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The Anatomy of an NFL Bust

Some players have controversial legacies where their impact and quality of play is still open for debate, while others have perfectly solid ones that won’t wilt to the sands of time — and that can be both good and bad. We are usually trying to solve the more puzzling legacies instead of muddying them further, but today I will argue why one rancorous reputation in particular should be evaluated more carefully.

THE wave of public opinion has widely turned against the importance of the quarterback pro day, a bloated and overhyped circus of an event that has historically revealed little about future success of passing prospects. Teddy Bridgewater’s pro day was brutalized and subsequently defended by differing spectrums of the sports media, while the new age of football fans seemed mostly sympathetic. It makes sense; they remember the failures of workout warriors like Kyle Boller, Blaine Gabbert, and JaMarcus Russell (the epitome of the exercise’s futility) and will approach any rave review with skepticism. Looking at you, Tom Savage.

One of the guys we have to blame for this phenomenon is Jeff George, the No. 1 pick in 1990 who went from surprising draft entry to the slam dunk selection at the top of the draft because of three dazzling workouts. George hadn’t been expected to declare after his junior season, so scouts hadn’t been monitoring him closely during the 1989 college football season. Super agent Leigh Steinberg* took advantage of the mysterious aura surrounding the Illinois product and organized a series of passing drills that were designed to show off George’s bazooka of an arm for curious teams — an 81-yard heave at the end of the first event apparently set scouts into convulsions. Said Colts receivers coach Milt Jackson, “When we saw that throw, it was over. We’d seen enough.”

Never mind the controlled environment of these workouts or George’s relatively unimpressive college resume; a single moonshot in shorts and a sweatshirt was enough for Indianapolis to trade up to draft a guy** that was a mid-round selection before the peep shows. Three displays of arm strength were enough to override any red flag.

(Still looking at you, Tom Savage.)

What follows is well known. The rumors of George’s general douchery — he once decided to transfer to Illinois instead of Miami because Jimmy Johnson wouldn’t guarantee him the starting job over Steve Walsh, a future All-American — all proved to be true, as he burned bridges in Indy, Atlanta, and Washington due to public spats with coaches. George never developed as a Colt and wasn’t good enough anywhere else for teams to put up with his attitude over an extended period of time; he ended up playing for five franchises in nine years from 1993 to 2001, being handed the keys to the car at one point in four of those destinations.*** He was never a drifter, though — never a Rick Mirer or Trent Dilfer that was leeching the league minimum into his thirties. He wanted to start.

Because of his epic flameout in Indianapolis, from being the richest rookie ever to demanding a trade three years later, George is widely regarded as a bust by casual observers of the sport’s history. Not a Russell or a Ryan Leaf-esque failure, but a bust nonetheless. That’s the assumption I grew up with before ever researching his career, and the numbers surprised me upon closer inspection.

I had found that Jeff George wasn’t a bad quarterback at all. He may have been a notch above decent, even.

SIMPLY analyzing George’s numbers in a vacuum won’t do much good, though, especially when they aren’t all that impressive. Skeptical minds will reject a case made for redemption unless it is paired with benchmarks that better contextualize the data, and it is for that reason why I decided to compare George’s statistics to that of two other players that I feel share a lot in common with him but benefit from more favorable reputations.

Steve Bartkowski was the No. 1 pick out of Cal in 1975, a time when quarterbacks were far from shoe-in selections at the top of the draft. He was the third player at his position to go first overall since the merger, and he would be the last signal-caller to go that high in the pre-John Elway era.

Bartkowski is still beloved by Atlanta fans for delivering the expansion franchise its first ever playoff win while taking a beating for a decade (to the tune of 356 sacks in total), but his career is a difficult one to evaluate given its extreme highs and frequent flatlines. He had three excellent seasons (1980, 1981, 1983) and once led the NFL in touchdown passes; Bartkowski also only had one other year where he started at least seven games and didn’t throw more picks than scores.

To me, he was one of the best quarterbacks of the early ’80s and is completely nondescript outside of that brief time span. Bartkowski is a member of the Falcons’ Ring of Honor, though, and kinda serves as the Drew Bledsoe of his generation — an adored figure of a small-time franchise**** that probably gets more love than his play deserved because he represented legitimacy at the sport’s premium position.

