The Gameface: QBs need to thank Ryan, Flacco

Michael Silver

Yo, Matthew Stafford, you know that eight-figure check you're about to deposit? Any ideas on how you'll start to spend your new fortune?

Here's a quick word of advice: Plop down about a dozen grand on a Jet Ski and send it over to Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan as a token of your appreciation.

You, too, Mark Sanchez – when your fat bonus comes, buy a few 58-inch Plasma TVs and have them shipped to Owings Mills, Md., to Joseph Flacco, care of the Baltimore Ravens. Think of it as a commission, or a finder's fee, or, if you prefer, a balancing of the karmic scales.


Stafford, left, and Freeman atop NYC's Radio City Music Hall on Friday

(Frank Franklin II/AP Photo)

And Josh Freeman, if you, too, are fortunate enough to get picked in the first round of this weekend's NFL draft? Thank you cards to Ryan and Flacco will suffice – provided there's a really generous gift certificate to Dave & Buster's inside each envelope.

Let's face it: Because of Ryan, the 2008 offensive rookie of the year who led Atlanta to a stunning playoff berth, and Flacco, who helped guide Baltimore to an equally surprising AFC championship game appearance, NFL teams have never been so eager to go green.

Forget that old dictum that a first-year player can't step in and thrive under center – two teams went from miserable seasons in 2007 to excellent efforts in '08 with rookie QBs who started from day one, and now the copycats are lining up in full force.

"Those turnarounds are fresh in everybody's mind," concedes Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz, whose team will make Stafford the top overall draft pick this afternoon. "It's not just how well those quarterbacks played, but the way those teams fared with them as the starters, that has everybody thinking, 'Can we do this?' "

It has me thinking, Are you crazy?

Need I remind everyone that in the quarter century between Dan Marino, who blew away everyone with a Jordanesque display of instant majesty for the '83 Dolphins, and last year's dynamic duo, there was a vast wasteland of rookie futility at the quarterback position. It could be argued that only Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers, '04) performed so productively and victoriously during that span. So many future greats either rode the bench or struggled so obviously as first-year players that many NFL talent evaluators dismissed Marino as an anomaly, a phenomenon of another era.

Ryan wasn't quite Marino-great in '08, but he was close enough to change conventional wisdom. The only problem is, logic tells us that Stafford, Sanchez and Freeman are far more likely to resemble a majority of their immediate predecessors (i.e. JaMarcus Russell, Matt Leinart and Alex Smith) than they are Ryan, who was being discussed as a possible MVP into early December, or Flacco, a less spectacular yet seemingly unflappable game manager.

Yet GMs and coaches have last year on the brain because, for all of its vaunted tradition, the NFL is at its core a trendy league. Teams are almost laughable in their knee-jerk reactions to whatever's hot – just watch how many draft picks this weekend are devoted to players with the potential to thrive in the "Wildcat" offense.

Whenever the next "Big Thing" arrives, opposing teams immediately look for the next "Next Big Thing." Just as Adrian Peterson's dominant rookie performance in 2007 seemed to enhance the draft status of Darren McFadden and fellow first-round running backs Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson a year ago, the uncanny poise and transformative leadership displayed by Ryan and Flacco has turned what otherwise might be considered a weak quarterback class into a highly desirable group.

This isn't to say that Stafford, Sanchez and Freeman aren't legitimate prospects with a chance ultimately to thrive at the NFL level. I'm just pointing out that talent evaluators of teams with high picks, hungry to replicate last year's success stories, are more prone to ignoring these players' flaws and overrating their positive qualities than they would have been a year ago.

"I think you're right on the money with that," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said of the theory. "I really believe a lot of people did feel that way about the running backs a year ago, and I can see why it would happen again [with the quarterbacks] this year."

Dimitroff, to be fair, isn't mocking the judgment of his rivals – those organizations with the misfortune to be seeking a Ryan type in a year where one might not be available. He certainly feels the pain of the Lions executives who, in a draft without a consensus No. 1 prospect, hold the first overall pick and happen to have a huge void at the quarterback position.

Even before Ryan and Flacco emerged, this was a conundrum for teams in Detroit's shoes. Anytime a team is at or near the top of the draft, the compulsion is to pick a franchise passer. That's a function of the position's importance and of the theoretical uniqueness of the opportunity: Ideally, teams don't expect to be on the clock so early more than once in a long while, though try telling that to the Rams (No. 2 overall pick in '08, No. 2 overall pick in '09).

