(Photo courtesy of the NFL)
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
On Thursday night it will be self-awareness or self-immolation for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans and any trading partners they lure into the NFL Draft’s Valley of Doom.
It is no secret the Bucs, Titans and more than half the teams in the league are desperate to find a real quarterback capable of winning consistently in the new, hands-off-the-offense NFL. Surely there are several in next week’s draft. The trick is: Where?
Making the No. 1 pick is not supposed to be a trick, however. Or even tricky. Turning in the card to commissioner Roger Goodell for the No. 1 pick in the draft is supposed to be a coronation, not a quagmire. But often it is the latter. And this is such a year.
Few NFL personnel guys rank quarterbacks Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota at the top of their draft boards. Most favor USC defensive end Leonard Williams as the surest prospect in the draft. But while Williams can throw around a quarterback, he can’t throw around a football … and more than ever that’s the only way to win in the NFL.
And so you gamble.
But if Tampa settles on Winston, and he continues to struggle with his off-the-field decision-making and continues throwing interceptions to defensive backs undercutting his receivers, as he did far too often at Florida State, you just blew up your franchise for the next five to 10 years.
Just ask the Oakland Raiders. They’re still in rehab after going bust on JaMarcus Russell.
If you blow the No. 1 pick it’s a problem that lingers. If you blow the No. 1 pick on a quarterback, you just killed your franchise and your career in upper management.
Because of that, new Bucs’ GM Jason Licht and head coach Lovie Smith are not only on the clock; they’re under the gun. What they do Thursday will determine if they survive in Tampa. That led Smith to say this week, “We’re in total agreement (on who the pick should be), and it’s not just Jason and I. (With) the first pick, you (get) more people involved and make sure you all agree, and that’s definitely the case.’’
In other words, we’re going to cover our butts with ownership as best we can. The problem is: It’s one thing to be in total agreement on Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck. It’s quite another if you’re in total agreement on Tim Couch or JaMarcus Russell.
Because of the uncertainty about what to make of both Winston and Mariota, much is made of someone possibly trading up to the second slot to grab the quarterback that’s left, if one goes No. 1. If you hit, your problems are solved. But if the No. 2 pick becomes Rick Mirer or Ryan Leaf, which happens more often than not in such second-best quarterback scenarios, you get fired in a few years because your franchise is perennially like a ball in tall weeds.
So perhaps you decide to trade all the way up? If it’s for John Elway, fine. If it’s for guys rated below a defensive lineman, history says be careful, pilgrim.
A case in point occurred 25 years ago Sunday, when the then-quarterback-starved Colts traded Pro Bowl tackle Chris Hinton, Andre Rison and their 1st and 4th picks to wrestle the draft’s No. 1 pick from Atlanta. They used it to draft Jeff George.
Everyone in the organization was in total agreement. On the day you make the pick, or in the final, nerve-wracking days leading up to it, that’s what you always say. But by the end of George’s career however, everyone was pointing fingers because he was responsible for more coaches being fired than Daniel Snyder.
George went 46-78 as a starter during his career, 14-35 in Indianapolis. Ironically, the Colts salvaged something when they traded him to Atlanta four years later for the Falcons’ 1st pick in 1994 and what became their first in 1996. Indy blew the first one on Trev Alberts but acquired Marvin Harrison two years later with the second.
So six years after trading up to No. 1 to draft Jeff George, the Colts got Marvin Harrison for him. Good deal. Too bad nobody was still around but the GM. Of course, his name was Jim Irsay, and he owned the place.
That is the danger of having the No. 1 pick, with no real consensus on who that is and a hole at quarterback. Most personnel men around the NFL this year privately say there are only about a half-dozen blue-chip prospects. After that, everyone is a second rounder or worse, meaning most first-round decisions will be difficult and a crapshoot.
It’s no different at the top, where you have two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks no one looks at the way they did Andrew Luck. So if you’re the 2-14 Buccaneers, everyone in your organization may be in agreement on what to do, but you can’t punt the pick. You have to go for it.
The mystery – and the danger – is when the time comes are you going to be the front-office equivalent of Malcolm Butler or Russell Wilson? Are you going to make a Super Bowl-winning decision or throw the game away?