- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Frye didn't doubt Roethlisberger's ability to succeed in this big game. He has admired him for years as a competitor in the underappreciated Mid-American Conference. But others doubted. Mid-major quarterbacks aren't supposed to come right into the NFL and play as rookies. Yet, Roethlisberger, coming off one of the greatest rookie seasons for a quarterback in NFL history, helped the Steelers beat the Jets 20-17 and advance to the AFC Championship Game.
"It's not where you start from, it's where you finish," Frye said. "There's a lot of guys like Joe Montana and Tom Brady that weren't selected in the first round, and they've both won three Super Bowls, so it's not where you start from, it's where you end up."
Frye is the latest in the MAC attack, a projected late first-round or high second-round prospect from Akron hoping to join the growing list of successful MAC alums Roethlisberger, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich. For years, scouts have doubted how well MAC quarterbacks could adjust to the NFL.
Scouts look at the competition with disdain and project a longer transition into the league for quarterbacks like Leftwich and Roethlisberger. The scouts downgrade the MAC quarterbacks for the funky offenses their teams use. Too much shotgun and not enough time behind center, they complain. Yet, the quarterbacks who have made the fastest and most successful conversions into the NFL the past two years have been Roethlisberger from Miami of Ohio and Leftwich from Marshall.
Alex Smith's rapid rise to being possibly the first selection, by the San Francisco 49ers, might finally be an indirect endorsement of the MAC. At least, it's a step forward for recognition of the mid-majors. Smith is hot even though he played at Utah.
Former NFL offensive coordinator Larry Kennan, who is head of the NFL Coaches Association, spends winters and early springs preparing young quarterbacks for the NFL. He has worked with Leftwich, Pennington, Eli Manning, Smith and others, and he considers Smith one of the best he has worked with.
"He's going to be a really good one," Kennan said. "I always try to evaluate things with 'What's his upside and what's his downside?' I'm having a hard time finding any downside. With Leftwich, it was working with him coming off a broken leg. Pennington doesn't have a great arm. I don't see any downside in Alex. Two years from now, he's going to be a 230-pounder. He's a big, strong guy. He knows a great deal, and he makes every throw."
Frye has been working with Rod Dowhower, a longtime NFL offensive coach who marvels at the Akron quarterback's understanding of the game and situations. In many ways, the mid-majors get a quarterback ready for the NFL better than anyone thinks.
Though the coaching might be as good at the mid-majors as it is at the majors, the talent isn't as deep. Receivers drop more balls. An injury or two deplete an offensive line, leaving a quarterback forced to scramble more to make plays. That's no different from what a rookie quarterback is going to get when he moves to a 2-14 team.
The biggest myth is that mid-major quarterbacks who play primarily out of the shotgun will be slow to adjust to playing on the line with their hands behind center.
"Obviously, it is a different style of play," Smith said. "As far as football knowledge and things I was asked to do under that system, I think I can be more prepared than any quarterback. Making checks at the line of scrimmage, reading defenses, what I was asked to know and do was more than anyone else. In that sense, I feel more prepared because I played in a system."
Kennan notes that the Utah offense was so sophisticated Smith was calling protection changes and route changes at the line of scrimmage on a regular basis. That's stuff you do in the NFL.
"Plus, these guys are gym rats," Kennan said. "Alex loves studying film and knowing what he's doing. It's not as though he's never played with his hands behind center. He did that as a freshman and all through high school. It took a couple of weeks for him to get to the right points on three-, five- and seven-step drops."
Plus, the mid-major experience exposes these quarterbacks to more. It's all about passing and overcoming adversity. More rests on the quarterbacks' shoulders, so they have to respond. Frye went to the Senior Bowl and earned MVP honors even though he badly injured his left pinkie on the first snap in practice Monday.
In the game, Frye wore a tight glove to cut down the swelling. That's what you do in the MAC. You compete. MAC quarterbacks get hit more, so they are asked to respond to more challenges.
The Bills saw those types of qualities in J.P. Losman, who didn't play in the MAC but was a mid-major QB at Tulane, when they traded a 2005 first-round pick to get him in last year's draft.
"Some of the blocking around him at Tulane may have been a little below the mid-major level," Bills assistant general manager Tom Modrak said. "A lot of times at that level, you have receivers who might drop the ball a little more than at the major level. It was a situation for him where if J.P. didn't make the play, nobody would. You see a lot from a quarterback in those situations."
Go back to the 1999 draft. One longtime NFL quarterback coach with a great eye for talent went to look at the five quarterbacks drafted in the first round and came to quick conclusions. Akili Smith had a gun-slinging style and only one year as a starter that would make for a tough conversion. Cade McNown didn't have a strong arm and wasn't liked by his teammates. Tim Couch had trouble because of his limited exposure throwing the out pass. The coach thought McNabb was a sure bet for success. He thought the same of Daunte Culpepper from Central Florida.
Culpepper made all the throws, had pro level coaching and was forced to run around making every play because he wasn't blessed with the deepest talent base around him. Smith, McNown and Couch were busts. McNabb and Culpepper were the keepers and are now NFL stars. The successes of the MAC alum and other mid-major quarterbacks is changing the way teams look at prospects like Frye, Smith and others entering the NFL.
"Yeah, I think they erased all of those [doubts]," Frye said. "They set the bar pretty high, too. They went in there and had success and won a lot of games. I'm hoping to go in there and try to do the same thing."
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
The success of Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich has changed the way teams look at mid-major QBs, writes John Clayton.