Formerly an email newsletter about all things NFL, it's now a blog about all things NFL, but mostly all things Dallas Cowboys. Probably with a dose of politics, food, and college football.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Jay Cutler’s gonna stink -- How NCAA accuracy translates to NFL ability.

In the NFL, a QB has to be accurate. Good NFL QBs were accurate QBs in college. It’s not all about accuracy, but there may be no stronger indicator of future NFL ability (not necessarily “success”) as NCAA accuracy.

More importantly, there is no stronger indicator of future NFL failure as lack of NCAA accuracy.

This is not about what makes a good pro QB. Many things make a good pro QB. But bad NFL QBs share this common thread -- they were not very accurate in college.

NFL scouts continue to be seduced by the “big arm.” Show 100 scouts or coaches a college QB that can throw 100mph with 50% accuracy and I’ll show you 100 scouts or coaches who not only think they can work with that, but lay awake nights dreaming and drooling about a guy like that.

But show those same 100 scouts a QB with 65% accuracy who only throws 50mph, and I’ll show you one – maybe -- who thinks that player should be drafted in the 7th round. Yet recent history shows that the latter QB has a much better chance of contributing something at some point in his NFL career, while the former has a nearly 100% chance of being a complete bust.

There have been accurate college passers that did not make it in the NFL, or had very limited success or short careers, for a variety of reasons. Consider Joe Hamilton from Georgia Tech, who had a very high completion percentage, but was only 5’10” and lacked a strong arm. A strong arm is needed in the NFL, but not only is it not the end-all, it shouldn’t even be the start-all.

The list of accurate-NCAA/average-NFL QB’s is long compared the list of passers that had so-so accuracy in college and went on to have good NFL careers in the last decade.

What is accurate? In college, it’s a completion percentage of 60% or more for two years, or 65% (or close to it) as a senior (or junior if declaring early), with some prior success.

College teams, especially those outside the top ten, can be inconsistent and have the quality of their personnel change rapidly. Since that is true for virtually all teams, little or no judgment is made here about how a QB may have lost his top 3 receivers and the whole starting OL to graduation between his junior and senior years. It’s really not necessary to dig that deep.

The QB’s drafted in 2005 do not have a long enough track record to make meaningful judgments about them, but the 2004 draftees do.

Drafted #1 that year was Eli Manning from Mississippi. A three-year starter, Manning completed 63.5% as a sophomore, 58% as a junior, and 62.4% as a senior. That’s good.

Manning’s completion percentage was solid over an extended period. He has been inconsistent with the Giants, starting slowly as a rookie, starting quickly in his second year before tailing off badly toward the end of that year. The jury is out, and he was probably drafted higher than he should have been because of his name, but Manning was a legitimate prospect who could still achieve a fair level of success in the NFL.

The second QB drafted in 2004 was Philip Rivers. Rivers has had virtually no NFL experience. A four-year starter at NC State, he completed 54%, 63%, 63%, and a whopping 72% in his college career. Of course, he throws sidearm, and may not have quite enough velocity to make all the NFL throws, but he’s got the accuracy.

The next two QB’s taken in 2004 may be the poster boys for this theory. The first, taken at number 11 by the Steelers, was Ben Roethlisberger. Eleven picks later, the Buffalo Bills traded up to take Tulane’s JP Losman.

Roethlisberger was extremely accurate at Miami of Ohio. As a freshman, he completed 66% of his passes. As a sophomore 63%, and as a junior 69%. Roethlisberger then declared for the NFL draft.

One negative cited before he was drafted was that he played at a mid-major program and his competition may have been suspect. Obviously, it didn’t matter, and when you consider other QB’s that have come out of the MAC, it clearly doesn’t matter. Level of competition is probably not a factor until at least the I-AA level.

Roethlisberger has backed up his college numbers by completing 66% and 63% of his passes in two NFL seasons, has played in two AFC title games and won a Super Bowl. And he’s just scratching the surface of his potential.

Roethlisberger has a good arm, mechanics, pocket awareness, and intelligence. He has it all, including the necessary accuracy.

JP Losman was drafted 22nd overall by Buffalo. Losman completed 57% as a junior at Tulane, and 60% as a senior. This is below par as an indicator of NFL success. After sitting behind Drew Bledsoe as rookie, Losman completed 49.6% of his passes and was benched twice in his second year.

Since Buffalo’s offense under Mike Mularkey used an exceedingly short passing game, it’s safe to say JP Losman was an unqualified disaster. After watching Losman several times, it’s clear his inaccuracy is not due to inexperience or ability to read defenses.

Losman simply can’t hit a bull in the ass with a banjo.

Why was Losman taken so high? Three reasons: he allegedly has a big arm, he’s mobile, and he was cocky, often being cited prior to the draft as a gunslinger in the Favre mold.

All those things are seductive, and none are indicators of NFL success.

