On Sunday, the top two picks in the last spring’s NFL draft, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, will face off against each other to begin their careers. It will almost certainly be an ugly affair replete with passes that resemble hobbled waterfowl, because the Buccaneers and Titans are not particularly good (which is how they wound up with Winston and Mariota in the first place), and because young quarterbacks nearly always struggle to get their bearings in a league that places an increasing premium on the passing game.
This, in fact, was the lament of several NFL coaches and executives in a recent Wall Street Journal piece headlined, “Why the NFL Has a Quarterback Crisis.” The piece, written by Kevin Clark, was extremely well reported; it also carried with it a subtext of near-comic arrogance. Bills coach Rex Ryan – who has yet to prove that he can do much of anything as a head coach except eat a copious amount of goddamned snacks – lamented that college coordinators “don’t coach anything.” Several other general managers and player-personnel executives essentially insisted that quarterback prospects are getting dumber and less sophisticated, in large part because college offenses have been simplified in order to accommodate a more up-tempo style. It’s so bad, said Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley, that he’s actively “nervous about the long-term future of this game.”
Of course, I have a response to this. And part of my response, as I have noted on this website in the past, relates to the reason that, as a person with no inherent rooting interest in any NFL franchise, I am hoping that the Philadelphia Eagles make the Super Bowl.
See, the problem with the NFL is not that college football is somehow broken. In fact, college football is more exciting and more fast-paced and more interesting and more egalitarian than ever. The problem with the NFL is that it is a behemoth mega-corporation that doesn’t want to adapt. The problem with the NFL is that it seems to think that college football – which is not technically a developmental league for the NFL in the first place –should adapt to its ideas by running pro-style offenses and teaching more sophisticated schemes. But that’s not the way this works. As with any business, the best ideas should win out. And it’s very possible that the best ideas for football – the evolutionary future of the sport – lie in the way college football is being played: Faster, more thrilling and, admittedly, perhaps slightly less complex, at least in terms of overarching schemes.
A number of the voices in that Wall Street Journal piece clearly don’t want to believe that. They want college coaches to change their approach, and they want a visionary like Chip Kelly – the inscrutable weirdo who is attempting to remake the Eagles in the fast-twitch image he cultivated while coaching at Oregon – to fail. Fortunately, there are a few who recognize the obvious notion that the NFL might actually have to adapt its methods to the talent that’s coming its way. Quarterbacks are different now; they come out of college with different skill sets; Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer mentioned former Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, who was immediately converted to cornerback in the NFL, but perhaps, Farmer speculated – under the auspices of a coordinator who was willing to think out of the box, a rare find in a league that values conformism – Marshall could have thrived in an offense that accentuated his abilities.
“It’s doomsday if we don’t adapt and evolve,” said Rams general manager Les Snead, and this is a bit of an alarmist way of putting it, but it’s true: For the moment, at least, college football is what’s driving the future of the NFL. Everything about football as we know it is changing. And unless you’re a Luddite – unless you find wide-open, fast-paced football to be counterintuitively dull – I don’t see how this is anything but great.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb