Michael Lombardi is a former football executive with the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, Oakland Raiders, and Cleveland Browns; now he writes a football column for his good buddy Bill Simmons’s website The Ringer. If you would like to know why he failed in the former career, look no further than the article he posted on the latter today, “Seven Habits for Drafting a Highly Successful QB.” If Lombardi actually believes any of what it contains, then the fact that he has not accidentally swallowed his tongue yet is a minor miracle.
The thesis, so far as I can tell, is I, Michael Lombardi, can tell you how to identify successful quarterbacks. This is rather a bold claim coming from someone whose résumé—after something like two decades spent hiring football players for a living—contains no notable examples of having identified a theretofore unidentified successful quarterback. Michael Lombardi will not let inauspicious results stop him from claiming the authority that comes from success; I wonder if he thinks that is a trait he shares with successful quarterbacks.
Here, in Lombardi’s reckoning, are the seven “essential qualities beyond the ability to throw the ball, move, and make plays” that a franchise quarterback must possess:
- Winning Pedigree
- The Thickest Skin
- Blood, Sweat, and Tears (good luck finding one who lacks those, buddy!)
- High Football IQ
- The Crib Factor (as far as I can tell, this is, like, instincts, or some shit)
- Body Language
- The Charm Factor
Taken altogether, these amount to the most conventional of wisdom: It’s good to draft highly accomplished football players who work hard and win the respect of coaches and teammates. No shit, Mike! Literally no NFL talent evaluators, or Ringer readers, are out here wondering if, given the choice, maybe it actually is better to draft a chain-smoking career loser who spends his free time housing donuts by the dozen and hitting on his teammates’ wives over a lifelong winner with an indefatigable work ethic whose coaches and teammates worship him. The sum total of insight on offer here amounts to telling you that even though he had a much stronger throwing arm, actually Jeff George was not as successful as Steve Young.
In order to present this warmed-over dog food as disruptive insight, Lombardi works very hard—the article is very long!—to convince you that some NFL teams do not already know it. Of course, since everyone does already know it, this work involves big helpings of slippery, self-serving ex post facto evaluation. A good example of this comes from Lombardi’s passage about “crib factor,” the vague and utterly unquantifiable property of having been “born to be a quarterback”:
Great ones are born to play quarterback, whether it’s Brady, Manning, Brees … all of them were gifted from the crib with the right temperament, competitiveness, drive, ambition, determination, and natural instincts. You can’t learn those things.
On the flip side, think about Ryan Tannehill. A terrific athlete? Absolutely. Naturally instinctive for the position? No. The faster the game becomes, the more instincts take over — and that’s when Tannehill gets into trouble. Look at his career numbers on third down: He’s thrown 26 interceptions, averages a half yard less per attempt than his overall average, and completes just 58 percent of his passes. The faster the game, the less you like Tannehill.
Peyton Manning, the NFL’s career leader in basically every passing category and one of the most successful football players who ever lived, is presented as possessing “the crib factor,” along with fellow certain Hall-of-Famers Tom Brady and Drew Brees. They were born to be quarterbacks. You can tell because they’re good. By contrast, Ryan Tannehill, who is not very good, does not possess “crib factor.” You can tell because his statistics are not as good in disadvantageous situations, a trait he shares with literally every quarterback.
Therefore ... what? Have the Miami Dolphins, then, failed at quarterback evaluation? Did they fail to place the proper emphasis on “crib factor”? Is that why they’re stuck with Tannehill? Or did they not have the option of selecting a quarterback with a strong “crib factor,” and figured they should settle for the best of what they could get? Lombardi doesn’t say. This would require acknowledging that perhaps ineffective quarterback scouting is not as determinative a factor as there just not being all that many Peyton Mannings to go around.
But even hindsight can’t help Lombardi: He makes bad picks in the past, too. Take the following passage about Donovan McNabb, for example, from the “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” section extolling the virtue of a strong work ethic:
Jeff Van Gundy once said, “Your best player has to set a tone of intolerance for anything that gets in the way of winning.” Being lazy? That gets in the way of winning. Lifting weights and taking care of your body? That’s hard work. Had Washington valued hard work, it never would have acquired McNabb — he coasted on natural talent, and when it waned, he didn’t have a backup plan.
Donovan McNabb played 13 seasons in the NFL; he made the Pro Bowl six times; throwing passes to jamokes like Freddie Mitchell, James Thrash, and Todd Pinkston, he led the Philadelphia Eagles to five NFC Championship games in his prime years and a close Super Bowl loss to the greatest football dynasty the NFL has ever had. In his mid-30s, toward the end of the typical career-span for even very good NFL quarterbacks, he was sent from the only professional team he’d ever played for to the famously derelict one in D.C.—where, in Michael Lombardi’s dumb reckoning, his performance declined not because he was an aging quarterback nearing the end of his career and playing for an unfamiliar and radioactively dysfunctional clown-car of a franchise, but because of essential shortcomings in his character.
Remember, this is supposed to be a guide to drafting a franchise quarterback. Don’t choose a guy like Donovan McNabb, teams: After 32,873 yards, 216 touchdowns, five conference championship appearances, a trip to the Super Bowl, and a trade to the worst organization in the sport, his shiftless habits might catch up to him. The Eagles should have known better; when they took McNabb, they still had a shot at Cade McNown or Akili Smith.
Here’s another example of Lombardi’s, uh, unconventional(?) ideas about quarterback evaluation, from the section about how “body language” separates highly successful quarterbacks from bad ones:
Geno Auriemma is one of our best coaches of the past 25 years; everything he’s built and sustained at UConn, with that much player turnover, is just remarkable. Did you know he benches his best players (even his stars!) if he doesn’t like their body language? Imagine what Geno would have done to Cam Newton when he was flossing his teeth on the sideline or hanging a towel over his head. Football teams feed off their QB, for better and worse.
