We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Jeremy Stahl
To: Luke O'Brien, Robert Weintraub
What was I saying about never trusting Norv Turner-coached teams? I turned off the Chargers-Chiefs game in the first quarter after rookie Jon Baldwin showed off his Moss-esque leaping skills on a gorgeous touchdown catch. This turned out to be the highlight of the evening, and I can only assume that the cavalcade of errors that followed was all Turner's fault.
Perhaps it's irrational to blame the coach for the Chargers' four turnovers, or for the penalty on Antonio Gates that could have gone either way but ended up negating a touchdown, or for Rivers' inability to handle a routine snap on what should have been a kneel-down play to set up a game-winning field goal in one of the most unlikely bloopers in NFL history. But to me, this is Turner's m.o. His teams lose to opponents they should beat, drop leads, make stupid turnovers at critical moments, and can't close out important games. And he's been doing it for 14 seasons.
I recognize that the game is played on the field and that there is only so much a coach can do. But the coach is responsible for a team's "mental preparedness" or "toughness" or whatever you want to call the factor that separates winning teams from losing ones. It astonishes me that Turner kept his job as Redskins coach for seven years with a 49-59-1 record, and that he's still employed in San Diego in the middle of his fifth season despite a 3-3 playoff record with one of the most talented teams in the league.
OK, that venting felt good. What were we talking about? Oh yeah, Andrew Luck as the answer to the tyranny of the AFC's big three. The problem with that formulation, Rob, is that the Colts look like they have the inside track in the Suck-for-Luck sweepstakes, which could mean yet another dynastic cycle in Indy. Maybe these hints from Colts owner Jim Irsay that Manning will be "back before the new year" aren't the complete rubbish they appear to be, and the Dolphins can out-awful Indy by season's end. Either way, I think that it's no exaggeration to say that whichever team wins the rights to the most-talented-super-
Seriously, though, Luck's highlight reel looks pretty freaking great, and whichever team drafts him seems likely to become a perennial playoff contender, maybe on par with Manning's Colts. The talk that he is the best quarterback to come out of college since Peyton Manning does not seem like an overstatement. And in reality, he's even more hyped than Manning was as Tennessee's all-time leading passer.
Manning, remember, was not the consensus top NFL draft pick at a similar point in his final season. Here are some of the scouting reports Sports Illustrated published about Manning and Ryan Leaf in November of 1997:
"Leaf has a much stronger arm than Manning does," [one scout] says. "Leaf can throw the passes you have to throw to be successful in the NFL-the comeback, the deep out-and he's got tremendous upside."
Former Colts linebacker Trev Alberts, now a CNN/SI analyst, criticizes Manning, saying the Tennessee quarterback "has happy feet, like [the Saints'] Heath Shuler." Broncos director of college scouting Ted Sundquist adds, "All the tools are there. Manning sees the field and is smart. But for whatever reason, he has a tendency to force things. At times he may get a little flustered by pressure. Has Leaf passed Peyton? No. Will it create some debate? Yeah."
There are no similar questions surrounding Andrew Luck. Scouts can't think of any downsides to his game. When the Kansas City Star's Sam Mellinger asked an NFL executive about his flaws, the exec thought about it for a day, then reported back that Luck isn't good at faking his handoffs on play-action fakes.
If we're looking for a college quarterback who matched Luck in terms of hype, we have to go back to the last Stanford quarterback selected first overall. In 1983, the Colts asked for three first-round picks in that year's draft for the rights to John Elway. As the New York Times reported at the time, Elway was "the player assessed by many NFL people as the best prospect since Joe Namath joined the Jets in 1965."
Even Elway, though, had a flaw in that he refused to play for the woeful Colts, eventually forcing the franchise to trade him for substantially less than the initial asking price. So maybe Luck is the reincarnation of Joe Namath, who New York Jets coach Weeb Ewbank described as the next Johnny Unitas during his college career at Alabama.
Things have changed a great deal since Broadway Joe was signed for the then-outrageous sum of $400,000. We now have wonderful things like Wonderlic scores and the Lewin Career Forecast index. What do you think, Luke? With all the data at our disposal, is it easier these days to predict that the next big thing will actually become the next big thing? Or will the No. 1 pick in the draft turn out to be JaMarcus Russell just as often as it's someone like Peyton Manning?
Jeremy Stahl is Slate's social media editor. Before joining Slate, he worked as a sports editor at Yahoo U.K. in London and as a contributor for the Riviera Times in Nice, France.