For this year’s NFL draft (starting momentarily and continuing through Saturday) every team in the league spent thousands of hours preparing by poring over game films, attending college pro days, interviewing prospective draftees, and being reminded – lest they grow overconfident in their research – that in 2000 the University of Michigan’s starting quarterback was held in such low regard that he wasn’t drafted until the sixth round. That guy’s last name? Brady, but you can call him GOAT.
This year’s draft is top-heavy with quarterbacks, so much so that reigning Heisman Trophy winner Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith, whose skill set ranks somewhere in between ridiculous and off the charts, is predicted by more than a few draft wonks to not be drafted until sometime in the middle of the first round. Original long-haired country boy Trevor Lawrence is all but guaranteed to be the number one pick by Jacksonville. He recently stirred some controversy by noting he doesn’t play with a massive chip on his shoulder and there is more to his life than football. Given his status as a newlywed, Lawrence’s comments indicate his wise understanding that compared to domestic tranquility’s importance, spending sixty minutes trying to avoid Aaron Donald turning you into a grease spot on the SoFi Stadium turf ain’t nuthin’.
After Lawrence, the top-rated QB prospects are Zack Wilson (BYU), Mac Jones (Alabama), Justin Fields (Ohio State), and Trey Lance (North Dakota State). Two of the four are certain to be the second and third picks, to the Jets and 49ers respectively, as it gets. New York recently traded their latest battered QB of the future, Sam Darnold, to the Panthers, while San Francisco head coach Mike Shanahan is publicly unsure if his current starting quarterback, the oft-injured Jimmy Garoppalo, will still be alive by next Sunday.
Each of the aforementioned quartet members has their fans and detractors among the sports pundits, especially Fields. Martenzie Johnson of ESPN’s The Undefeated is convinced that any and all doubts about Fields stem solely from his being black as opposed to, say, his abilities at the professional level being something of an unknown courtesy of Ohio State’s far-from-NFL-level offensive playbook. More important is that when Fields and Jones went head-to-head in this year’s college football championship game Fields had an only okay day, completing a shade over half of his passes for 194 yards and one touchdown, while Jones, albeit with a definite boost from Smith, completed eighty percent of his throws for 464 yards and five touchdowns. Professionals pay far more attention to how players perform when the lights are brightest than to any stats run up against lesser opponents.
In addition to athletic performance, it is personality, not pigmentation, that determines whether any given athlete is nominated to be the public face of a franchise. Neither Aaron Rodgers nor Patrick Mahomes appears in those omnipresent State Farm commercials because of the color of their skin. They are featured because 1) they win a lot and 2) they come across as eminently likable while combining supreme talent with an unwavering work ethic.
Even as “ball don’t lie” is pure truth when it comes to demonstrating genuine ability, it is equally true that “ball don’t care” what color skin throws it, catches it, hits it, fields it, kicks it, shoots its cousin the hockey puck, or does anything else to/with it. The ball does exactly as it is directed.
Fields being regarded as something other than a sure thing isn’t racism in action; it’s the exact same principle that was in play in 1998 when then-Colts general manager Bill Polian agonized over which quarterback to pick with the team’s number one selection in that year’s draft. The one with the higher rating, or the one with the more intriguing intangibles? Polian went with the latter and selected Peyton Manning. The rest of the league said, “Meh”; the Chargers, picking second, were guaranteed a sure-fire winner in the other quarterback. You remember Ryan Leaf, right?
(Jerry Wilson was one of the first sports bloggers, starting in 2003 independently covering NASCAR under the Diecast Dude moniker and later branching out to the NFL for AOL and NHL for SB Nation. He may be the only sports blogger to not use profanity and girlie pics with the same success rate as, given that he’s a San Jose Sharks [Ed. Note: Sharts] fan, never having to write about what it’s like watching his team win the Stanley Cup.)