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Drafting a First-Round Quarterback Has Risks, Rewards


When they succeed, they are the tide that lifts all boats.

When they fail, they sink like HMS Titanic and suck everything into that watery vortex.

We're talking about quarterbacks selected in the first round of the NFL draft.

The deadline for underclassmen to declare for this year's April meat market is Saturday. In terms of quarterbacks, that puts the focus on Auburn University's Cameron Newton, who is not only a member of the national championship squad but the Heisman Trophy winner as well.

Given the allegations regarding requests by his father for payment for the son's services on the field as a collegian, it's probably a fair guess that the quarterback need not be Isaac Newton to figure out the best course here and turn pro.

It's also no secret the Redskins' quarterback situation leaves a little something to be desired. With evaluations by the coaching staff still under way, it would be way premature to predict what the team might want to do with its first-round pick (10th overall) or its choice in the second round.

It's also true that head coach Mike Shanahan opened the door to drafting a quarterback when he benched Donovan McNabb for the final three games of the regular season to give Rex Grossman a trial run.

At the time, in explaining the need to take a longer look at Grossman and also John Beck as a backup, Shanahan said he told McNabb: "I am not sure what we are going to do in the college draft." He went on to explain that "if we were to get the top quarterback in the draft, if there was a young Donovan McNabb or maybe a Sam Bradford or something like that," then perhaps the Redskins would go in that direction.

McNabb, of course, was the second overall pick in the 1999 draft, with Tim Couch ahead of him and Akili Smith behind him. McNabb went to six Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles; the other two scripted shorter, simpler, sadder tales of failure.

Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010 by the St. Louis Rams, set rookie records for completions (354) and pass attempts (590) and his 3,512 passing yards are second best ever for a rookie. He nearly got the Rams into the playoffs.

As the deadline for Newton's decision approaches, so does the second round of the NFL playoffs. Eight teams remain – six are quarterbacked by a No. 1 draft pick. It was eight of 12 when the playoffs began and there were two 10-win teams that missed out (the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers), both quarterbacked by No. 1s.

It's simple enough to recollect the many failed quarterbacks who were No. 1 picks and how their flops impacted their teams. The San Diego Chargers famously drafted Ryan Leaf second overall in 1998, watched him implode and went 1-15 in 2000. The Detroit Lions whiffed on Joey Harrington in 2002 (third overall) and had to roll the dice again with Matthew Stafford (first overall in 2009). The San Francisco 49ers acknowledge their quarterback of the future is not on the roster and they drafted Alex Smith first overall in 2005. They've not made the playoffs since 2002.

Redskins fans need look no further than Heath Shuler, Patrick Ramsey and Jason Campbell to see how debilitating a No. 1 pick spent on a quarterback can be when the player fails the team or the team fails the player.

The idea posited in some corners that teams can win a Super Bowl with any old shlub at quarterback borders on the ridiculous.

Usually the poster boy for that argument is Trent Dilfer, whose steady but unspectacular hand for the Baltimore Ravens helped a franchise built around its defense win Super Bowl XXXV. That argument ignores the fact that Dilfer had been a No. 1 pick. Just not of the Ravens.

Other Super Bowls won by shlubs? Not so easy to find. Your winning Super Bowl quarterbacks, running from the most recent and then back in time, include Brees (a second-round pick), Ben Roethlisberger (a No. 1 pick), Eli Manning (first pick overall in 2004, same year as Roethlisberger), Peyton Manning (first pick overall), Roethlisberger, Tom Brady (a sixth-round pick and back-to-back champ), Brad Johnson (hey, there's another journeyman), Brady, Dilfer, Kurt Warner (the ultimate come-from-nowhere guy), John Elway (first overall pick, consecutive Super Bowl titles), Brett Favre (second-round pick), Troy Aikman (first overall pick).

That takes us retroactively through Super Bowl XXX. Super Bowl XXX marked the end of the Dallas Cowboys' run and their third Super Bowl championship in four years for Aikman. Looks like your No. 1 picks prosper and win titles.

Look at it another way. Here are the most recent losing quarterbacks in the Super Bowl: Peyton Manning, Warner, Brady, Rex Grossman (with the Chicago Bears, and a former No. 1 pick), Matt Hasselbeck, McNabb.

The NFL has only grown more quarterback-centric than before. Look at the passing numbers. They're preposterous. Twenty two different quarterbacks passed for 3,000 yards or more this season, the most in a single season in NFL history. The 751 touchdown passes, the average of 443.1 passing yards per game, the league-wide average passer rating of 84.1, all were records.

Maybe the Redskins will draft the quarterback of tomorrow and maybe they won't. If they do select a quarterback in the upper reaches of the draft, and he's the right guy in the right place, the club has a chance to flourish and build, as the Atlanta Falcons did with Matt Ryan, as the Rams and Bradford will.

Wrong guy and, well, you know what happens.

Larry Weisman, an award-winning journalist during 25 years with USA TODAY, writes for and appears nightly on Redskins Nation on Comcast SportsNet. Read his Redskinsblitz blog at and follow him on

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