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Thursday, April 17, 2003
Prospects prove that emphasis is on passing

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

Coaxed into a corner of the ball room at the Indiana Convention Center where draft prospects were conducting media interviews during the combine workouts two months ago, Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich talked at length about playing at a smaller school, rehabilitating from a fractured left tibia and, finally, the various drills that accompany preparation for the draft.

Told that the propaganda machine for Kyle Boller was cranking out the tale of how the University of California quarterback could rifle a ball through the uprights from 55 yards away, and while on both knees, the clever and engaging Leftwich paused and smiled before delivering a response.

And then after careful deliberation …

Carson Palmer
Palmer and the other top QBs have excelled mostly with their arms.
"I thought the idea of the game," Leftwich said, laughing, "was to throw the ball when you're on your feet, isn't it? You know, drop back into the pocket, (scan) the field, find a receiver and get him the ball."

The retort wasn't so much a slap at the late-blooming Boller, or his accuracy while in full genuflection mode, as an abstract explanation of how Leftwich and most other quarterbacks view the job description for what remains the NFL's most critical position. The game is still won, in most cases at the quarterback position, with your arm.

Not with your feet. Clearly not on your knees. Definitely with your arm.

Which is a good thing, it seems, since the '03 draft represents the latest step in debunking the myth of the mobile quarterback. Certainly this year's draft will do little to advance the notion that the position continues to evolve into one where alacrity is more essential than accuracy.

Despite a perception that mobile quarterbacks like Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, Jeff Garcia and Steve McNair have revolutionized the game -- and that a blazing 40-yard time is more crucial these days than a quick release -- the position is still more about descrambling nuances of opposition defenses than it is scrambling out of the pocket for a breathtaking 20-yard foray.

The suggestion that the electrifying Vick has forever changed the game, and the manner in which personnel directors and scouts evaluate quarterbacks, is preposterous. Unless he has been cloned during his continuing absence from the Atlanta Falcons' offseason conditioning program, Vick is one of a kind, a nonpareil playmaker whose awesome skills may never be duplicated.

Certainly not in this year's draft, where as many as four quarterbacks could go off the master board in the first round, but they are a quartet that no one would want representing them in a relay race.

Boller was clocked at 4.65 in the 40-yard drill at the combine, but is hardly regarded as a scrambler. He wasn't even viewed as much of a passer, in fact, until quarterback guru Jeff Tedford, who as offensive coordinator at Oregon had made first-round choices out of Akili Smith and Joey Harrington, came aboard as the Cal head coach.

Rex Grossman of Florida and Carson Palmer of Southern California can avoid a rush, but don't typically tuck the ball away and run productively. Texas' Chris Simms is a better athlete than he is credited with being, but had just two rushes of more than 20 yards during his Longhorns tenure. Leftwich is a big target who hangs in the pocket forever and will absorb a ton of hits. Dave Ragone is basically a statue.

In fact, the only quarterback in the 2003 class who could be considered a running threat is Brooks Bollinger of Wisconsin, who scrambled for 1,685 yards and 25 touchdowns in his career. Problem is, Bollinger is anything but a polished passer, and threw only 36 touchdown passes in four years, or six fewer than Kliff Kingsbury of Texas Tech recorded in 2002 alone.

"What you've got this year," said Baltimore coach Brian Billick, "is a lot of quarterbacks who have worked from the pocket in big-time passing systems. And, I mean, why is that a bad thing? People have gotten caught up in this thing about the quarterback as a running threat. That's not the top priority at the position. In fact, it's way down the line, and blown out of proportion."

I thought the idea of the game, was to throw the ball when you're on your feet, isn't it? You know, drop back into the pocket, (scan) the field, find a receiver and get him the ball.
Byron Leftwich, former Marshall QB

Looking back at 2003, in a league in which the running quarterback is said to be in vogue, just four quarterbacks rushed for more than 400 yards. That is a convenient benchmark, of sorts, because it represents an average of just 25 yards per game. If the perception of the hybrid quarterback were reality, how difficult would it be to net 25 yards a game on the ground, really? The elusive Garcia, viewed as a running threat by most defensive coordinators in the league, averaged just 22.1 rushing yards per game.

The quarterback rushing leaders from the 2003 campaign: Vick, 777 yards; Daunte Culpepper of Minnesota, 609 yards and 10 touchdowns; McNabb, with 460 yards, although his total certainly would have been higher had he not missed significant time with a broken foot; and McNair, 440 yards.

"Would I like to be a better runner? Sure, I would, man," Palmer said at the combine. "And I can make some plays with my feet. But it's not my strength and I think most (quarterbacks) here would say the same thing. I consider myself to be a pure pocket passer. I think that's going to be good enough."

Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo emphasized that the ability to avoid the pass rush is totally different than running skills. And the knack for buying time in the pocket, he allowed, is key. But he listed accuracy, mental and physical toughness, and arm strength as components far more essential to success at the position.

Most scouts would agree with that and, not surprisingly, so do the prospects in the 2003 draft pool. Said the ever-confident Grossman: "How many times does a team win a game on a halfback pass?" The inference: Tailbacks are paid to win games with their feet, quarterbacks with their arms, at virtually every level of the game beyond peewee league.

The fact that Boller's incredibly quick 40-time at the combine dropped the jaws of most scouts in attendance still can't supersede the fact he finished his college career with a completion rate below 50 percent. His quickness and potential running ability is merely a bonus element.

Yet the primary dimensions of this year's quarterback class is experience -- of the top six prospects, five are three-year starters, and Simms started for two years in Austin -- and pocket presence. If that detours the NFL's move back to its single-wing roots, when the guy who took the snap from center had to be a runner first and a thrower second, so be it.

"It's this appendage right here," said Leftwich, holding up his right arm during the combine interview, "that's my meal ticket. If that's not good enough for most teams, well, then there's a problem."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.