Dissecting The NFL Stigma Of The USC Quarterback


Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Sanchez dropped back to pass on Monday night in Nashville and repeatedly looked out of place. Whether it was his four interceptions or the lack of chemistry with his struggling New York Jets teammates, he never looked right. And as it unfolded, America was in fifth gear, driving home the idea that USC quarterbacks just aren’t cut out for the NFL.

Linking NFL struggles to college success is nothing new, just ask Gino Torretta, but it’s a trend that is excessively misguided.

In USC’s case, it’s a plague that affects Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, his Trojan backup Matt Cassel, and the aforementioned Sanchez, though the notion that their struggles have anything to do with their alma mater or degrades their collegiate career is just silly.

First and foremost, the idea of a college program producing a stream of busts in the NFL is typically an underhanded mention of the system that a said college runs offensively.

You know, the dreaded ‘System Quarterback’ tag that plagued guys like Tim Tebow, Colt Brennan, Timmy Chang and even Steve Sarkisian. These were guys that produced incredible numbers in college but found themselves, or in Tebow’s case, still find themselves struggling to adapt to the NFL game.

For the Trojans, that simply doesn’t apply, as USC has run a pro-style offense since the early 1990s. Both Leinart and Sanchez were lauded for their abilities to break down NFL defenses before they stepped foot on campus, as nearly every USC quarterback of the last decade as been tied to self-proclaimed ‘Quarterback Guru’, Steve Clarkson.

Through the teachings of Clarkson, the Trojans have produced an assembly line of quarterbacks that is exactly in line with what the NFL is looking for. They’ve been trained to stress mechanics, read defenses and have the arm to make all of the throws, and at USC, those are the quarterbacks that win games.

And the result is that the USC quarterbacks have swept NFL scouts off of their feet, as evident by the fact that every Trojan starter since Mike Van Raaphorst has heard their name called at Radio City Music Hall. Even John David Booty was drafted as a fifth rounder.

The wins, in addition to the draft prowess of Trojan quarterbacks is a huge feather in the cap the program as it virtually guarantees that Clarkson disciples and five-star quarterbacks are drawn to USC’s pipeline to the NFL.

Until the NFL decides that Steve Clarkson-type quarterbacks do not fit the mold of a franchise quarterback, USC will continue to have its passers drafted.

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Matt Barkley is evident of that, as despite the struggles of Leinart and Sanchez, and even despite his senior season swoon, he still has many of the tools that the NFL scouts look for, and a scout would not be doing their job if they passed on a player merely because of the college he attended.

Yet somehow, there are still believers in the stigma of the USC quarterback following Mark Sanchez and Matt Cassel, claiming it will loom over Barkley’s draft status.

But take into account that other schools have strings of disappointing NFL alums, and it hasn’t been the rationale for a drop in draft stock.

Michigan has had a long lineage of pro-style quarterbacks for decades, and before Tom Brady started winning Super Bowls, the 90’s were filled with the journeymen Wolverine quarterbacks in the NFL including Jim Harbaugh, Brian Griese and Elvis Grbac.

And while surprisingly none of the trio sports a better career NFL passer rating than former Trojan Rob Johnson, Brady’s draft stock wasn’t damaged by an overwhelming sentiment that Ann Arbor was producing quarterbacks destined for mediocrity.

Instead, he was drafted in the sixth round and behind six other quarterbacks, including USC assistant Tee Martin, because scouts said that he lacked the tools to be a successful an NFL quarterback, which is the inverse rationale for the drafting of Trojan quarterbacks.

Even still, college production, draft status and NFL success are independent of each other.

Plus, high-profile college football factories don’t produce highly successful NFL quarterbacks at a clip that is expected, they often come from unexpected places. Purdue and Stanford have combined to have five different Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, Terry Bradshaw went to Louisiana Tech and Steve McNair excelled at Alcorn State.

That doesn’t mean that USC and Ohio State have not had great quarterbacks in their own right, as using NFL success to gauge college greatness is a much maligned fallacy, which poses a key question:

Why is it that our culture finds pleasure in tearing down college stars based on their NFL track record?

As admirers of college football, we’re taught at a young age that winning the Heisman Trophy and lifting the crystal ball is the pinnacle of the sport. For many, that’s reason alone to stand in the front yard and imagine scoring the game-winning touchdown to clinch it all.

Yet, there are those who have climbed the mountain and lived the dream like Matt Leinart and Gino Torretta, and they’ve ultimately been considered to be failures because they couldn’t repeat that success in the NFL, even though they fit the mold the league claimed it was looking for.

Something isn’t right with that picture. Either we’ve romanticized the college game too much that we’ve realized it’s fueled by make believe, or the culture has fallen victim to the lofty and complex standards of the NFL, much like the USC quarterbacks themselves seem to have.

At the end of the day, USC is going to get their share of five-star quarterbacks and as long as they produce at USC, that’s what matters for the Trojans and for the recruits penning their name to letters of intent on Signing Day. And as long as those recruits have the tools that NFL scouts drool over, they’ll continue to get drafted. However, their NFL careers shouldn’t define their stint in college, and vice versa.