Tuesday, March 13, 2012

NFL Offseason: Manning and RG3

By Brad Oremland

An era has ended in Indianapolis, while new ones have begun in St. Louis and Washington.

Last Wednesday, the Colts released longtime quarterback Peyton Manning. The top overall pick in the 1998 draft, Manning played in over 200 consecutive games, led the Colts to 11 playoff appearances and two Super Bowls, won four MVP Awards, set the single-season record for passing touchdowns, and was named MVP of Super Bowl XLI. Last season, a neck injury kept Manning on the sidelines, and Indianapolis — which had won 10 or more games for nine straight seasons — dropped to 2-14 without him. Now he's gone, presumably to be replaced by Andrew Luck.

If the neck injury is career-altering, if Manning never truly recovers, it makes sense for the Colts to rebuild around a new QB, though it's sad to see them part ways with the face of the franchise. If Manning is healthy, the move is a disaster. That would mean the team has parted ways with the most popular player in the history of Indiana professional sports, while he's still one of the top five or so quarterbacks in the game, and entrusted the team to someone who may be great but has never played a down in the NFL. I mean, people thought JaMarcus Russell was going to be great.

I don't know where Manning is going to end up, but it would be neat to see him reunite with Reggie Wayne in a new city. If I were a general manager pursuing Manning — and if I was convinced he was healthy, and I didn't already have Aaron Rodgers, I certainly would pursue him — I would be very interested in adding Wayne, as well. Manning's style of offense is unique, and it would make for a much smoother transition if his favorite receiver is already around, not only to catch passes but to work with the other receivers.

Even if the neck issues are behind him, Manning's about to turn 36, and will probably decline pretty quickly some time in the next few years. His new team will want an immediate return on its investment, try to get the most out of Peyton before that decline begins. A familiar face like Wayne's could go a long way in getting optimal performance from Manning right away. I doubt either player is as valuable by himself as when paired with the other.

It makes sense that Manning's departure from the Colts has been the biggest story of the offseason, but realistically, the more important move this week was the ransoming of RG3. Washington sent three 1st-round draft picks and a 2nd-round draft pick to the Rams in return for the No. 2 overall pick in April's draft, presumably to select Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.

My initial reaction is that this ranks among the most one-sided trades in the history of professional sports, reminiscent of the disastrous Herschel Walker and Ricky Williams trades. To move up from 6th to 2nd, Washington gave away a 2nd-round draft choice and its next two 1st-rounders. You could even break it down like this: a 2nd-round pick to move from 6th to 5th, a 1st-round choice to go from 5th to 3rd, and another 1st-round selection to get from 3rd to 2nd. That's robbery. It's insane, an incredible price for an unproven player.

Some Washington fans may take solace in knowing that Daniel Snyder probably would have wasted the other picks anyway. Chicago Bears fans comforted themselves that way after the team gave away Kyle Orton and a pair of first-round draft picks in the Jay Cutler trade. Our GM is so bad, we wouldn't have gotten anyone good with the picks anyway. At least this way we're getting a proven high-quality middle-of-the-road quarterback. But Washington has turned its recent 1st-round picks into some pretty promising players: Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Williams ... the 6th overall pick in this year's draft might have brought in someone like LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne or Iowa tackle Riley Reiff.

If Griffin turns out to be the next Peyton Manning, the trade was worth it, no matter who the Rams use those four draft picks to get. But if Griffin turns out to be anything but a huge star, this becomes a huge problem for Washington. Herschel Walker was a good player for the Vikings — good rushing, good receiving, good kick returning. But he wasn't a superstar, and the Vikings had traded five players and six high draft choices to get him. It was a substantial setback for Minnesota, and the foundation of the Cowboy dynasty, with the draft choices yielding impact players like Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson, and Alvin Harper.

Griffin can't just be good, he can't be late-career Herschel Walker. He needs to be a Hall of Famer, or something very close to it, to justify this trade. If you look at recent history, odds are that he will not. Going back to Manning in 1998, 17 quarterbacks have been drafted in the top three. It's probably too early for any judgement on Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford, and Cam Newton, or even Matt Ryan, who could become a productive journeyman (Brad Johnson), a minor star (Mark Brunell), or a truly elite quarterback (Drew Brees). That leaves 13 players we can comfortably pass judgement on. From my perspective, it breaks down like this:

Three total disasters (Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, JaMarcus Russell)
Three clear disappointments (Tim Couch, David Carr, Joey Harrington)
Two with more downs than ups (Alex Smith and Vince Young)
Three average to above-average (Michael Vick, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning)
Two legit superstars (Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb)

Vince Young was Offensive Rookie of the Year. Vick and Palmer and Eli have all had some nice moments — good quarterbacks. But none of them is nearly worth three high draft picks and someone like Claiborne or Reiff. If the Saints could go back to 1999 and trade their whole draft for McNabb instead of Ricky Williams, they'd do it. Well, actually, they'd probably just keep their picks and take Champ Bailey or Torry Holt, but that's the problem here.

I don't dispute that QB is the most important position in football, but 1st-round picks usually yield good players. Sixth overall picks, 1998-2008:

Two Hall of Fame-caliber players (Torry Holt and Richard Seymour)
Three all-stars (Grant Wistrom, Kellen Winslow Jr., Vernon Davis)
Three journeymen who've had their moments (Corey Simon, Pacman Jones, LaRon Landry)
Three disappointments (Ryan Sims, Johnathan Sullivan, Vernon Gholston)

With the picks Washington gave away to get RG3, they probably would have drafted at least one multiple Pro Bowler. Would you rather get Davis, Simon, and Landry, plus a 2nd-rounder, or your choice between Alex Smith and Vince Young? That's the kind of gamble Washington's making. Griffin needs to succeed the way all those can't-miss, huge-upside prospects like Russell and Couch and Young and Vick didn't. He needs to be Peyton Manning, or the trade is a bust for Washington.

Think of the biggest trades in NFL history, the real blockbuster deals. When has the team that gave away the draft picks done better than the team that got them? There's not a single instance in which the team that sacrificed a ton of draft choices would make the deal again if you let them. Probably the best such deal was the Eagles getting Bill Bergey from Cincinnati for two 1st-round picks and a 2nd, but that trade also helped lay the foundation that took the Bengals to Super Bowl XVI. And Washington isn't trading three picks for a proven talent like Bergey, they're trading four for someone who's never played a down in the NFL.

Really, Snyder traded in the wrong direction. Washington went 5-11 last year, its third straight season of 6-10 or worse. This is not a good team. It's not the proverbial "one player away" — there are a lot of needs here, and even some of the stronger positions need to rebuilt with a youth movement. Rather than addressing multiple needs, the team put all its eggs in one basket. Even if RG3 is everything the team hopes, he could struggle without anyone to block for him, anyone to throw to, a running game to take the pressure off, or a defense that creates takeaways to give him a short field.

I'm not ragging on Griffin. He may become a huge star, and if that happens, Washington will be happy with the trade, no matter who the Rams get out of it. I don't know whether or not Griffin will be successful. But based on the unreliable success of other highly-drafted quarterbacks, neither does Washington. And that makes this trade an unconscionable gamble. The winners are St. Louis, who gets a windfall of high draft picks over the next three years, and the Browns, who didn't pull the trigger to move up two spots. Peyton Manning, Kyle Orton, Matt Flynn, Ryan Tannehill, and others are still out there, and you don't have to give anything away to sign them.

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