The quarterback every NFL general manager would like to find in the 2013 draft is Russell Wilson.
NFL teams aren’t looking for the next great short quarterback. But they are looking for a quarterback with intangibles so powerful that he can overcome whatever he may lack physically, ala the quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks.
In that regard, Wilson is having an impact on how teams are evaluating quarterbacks. Front office men from two teams told me they have been asked to be more in tune to a quarterback’s intangibles this year. “Our front office wants to know who the Russell Wilson is in this group,” one high ranking scout said. “Intangibles have become more important because they can overcome everything else.”
The public focus of the combine is on physical traits. If you judged quarterbacks strictly by how hard they threw the ball, Tyler Bray of Tennessee might be the first one chosen. His peak ball speed of 59 was best of any quarterback. But it won’t matter if he doesn’t have intangibles.
“The reason quarterbacks have success is because they are leaders,” one NFC general manager said. “Russell Wilson absolutely reinforces that. You have to feel comfortable with that. Did Christian Ponder have everything you look for? No, but he had some leadership to him. I’m not surprised he went in the first round. Minnesota got comfortable with the leader. That’s a valuable trait, over the arm strength.”
Leadership isn’t the only intangible that matters. Instincts, work ethic and intelligence all play a part.
“I remember watching JaMarcus Russell’s workout and then going to Matt Ryan’s workout at Boston College,” said Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. “The skill set was at a different level, but Ryan had the intangibles and intelligence. That’s a huge part of the quarterback position. Wilson reinforces that. You still need enough talent. But all of the quarterbacks who excel have leadership and intelligence.”
Russell, like many of the biggest quarterback busts in history, was a bit off intangibly. So were Ryan Leaf and Akili Smith and Art Schlichter and Cade McNown.
“We’ve all been a part of investing in a human being who had a certain level of physical talent, but because of intangibles, he didn’t reach his potential or produce consistently,” said Rams general manager Les Snead.
Clearly, to succeed in the NFL a quarterback needs to have a combination of top intangibles and skill. If all it took were intangibles, Canton would already be carving Tim Tebow’s bust.
“With any player, maybe especially quarterbacks, God, mom and dad gave you talent, but intangibles usually are what takes that talent and produces fruit, and big fruit,” Snead said. “It’s always been the combination. It takes a certain amount of talent to play in this league, it takes a lot of intangibles to succeed in this league.”
But it’s too easy to be sucked in by the physical and ignore the intangibles. Pete Carroll, Wilson’s coach in Seattle, has always tried to stress qualities beyond the physical. “I’ve always searched long and hard for intangibles, and tried not to exclude players if they had special qualities,” he told me. I always have looked for unique qualities in players, and if they do it doesn’t matter if they fit the physical profile or not. I think it’s really fun that Russell proved to everybody he’s a great player and can on any level. I know it was against a lot of odds.”
Matt Barkley has been criticized for his arm but praised for his intangibles.
So which prospect in this draft has the best combination of intangibles and ability? According to multiple front office men surveyed by NFP, it’s Southern Cal’s Matt Barkley. As a result, some believe his stock is back on the rise after taking a season-long dip.
Different execs lauded Barkley for his anticipation, his communication skills, his personality that lights up a room, and his pocket presence. Another said he had the best instincts and ability to see the field.
Asked which quarterback was most impressive in terms of conveying leadership in his combine interview, one general manager said, “I think Barkley is special that way. He has some ‘it’ factor to him. The personality is there with Barkley. We ask them questions, try to get a feel for how much they love football, and see if they have a special trait that makes people want to be around them and listen to them. It all comes through with him.”
Carroll has a better feel for Barkley than most because he coached him at Southern Cal. “No question Barkley is loaded with intangibles,” Carroll said. “He has everything everybody wants. He has had it for some time. He knows what it’s like to be on a big stage at an early age and handle it impeccably.”
The other QBs who score relatively high on the intangible scale are Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib and North Carolina’s Mike Glennon.
But really, there is no Russell Wilson in this class of QBs. His intangibles make most quarterbacks look like something is missing.
My Sunday Best: Intangible Quarterbacks
All the great quarterbacks have great intangibles. But some have more than others. Here are my best intangible quarterbacks of the modern era:
Tom Brady. The contract extension he recently signed demonstrates the kind of leader he is. Brady sacrificed for the good of the team, which is kind of what he is all about. He is one of the best passers of all time, but if he were one of the most gifted passers of all time he would not have fallen to the sixth round of the 2000 draft. Brady succeeds mostly because of his work ethic, his intelligence and his instinct. He is perfectly wired to be an NFL quarterback.