In the 2003 draft, Carson Palmer was taken first overall by Cincinnati. At USC, he completed 55%, 59%, and 63% his final three years, and won the Heisman as a senior. Those numbers are not phenomenal, but the progression is good and he was consistently accurate as a junior and senior.

Palmer was able to sit his entire rookie year, then completed 61% and 68% of his passes and emerged as a star in his third year.

Palmer had the big arm scouts love, but he had the accuracy to go along with it.

Taken 7th overall in 2003 was Marshall’s Byron Leftwich. Leftwich was also a very accurate passer throughout his college career, completing 61%, 67% and 67% his last three years.

Leftwich is established as a reliable NFL starter, as his NCAA accuracy predicted. Many things could keep Leftwich from becoming a star, but his accuracy insures a long career.

Drafted 19th overall in 2003 was another poster child for inaccuracy, Kyle Boller. The Ravens and Brian Billick apparently drafted him because they were enamored with Boller’s ability to kneel and throw 65 yards.

In the NFL, Boller has completed 52%, 56% and 58% of his passes. Given his college career, that level of “success” is actually somewhat shocking. At California, Boller completed 39%, 47%, 39%, and a whopping 53% as a senior.

It’s possible Boller is a QB that can continue growing as QB, but other peripheral numbers, like averaging less than 6 yards per attempt, indicate it still may be a long time before he fully matures. Or, more likely, he will never be accurate enough to be an above-average NFL QB.

Even while inexplicably outperforming his college completion percentage, there was no reason to draft Boller in the first round. Even if his potential is fully realized, it likely won’t be until he’s held back his team(s) for several years and gotten his coaches fired while they waited for him to grow.

The Bears took Rex Grossman 22nd overall in 2003. He’s missed too much time due to injury to make a meaningful judgment of his pro career. He completed 62%, 66% and 57% in three years at Florida, so the potential is there for him to flourish in the NFL.

In 2002, David Carr was taken #1 overall by the Texans. Carr completed 61% and 65% in two years as a starter at Fresno St. That indicates he should have success in the NFL. He hasn’t, but most observers blame his offensive line, which has allowed Carr to be sacked 208 times in four years.

Taken 3rd overall in 2002 was Joe Harrington. I admit I loved Harrington coming out of Oregon. The team was good and he seemed to throw a good deep ball. But here are his college completion percentages: 56%, 53%, and 58%.

Much less than stellar, and that has translated directly to his unimpressive Detroit Lions career.

Patrick Ramsey was the last player taken in the first round in 2002. He’s already gone from QB of Washington’s future to QB of Washington’s past. And it was predictable.

At Tulane, he completed 60%, 59%, and 57% of his passes. That percentage is not terrible, and the end of the first round is really the right place to gamble on a big arm. I don’t think it was a terrible pick by Washington, in fact, it might still be considered a good gamble, even if he does nothing the rest of his career, and likely, he won’t.

The #1 overall pick in 2001 was Michael Vick. In two years, throwing less passes than most college QB’s throw in one, Vick completed 59% and 54% of his passes at Virginia Tech. But Vick is one of a kind. There is no point in debating whether he completes a high enough percentage of his passes because clearly he doesn’t. The debate with Vick is simply whether it matters.

Drew Brees was taken with the first pick in the 2nd round in 2001. He was consistent at Purdue, if slightly underwhelming. He completed 63%, 61%, and 60% in the spread offense. He took a few years to develop, but is now a good – and very accurate—NFL QB.

Brees suffered a serious shoulder injury in the final game of the 2005 season, and despite that some are saying he’ll be fine, I seriously doubt it. Baseball pitchers that suffer torn labrums are never the same, unambiguously. QB’s don’t need to throw fastballs as much as pitchers, but they still need a certain amount of velocity, and I’d wager Brees won’t have it. Labrum injuries are worse than rotator cuff injuries, and…

In 2000, the only QB taken in the first round was Chad Pennington. He was very accurate in college, completing 59%, 65%, and 67% as a three-year starter at Marshall. After sitting for two years, he took over and was productive and accurate for the Jets before also sustaining a serious shoulder injury. Never a fireballer, Pennington had no zip at all in 2005 and could be through as a player.

One other QB of note was drafted in 2000. In the 6th round, New England took Tom Brady. Brady completed 61% in both his junior and senior seasons at Michigan. That alone should have gotten him drafted much higher. He’s also got a strong arm, nice size, etc. I know it’s easy to say it now. But any QB, especially one from a major program, that completes 61% of his passes over two years deserves a long look and higher-than-6th-round draft pick.

1999 is another year that proves this theory in spades.

Taken 1st overall in 1999 was Tim Couch. Couch completed 67% of his passes in his career at Kentucky. He was worthy of the top pick. Things didn’t work out for Couch, but he wasn’t the worst QB ever taken in the first round. His NFL career numbers are below average, but perhaps seem worse because he was the #1 pick in the draft.

