NFL teams would sell their souls for a franchise quarterback. Depending upon how you feel about controversial Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, who was accused, but never charged with rape, you can argue that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did make a football Faustian bargain, taking Winston with the first pick in the NFL Draft on Thursday.
In making their choice the Buccaneers didn’t really have a choice, though. If Bill Belichick acolyte Jason Licht, Tampa’s general manger, determined after months of putting Winston under a microscope that he was the best quarterback in this draft, he had to take him. The fate and fortune of an NFL team is tethered to its quarterback. The position is like a rock-climbing line: If it’s faulty, you’re going to plunge to your demise. If it holds, you can ascend to the top.
Just like there are two Americas, one for the wealthy and one for the poor, there are two NFLs. There is the NFL that exists for the teams that have a franchise quarterback, and one for those that don’t have competent or consistent quarterback play.
We’ve been blessed with Tom Brady. Tampa Bay and Tennessee, who took Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota with the top two picks, can tell you how the other half lives.
The NFL is a passer plutocracy. That’s why despite questions surrounding both quarterbacks, Winston and Mariota — keep working on that pronunciation Roger Goodell — went No. 1 and No. 2 Thursday night in Chicago. The two are risks for very different reasons.
Winston is considered an accomplished pro-style passer with a high football IQ, but a litany of alleged off-field transgressions at FSU that range from juvenile (taking crab legs from a supermarket without paying) to disconcerting (the civil suit by his rape accuser) make him a gamble.
The soft-spoken Mariota has a squeaky-clean reputation, but teams aren’t sure that after playing in Oregon’s hyper-speed spread offense he can adjust to being under center. They’re also concerned about whether the Hawaii native’s mellow mien will lend itself to being an NFL alpha male.
But the risks that both Winston and Mariota carry are worth it for the potential jackpot of having a franchise quarterback and a chance in the NFL.
This was the sixth time that quarterbacks have gone first and second in the NFL Draft. Winston and Mariota are sure to be linked for the rest of their careers, like Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer (1993), Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf (1998), and Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III (2012).
However, neither of the two Heisman Trophy winners is a sure thing. They are not John Elway, Manning, or Luck coming into the NFL.
Winston comes into the league with the burden of not only being the No. 1 pick, but also trying to prove that he’s not a reprobate who could embarrass the Buccaneers. Some (yours truly) probably overreacted to Winston’s issues at Florida State.
The rape allegation is deeply disturbing. But most of his other incidents at FSU can be filed under the same type of immature behavior other college students his age engage in. He was suspended for a game in 2014 after he stood up on a table and repeated a vulgar Internet meme.
An NFL personnel executive who requested anonymity said that Winston projected “sincerity.”
“He looks you in the eyes and lays it all on the table,” said the executive. “He said, ‘I was immature and need to make better decisions and carry myself like a pro. I can’t put myself in those situations.’ ”
Winston lost just one game in two seasons, showing a remarkable penchant for leading comebacks. But he seemed to regress in 2014 after winning a Heisman and a national title in 2013. He threw 25 touchdowns and 18 interceptions last season after throwing 40 TDs and 10 picks in 2013.
At times he seemed afraid to get hit and threw errantly off his back foot. Patriots fans who remember Bledsoe moonwalking in the pocket are nodding.
The NFL personnel man said Winston has “very good football intelligence,” but sometimes was guilty of trying to “cowboy” throws into tight spots.
The issues Winston had throwing off his back foot were result of the Seminoles missing the presence of current Patriots center Bryan Stork, according to the NFL executive. Ultimately, Florida State shifted left tackle Cameron Erving to center to replace Stork, who was drafted by the Patriots last year in the fourth round.
Mariota put up video game numbers in Oregon’s video game offense, leading the Ducks all the way to the inaugural College Football Playoff title game.
The reigning Heisman winner completed 68.3 percent of his passes and threw 42 touchdowns against just four interceptions. He also ran for 770 yards and 15 scores.
The knock on Mariota is that Oregon’s no-huddle offense, run out of the shotgun with zone read concepts, was like checkers to the NFL’s chess.
“Offensively, for Marcus it’s a different style of offense, but it has pro concepts in the offense,” said the NFL executive. “He does have to read coverages. It’s not look at the sideline and look at the board and it tells me to throw to this guy. That’s not how it works. It’s not predetermined reads, which is a misconception. He has to read the coverage. He operates, instead of like Jameis under center, dropping back, handing off or running play action, he does it out of a ‘gun and with zone read concepts. It’s just different.”
Only time will tell if the selections of Winston and Mariota were booms or busts.
But both teams needed a signal-calling savior.
The Buccaneers have never had such a player. The Titans haven’t had one since the late Steve McNair last played for them 10 years ago.
The NFL Draft is an educated guessing game, otherwise Brady wouldn’t have been the 199th pick in 2000.
The Patriots were fortunate to stumble upon their franchise QB with very little risk involved.
Most teams in the NFL don’t have that luxury.