Put yourself in Troy Smith's shoes for a minute.
You've just completed a wonderful season where you passed for thirty touchdowns and led the Buckeyes to the National Championship game. You're looking good in Senior Bowl practices. Then, you arrive in Indianapolis for the NFL Combine, and every scout in attendance starts nitpicking.
After eyeballing Smith in shorts and watching him throw 18 practice passes against no defense, the connoisseurs with the clipboards and the stop watches have decreed that the former Ohio State quarterback, to put it simply, stinks. Once considered a late-first or early second-round pick, Smith will now be fortunate to land in the third or fourth round based on the buzz in Indy.
As one AFC personnel director told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "He's six feet tall, he's not a super fast guy and he's not super athletic. ... I don't think he's horrible. He's just a guy."
That assessment turned out to be generous, with Smith falling to the sixth round, landing with Ray Rice's Baltimore Ravens. As luck would have it, Smith may end up logging major minutes this season as a starter.
I have a theory about NFL evaluation of the quarterback position, one that I developed a few years ago. Think back to 2003, when Rutgers blew an early lead against Boston College. The primary culprit was that the Eagles replaced the ineffective Quinton Porter with Paul Peterson. Porter was a classic dropback passer - 6'5 with a big arm, while Peterson was an undersized scrambler. Yet Porter was extremely inaccurate, and Peterson very much so.
Based solely on their college play, one would expect Peterson to have the more successful pro career, but that was not the case. Porter had a brief cup of coffee in the NFL with the Houston Texans, while Peterson failed to catch on in the Canadian football league. It's one of the theories why New Orleans backup Tyler Palko beat out future first round pick Joe Flacco at Pitt. As I started following the NFL draft more in recent years, one fact became readily apparent - scouts place a major premium on arm strength and height. In theory, these are attributes that cannot be taught. It's hard to recall projects that suddenly developed accuracy, but it conceivably can be taught. This is the same reason why baseball scouts may place more emphasis on fastball velocity than on pitch command.
The importance of arm strength is easy to understand (even though many don't realize that it's as important for ten yard outs as for deep bombs), but why is height important to the position? Drew Brees is a very good quarterback, but there's a reason why he threw eighteen interceptions last season, and has had similar struggles at other points in his career. The ball's release point from your arm is lower, giving defenders more of an opportunity to swat down passes. That's one of several reasons (along with poor arm strength and a tendency to force throws) why Ryan Hart, a very accurate passer in his time on the banks, always threw too many interceptions. It's also why the NFL may not have much use next year for Chase Daniel, who's likely the best quarterback in college football this season.
Look at the quarterbacks selected in the most reason NFL drafts. Flacco is 6'6, Ryan is 6'4, Brohm and Henne are 6'3. No quarterback is listed at lower than 6'2, and both were selected later in day two of the draft. 6'2 and shorter quarterbacks have been drafted earlier in previous years. I was actually surprised that no one took a chance on the inconsistent Anthony Morelli late in the draft, whom I had somewhat adopted as a pet test subject for my theory.
When I compared Mike Teel to Jeff George in the title of this entry, it was not meant as an insult. Mike Teel does not have a cannon, or even the strongest arm on his team, but his arm strength rates out as above average to good, on a scale where Ryan Hart is very weak, and D.C. Jefferson is very strong. Mike's height is listed at 6'4 on the team's official roster, which likely means that his real height is somewhere between 6'3 and 6'2 1/2. When Teel's critics say that he has no future on the pro level, they are very much mistaken, as much worse college QBs have been given chances as third quarterbacks or on practice squads. Teel does not possess all the physical gifts of an Anthony Morelli, but his play in college has been better, and he fares well in comparison with regards to accuracy, decision making, and mobility.
I'm not promising that Mike Teel will take the NFL by storm in the near future. However, he does very much have a shot in the late rounds of the draft, or as an undrafted free agent; and could conceivably move up based on playing well the rest of the season, or by impressing at his Pro Day and other pre-draft events. That doesn't say a whole lot about his ability as a college player, but I once again reiterate that a deep passing game is inherently streaky, and will look ugly when it's off, but can be very, very dangerous when it's in rhythm. One only has to be familiar with the play of Eli Manning or Kerry Collins in recent memory to recall similar performances.
I have a feeling that I will be revisiting that last point throughout the season. Football Outsiders - a web site that measures the NFL via statistical analysis, has found that, roughly (and I will probably mangle this) teams that run the West Coast Offense generally fare better in their metrics. How did they get to their metrics? I think it started by looking for a needle in a haystack - look for which factors correlate the most with winning, and put those on a pedestal. One of the things that they put a major emphasis on is the importance of creating first downs.
DVOA is a method of evaluating teams, units, or players. It takes every single play during the NFL season and compares each one to a league-average baseline based on situation. DVOA measures not just yardage, but yardage towards a first down: five yards on 3rd-and-4 are worth more than five yards on 1st-and-10 and much more than five yards on 3rd-and-12.
Strange how I all of a sudden make two FO references on the same day. The point should be clear even if you're not a gigantic nerd worrying about concepts like correlation and context; some yards are more valuable than others. That's the genius of Ray Rice during his time on campus, he had a wonderful ability to keep the chains moving. Kordell Young and Mason Robinson may match his yards per carry this season, but the yards won't be as good. They'll explode on long runs more often, but will be more frequently stuffed at the line of scrimmage, or even lose yardage at times.
Back to the WCO; its designed purpose is sort of to act as a de-facto running game with short, high-percentage passes that keep the chains moving and the clock ticking. In contrast, a pro-style scheme (which Rutgers uses), places an emphasis on big play passes, largely using the rushing attack to control the clock. It may very well be that Rutgers and other teams would be better off switching to a short passing attack if it really does correlate well with winning. Remember the story of Harold Sackrowitz (one that I hope Greg Schiano and staff are familiar with)?
A few years ago, Ernie Adams, the Patriots' football research director, asked Harold Sackrowitz, a Rutgers statistician, to give his opinion regarding the team's two-point conversion strategies. Sackrowitz concluded that the strategy was less than optimal -- and the Patriots subsequently did not try any two-point conversions in the 2003-2004 season.
Those calculations were dependent on NFL teams not changing their strategy for defending two-point conversions. It's very possible that their level of effectiveness would change if teams adapted to a change in their level of usage. This is why the West Coast Offense fell in popularity in recent years in the NFL, after a wave of copycat teams had emulated the San Francisco 49ers. It's why all levels of football chase the next big fad - the spread, and now the spread option. There is value in running a pro style offense - it's increasingly becoming a rarity in a college football world caught up in spread and spread option hysteria, making it relatively tougher to prepare for and defend. As teams like Michigan and Penn State abandon their classic dropback passing attacks, it makes Rutgers more attractive for the Tom Savages and D.C. Jeffersons of the world.