A draft pick can change a franchise. In 1970 the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Terry Bradshaw first overall, and he led them to 4 Super Bowl victories. The same for Denver’s top pick in 1983 (John Elway, who won 2 Super Bowls), and for Dallas’s in 1989 (Troy Aikman, 3). Sometimes the top pick leaves you wondering (Jamarcus Russell, 2007). Others look differently with time, such as in 1994, when the number 1 pick Dan Wilkinson was selected one above Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk. The draft is an exercise in prophecy, complete with the impossible task of predicting the future, and waiting for the inevitable realization that perhaps every “mock draft” was utterly wrong. As soon as the names are called, the wheels are set in motion once again. Enter 2012.
To understand the intrigue of the 2012 draft, one must first consider the draft from 14 years prior, when the Indianapolis Colts selected a quarterback from the University of Tennessee named Peyton Manning (after a fortunate decision to pass on their other option Ryan Leaf). That draft pick set off a decade of Manning-led victories in Indianapolis, many seasons of at least 10 wins, MVPs, records, and trips to 2 Super Bowls (which perhaps would have been more if not playing at the same time as the one of the best Patriots dynasties at the time). Manning would be the QB in Indianapolis as long as he wanted to play, and the Colts would be in the hunt for the championship every year, everything according to plan.
Yet in the the fall of 2011, multiple necks surgeries forced Manning to miss an entire season. Suddenly the Colts weekly record was turned upside down. Losses piled up. The offense struggled to score at all. Any “tanking” talk was mitigated by the realization that they seriously could just be playing that poorly. The Colts limped to a 2-14 record, coach Jim Caldwell was out, and suddenly the Colts found themselves back at the top (of the draft, that is). A different era, but the same question.
14 years before, the Colts hit the jackpot choosing Manning over Leaf, and were now faced with the difficult choice of selecting Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III. Luck, an architecture student from Stanford, had eschewed the NFL the previous year (when the Carolina Panthers held the top pick, and instead selected Cam Newton) and completed his degree prior to graduation. Widely regarded as a top NFL-caliber passer, he was known for his methodical approach to calling plays and managing and offense. RGIII carried one of the most exciting playmaking abilities all the way to his Heisman Trophy selection, showcasing his ability to run and pass at a high level. These two players were all but certain to go one-two in the draft, but which one would be selected first? The St. Louis Rams, who held the second pick, received a handful of players and other picks, from the Washington Redskins, who would thus take whichever player the Colts would leave behind. But even before draft day, the Colts had their own decision to make regarding the man who had put their franchise on the map for the past decade. There was no guarantee that Manning would be able to return to playing shape, let alone his MVP form. There was the option to re-sign Manning and draft Luck or another player, or perhaps trade the number 1 pick. Ultimately Manning was not re-signed. He offered a heartwarming speech of gratitude to the Indianapolis fans, and looked to start the next step in his career. But that’s only half the story. The question remained whether to draft Luck or RGIII.
College football is a dynamic game. Dual-threat players are exciting, and they win. Vince Young, Tim Tebow, and Cam Newton all won championships via the run/pass combo that opposing defenses could not answer. Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel won Heisman Trophies with both passing and rushing stats to back up their candidacies. But the NFL is a different game. Defensive linemen are stronger, and linebackers are faster. Today’s game is shifting to maximize the impact of the best pocket passers. Every time a QB leaves the pocket, the risk for injury increases. In the college game, rosters are stacked with multiple recruits that each learn the offense. This year’s Ohio State is starting a third-string quarterback (all 3 are dual-threat QBs) in the Sugar Bowl. Pro rosters do not have that luxury. No team can afford to carry multiple Pro-Bowl quarterbacks, solely for insurance. Given the choice between a pocket-passing and option-running quarterback, the best decision is to select the pass-first quarterback who is mobile enough to keep plays alive with his feet, but will not subject himself to unnecessary injury risk.
For Luck and RGIII, neither has emerged into the superstar role quite yet. But the Colts once again clearly made the correct choice at the number 1 pick. Luck has won 10 games in each of his first 3 seasons, has twice been selected to the Pro Bowl, and has engineered some of the best comeback and game-winning drives. RGIII’s exciting first year led him to Rookie of the Year honors and a playoff appearance, leading many to consider he and Luck to be following a similar career trajectory (and some wondering if the Colts should have selected RGIII instead). But injuries and surgery have halted his progress. His benching this season and strained relationship with his coach only further cast doubt on his role in the NFL.
Two drafts picks, two franchises, and a number of ripple effects that will carry for at least decade. Luck and RGIII certainly aren’t going anywhere, but they’ve started to go in different directions. We’ll see where they end up. Besides, one of their QB peers already became the first to win a Super Bowl (and Russell Wilson was selected 73 picks after that pair). AN