap.”
So was drafting Marino, the kind of move that can define a franchise for a decade. The very move the Steelers regretted for years that they didn't make.