Monday, 2 March 2020


I wrote this last week before the NFL combine started, and Joe Burrow came to terms with his tiny Trump-like hands and the possibly of being drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals. I published it at Medium, where I tend to do long form, and at my subscription football column, Friday Morning Tight End, at Patreon. You can visit either of those sites to investigate and ideally subscribe....

The NFL Draft is a lot like an election, albeit with a limited voter base, especially if you think of quarterbacks as the top-of-the-ticket presidential candidates. Those quarterbacks spend four months building up their resumes and turning themselves into stars. Then, after the Super Bowl, the tables get turned. Only those who've crossed a certain threshold in the polls get to enter the Combine, not even if, like Michael Bloomberg, you were to offer $60 billion as collateral.  The Combine is the equivalent of the campaign 'debates'.

Like presidential 'debaters', the players at the combine will face examination and grilling from Gms,coaches and scouts who, like a gaggle of Beltway Chuck Todds, mostly follow the same mainstream script they've followed at every combine. The script is designed to somehow squeeze square-peg quarterbacks with individual characteristics, who have succeeded within systems often unique and sometimes antithetical to the mainstream paradigm for NFL offenses, into the round holes of the classic NFL dropback passer, possessed of size to see over the pass rush, arm-strength to throw over a cross bar from the knees at 60 yards, leap over tall buildings in a single bound and with hands big enough to squeeze hogs by the neck until dead. One of those may be an exaggeration. Having been built up through the college season as potential saviours to the worst NFL teams, having been allocated top spaces in the draftnik's premature orgasms of early mock drafts, they now turn into chopped liver. And no one gets picked apart harder than the so-called recently-proclaimed front-runner.

That, of course, is LSU's Joe Burrow, and if the combine were like the Democratic primary, the other QBs would form a circle and test their arm strength by playing dodgeball with Burrow, like Bernie Sanders' long lost grandson, in the middle. Burrow, like Sanders,  made his front-runner status even more interesting by suggesting a little bit of socialist revolution. The guy who at season's end was a slam-dunk to be chosen first overall by the Cincinnati Bengals expressed the belief that he still held some 'leverage' over the process.

This was seen as a shot across the bows of the notoriously tightly run SS Bengal, whose quarterdeck includes owner Mike Brown, executive VP Katie Brown Blackburn, VP Player Personnel Paul Brown and VP Troy Blackburn. They are a family business, so ever dollar is personal, and anyone who remembers when Carson Palmer tried to get out of Cincinnati will member how Paul Brown showed the flexibility of a candy cane until he got what he wanted from the Raiders from Palmer. Coincidentally, Joe Burrow's personal QB coach for the combine is Carson Palmer's brother Jordan.
Last week I went on ESPN UK's Nat Coombs Show (@thencshow) and discussed Burrow's leverage with former NFL GM Mike Tannenbaum. Mike pointed out right away that things are different now, with the rookie salary cap and the fact the drafting team keeps the player's rights for the length of his (unsigned) rookie contract: which for a first-rounder is five years. If I were an agent I'd be looking to frighten the socialist monopoly of the NFL with an anti-trust suit, but that's just me.
It was a non-quarterback, Bo Jackson, who actually sat out 1986 and played baseball rather than disappear into Tampa Bay. But Bo was a major league player; the two more relevant uses of leverage were from quarterbacks who forced trades. John Elway in 1983 also threatened to play baseball, but his time in the Yankees' farm system had already showed he had about as much chance of being a major league regular as, say, Tim Tebow. Elway's  coming out of Stanford's west-coast offense, did not want to play for the Colts and Frank Kush, a fiery coach whose success in college had been based on fierce defense and a somewhat paleolithic view of the forward pass. The Colts caved in and traded him to Denver for the fourth pick overall (tackle Chris Hinton), veteran QB Mark Herrmann and Denver's first rounder in 1984 (Ron Solt, who became a journeyman at guard).
You hear various stories about who engineered Eli Manning's refusal to go to San Diego with the first pick overall. His father Archie, or his agent Tom Condon, are usually blamed, with the reason being either a Kush-like aversion to Chargers' coach Marty Schottenheimer (who had messed up his Doug Flutie/Drew Brees duo) or a recognition that San Diego was a media deadzone. In any event, Chargers' GM AJ Smith had an advantage: the 2004 draft featured three quarterbacks all worthy going in the draft's top 10 (indeed, had he not landed Manning, Giants' GM Ernie Accorsi was supposed favouring Ben Rothliesberger (henceforth Ben) over Philip Rivers. Smith liked Rivers, so after he took Manning, the Giants took Rivers with the fourth pick. When they flipped choices, the Chargers also got a third round pick in 04 (kicker Nate Kaeding), a first in 2005 (Shawn Merriman) and an 05 fifth, which eventually became starting tackle Roman Oben. Two Super Bowl wins apart, you'd call it win/win.

