Western Pennsylvania in a passing drought
Captured by the Voice of God, a stirring score and super-slow motion of NFL Films, Western Pennsylvania has long lived off its reputation as the Cradle of Quarterbacks.
The region has produced more Hall of Fame players at the game's most important position — from Unitas, Namath and Blanda to Montana, Marino and Kelly — than anywhere else in the country.
But the sobering reality is that there are only three WPIAL alums among the current NFL quarterbacks: Steelers backup Charlie Batch of Steel Valley, St. Louis starter Marc Bulger of Central Catholic and Oakland backup Bruce Gradkowski of Seton-La Salle.
"The only time I think about it is when people bring it up," Gradkowski said. "To mention me in the same breath as a Dan Marino or Joe Namath is crazy. It's an honor, but I'm like, 'I don't know about that.' When you hear stories about Dan Marino coming out of the city, it gives you that extra hope, that dream that they're from the same area that I am, and if they can make it, I can make it."
For now, Western Pennsylvanians have to live with the fact that there are more NFL quarterbacks from the other half of the state — with Tennessee's Kerry Collins, Miami's Chad Henne, Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Houston's Matt Schaub — than from here.
Which begs the question, what rocked the cradle?
A sixth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of Toledo in 2006, Gradkowski is the only WPIAL-bred quarterback to be selected in the NFL Draft in the past eight years.
Not to suggest Western Pennsylvania has had a talent drought.
The past decade has produced two of the top three passers in WPIAL history, in Sto-Rox's Adam DiMichele and Steel Valley's Luke Getsy; the No. 1 QB prospect in the Class of '04 in Penn Hills' Anthony Morelli; a three-time WPIAL and PIAA champion in West Allegheny's Tyler Palko; and the City League's best multi-sport athlete since Major Harris in Perry's Rod Rutherford.
All five spent at least two seasons as a Division I-A starter, yet not one was selected in the NFL Draft.
"To be the quarterback that breaks that shield and plays in the NFL is tough to do," Metro Index scouting director Joe Butler said. "You have to not only to be super-talented, but you have to have great instincts, a very strong arm and a natural ability to play at that level. They're all lacking one ingredient."
Evolution of the game
NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt, the former director of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys, believes Western Pennsylvania quarterbacks thrived by playing in pro-style offenses while other regions of the country ran run-oriented schemes.
"Twenty years ago, when people ran the Wishbone and the Veer, people didn't spend one percent on pass protection," said Brandt, who lives in Dallas. "Because of the era we're in and the area we're in, we're passing the ball so much more. What happens are guys come into college and the NFL lot more polished than ever before."
Now, more WPIAL schools are running versions of the spread to take advantage of dual-threat quarterbacks. That, however, has reduced the talent pool of pro-style players at the position.
"Instead of the 6-foot-3, 200-pound strong-armed kid that would be a 'conventional quarterback,' now high school coaches are taking their best athlete and putting him at quarterback," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "They're not being tutored and developed like they were in the past. I talk to NFL scouts all the time, and they're amazed when it comes draft time, how few pro quarterbacks are really out there."
While Jeannette's Terrelle Pryor starred in such a system to become the nation's No. 1 recruit in 2008, his mechanical flaws have been exposed at Ohio State. Even so, Brandt said he remains the region's best hope to be drafted by the NFL in the near future.
Seton-La Salle coach Greg Perry is among the WPIAL coaches who have switched from pro-style sets to the spread, and has developed Gradkowski, Pitt's Bill Stull and Akron's Matt Rodgers.
Perry focuses on the fundamentals.
"Everybody wants this big, canon arm, but the kids who throw accurate are the ones who are going to play," Perry said. "I don't think people work enough on the bottom half of the body. That's where quarterbacks start, with the base. You've got to be in position to throw the football."
Timing and opportunity
As a former NFL head coach who had personnel control with the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins, Wannstedt has a good grasp of the league's mindset toward quarterbacks. He gave no preference to Western Pennsylvanians at the position.
"In the NFL, coaches are funny — and I was the same way — in that you get a comfort zone," Wannstedt said. "You get a guy who might be in the league 10 years, and he's had some success and knows the offense. You're more apt to rotate players at any other position than quarterback. You're trying to win a Super Bowl."
It has as much to do with perseverance as anything.
Bulger was cut by the Saints before sticking with the Rams, where he is a two-time Pro Bowl selection. Batch started four seasons for the Lions but was released for salary-cap reasons and signed with the Steelers. Gradkowski started 11 games as a rookie with Tampa Bay but was later cut and bounced from Cleveland to the Raiders.
"It is the desire to be out there and play the game you love to play and have dreamed about playing since you were a little kid," Gradkowski said. "Sometimes, you get caught up in the business, but the reality is it's a game that's fun to play."
What they have learned is that Western Pennsylvania's reputation for quarterbacks probably has more to do with helping players get college scholarships than it does guarantee an NFL future.
"They think, 'OK, he's from Western Pennsylvania. He's a tough guy. We know what we have when he comes into our program,'" Batch said. "Ultimately, being from the WPIAL doesn't guarantee playing in the NFL because you still have three or four years before you can get to this level."
If you can get there at all.
Take a closer look
LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
Three former WPIAL quarterbacks active in NFL:
Name: High school/College
Charlie Batch: Steel Valley/Eastern Michigan
Steelers' backup passed for 10,033 yards in 50 starts, 12 seasons
Marc Bulger: Central Catholic/West Virginia
Rams' starter passed for 21,772 yards in 90 starts, nine seasons
Bruce Gradkowski: Seton-La Salle/Toledo
Raiders' backup passed for 1,834 yards in 12 starts, four seasons
Five former WPIAL standouts undrafted by the NFL:
Player: High School/College
Adam DiMichele: Sto-Rox/Temple
WPIAL career passing leader cut by Eagles; with Winnipeg/CFL
Luke Getsy: Steel Valley/Pitt, Akron
WPIAL No. 3 passer cut by 49ers; now OC at W.Va. Wesleyan
Anthony Morelli: Penn Hills/Penn State
Nation's No. 1 QB in '04 cut by Cardinals; now Plum QB coach
Tyler Palko: West Allegheny/Pitt
Three-time Trib Player of Year cut by Saints, Cardinals
Rod Rutherford: Perry/Pitt
Spent seasons on Steelers, Panthers practice squads; now Pitt GA
LOOKING INTO THE FUTURE
Eight former WPIAL QBs playing in Division I-A:
Player: College/High school
C.J. Brown: Maryland/Seneca Valley
Alex Dennison: Buffalo/Norwin
Cody Endres: Connecticut/Trinity
Terrelle Pryor: Ohio State/Jeannette
Matt Rodgers: Akron/Seton-La Salle
Bill Stull: Pitt/Seton-La Salle
Tino Sunseri: Pitt/Central Catholic
Brian Sweeney: Ohio/Blackhawk