Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Sports

January 26, 2005

Quarterback Conundrum

Why NFL teams make college players switch positions.

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Would a college quarterback make a better NFL safety than a college safety would? It seems doubtful, but NFL teams are often more interested in trying to convert a QB to a position he's never played—usually running back, receiver, or defensive back—than in developing someone who's played that position. That's the byproduct of constantly changing NFL standards about what makes a good quarterback; by the pros' odd logic, it pays to keep a former QB in the system, one way or another. Maybe someday his style of quarterbacking will even come back into vogue. One of these quarterback hangers-on, Nebraska Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch, is again trying to make it in the NFL, this time as a safety.

As recently as five years ago, the majority of college QBs opting to switch positions to boost their NFL prospects were undersized signal callers with a lot of agility and suspect field vision. Now, those making the switch are more like Crouch: bigger, physical guys with suspect arm mechanics.

Quarterbacking in the NFL is far different than at many colleges, which is one reason why a GM told Michael Lewis, for his NYT Magazine article, that he would never waste a high pick on a QB. Many college schemes don't transfer at all to the NFL, which explains why Crouch and his predecessor at Nebraska, Scott Frost, are having so much difficulty switching from option offense to pro-style quarterbacking, and why NCAA-record holding passer Timmy Chang, from Hawaii, was last seen bobbling snaps as he tried to work under center for the first time.

Other guys simply refuse to play positions other than quarterback. Clemson legend Woody Dantzler famously killed his NFL prospects by sulking through running back drills at the senior bowl. Heisman winner Charlie Ward went into basketball (which seems to have turned out OK). Race also played a large role for most of the NFL's history: until a decade ago, most NFL teams were loathe to draft black quarterbacks, especially ones who weren't pure passers. In 1976, Colts head coach Tony Dungy was graduating from Minnesota as one of the top quarterbacks in Big 10 history. But scouts thought he was too small, so he was converted to a defensive back by Pittsburgh, the same team that would later turn two other small stand-out college QBs—Antwaan Randle-El, who's black, and Hines Ward, who's half black, half Korean—into wide receivers.

Certain assets do transfer well from one level to the next. NFL teams will always draft tall, relatively immobile QBs with great arms and good field vision (which is not to say that they will be successful). And now it seems that even undersized quarterbacks who can regularly run for first downs and have the strength and agility to accurately throw 40 yards downfield while scrambling outside of the pocket are also high on scouts' wish lists (it's a wonder it took them this long to figure that one out).

Now, the only successful type of college QB who isn't making inroads in the NFL is the one that relies on short passes and punishing runs—in other words, the type of quarterback who used to rule the NFL in its infancy. Arkansas QB Matt Jones, the all-time SEC rushing QB leader, is now working out for scouts as a wide receiver.

Crouch, Jones and others will have to rely purely on their athleticism to be successful, or at least hang around long enough until NFL teams' fickle ideas about quarterbacks once again put their style back in vogue.







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