You'd think it wouldn't be this hard for the St. Louis Rams to find a true franchise quarterback. After all, they've had plenty of opportunities in recent years: namely, a top-two pick in five of the last seven drafts.
But then you realize that they only found their last franchise signal caller after striking some sort of Faustian bargain, then inadvertently discovered his heir apparent on the practice squad (someone probably tripped over him). Those two men were Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger, and to paraphrase Rick Pitino, neither of them is walking through that door. Instead, the Rams have been forced to do things the old-fashioned way. How's that worked out for them?
Well, in 2008, St. Louis picked Chris Long over Matt Ryan. In 2009, they took Jason Smith over Mark Sanchez. In 2010, with the number-one pick, they went with Oklahoma's Sam Bradford (the six players taken after him have all made at least one Pro Bowl). In '12, they traded down twice, passing on Robert Griffin III and Ryan Tannehill. And this year, the Rams picked Greg Robinson over Blake Bortles at two, then took Aaron Donald over Johnny Manziel at 13.
We can't gather much about the Rams decision to pass on Bortles or Manziel yet, nor can we hypothesize that passing on Sanchez was as much of a folly as Sanchez passing for them, but we do know that St. Louis has averted their attention from no less than six first-round quarterbacks over the last seven years. We know that Ryan has been very good, that Griffin isn't too far removed from one of the most electrifying seasons by a quarterback in this century and that Bortles looked outstanding in the preseason.
And we know for a fact that, after losing Bradford to another ACL injury, their Week 1 starter is Shaun Hill, a 34-year-old career backup who is as far removed from the talent level of Kurt Warner as Zac Stacy is from Marshall Faulk. This is not going to be a repeat of the 1999 season that kick-started "the Greatest Show on Turf." Right now it seems like St. Louis will be lucky if it's a repeat of last year's 7-9 campaign.
Yet that hasn't stopped some from drawing parallels between this year's Rams team and the lightning-in-a-bottle '99 squad. The similarities between Hill and Warner begin (and pretty much much end) with their unlikely paths to the NFL: When Hill was coming out of high school he wanted to play quarterback, but the best offers he could get were from Division II schools Pittsburg State and Washington University, one of which wanted him to walk-on, while the other was more interested in him as a punter.
Undeterred, Hill pressed on, going from community college to the University of Maryland to an undrafted free agent with the Minnesota Vikings. In 2007, he started for San Francisco 49ers, and has bounced around the league since. His story is inspirational, but it won't help St. Louis get over the .500 mark for the first time in a decade. The Rams don't need a great story, they need talent. Their '99 Super Bowl team was powered by Warner, but it was the talent surrounding him that made the machine move. That team was so far ahead of this team that even the second string behind the legends could be starting for St. Louis right now.
Take Az-Zahir Hakim, for example.
In 1999, Hakim had 36 catches for 677 yards, good for fourth on the team in each category. In 2013, he would have led the team in receiving yards if he put up those numbers. And it's not like Warner wasn't talented in his own right, but if you started the 28-year-old version of him on the 2014 Rams, he'd likely only produce the kind of numbers he put up in that stint with the New York Giants that you've already forgotten about.
One last note about the 28-year-old Warner. In '99, we didn't know much about him other than he played for the Iowa Barnstormers and once bagged groceries. In 2014, we know plenty about Shaun Hill, including:
- He has played in 37 games and made 26 starts. In those games, he has accumulated 41 touchdown passes (the same number of touchdowns that Warner had in '99 alone) and 23 interceptions. His last start came with the Detroit Lions in 2010, a 20-13 win over the Vikings.
- Over 36 percent of his career touchdown throws (15 of 41) have gone to either Calvin Johnson or Vernon Davis. With St. Louis, his top receiver will either be Tavon Austin (40 catches for 418 yards as a rookie) or Kenny Britt (11 catches for 96 yards with the Titans last season) or Givens (34 catches last season and not one was a touchdown). There is no Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt. They'll be lucky to find a Ricky Proehl.
- NFC West defenses are basically the Disneyland of the NFL: No Free Passes. According to DVOA, an advanced stat designed at FootballOutsiders.com, the Seahawks had the number one pass defense last season, the Cardinals were fifth and the 49ers were 10th. To top that off, Arizona and San Francisco both took secondary players in the first round of this year's draft.
Meanwhile, the Rams offensive line looks good in theory, with Jake Long at left tackle, the rookie Robinson at left guard, former Pro Bowler Scott Wells at center and Rodger Saffold at the right guard spot. But it also feels like a unit that's likely to fall apart faster than a Guns N' Roses reunion tour.
But it wasn't just the Rams inability to protect Bradford that put them in this position, it was their inability to protect the franchise: Despite plenty of advanced warning – before this injury, Bradford tore the same ACL last season, missed six games during 2011, and almost all of his final season at Oklahoma with a severe shoulder sprain – and ample opportunities to add quarterback depth, the team failed to address the issue. And sure, they're essentially tethered to Bradford due to the large contract he received as a number-one pick, but they've repeatedly passed on high-profile players that wouldn't have cost them nearly as much, and could have been invaluable at a time like this.
If St. Louis falls to their sixth season with double-digit losses over the last 10 years, and are picking in the top three – both of which seem likely – they won't make the mistake of passing on a quarterback again. The Bradford Era is probably over, and they will continue their search for a true franchise QB. Shaun Hill is merely the stopgap. There won't be a miracle saving them this time around.