As the combine opens there are two questions. The first is whether the Bengals can convince Burrow to play for them. This is not up to Mike Brown as much as it is up to coach Zac Taylor, who's a young supposed offensive guru whose job it will be to persuade Burrow that he can blossom and star in his offense, and that the team will build around him. Burrow, of course, is from Ohio: but Athens is only 40-50 miles closer to Cincinnati that it is to Cleveland or Pittsburgh (it's 75 miles from Columbus, though, where Burrow went to Ohio State.

The second, more telling question, is whether Burrow will remain the consensus top pick. After all, that undefeated national championship is now a long time in the past. And, on the first day of the combine Burrow was measured with NINE INCH HANDS!!! Not the name of a heavy metal band, nine inch hands might as well be puppy paws in NFL scouting. According to ESPN, in the past decade only three NFL starters have ever been measured with hands that small: Ryan Tannehill, Jared Goff and Chad Henne. Interestingly, Zac Taylor's hands measured nine inches at the 2007 Combine.
A passer with small hands, the theory goes, can't control the ball as well in bad conditions, is more likely to lose it on sack contact, and has questions about his overall maturity and mannish construction. By the way, Iron Mike's span (the measurement from thumb to pinkie) is a full 10 inches, though that in itself wasn't enough to get me to the combine. Also by the way, Patrick Mahomes' mitts measured out at 9 ¼ inches when he went through the combine.

It's funny when measurements begin to trump tape. I remember sitting with scouts watching an NFL Europe scrimmage. Barcelona's QB was Robert Daugherty, at 5-10 Boston University's answer to Doug Flutie. When Daugherty had a pass batted down at the line of scrimmage, the scouts started nodding and saying to each other 'that''s what happens when you're too short'. On the next possession Scotland's QB, Matt Blundin, a 6-6 guy from Virginia who was a second-round draft pick of the Chiefs, had a pass batted down. 'That's what happens when you're 6-6', I announced loudly. It got one or two smiles.
But now everyone will be considering Burrow's arm—strength, rated only average based on his college season. But why couldn't be beat out JT Barrett or Dwayne Haskins at Ohio State. What about his 2018 season? Is he a one-year wonder? And in 2019 he played on a powerhouse team with great offensive weapons. Did they make him look better than he was?

Funnily enough, the one thing that gave Burrow some leverage was being the unquestioned first choice. If that status drops at the combine, things get interesting, because as I said to Mike Tannenbaum, I see this year's draft class as something like 2004's, with Justin Herbert of Oregon and Tua Tagovailoa (henceforth 'Tua') of Alabama as the Rivers and Ben of the group.

Herbert is a big but mobile pocket passer who like Rivers played on a team which wasn't that good around him. He can look deliberate, and his decision-making was questioned, but that's what being over-manned can do to you. His arm will measure out strong, and his taking the decision to play at the Senior Bowl and showcase himself paid off: he was clearly the game's MVP and his leadership skills stood out. Tua, of course, is coming off a dislocated hip injury, and other problems with ankles, which raises some red-flags, but his is a rare talent in terms of mobility and arm strength. He was generally considered the number one prospect before his injury, and no one was downgrading him because his Bama teams were powerhouses. As a footnote, it wouldn't surprise me to see Jordan Love from Utah State move into this group with a top Combine; like Ben he comes from a second tier programme, but like Ben he has a rare combination of arm strength and pocket mobility; though he is less likely to step in quickly with the team that takes him.

So if Herbert or Tua step in front of Burrow in some team's expectations it could be a bonus for teams sitting with top five picks. If the Bengals decide a plan B would be fine with them, and other teams still covet Burrow, they could then feel free to do business.

At the very least you'd expect the swap of first round picks to cost the swapping team a another first, a second (those might be futures) and something else: and the Bengals are a team that needs a lot of something elses.

And here's where the Combine, and the post-combine draft process resembles a presidential race. Almost everybody lies. If the Bengals talk up other prospects, they may be trying to get the price up for Burrow. If they talk Burrow up, they may be trying to get the price up for Burrow. Or they may want Burrow, before during and after the Draft. Agents will float rumours, which the Hot Takz mouth clowns will be quick to spread round the twitosphere. In the end, Joe or No Joe, this soap opera will have exactly as long to run as the Bengals decide, and if Burrow does nothing to lessen his stock apart from NINE INCH HANDS, they would do well to play the game from now until April 23, two full months of reality TV. Just like a presidential race.

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