While Bartkowski played almost exclusively for one club, Vinny Testaverde is in George’s mold of stinking up the joint for the team that drafted him before finding success in later areas of employment. His epically long stat sheet is a chore to sift through, but Testaverde basically posted two really good seasons (1996, 1998), a few mediocre ones, and whole bunch of shitty ones. He is the quintessential example of a quarterbacks that gets endless opportunities because he’s a six-foot-five, 235-pound stallion of a human being … being able to throw a pigskin a quarter mile while possessing the body that can sustain countless hits from NFL defenders (417 career sacks) goes a long way.

I’m sure Buccaneers fans aren’t too fond of Vinny — the blowback to the exposing of his colorblindness is hilarious in hindsight — but most people my age remember him fondly as the guy who stuck around forever and somehow started six games at 44-years-old. There was a ton of time between his flop in Tampa and that glorious stint of mop-up duty for Carolina, and the dude did retire top-ten all-time in touchdowns and passing yardage. There is also some evidence available that hints Testaverde was a lot better than his numbers suggest, but that’s a different column for a different day.

Their similarities to George are obvious on the surface as No. 1 picks that enjoyed spurts of great play among a milieu of statistical mediocrity. In fact, look at their career Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt Plus — an era-adjusted figure of the equation (Pass Yards + (20 * Pass TDs) – (45 * INTs) – Sack Yards)/(Pass Attempts + Sacks).

From To ANY/A+
Steve Bartkowski 1975 1986 101
Vinny Testaverde 1987 2007 99
Jeff George 1990 2001 101

100 is the league average in a given year, and 101 and 99 means that player was one percentage point better or worse than that mark. These are negligible differences; the point is that all three quarterbacks were statistically average passers over the course of their careers.

Some more league-adjusted rate statistics:

Y/A+ AY/A+ NY/A+
Steve Bartkowski 101 105 96
Vinny Testaverde 102 98 104
Jeff George 103 104 98

As you can see, the parallels between these three run a lot deeper than draft status — they barely deviated from the league average. Testaverde was a little better at avoiding sacks than the other two while having the propensity to throw more picks, but the numbers are strikingly similar. Take away the narratives and the labels, and this is what you get.

And for good measure, here are the career ANY/A+ for every post-merger No. 1 pick quarterback:

Rank Quarterback Drafted ANY/A+
1 Peyton Manning 1998 121
T2 Terry Bradshaw 1970 107
T2 John Elway 1983 107
T2 Cam Newton 2011 107
5 Troy Aikman 1989 106
6 Carson Palmer 2003 105
7 Eli Manning 2004 104
T8 Steve Bartkowski 1975 101
T8 Jeff George 1990 101
T10 Michael Vick 2001 100
T10 Matthew Stafford 2009 100
T12 Vinny Testaverde 1987 99
T12 Drew Bledsoe 1993 99
14 Jim Plunkett 1971 97
15 Andrew Luck 2012 97
16 Alex Smith 2005 92
17 Sam Bradford 2010 90
18 Tim Couch 1999 89
19 David Carr 2002 86
20 JaMarcus Russell 2007 80

Is George’s ranking at all surprising? It was to me. He’s above several guys that have better historical reputations than him, including a two-time Super Bowl winner. Five of the seven quarterbacks higher than George on this list own at least one ring, and Palmer and Newton both looked like future elite signal-callers at many points in their first three seasons.

It’s not a surprise that some of the biggest busts in draft history reside in the bottom three slots, but several that rank below George have never been regarded as failures. Luck’s inclusion is a bit unfair, but Bledsoe and Vick have eight Pro Bowls between them. Some consider Stafford a disappointment, but that’s mostly because of his inability to follow up on his breakout 2011 season, not his draft spot. Alex Smith has reinvented himself as an “All He Does is Win!” type of quarterback in the eyes of the media, and Sam Bradford is a good guy that still gets his share of excuses made for him that George never got in Indy and Testaverde never got in Tampa.

But George is still the bust here. What gives?

