Judging quarterbacks is anything but a snap

By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 1:16 AM

Cam Newton is a pretty, shiny thing. But there is no molecular test that can examine his insides and predict whether he will pay off as a first-round NFL draft pick. After all of the cone drills, straight-line sprints, interviews, and intelligence evaluations he underwent at the scouting combine, it's still a matter of guesswork whether he's a future great.

Assessing quarterback talent remains the most fascinatingly imprecise and potentially costly judgment in the NFL. The various tests of the combine, from physiological to IQ, are supposed to lend some exactitude to the inexact. But truthful personnel executives acknowledge that it's a wishful exercise at best, and no matter how much information they gather, they still guess wrong.

"I get amnesia on the ones I missed," jokes Bill Polian, president of the Indianapolis Colts, one of the few personnel men who can claim to be right more often than not.

The draft experts watched Newton and the rest of the quarterback class as attentively as if they were carbon dating scrolls of papyrus, doing their best to act as if it was a science. But they might as well have been looking for water with a forked stick.

By the time the combine wrapped up Monday, there was as much divergence of opinion on Newton's prospects as ever. Whether he was a smarter pick than Blaine Gabbert, or Jake Locker, or Andy Dalton, was a mystery. The same was true of Ryan Mallett; some said he was brilliant, while others said his strong arm showed a telltale lack of touch. What accounts for this? How can experts be so divided on who shows more promise at such a crucial position?

It has something to do with the fact that measurements can be incredibly misleading when it comes to quarterbacks, more so than any other position. There is perhaps nothing more distracting to good judgment than a great-looking physique, or more deceptive than flashy combine scores. Newton is built like a fountain statue, and he has an arm like an air-cannon, and he ran a 4.59 in the 40 and displayed a broad jump of over 10 feet. But he also shows some red flags signs we've seen before. He has a worrisomely large ego, judging from his self-described of aspirations as "an entertainer and an icon" and his passes wandered in throwing drills.

Teams have picked pretty shiny players before, guys who look the part, and been burned by them. A big arm doesn't necessarily mean anything, witness JaMarcus Russell, the first pick in the 2007 draft, who proved to be so lazy and inaccurate he was out of the league in three years. Kyle Boller was so strong it was said he could throw the ball 50 yards from his knees, but he's been injured and never lived up to the promise he showed at the 2003 combine.

The most famously deceptive combine for quarterbacks ever was in 2000, when a slouchy, rope-muscled kid named Tom Brady ran the 40 in just 5.23 seconds and showed a vertical leap of only 24 inches. He was overshadowed not only by Chad Pennington, but also by Giovanni Carmazzi out of Hofstra. Carmazzi dazzled the scouts with a 4.70 in the 40, a 36-inch vertical leap, and a 9-foot-11 broad jump. The San Francisco 49ers drafted Carmazzi in the third round. Brady fell to the sixth. Carmazzi was out of the league by 2002.

It takes nerve and smarts for a personnel exec to turn down a candidate with a big arm who tests high in speed and agility, in favor of a prospect who is a little less outwardly impressive. Polian made one of the great all time decisions in 1998 when he drafted Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf. It's a no brainer now but it was an agonizing choice back then. Leaf was bigger and more overtly athletic, but to Polian, Manning seemed to have more emotional maturity and ability to deal with adversity. It was exactly the right assessment; Leaf turned out to have buried temperament problems and caused the San Diego Chargers nothing but grief.

It wasn't the first time Polian was correct: he also brought Jim Kelly to the Buffalo Bills from the USFL. If Polian has a secret, it's that he tries not to overrate the physical in favor of the mental and emotional aspects of the game. Just because a guy has an arm doesn't make him a quarterback. Rather than pure strength, he puts a premium on accuracy and poise, and a particular kind of processing intelligence that he calls "fast eyes," the ability to assess complex situations quickly.

"Intelligence is awfully important," Polian says. "It's a complex game and they have to be able to comprehend and process lots of information. It's not rocket science but it's pretty close, it's like financial engineering, or the things that pilots do."

Sometimes the difference between two players is all but imperceptible, and it's a matter of trying to tell good from great. That was the case with Ernie Accorsi of the New York Giants, who made a nervy choice in 2004 when he used a draft pick on Phillip Rivers only to trade him away for Eli Manning, a move that has since been endlessly analyzed. Rivers was good but Accorsi believed Manning was better, a belief ratified by a Super Bowl victory. Accorsi's decision was only partly about Manning's physical traits. It simply came down to Accorsi's gut.

In an e-mail exchange, Accorsi said, "Besides certain obvious physical talents like decent size and arm strength and ability to at least evade a rush, in my opinion the differences between being good and winning championships are: (1) accuracy; (2) something deep down inside that, as an evaluator, you don't necessarily see, but you can feel when you see him."

All of which is to say, drafting a great quarterback is as much a matter of internals as externals. The teams that make the best decisions on quarterbacks this offseason will judge Newton and his prospects less on their measurements at the combine, than on some vague, indefinable sense. The truth is, hardly ever can you actually see the great ones coming.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company