Friday March 20th, 2009

Poring over all the glowing Matthew Stafford critiques on Thursday got me thinking: Anybody know what the reviews were like for Johnny Unitas' pro day at the University of Louisville in 1955?

Maybe a young Gil Brandt was there, reporting Unitas looked a little stiff in his black high tops, but threw the ball well enough, completing 47-of-50 passes to the Cardinals' receivers, showing impressive touch throughout his passing tree. The only real blip came when scouts asked Unitas if he was going to run a 40 for them, and the skinny, crew-cutted quarterback just shot them a glare, grunted, and went back to throwing out patterns.

Oh, that's right. They didn't have pro days when Johnny U was coming out of college. No wonder he had to make due playing semi-pro ball for $6 a game that year, waiting for his big break with the Colts in '56.

My point is, deciding who can play quarterback in the NFL based on a pro-day workout is about as reliable as deciding which weekend golfers are ready for the PGA Tour based on watching them hit three buckets of balls at the driving range. Even if the swing is nice, it doesn't tell you everything about how their game would necessarily translate to the course.

That said, Stafford, by most accounts, nailed his pro day at the University of Georgia on Thursday. Having personally attended Matt Ryan's pro day at Boston College last year at this time, I can pretty well get a picture of the exercise and imagine Stafford as he glided around the field firing passes of all types and lengths. No pads, no pass rush, no sweat. In other words, anything but a typical NFL game setting, which is why it's really more of a throw day than a pro day.

If the Detroit Lions' decision-makers can get a sense from that whether the kid is worth investing the guaranteed $30 million-plus that will come with being the No. 1-overall pick in the draft, God speed.

"Stafford was very crisp, and very accurate,'' said one NFL personnel man I spoke with Friday morning. "He showed a strong arm, a live arm, and he made all the throws. I think he had a phenomenal workout. But go back and check your notes, when's the last time you said a quarterback didn't hit it out of the park in this type of setting?

"I went to Vince Young's pro day, Matt Ryan's, Joe Flacco's, Byron Leftwich's, Kyle Boller's, Jeff Brohm's, they're all the same workout. Very scripted. Very planned out by the [college] head coach and the agent. Very fast-paced and organized. The truth is, if they don't hit it out of the park at a pro day, that's when you've got a problem.''

The veteran personnel man I talked to said Stafford consistently showed off his big arm throughout his 50-pass workout, comparing it strength-wise to recent first-round quarterbacks such as Jay Cutler and Joe Flacco, if not quite in the JaMarcus Russell howitzer category. He characterized Stafford as a "natural thrower, with the smooth and fluid release of a prototypical NFL quarterback.''

So where does that leave Stafford in terms of his chances of going first overall to the winless Lions? Probably right where he was when his pro day started, a definite maybe... with five more weeks of intense scrutiny and analyzing still to come. Stafford's next big test comes March 31, when the Lions will put him through a private workout in Athens.

"Between Stafford and [USC quarterback Mark] Sanchez, both guys are going to go in the top 15 picks or so, because they're just too talented not too,'' the NFL personnel man said. "But with Stafford, if you're the Lions, even if you don't think he's No. 1 on your board, you've got to consider taking him, even if there are things you don't like about him, like he forces the ball at times and he's not always accurate and consistent. Because you need a quarterback and he's a talent. He's got the ability to be really good in our league.''

My sense in the wake of last month's scouting combine is that Detroit will end up taking one of the three top-ranked quarterbacks -- Stafford, Sanchez or Kansas State's Josh Freeman -- just not in the high-risk No. 1 slot. But the strongest argument for taking Stafford first is the NFL reality that the teams that win big and win often always have a quality quarterback. You can piece together a winning season or two without an upper echelon passer, but you can't be a New England, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia without a star at the game's most pivotal position. And Detroit hasn't had one of those -- at least since Bobby Layne retired.

"I don't think the Lions have made their decision one way or another yet, and they're going to do everything possible to know this kid,'' the personnel man said. "But at some point in this league, you come to the realization that until you have a quarterback, it's going to be tough to win consistently.

"That's why if he's one of Detroit's five or six highest-rated players, they should take him. Now, if he's 15th, they shouldn't. But if it's close, they should take him, because that's how much having a quarterback means in this league.''

Donte' Stallworth is just the latest and most serious case of an NFL player creating a tragedy with a poor decision he made behind the wheel. If the reports of his illegal blood-alcohol content are accurate, Stallworth's career could be jeopardized by a likely vehicular manslaughter charge in the accident that killed a Miami pedestrian last Saturday morning.

Earlier this month, newly signed Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (another ex-Tennessee Vol, like Stallworth) was indicted on a reckless driving charge after a December crash in Nashville that seriously injured another driver.

And last June, Bills running Marshawn Lynch pled guilty to a traffic violation after admitting he was behind the wheel of his SUV when it sped off from a downtown Buffalo intersection after striking a female pedestrian at 3:30 a.m. The pedestrian sustained only minor injuries, but Lynch was still guilty of a hit and run.

When will this particular NFL off-field trend be curtailed? Perhaps Stallworth's plight will be the sadly necessary wake-up call for the rest of the league.

• After a one-year hiatus, Shaun Rogers, it appears, is back to being the unreliable player who often incited rounds of exasperated forehead-slapping in Detroit. The Browns defensive tackle is feuding with new Cleveland coach Eric Mangini, blowing off the team's offseason conditioning program, and has asked to be released from his six-year, $42 million contract.

Be careful what you wish for, Shaun.

• As I predicted at the close of the first weekend of free agency, when it became apparent that no other team wanted him and he'd have to go back to Baltimore with hat in hand, Ray Lewis said Thursday that he had no intention of playing for anyone but the Ravens all along. He was just "flirting'' with the idea of signing elsewhere in free agency, Lewis was nice enough to inform us.

Right. Whatever you have to tell yourself, Ray.

• Player safety is not an issue you can be against, but at what point might the NFL's competition committee be taking its goals too far? Next week at the league's annual meeting, the committee will put forth measures outlawing helmet-to-helmet contact that result from blindside blocks, do away with three- or four-man wedges on kickoffs, and eliminate the bunch formation on kickoffs, where teams overload their coverage on one side of the kicker.

Football's a physical sport, and it will always be so. But there's considerably less contact allowed in the NFL today than ever before.

• I get that NFL owners aren't going to stay at a Holiday Inn just to look the part in pleading financial distress, but whose tone-deaf call was it to schedule this year's annual meeting for the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point, Calif., where rooms start around $500 a night? The St. Regis, by the way, is where those ever-popular AIG executives went on that universally panned corporate retreat just after receiving their first dose of government bailout money last fall.

• It didn't get all the attention it probably should have, but new NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith had quite the headline quote in his first news conference as the head of the union on Monday. Asked about his expectations for the upcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations with the league, Smith said: "There isn't a day where I don't hope for peace, but at the same time, there isn't a day where we won't prepare for war.''

Easy, Churchill.

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