Taken 2nd overall by Philadelphia was Donovan McNabb. McNabb completed 58% of his passes at Syracuse where he was a four-year starter, topping out at 61% as a senior. That’s OK, but he had only completed 55% as a junior.

However, McNabb is a very dynamic athlete just like Vick. He’s made highlight reels as much with his feet as his arm – but he’s got a good arm. He’s been a productive passer, but has famously been “less accurate than AndyRied would like.” Consistent accuracy is the one thing lacking from his game.

It’s possible his receivers haven’t helped him in this regard. With Terrell Owens in 2004, McNabb completed 64% of his passes. If McNabb can get close to that figure consistently, he may prove to be the exception to this rule, but how long does it take?

Taken 3rd overall in 1999 was Akili Smith. If not for Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith might be known as the biggest QB bust of all time. In only one year as a full-time starter at Oregon, Smith completed just 58% of his passes. In the NFL, this would be the minimum expected. In the NCAA, it’s really not very good. His inexperience, inaccuracy, and probably several other inabilities, made him a terrible pick at #3 overall and an NFL bust.

At #11 in 1999, the Vikings took Daunte Culpepper. Culpepper was phenomenally accurate at Central Florida. He completed 57%, 60%, 62% and an astounding 74% of his passes in college. Again, it didn’t matter that he didn’t play at a major program. After sitting for a year, Culpepper immediately became a top QB and has never completed less than 61% of his passes in the NFL.

One pick later, the Bears took UCLA’s Cade McNown. McNown completed 50%, 52%, 61% and 58% of his passes in college. In an abbreviated career in Chicago, McNown was a bust and completed only 55% of his passes. McNown had other issues (but not a big arm!), but he may not have been accurate enough anyway.

1998 provided the most dramatic contrast in the relationship between college accuracy and professional success. Their story is well known, but what are rarely, if ever mentioned, are these college completion percentages:

Peyton Manning, Tennessee, 62% 64% 64% 61%.
Ryan Leaf, Washington State, 52%, 56%.

Leaf had numerous issues that led to him being a colossal bust, but maybe he wouldn’t have been such a jerk if he could have completed a higher percentage of passes.

The first round of the 1997 draft produced only Jim Druckenmiller at #26 to San Francisco. He was terrible of course, as his college career could have predicted. He completed only 57% of his passes as a senior at Virginia Tech.

Sixteen picks later, Jake Plummer was taken by Arizona. Plummer took a long time to develop, didn’t have a very strong arm, and was on some bad teams. But as a senior at Arizona State, he completed 73% of his passes.

But the lesson isn’t that Plummer was going to be great, it’s that Druckenmiller (almost certainly) wasn’t.

Finding NCAA statistics from farther back in history got difficult, and at this point isn’t necessary.

There’s just one more QB I’ll mention, a Cowboy of course. Troy Aikman completed 64% and 65% of his passes as junior and senior at UCLA.

In the weeks before this year’s Hall of Fame vote, a Dallas newspaper asked teammates of Aikman’s for anecdotes of what they remembered about him. One player said that he once asked Aikman about his legendary accuracy, and Aikman couldn’t say why he was so accurate. “It’s always been like this,” said Aikman.

Which puts this theory in a nutshell. Accuracy is born, not made. It’s true that young QB’s increase their accuracy in bunches early in their careers (if they start right away). They’re usually lost as rookies and even later. It does take time to learn to read defenses and know where their receivers will be.

But there is a base level of being able to throw a ball to a target that a player either has or doesn’t. If they don’t have it, they won’t be a successful NFL QB.

In the 2006 NFL Draft, three QBs are expected to be taken in the top 10, Matt Leinart, Vince Young, and Jay Cutler.

Leinart has completed 63%, 65%, and 66% as a three-year starter at USC. Leinart may have shortcomings, but his tremendous accuracy and other positives make him a good bet as one of the top picks in the draft.

Vince Young completed 59% and 65% in his junior and senior years at Texas. There is plenty to be wary about with Vince Young, including whether his completion percentage, which was good, was perhaps artificially high based on the types of throws he made in that offense. But again, that is not the point here. Young is a playmaker, and he’s proven he can be fairly accurate. He should, and will rightly be taken high in the draft. It’s clear though that he’ll need more time in the NFL to achieve success than will Leinart, all other things being equal.

Finally, Jay Cutler has been flying up draft boards based on, apparently, a big arm, and “great” work at the Senior Bowl and the Combine. His “great” Senior Bowl included going 6-19 in the actual game. At Vanderbilt, Cutler completed 49%, 57%, 61%, and 59%.

That’s not horrible, but it’s not good enough. It’s not good enough to indicate he’ll be even moderately successful in the NFL, and it’s far, far from good enough for a team to draft him in the top 10, let alone the top 5.

Jay Cutler is draftable, maybe even late in the first round. And he may not actually suck, after a while. But based on this research he’ll take several years to develop, and more likely, never will.

(Most stats courtesy and may not include bowl games.)