The NFL Draft is a curious barometer for examining college football. Powerhouse programs have been touting their numbers of first-rounders or total draft picks as a selling point to high school prospects for decades, and in recent years college coaches have been showing up on NFL Draft coverage more and more in part as a showcase to catch the eye of recruits.
This year’s draft had an interesting twist: how QBs who played in "spread" systems projected to the NFL game. At the center of it was former Baylor star Bryce Petty, who lasted until the third day of the draft before the Jets selected him in the fourth round.
Before and during the NFL Draft coverage, the topic of the Baylor QB’s NFL merits sparked some strong reactions from analysts.
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Comments made by ESPN’s Todd McShay during the telecast about Petty and the system he played in apparently really resonated with some of BU’s rivals. Texas director of player personnel Mike Giglio seized the opportunity to turn it into a recruiting pitch. In a tweet that’s since been deleted, he wrote: "Not much teaching going on up there huh? @McShay13 said he identified fronts in HS! Come to ATX & learn to be a pro!"
Baylor sophomore WR KD Cannon, like a bunch of folks in Waco, didn’t appreciate the sentiment and fired back on twitter at Giglio (his tweets are private): "how bout y’all beat us then"
Last season the Bears beat UT, 28-7, with the Longhorns offense’s only score coming with a few minutes left in the game. Art Briles’ team has beaten Texas in four of the past five seasons.
Asked last week for his reaction to the comments regarding Baylor’s system, spread offenses and how they develop QBs for the NFL, Briles told FOX Sports: "The word I’d use is it’s unknowledgeable — (that’s) what I’d say when (they) look at spread offenses. It certainly didn’t hurt (his protege at Houston) Kevin Kolb, who was the Eagles’ first pick in the draft in 2007, or RGIII (Robert Griffin III) going second overall, and it didn’t seem to bother (Oregon’s Marcus) Mariota this year.
"I just think if they’re looking for a knock on someone and they can’t find it, they’ll find it from somewhere else. People are entitled to their opinion. I’m all about trying to win on the football field. I don’t want to play in a boring offense. I’ll go spread every single day."
As for his response to Giglio and those trying to use the NFL Draft talk against his program, Briles defended his track record.
"The only thing I’d put out there is that reality speaks for itself," he said. "Facts are facts. We’ve had pretty good success. I’m the only guy that’s had three guys in the last nine years of the draft that I’ve recruited and coached, and that’s Kevin Kolb, RGIII and Bryce Petty. It hadn’t hurt us.
"I don’t worry about it projecting to the NFL. A lot of times it’s a lot harder to do things in a spread tempo offense than it is (to) break out of the huddle, stand in the line-of-scrimmage, evaluate-and-look offense."
Still, is there a growing skepticism about how NFL-ready QBs from spread systems are especially in an era where franchises are looking to play young quarterbacks earlier than in years past. A glance at the top QBs thriving in the NFL reflects a lot of quarterbacks who came from more traditional systems: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Andrew Luck are among the best in the game. Drew Brees did play in more of spread system at Purdue, but it wasn’t what Baylor and Oregon and a bunch of other top-25 programs are doing these days.
Because of the spread and the QB run game becoming so prevalent in high school and college football, it’s prompted some NFL observers to note the draft low of seven QBs being selected this year and encouraged more talk that there’s a quarterback drought setting in (more on that below).
One West Coast-based coach said, "Why would a high school quarterback go play in one of those offenses where you’re not being developed for the NFL and then the NFL will hold that against you?"
Keep in mind Mariota still went No. 2 overall in the draft. If he succeeds in the NFL, it’d probably hush much of this chatter. But if he struggles, it’ll likely spark more skepticism.
This issue came up last year around the draft as it related to Johnny Manziel and his inexperience with understanding pass protections (because it wasn’t his responsibility in the A&M offense). I’d asked Kliff Kingsbury about the criticism for my book, "The QB."
"I don’t think it’s fair criticism at all," said Kingsbury, a former NFL quarterback who was Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator in Manziel’s freshman season and is now the head coach at Texas Tech. "And I’m pretty sure they’re not going to put the protections on him as well. I know they want him to go out there and use his God-given ability, which is pretty exceptional, to make plays. And that’s what we wanted to do with him, to free his mind and allow him to check us into the right play and just play the game."