June Jones and Jeff George, depicted here September 1996, probably arguing over which would be booted out of Atlanta first.

June Jones and Jeff George, depicted here September 1996, probably arguing over which would be booted out of Atlanta first.

A few more quick hits on George:

– George has the most pass attempts ever among post-merger passers with an above-average ANY/A+ that were never selected to a Pro Bowl.

– Despite his reputation as a strong-armed, risk-taking cowboy (Jay Cutler is his most popular modern day comparison), George didn’t throw many picks. In fact, his INT% is Top-30 all-time, and it ranks ninth among quarterbacks who never played more than one season after the major rule changes of 2004.

– His 1999 postseason run for Minnesota was sneakily impressive, throwing for seven touchdowns to one interception in two games. The Vikings fell 49-37 to Kurt Warner’s Greatest Show on Turf in the divisional round as George racked up 423 yards and four touchdown passes in a losing effort.

A lot of the discrepancy over George’s legacy comes down to how we as fans choose to categorize busts. Some are easy — they suck despite being likable guys (Joey Harrington), or they suck and stir up headlines in the process (Russell, Leaf). But George was a decent quarterback and a surly dude, and for the latter reason alone he’s lumped into this ambiguous crowd despite playing notably better on the field.

One can argue that more should be expected out of the No. 1 pick than what George provided, but maybe we should learn to temper such expectations after taking a look at the last chart. George is probably a better quarterback than at least half of those players, and there is a reason why there is so much disparity in production. Not all drafts are created equal, for one — whereas one awful season will reward you with Peyton Manning at the top, the other gives you the option to take Blake Bortles — and scouting quarterbacks is still a highly volatile non-science that would kill to boast the track record of a coin flip. A young passer’s deficiencies are accentuated by the terrible situation they are almost always thrust into, so it’s not a surprise that many of the signal-callers on that list found more success in their next destinations than with the team that drafted them. George, Plunkett, Smith*****, Testaverde, and Vick have all rebounded nicely in different uniforms.

A bad attitude seems to be enough for most to casually toss George’s resume right into the bust bin. Maybe I’m underrating that aspect when evaluating his impact; someone of his stature was drafted to be the face of a franchise, after all, and he certainly wasn’t the model poster boy that Manning and Aikman turned out to be.

But that is a product of media coverage, brazenly admitting that the off-the-field soap opera is more important than what a player does in the huddle and on the gridiron. The facts (read: my interpretation of data) remain that George was better than many quarterbacks who have escaped the dreaded bust label in the post-mortem of their careers, and all I argue is that calling him a capable passer and an asshole does not have to be mutually exclusive.

Historical accuracy with regards to a man’s abilities should be the goal of all who respect the NFL’s past. Cases such as Jeff George’s reveal just how murky the waters can be when trying to determine a player’s legacy.

* Steinberg was the sports agent of the last quarter-century, boasting Drew Rosenhaus’ tenacity and Tom Condon’s pedigree. He served as the real-life inspiration for Jerry Maguire.

** Along with their fifth-round selections in 1990 and 1991, Indianapolis sent Atlanta their 1989 first-round pick Andre Rison and perennial Pro Bowl tackle Chris Hinton … the guy who had been the main trade chip in the 1983 Elway blockbuster. History is fun.

*** George threw 23 touchdowns in just 10 games for the 1999 Vikings, but he had originally signed on to merely be Randall Cunningham’s backup.

**** It sounds strange to say now given their dominance of the aughts, but Bledsoe and Bill Parcells may be the only reason why the Patriots didn’t move to St. Louis in the early ‘90s.

***** Admittedly, Smith is a bit of a stretch here since he had success in San Francisco before Colin Kaepernick’s emergence. But the 49ers’ pre-Jim Harbaugh days may as well have been a different franchise than the one Smith was drafted by.

Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and will begin attending the Gatton College of Business and Economics in June.

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About Brandon Magner (24 Articles)
Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and is currently enrolled in the Gatton College of Business and Economics. He plans to earn his MBA before attending law school in the fall of 2015.

1 Comment on The Anatomy of an NFL Bust

  1. Wow, cool! I appreciate your post.

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