Commentary

Clausen's fall linked to Big Ben fallout

Originally Published: April 23, 2010
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Want to know one of the reasons Tim Tebow was the 25th pick of the NFL draft?

Answer: The Roethlisberger Effect.

Want to know one of the reasons Jimmy Clausen was a first-round no-show, free-falling out of the top 10, out of the top 20, even out of the Aaron Rodgers Misery Zone before his agonizing wait ended with the Carolina Panthers taking him halfway through the second round?

The Roethlisberger Effect.

Ben Roethlisberger's NFL career began in this city six years ago with a handshake from then-league commissioner Paul Tagliabue, as well as the sudden responsibility of being named the 11th overall pick.

It ended -- at least, temporarily -- in this same city two days ago with a six-game suspension and a harsh, public condemnation from Tagliabue's iron-fisted successor and bro-mance hug expert, Roger Goodell.

Something happened to Roethlisberger between April 2004 and April 2010, not all of it good. Two Super Bowl rings happened. But so did a motorcycle accident and two troubling off-field incidents involving the Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback.

The cumulative effect of those documented incidents, especially the recent Big Ben boozefest in Milledgeville, Ga., forced Goodell and the Steelers to act. Roethlisberger was repudiated by the NFL, by Steelers' management and even by some Steelers' faithful. If he were any more radioactive, he'd need a hazmat suit.

Roethlisberger wasn't here at Radio City Music Hall and the NFL draft these past few nights. But the trickle-down effect of his John Blutarsky behavior and spectacularly poor judgment was evident as the first and second rounds unfolded.

Start with the St. Louis Rams' decision to choose quarterback Sam Bradford as the No. 1 overall pick. It's easy to take Bradford's football skills to prom, but the depth of his character also played a significant part in the selection.

Anyone who thinks Bradford was taken No. 1 because he can throw an 18-yard out isn't paying attention to the evolving reality of the NFL. These aren't simply football decisions anymore. They've become financial decisions. Team image decisions.

Bradford becomes not only the face of the Rams but also an investment in the franchise portfolio. We're talking about tens of millions of dollars in guaranteed signing bonuses, salary and incentives. So here's guessing Rams officials must have loved his answer when asked about Roethlisberger and his conduct.

"Obviously there's things out there, people out there [who] are going to try to bring you down," said Bradford in his post-draft news conference. "I think as long as you surround yourself with good people and place yourself in good situations, you can eliminate a lot of the possibilities of bad things happening."

Hear the sigh of relief all the way from St. Louis?

There is no margin of error with that pick, that round and that playing position. If you get it wrong (see, Ryan LeafJaMarcus RussellCade McNownMichael Vick) it often can cripple your franchise for years.

Is Tebow a better, more polished quarterback prospect than Clausen? Absolutely not. But the Roethlisberger Effect has made owners and general managers even more skittish -- at least, more sensitive -- to the character strengths and flaws of potential first-round picks.

"I think there's been some trend toward that during the last couple of years," said one prominent player agent. "I don't know if it's so much Roethlisberger."

Fair enough. But did the concerns about Clausen's maturity level, real or imagined, contribute to his descent from a projected mid-first-round pick to the second round and the 48th overall pick?

"I'm sure they contributed to it," the agent said.

I've covered a handful of Clausen's games at Notre Dame. I've interviewed Clausen. He's different, but not in a bad way. Of course, showing up in a stretch Hummer limo to announce he would attend ND was so gaudy that Touchdown Jesus covered his eyes. Getting a sucker-punch black eye in a late-night/wee-morning altercation near campus wasn't a career high point. And it's fair to say he wasn't always the most popular player on the roster.

But Clausen played hard last season. He played hurt. And he played in an offensive system that prepared him better for the NFL than what Tebow ran at Florida.

Instead, the Denver Broncos eventually traded up and traded multiple picks to get Tebow, while Clausen was stranded on the island of misfit football toys. It didn't help that Clausen is still recovering from the after-effects of offseason toe ligament surgery. Or that there's a feeling among some evaluators that Clausen's head is almost touching his talent ceiling.

But Tebow is a first-rounder and Clausen is a second-rounder because the Broncos had more trust in Tebow's combo platter of skills. They trusted that he could be coached up, that his mechanics could be further improved and that he could lead. And there were no bruise marks on his maturity chart.

Clausen didn't inspire that same level of faith. His first-round hopes were partly undone by his past rather than enhanced by his future. Time will determine whether the Broncos or the Panthers made the wiser choice.

However it shakes out, intangibles matter. As our own Mel Kiper Jr. says, Tebow would be the No. 1 pick if everything were based on intangibles.

Meanwhile, if Roethlisberger were in this NFL draft and his baggage included the Lake Tahoe and Georgia incidents, no way would he be the 11th selection again. "I'm not sure he would have gone in the first [round]," the player agent said.

Clausen is no Roethlisberger. Not even close. But Big Ben's big mistakes weren't forgotten in the war rooms or executive offices of NFL teams this week. Right or wrong, Clausen was part of the collateral damage.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

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