Duke’s David Cutcliffe has developed more than his share of NFL QBs, including Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Heath Shuler, Tee Martin, Thad Lewis and Sean Renfree. He said drafting QBs because of systems is overrated.
"A lot of folks use buzz words, but they really don’t know what they’re talking about," Cutcliffe said, adding that last year his team was probably in shotgun formation about 98 percent of the time, whereas with Renfree a few years ago, it was more like 70 percent under center. "But it’s the same basic offensive system we teach the quarterback.
"Coaching a QB is so encompassing. It’s not just the X’s and O’s. It’s the entire basis for making decisions. It’s the mental toughness. It’s the psychology approach. It’s the energy of a meeting. It’s teaching defensive football. That’s the part that turns me on. I’m getting pumped talking about it. That’s the beauty of it."
Cutcliffe also defended Briles, adding that he once signed one of the coach’s old QBs, Branndon Stewart, back when Briles was a Texas high school coach and he was an assistant at Tennessee.
"He was a great quarterback," Cutcliffe said of Stewart. "He knew how to play quarterback because he was coached by Art Briles. Similar system. I can promise you this: Baylor knows what they’re doing. They’re well-coached. That quarterback is well-coached, and if I was the parent of a quarterback who could play for Art Briles, I’d be more than happy about it."
Rich Rodriguez, one of the godfathers of the spread offense, says all the talk is ridiculous. "I watch the NFL and it looks like 65 percent of the snaps, at least, are in the shotgun, sometimes more," he said. "So I think kids running a shotgun, spread-based offense transition easier. I can teach a third-grader in five minutes how to take a three-step drop and a five-step drop under center. But to teach a kid to catch and throw without the laces in the quick game and the full-field read? I think that’s a learned skill.
"I thought (Oregon coach Mark) Helfrich had a great quote. He said because your play-call has three sentences in it, does that make it a better play-call? Sometimes having a shorter one makes you understand concepts better.
"Heck, the NFL is mostly shotgun now. Either a kid can play or he can’t play, but to label a kid saying he can’t have success because he came out of a certain system would be the same as we judge a kid coming out of high school. If you’re a coach, and the guy is coming out of a certain system, you can coach him up as long as he’s got the talent and work ethic. I think that’s just talking heads trying to fill some airspace with things they don’t know."
Certainly, not all NFL coaches are worried about the dynamic. One NFL coach told me last month he thinks Petty is "the most natural passer" in this draft class and that he would not be shocked if Petty’s the best QB of this group in four years. The coach said he watched Baylor’s Michigan State game and saw Petty make all the throws the NFL would ever ask of him. However, since you don’t see a lot of progression (reads) as a scout, you don’t see the evidence and you have to project him since Baylor runs so many option routes while he’s just "bouncing around back there."
The NFL coach also cautioned that if teams discount spread QBs, "you’re going to end up missing out on some good quarterbacks."
The low-mark of only seven QBs going in this year’s draft is "probably an aberration," Cutcliffe said, but added that the NFL has always had problems evaluating quarterbacks and may be more aware that it’s got a better handle on ID’ing other positions.
"There’s a lot of good players out there, but they have to be careful where they spend their money," he said. "If you look at offensive linemen, pass rushers, apparently they’re a little easier to predict. But let’s see how many quarterbacks worked out over the last 15 years. Look at (Tom) Brady’s year or Peyton’s year. How many other guys made it?"
In Brady’s 2000 draft, there were 12 other QBs selected. Only one other made a Pro Bowl — fellow sixth-rounder Marc Bulger. In Manning’s 1998 draft, there were only eight QBs taken. Ryan Leaf, picked second, was a monumental bust but Charlie Batch (second-round), Brian Griese (third-round) and Matt Hasselbeck (sixth-round) had solid careers.
Anyone trying to say that this 2015 crop is the weakest QB class ever should go back and look at the 1996 group. Eight QBs were picked. The best NFL careers came from Tony Banks and Danny Kanell. Banks threw 77 career TD passes. Kanell threw 31.