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Why We're So Bad at Judging Quarterbacks (And How to Fix It)

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We're all excited about Carson Wentz, but lurking beneath the "honeymoon phase" is the inevitable concern with drafting a passer at such a high cost. We've been beaten over the head with articles discussing whether or not Wentz was worth the risk. Now it's time to question why there's even such a high risk in the first place.

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

If there's anything you need to know before jumping to the comments to yell at me, it's that I actually like Carson Wentz. I think his physical traits are much more preferable to Jared Goff's tiny hands and noodle arm, and his fearless confidence is not only infectious but also displays itself in his play. There were three "top tier" quarterbacks available in the draft this year, and I believe the Eagles got the one with the most upside. Of course, this doesn't mean Wentz will become the next franchise quarterback. There will always be the risk that he busts, and the fact that he's a quarterback only increases this risk.

But why? Why are quarterbacks such a gamble? I began to wonder this as the Eagles' draft coverage became inundated with quarterback rumors. As the draft neared, I eventually reached a conclusion with the help of two statistics that I'll detail below.

A Tale of Two Statistics

The first was one that we've all been buried with so many times: in the seven times quarterbacks were taken with the first two picks, only one of them ever amounted to anything (and Donovan McNabb was the only successful second pick).

The second one was a statistic mentioned off-handedly once by our very own Brandon Lee Gowton: the four FCS quarterbacks taken in the first round of the draft since 1978 have all gone on to at least start a Super Bowl (and three of them won).

I found these statistics interesting for two reasons. One, they were both absolutes. ALL of the 1-2 quarterback pairs drafted had at least one of them bust and ALL of the FCS first-round quarterbacks have gone to a Super Bowl. And yet, these facts experienced a polar opposite reception. The first was taken seriously and used to cast doubt on the Eagles' decision to move up in the draft. The second was laughed off as a "funny coincidence" that wasn't really representative of reality.

Okay, so what's the big deal? Why do we care about these statistics, or how people reacted to them? Well, we should care a whole lot, because these two facts - and their general reception - are a good illustration of human nature, and human nature is the engine behind the riskiness of quarterback prospects. Allow me to elaborate on this by breaking down each statistic.

The "Quarterback Pairs"

While people often use this statistic as a warning against drafting two quarterbacks with the first two overall picks, it is actually a condemnation of the people who evaluated them. There is not much difference in value between the first and second pick, and yet NFL scouts - who are paid to do this for a living - grossly overestimate the value of a quarterback in this scenario.

I'm not a psychologist, but I would guess that when a quarterback goes first overall, it has the same mental impact that starts a bank run during an economic crisis. That is, NFL talent evaluators in need of a quarterback view the risk of missing out on a potential franchise quarterback greater than the risk that the chosen quarterback will bust. Thus the only "logical" option is to ensure that you get "your guy" by moving up as far in the draft as possible.

This leads to general managers making really bad decisions, poorly judging future value, and ultimately getting fired. They allow their emotions to justify falling in love with a quarterback over their positive traits that don't translate into the NFL while ignoring the negative traits that will eventually get them kicked out of the league. These thinly-veiled emotional decisions play a large part in why we are terrible at evaluating quarterback prospects - but it's not the whole story. For that, we need to look at the second statistic.

The "FCS Superstars"

Unlike the previous statistic, this one has barely gotten any mention, and when it has been cited it's been more or less a joke. I'm going to come out swinging with this: the fact that nobody takes this statistic seriously is the second half of the reason we're so bad at judging quarterbacks.

I may be somewhat of an idealist in this regard, but I am a strong believer in human exceptionalism. I think that people are capable of accomplishing amazing things, and the only real tools needed are insatiable ambition and a strong dedication to holding yourself accountable for your life trajectory. Football is certainly no different in this regard.

I will offer this simple idea: clearly an FCS quarterback needs to be special in some way to be drafted in the first round. Many FCS quarterbacks dominate at that level and find themselves lucky to be an UDFA or to play in arena football or the CFL. Something about the first-round selections needs to stand out. Well what if whatever it was that made them special enough to be taken in the first round is also what makes them special enough to lead their team to a Super Bowl? What if these quarterbacks simply have a fire that drives them to be exceptional, and this drive is what makes general managers overlook the common drawbacks of competing at the FCS level?

Putting It All Together

In other words, what if what scouts find so enamoring in these FCS quarterbacks is what scouts should be looking for in all quarterbacks? Teams fall in love with the "prototypical quarterback features" like arm strength, height, weight, and (more recently) athleticism, and assume that everything else can be taught by "coaching up" the player. That's all well and good... as long as the player reciprocates. But as the old cliche goes, you can draft a quarterback, but you can't make him work. He has to have the true, burning desire to become exceptional rather than simply believe that he is exceptional, and that everything will just fall into place if he goes through the motions. And yes, quarterbacks talk all the time about how they "want to work" and "prove that they're the best," but it is my belief that the true passion to accomplish this is a much rarer quality in quarterbacks than we are led to believe, and the great quarterbacks are the only ones who possess this passion.

Don't take all of this focus on intangibles as a slight to the measureables. Physical gifts will always play a role in sports, but the quarterback position is unique because they alone can't take you to the next level - only the drive inside can. Aaron Rodgers, for example, who is often lauded for his above-average athleticism and great size for a quarterback, routinely throws picks during training camp to finely tune the chemistry with his receivers. Peyton Manning, who was practically raised to be a professional quarterback, virtually lived in the film room during the regular season. These two quarterbacks, who may eventually be regarded as the greatest of all time, know that doing "all they can" to be successful is not enough. They are always pushing themselves to the limits to be great, and while their physical abilities alone might be enough to put them in that conversation, the drive they have is what sets them apart.

So what have we learned? We've established that 1) people are poor evaluators of quarterback prospects and 2) the path to excellence for a quarterback doesn't go through the strength and conditioning program. These two facts are not mutually exclusive; in fact, a grasp on the second one can help turn around the first one. If NFL scouts are willing to set aside the endless cascade of numbers and stats that are compiled on quarterback prospects each year and focus on what happens when they sit across from the prospects in the interview room, we would probably start seeing a more consistent selection of talented passers in the draft.

For what it's worth, the signs mostly point to Carson Wentz being cut from the same cloth as the FCS first-round quarterbacks that came before him. While all of his "red flags" pertain to statistics he amassed while he was playing in college against "lesser competition," everything reported about his character is encouraging. He has shown a tendency to be humble and a strong desire to prove himself, as evidenced by his "aw shucks" demeanor in interviews and his insatiable work ethic. We won't know anything for sure until he plays, obviously, but it's hard to imagine his young career getting off to a better start.

The quarterback's journey from holding up a jersey on draft day to holding up the Lombardi trophy after winning the Super Bowl is a long, complicated and sometimes arduous one, but the key to completing that journey was probably best summarized (fittingly enough) by Vince Lombardi himself: "Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence."