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The Forgotten Quarterback of Rutgers Football

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Mike McMahon would have been a household name had he played in the Greg Schiano era.

Mike McMahon

With the 2020 NFL Draft taking place this weekend and it being unlikely any current Rutgers players will hear their name called, I started thinking back about notable alumni that have been selected over the years. Quarterback is a position Rutgers has had little success with in developing signal callers for the pros. Everyone remembers the second Rutgers quarterback that was drafted, as Mike Teel is the program’s all-time leader in passing yards, second in touchdowns and third in completions. He also led Rutgers during the best part of Greg Schiano’s first tenure in charge. However, I thought back even further to a notable Scarlet Knight whose career on the banks seems to be mostly forgotten, or perhaps, not mentioned among fans nearly enough. His name is in the top five of the record books in several statistical categories and is the answer to an all-time Rutgers football trivia question.

Who was the first Scarlet Knight quarterback to ever be drafted into the NFL? Ray Lucas had a solid pro career after his Rutgers days, becoming a favorite of legendary coach Bill Parcells, but he was not drafted. The answer: Mike McMahon.

The signal caller from the target rich recruiting territory of Western Pennsylvania was a four year starter for Rutgers during some of the worst seasons in program history. This was from 1997-2000, which was the last four years of the Terry Shea era that saw RU compile an abysmal 9-35 record while being the doormat of the Big East. I remember it well, as I witnessed the first four seasons of the Shea era as a student at Rutgers. The last three were with McMahon leading the offense, who was the team’s prized recruit and was viewed as a potential savior by some.

Despite many losses during this period for the program, I’d argue Rutgers has never had a more physically gifted quarterback than Mike McMahon. He was extremely athletic, built out of granite, had a cannon for an arm and had all the tools that NFL teams look for in a quarterback to play at the next level. While his Rutgers career was up and down, he made the most of an invite to the legendary Blue-Gray All-Star game, earning offensive MVP honors. That put him on the radar for NFL teams preparing for the draft that spring.McMahon ended up being chosen to play on Sundays, as he was the 149th selection in the 5th round of the 2001 NFL Draft, taken by the Detroit Lions.

His pro career wasn’t memorable, as he threw 15 touchdowns and 21 interceptions over five seasons in the NFL with the Lions and Philadelphia Eagles. He was signed by the Minnesota Vikings for the 2006 season, but was one of their final cuts that preseason. He moved on to a few stints in the CFL and UFL before his career was over after playing in Sweden. However, none of that speaks to the fact that McMahon is an under appreciated player in Rutgers football history.

McMahon ended his college career on the banks as second all-time in passing yards and touchdowns, as well as third in completions. He now ranks fifth in career touchdowns and passing yards, while he is sixth in completions. It should be noted that McMahon only played 35 games in his career, as Rutgers only played 11 games per season back then and he missed a few, mostly due to shoulder injuries throughout his time on the banks.

His senior campaign was his best statistically, when he threw for a program record 18 touchdowns in a season in just 10 games. That mark is now fifth best. He also threw for 2,157 yards, which ranked third most in a season in program history at the time. His sophomore season mark of 2,203 yards remains tenth most as of today.

I strongly believe McMahon would have been at the top or right below it in the record books in multiple categories had he played a decade or so later when Greg Schiano led Rutgers. While McMahon did have a future New York Giant great on the offensive line at left tackle in Shaun O’Hara and a future longtime Philadelphia Eagle in a young L.J. Smith, there wasn’t a lot talent and depth on the roster to provide him much help.

As a player, McMahon was also a bit ahead of his time in that he had the skills to be a true dual threat quarterback before college offenses coveted that skill set. He ran the famous West Coast Offense for Shea, which was predicated on short, horizontal passes to open up the potential for big plays as the game progressed. Nowadays, RPO offenses are the norm, first in college and then becoming prevalent in the NFL. McMahon would have been an asset running that type of offense. He had the rare combination having a naturally strong arm and ability to throw the deep ball, while also being adept at using his legs to run and escape pressure in the pocket. His rushing numbers at Rutgers weren’t notable other than his senior season when he rushed for 243 yards for 3.6 yards per carry. That’s because he mostly only ran the ball when he was under pressure and avoiding sacks. That happened more than he or Shea wanted, but there were few designed running plays for McMahon. His skill set would have flourished in today’s college game. He did average 5.0 yards a carry on 82 rushes in his NFL career.

Even before RPO offenses took over, I’d argue McMahon would have become a household name had he played at Rutgers when Schiano had the program rolling from 2005-2011, as well as with those Flood teams afterwards. The offensive talent in the program then was “night and day” compared to what McMahon had to work with. He also wouldn’t have had to take as many risks playing from behind most his time at Rutgers, which resulted in 49 career interceptions, tied for third all-time with Teel.

Another admirable quality for a player of McMahon’s talent was that he stuck it out with the same program, despite playing on many bad teams. He was known as a good teammate and was well-respected. McMahon displayed great toughness during his Rutgers career and was fearless on the field. He played hurt and through pain much of his time in Scarlet. Sadly, he took such a physical beating I think it was part of the reason his NFL career didn’t turn out better.

So when you watch the rest of the NFL Draft this weekend or at some point ponder certain what if’s around Rutgers football, remember quarterback Mike McMahon. He had a good career during a low point for the program, but might have become the best QB Rutgers ever had if the timing was different. Such is life, but he should always be appreciated for what he did at Rutgers, even if it didn’t lead to much glory on the banks.