In other words, since it's a special occasion that you're picking so high, why not pick a special player at the sport's pivotal position?

The problem is this: Even when signs point to the player not being special, there's a natural inclination to try to talk oneself into believing otherwise.

"There might be that tendency, but that's how mistakes are made, so you have to be careful," Schwartz says. "I think we have to guard against that. It's a rare opportunity to get a player at the top of the draft, but you have to be truthful with yourself. You can't force it. You can't try to read something into it that's not there."

I'll admit that a year ago, I suspected the Falcons were doing just that when they picked Ryan third overall. Desperate to wash away the stench of the Michael Vick fiasco, owner Arthur Blank wanted a franchise quarterback, making him prone to overrating the player considered the best prospect at the position. Dimitroff, his newly hired GM, supposedly had final say, but I worried he was trying too hard to please his boss.


Ryan led the Falcons to an 11-5 record and playoff berth in '08.

(John Bazemore/AP Photo)

The Ravens, who'd also coveted Ryan, traded down from the eighth overall slot and then back up from 26th to snag Flacco with the 18th pick. The whole thing seemed a bit panicky, and Flacco, a former Delaware passer, won the starting job only after holdovers Kyle Boller and Troy Smith were eliminated in training camp by injury and illness, respectively.

In retrospect, though most of us didn't see it coming, Ryan and Flacco had some qualities that set them up for success. For one thing, each player had exhausted his college eligibility and was considered a relatively polished product. Conversely, Stafford, Sanchez and Freeman are all underclassmen, and at the press conference announcing Sanchez's decision to turn pro, USC coach Pete Carroll threw a mini-tantrum bemoaning the choice.

"I can see Pete's point," one NFL GM says. "I think quarterbacks, more than any other position, can really benefit from staying that extra year. If you come out early, you're playing catch-up in a lot of areas. If you look at some of the high picks who've struggled in recent years – Tim Couch, Michael Vick, Alex Smith, Vince Young, JaMarcus Russell – what they have in common is that they're underclassmen. It's pretty glaring."

For his part, Dimitroff was won over by Ryan's maturity, both in the way the player presented himself in interviews and the way he responded to the team's continued probing during the two months between the scouting combine and the draft. As with Flacco, competitiveness was another adjective that kept cropping up as the Falcons (and other teams) vetted Ryan, making Dimitroff's decision that much easier.

"You can get by having a lesser arm and less athleticism than the prototype," Dimitroff says. "But if you're not a natural leader, and if you're not a fierce competitor, you can't be great. The more time we spent with him, the more convinced we became that Matt Ryan had those qualities. We're so thankful we made that decision."

Dimitroff believes that what Ryan and Flacco achieved last season is "a good thing for the game. It's provided the mindset to people drafting high that there is an opportunity which, if managed correctly – not overburdening a young quarterback with an intricate scheme and asking him to throw 40 times a game – for a rookie to come in and lead and make a team better."

It may be good for the game, but I'm not sure it'll work out so well, at least in the short term, for the teams who draft Stafford, Sanchez and Freeman. Just look at the example provided by the '08 running backs: A year ago, when they took McFadden fourth overall, I'm sure the Raiders felt they were getting a game-changer the way the Minnesota Vikings did with Peterson. It may happen down the road, but I wouldn't count on it. In all probability there's not going to be another Peterson, at least not for a long while.

Similarly, I don't expect that there'll be another Ryan, or even another Flacco, in the current crop of passers. And I hope the teams that draft them will avoid the compulsion to replicate last year's model by immediately throwing them into the lineup.

So what I'm saying is, go ahead and pay these guys like last year's instant impact rookies, but don't play them until they're more seasoned.

Somehow, I don't think that'll happen.


After all the intrigue and chest-beating, virtually every team in the draft will hold onto its first-round pick and make a reasonably predictable choice. … Kobe vs. LeBron; LeBron vs. Kobe – wake me up when we get there. … Come renegotiation time, NutriSystem will significantly decrease spokesman Mike Golic's "portion size".