Yes, if only a hard-ass white college coach had whipped 2015 NFL Most Valuable Player Cam Newton—who went to three Pro Bowls in his first five seasons, carried the Carolina Panthers to a 15-1 regular season and Super Bowl appearance two years ago, and may well have been the best individual player in football before he got his brain rattled too many times—into shape. Maybe then the Panthers might have gotten something out of him. In hindsight I guess probably they wish they had placed more value on body language; they could have taken Jake Locker instead, or Blaine Gabbert, and not Cam fucking Newton.
In Lombardi’s reckoning, the consequence of quarterback scouting that ignores or undervalues these seven essential qualities (I mean, apart from the fact that it evidently gets you a quarterback like Donovan McNabb or Cam Newton) is what he refers to, in the article’s framing, as “that hopeless draft-trade-draft-trade-draft cycle Washington’s been in these past 24 years.” And it’s true that the Skins have been rebooting their pursuit of a stable, lasting franchise quarterback with depressing regularity pretty much ever since Mark Rypien injured his knee in the 1993 preseason. As Lombardi has it, when they take their umpteenth crack at drafting a franchise quarterback a couple weeks from now, it will be because of failures in quarterback evaluation.
The problem with this reading of the Skins’ quarterback woes is: It’s ahistorical nonsense. Even if you accept that Lombardi’s seven buzzwords actually refer to valuable traits, they don’t explain why the Skins need yet another quarterback.
Don’t get me wrong! There’s every reason to assume the Skins’ braintrust, such as it is, sucks at quarterback evaluation. It sucks at literally everything else, after all. That’s precisely what’s wrong with Lombardi’s analysis, and what lands the heaviest blow against the entire “seven essential qualities” framework: The Skins almost certainly do suck at picking franchise quarterbacks, and yet they landed one anyway. They chose the right quarterback, and got fucked anyway.
The years between his rookie season and now have not been kind to Robert Griffin III: He mostly has been pretty bad, and he has acquired a reputation as kind of a preening phony, someone who is not well-liked by coaches and fellow players. Posing these facts as reasons why he was a bad draft choice in the first place—and adducing that conclusion to the Skins’ failure to properly value things like “the charm factor”—is a lot easier to do if you wrap up what came before that as tidily and blithely as Lombardi does here:
Griffin gave them one electric season, injured his knee, never improved or worked on his game, and eventually lost his job — not because the front office lost patience, but because every coach who ever spent time with Griffin ran for the hills (and quickly).
Let’s get the facts straight about that “one electric season,” the knee injury that ended it, and the role that injury played in what came after. Griffin’s rookie season was, by pretty much any worth-a-shit measure, the best rookie season any quarterback ever has had. He set rookie records for passer rating and touchdown-to-interception ratio and led the NFL in both yards per passing attempt and yards per rushing attempt(!); whatever supposed deficits of “charm” and “pedigree” he possessed did not prevent him from dragging a moribund Washington team that had gone 5-11 the season before to its first playoff appearance in five years. More to the point, going into the Skins’ wild-card playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, no one, anywhere—not Michael Lombardi or anyone else—was saying that the team had made a bad choice by drafting Griffin. By all available indications, they had landed one of the transcendent stars of the next decade-plus; the only thing anybody fretted over was the damage the Skins franchise might do to him, not vice versa.
How did Griffin make out on Lombardi’s seven-quality checklist up to that point? A Heisman trophy winner who’d excelled in multiple sports at every level and immediately reversed the fortunes of the team that drafted him, he clearly came with a Winning Pedigree. An unflappable black quarterback who’d endured the usual gauntlet of dogwhistling about his fitness for the position, he clearly had The Thickest Skin. His work ethic, described as “near-maniacal” by MMQB’s Robert Klemko, never was in doubt; he put in the Blood, Sweat, and Tears. Though there was some grumbling about his dedication to film-study, he clearly had the High Football IQ necessary to run a successful NFL offense in his very first season as a professional. The Crib Factor, I mean who the fuck knows, but the dude who ripped off this 76-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter of a close game sure didn’t seem daunted by the big moments:
If anybody had ever complained about Griffin’s Body Language up to that point in his career, I never heard it. And as for The Charm Factor, well, shit. Maybe Griffin’s teammates didn’t think he was very cool. I don’t know. Six out of seven is pretty good, I think. And then he nuked his fucking knee.
What happened after that? As Lombardi has it, Griffin “never improved or worked on his game” and “every coach who ever spent time with Griffin ran for the hills.” Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t, but the two things Griffin definitely did were:
1) Completely blow out his knee at the end of his rookie season, putting him on a two-year timetable for full recovery and irreparably diminishing the athleticism that had made him so extraordinary in the first place; and
2) Get caught in a nasty power struggle between the Skins’ dysfunctional front office, his own father, and a coach, Mike Shanahan, who was actively trying to get fired so he could keep getting paid without working.
Sure, Griffin suffered a catastrophic injury that permanently robbed him of the unique gifts that were the bedrock of his career, on a club that can’t go six months without deliberately sabotaging whichever one of its own employees happens to be getting the most shine at that particular moment ... but his career petered out because his teammates didn’t want to have a beer with him. Therefore the Skins failed at scouting him in the first place.
That’s enough. Michael Lombardi is a fraud and a moron. I wouldn’t hire him to iron a football scout’s shirts.