Drew Brees. He should be too short to be a great quarterback, but his feel for the game makes him one. Brees is an exceptional leader who can carry the message of his coaches to the team. In part because of his unusual charisma, Brees lifted up his team and an entire city in the 2009 season.
Who wouldn't want to follow Brett Favre into battle?
Brett Favre. When it comes to courage, toughness and will to win, Favre may be in a class by himself. His streak of 297 straight starts is a testament to his drive and commitment. He could have rated even higher on the intangible scale if he were more of a conformist, but being a rebel is part of what made him great. In a couple of years, Favre’s successor in Green Bay probably will be on my list too. Aaron Rodgers has outstanding intangibles.
Peyton Manning. He is one of the greatest leaders the NFL ever has seen because of his ability to make players around him better. He sets the bar for his entire team, coaching staff included. No one outworks Manning, and no one is more committed to winning. He is a true professional in every sense.
Dan Marino. You will not find a more competitive quarterback. That’s what made Marino such a great leader. There was no intimidating Marino. He was the complete package.
Jim McMahon. He wasn’t as gifted as a lot of players on this list, but his innate understanding of the game and feel for playing it was incredible. He often didn’t work as hard as he should have and was difficult to coach, but he overcame it because he had so much football intelligence. His offensive teammates would have marched through hell for him.
Joe Montana. Joe Cool was one of the greatest clutch performers of all time. He was as unflappable as a quarterback can be. He wasn’t the most physically gifted, but his aptitude for the game was off the charts. Montana was a master of the subtle movement to avoid pass rush, thanks to his instincts.
Joe Namath. When scouts talk about the “it factor,” they could be talking about Namath. He was the NFL’s first great superstar. Nobody could command a room like Broadway Joe. Don Shula once said Namath was one of the three smartest quarterbacks ever.
Ken Stabler. The Snake was known for his ability to lead his teams back from deficits, which spoke to his ability to deliver in the clutch. He had an exceptional feel for football, and it’s a good thing because he was not the most studious quarterback on the planet. His leading style was to be “one of the guys,” and it worked wonderfully.
Bart Starr. Such a leader was Starr, he could have been a general. Other quarterbacks had more physical talent, but Starr did everything the right way. He was a player his teammates did not want to disappoint. He was one of the greatest ambassadors of the game ever.
Roger Staubach. Captain America was a super hero of a quarterback, almost always capable of leading his Cowboys on a come from behind run. The term “Hail Mary pass” came from Staubach saying he prayed a Hail Mary before throwing one. The Viet Nam veteran was a tremendous leader.
Johnny Unitas. He was the ultimate winner. With exceptional confidence and courage, Unitas simply knew how to get his teammates to win games. He also was cold blooded with the game on the line.
Things I Didn’t Used to Know
If body composition has anything to do with it, Dion Jordan is going to be one heck of an NFL player.
*The most impressive body of the combine probably belonged to Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan. At 6-6, 248 pounds, he checked into the Bod Pod with a body fat measurement of 3.8 percent—third lowest of any player at any position. What’s more, Jordan’s arms measured 33 7/8ths inches, and his hands were 10 inches.
*Many people were impressed with Ziggy Ansah’s 4.56 40 yard dash at 271 pounds, and rightfully so. But they would have been more impressed if they knew Ansah didn’t even train for the event. Unlike probably every other player in attendance, Ansah kept going to class and never worked with an outside trainer to prepare for the combine. In fact, the 40 yard dash he ran at the combine was the first of his life, according to his agent Frank Bauer. It should be noted, however, that Ansah did run 100 meter dash and the 200 meters on the Brigham Young track team before he became a football player.
*The Bucs’ coaching staff is up to 24 members, which is believed to be the largest in the NFL and probably is the largest in NFL history. Rick Stroud details it here. The 24 coaches give the Bucs one more than the Eagles, Seahawks and Vikings. The staff is so big, in fact, that the team is reconfiguring office space at One Buc Place to accommodate two additions. Among the Bucs’ coaches are three strength coaches, an assistant defensive coordinator and a pass rush specialist.
*Wondering who your team will be signing in free agency? Check out this list by Joe Fortenbaugh of the top 50 free agents.
*Settle down, Jets fans. I don’t think Darrelle Revis is going anywhere. My friend Pat Kirwan does a good job of explaining why here.
*The Chiefs made a smart move in bagging Alex Smith. He was by far the best available quarterback of the 2013 offseason.
*Through the years, we knew Tom Brady had a humanitarian heart, working with Best Buddies, Boys & Girls Clubs and fighting Aids in Africa, among others. But who guessed his latest pet charity would be the New England Patriots?
*It isn’t uncommon for players to fire agents. But in the case of Josh Cribbs, maybe his agent should fire him.
Dan Pompei covers pro football for the Chicago Tribune at chicagotribune.com.