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Update: Miss on a first round QB, get fired

Tim Tebow prays for not Josh McDaniels' job security.

Tim Tebow prays for not Josh McDaniels' job security.

In October, I examined the data supporting the intuitive notion that when an organization misses on a first round quarterback, the axe must fall on someone. From 1998 to 2010, there were 35 quarterbacks selected in the first round of the draft. I labeled 141 as clear busts, and in 10 of those situations, the head coach and offensive coordinator were both gone within two years. The outcome wasn’t much rosier in the other four instances. In Chicago and Baltimore, a Coach of the Year award and Super Bowl title helped insulate Dick Jauron and Brian Billick, but their offensive coordinators were fired within two years of their teams drafting Cade McNown and Kyle Boller, respectively. In Denver, head coach Josh McDaniels lasted only one year after drafting Tim Tebow, although his offensive coordinator has managed to rebound nicely. Only in expansion Houston was the axe delayed, although OC Chris Palmer was fired after year 3 and HC Dom Capers after year 4 following the David Carr pick.

With 2012 in the books, I wanted to provide a quick update. While Cam Newton is not a bust and the jury is still out on Christian Ponder (although some are calling for OC Bill Musgrave to be fired), it’s worth noting the situation of the other two first round quarterbacks. In Tennessee, OC Chris Palmer was fired in part for yet again failing to develop a rookie quarterback, this time with Jake Locker as the prized pupil. And in Jacksonville, a year after HC Jack Del Rio and OC Dirk Koetter were shown the door for largely non-Gabbert-based reasons, the GM who selected Blaine Gabbert — Gene Smith — has been fired, along with the 2012 HC (Mike Mularkey).

Speaking of GMs, the Jets relieved Mike Tannenbaum of his duties (as well as Tony Sparano and, finally, QB coach Matt Cavanaugh) after the Mark Sanchez pick, who graciously avoided the “bust” label when I ran the study in October on the basis of two AFC Championship Games in three years and about three seconds worth of thought.  What about the other first round quarterbacks that I labeled as neither busts nor stars?

HC Steve Spagnuolo lasted only two years in St. Louis after drafting Sam Bradford; after three years, both OC Greg Olson and HC Raheem Morris were gone in Tampa Bay following the Josh Freeman selection. Norm Chow and Bill Musgrave were considered offensive gurus, but lost their jobs after failing to develop Vince Young and Byron Leftwich after only two years. In Washington, Jason Campbell sat his entire rookie season, but his offensive coordinator the first two years he was on the field — Al Saunders — was released after year two, when HC Joe Gibbs retired. Jay Cutler was drafted in 2006, and OC Rick Dennison and HC Mike Shanahan were gone after 2008. Packers HC Mike McCarthy was the 49ers OC when Alex Smith was a rookie, and he somehow still managed to get the Packers head coaching job after the season. The next year Smith’s OC was Norv Turner, who parlayed modest improvement in Smith into a head coaching job in San Diego. Jim Hostler was the next man up, and he was fired as OC after one year. Meanwhile, HC Mike Nolan made it halfway through the 2008 season before he was fired.

Of the 22 first round quarterbacks drafted in the first round between 1998 and 2010 who did not turn into stars, the results were nearly unanimously bloody for the offensive coordinator and head coach. You can re-read the full post here, but the obvious takeaway: when an organization misses on a first round quarterback, the owner is going to look for someone to blame. That seems like a particularly important lesson for teams to heed this year, where there may not be any star quarterbacks available. No doubt that’s part of the reason some expect Geno Smith will be the only quarterback may get drafted in the first round in April; in the same vein, the downside of missing on a quarterback may have influenced Andy Reid’s decision to trade for Alex Smith.

That doesn’t mean picking a first round quarterback is a bad idea.  The upside is tremendous if you hit on the pick, and the alternative methods of solving the quarterback puzzle (free agency, trades, and using non-first round picks on quarterbacks) are likely inferior. But it’s always worth remembering how severe the downside is, too.