1. San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith and I agree on absolutely nothing.

2. There have been a lot of football players better than Deacon Jones.

3. A black Italian does not exist – (right, Juventus fans?).


Remember that comedy "Multiplicity" in which a stressed out Michael Keaton clones himself to enhance his potential for productivity and pleasure? Maybe that's what Falcons receivers coach Terry Robiskie should have looked into as he prepared for an unusual NFL draft weekend. Robiskie's son, Brian, is a polished wideout from Ohio State projected to go in the second round of many mock drafts. Obviously, Terry's job requires that he report to the Falcons' war room at the team's Flowery Branch, Ga., headquarters. Yet, as a proud papa, he needs to be there to hug his son when the kid's name is called. Terry's solution? He's going to try to do both.

The plan, he says, is to come to work and spend the first round in the war room and then rush home, where Brian and the rest of the family will be nervously watching the draft on TV. "Hope it all works out," Terry says. So do I. And I hope that if the no-nonsense assistant ever does look into cloning, he considers creating a second replica for the precise purpose of putting a foot in Roddy White's hindquarters (with White's mother's permission, of course).


Andia Wilson-James, who died last week after battling leukemia. Wilson-James was the longtime girlfriend of Cardinals halfback Edgerrin James, and the mother of his four children. Please join me in sending thoughts and prayers to the family.


Ah, that feels much better. Reading finally snapped out of its late-season haze with a dominant performance at Derby County last Tuesday, rolling to a 2-0 victory that all but assured the Royals of making the four-team Football League Championship playoff that will decide the third and final promotion berth to the Premier League. Playing against a Derby team which also got relegated from the Premier League after last season, Reading ended its five-game winless streak (four draws, one defeat) in emphatic fashion: The Royals had three goals disallowed in the first seven minutes, finally settling things on second-half tallies by Dave Kitson and Shane Long. As winger Glen Little told the team's website afterwards, "That's the [Reading] I know, arguably the best team in the division when we play like that." The Royals, tied for fourth in the League Championship table with 74 points, still own a league-best goal differential of 31 points, giving them an outside chance of overtaking second-place Birmingham (80 points) and third-place Sheffield United to gain one of the automatic promotion spots. It's more likely Reading's remaining regular season games – at lowly Norwich City, which is fighting to avoid relegation, Monday and at home against Birmingham on Sunday, May 3 – will be tune-ups for the playoffs.


These are exciting times at America's top-ranked public university, with former vice president Al Gore having visited on Thursday – part of the groundbreaking ceremony for the Richard C. Blum Center For Developing Economies – followed by Saturday's expected appearance at the Greek Theater by Blum's longtime friend, the Dalai Lama. Gurus and football – that's what California does! Right, we're talking about sports … The Bears' gymnastics team finished fourth at the NCAA championships, with senior Evan Roth capturing an individual title on the rings. Cal's men's and women's crew is each ranked No. 1 nationally. Good times. Jack Clark's lads reached the rugby Final Four with victories over Minnesota and Cal Poly by a combined 143-10 – do not doubt the greatest coach in America come April Drive time. And for those of you wondering who the Cal softball team's most important player is, check out my latest installment of Pure Silver on's page.


McShay Kiper video argument


When Dimitroff, who spent more than a decade adhering to a strict vegan diet, swung a trade Thursday for 10-time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez, who has similar sensibilities, it was a match made in health-conscious heaven. Soon they'll break whole-grain bread together in Hotlanta, and in preparation for that glorious feast, here's Dimitroff getting his John Lennon on, to the tune of the Beatles' "Savoy Truffle":

Clean tangerines, and portobellos
A ginseng sling with ginkgo biloba
A rice dream dessert – yes you know it's good news
And I've got to have them all laid out
For my organic brother

Green zucchini, artichoke hearts
Lentils and black beans that will make us fart
Pine nut hummus with some baba ghanoush
Yes I'll have to have it all tricked out
For my organic brother

You might not feel it now
But during two-a-days
You're gonna go – and how
Your teammates will be on the ground
They'll pay a heavy price
For eating cow

And we'll show 'em what it's all about
Yeah, my organic brother

You know that what you eat you are
It makes you jump high, and run far
I'll meet you at the salad bar
And that's what makes you, a real star

Clean tangerines, and portobellos
A ginseng sling with ginkgo biloba
Matt Ryan's on board – yes he's eating dried prunes
And I've got to have them all laid out
For my organic brother
Yes, I'll have to have it all tricked out
For my organic brother