  1. Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, Cade McNown, Tim Couch, Joey Harrington, Patrick Ramsey, David Carr, Kyle Boller, Rex Grossman, J.P. Losman, Matt Leinart, Brady Quinn, JaMarcus Russell, and Tim Tebow. []
  • Sunrise089

    Chase, I love your stuff, even aside from from the Jets bias (Sanchez good, Tebow bad), I think a lot of this data is just picking up the general trend of NFL teams having huge personel turnover. Especially in your middle group, I suspect luck plays a much bigger role than picking skill. Including Cutler for instance, I think shows a good pick, and it fits your theory just because most teams miss the playoffs and most coaches missing two years in a row get booted these days.

    • Chase Stuart

      There’s definitely an element of that. It’s compounded by the fact that teams taking QBs in the first round both (1) usually don’t have a good QB and (2) can not use their first round pick on something else. So if you miss on the pick, you still don’t have a QB and you’re down a first round pick. That’s a good way to get a head start on getting fired.

  • Tim Truemper

    Two thoughts have occurred to me regularly when the issue of QB “busts” when they are high profile selections– 1) How the skill often called “pocket presence” is ignored-admittedly an area of subjectivity but still appears to be important; 2) the lack of patience for player development in a position that may require some extra work to get a player where he needs to be. Steve Young is a prime example.

    • Chase Stuart

      The patience thing can be a double-edged sword. While no doubt some examples exist proving ‘lack of patience’ I suspect more often than not the counter error appears. See the Jets and Mark Sanchez.

  • Richie

    Some thoughts that came to mind as I was reading this:

    One of the tricks here can be deciding how to label players a bust or not. But have you taken a cursory look to see if this trend holds true for any other positions?

    Also, most first round QB’s (I think) tend to be drafted in the top of the first round. So is it possible that part of the problem is bad teams are drafting the QBs, and bad teams are just more likely to fire coaches/GMs?

    In looking at the non-busts since 1998, I see some organizations that still had to fire people: Peyton Manning (Mora), Culpepper (Dennis Green), Vick (Dan Reeves and Jim Mora Jr), Rivers (Schottenheimer – though this firing had nothing to do with QB play or even team performance. Is this the most illogical firing ever?), Rodgers (Sherman), Alex Smith (Nolan and Singletary – but Alex Smith should probably be classified as a bust anyway) and Cutler (Shanahan).

    So I guess maybe the question would be to see what percentage of coaches/GMs are fired within 2 or 3 years of their team drafting in the first half of the first round.

    • Richie

      I took a quick look at tackles drafted in the 1st round from 1998-2010. There are 43 of them.

      These guys led to head coach firings within 2 years (regardless of how they played):
      Anthony Davis SFO
      Jason Smith STL
      Eugene Monroe JAX
      Jake Long MIA
      Ryan Clady DEN
      Gosder Cherilus DET (Who???)
      Joe Thomas CLE
      Joe Staley SFO
      D’Brickashaw Ferguson NYJ
      Jammal Brown NOR
      Alex Barron STL
      Robert Gallery OAK
      Vernon Cary MIA
      Kwame Harris SFO
      Mike Williams BUF
      Levi Jones CIN
      Marc Colombo CHI
      Kenyatta Walker TAM
      Jeff Backus DET
      Chris Samuels WAS
      Stockar McDougle DET
      John Tait KAN
      LJ Shelton ARI
      Aaron Gibson DET
      Kyle Turley NOR
      Victory Riley KAN
      That’s 26 out of 43 (60%).

      • Chase Stuart

        Great stuff, Richie.

  • Alvaro

    I have a huge problem with any “clear bust” list that includes Rex Grossman yet leaves out Mark Sanchez and Byron Leftwitch. There is no posible definition of the word bust that makes that list posible.

    • Alvaro

      Make that Sanchez, Leftwitch and Young