Quick question: Who was the better quarterback in 2009, Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions or Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets?
Obviously Sanchez? Think again.
The two high-profile rookies put up almost identical numbers in their first season. Stafford threw for 2,267 yards with 13 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. Sanchez threw for 2,444 yards with 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.
The big difference was that Sanchez played for the Jets, who went 9-7 in the regular season and then won a pair of playoff games. Stafford played for the Lions, who were 2-14.
The point of this little revelation is to illustrate how easily the perception of a quarterback can be skewed, and to suggest that the Tennessee Titans got it right when they selected Rusty Smith in the seventh round of this year’s draft.
The thought of getting to watch Florida Atlantic’s all-time leading passer actually makes it seem worthwhile to stay tuned to the second halves of the remaining preseason games, beginning with the game against Arizona Monday, Aug. 23, all the way to the finish.
It’s not that Smith looked ready to be a starter in his first taste of NFL action at Seattle on Aug. 14. He completed 7 of 14 throws for 71 yards and threw one interception.
It’s just that he truly looked like an NFL quarterback in the making. He stood tall. He exuded confidence. He was decisive and fearless when it came to throwing the ball into tight spaces. He showed much of what offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger talked about back in April, when Tennessee selected Smith with the 176th overall pick in the draft.
“I fell in love with him when I watched his technique,” Heimerdinger said. “His feet are always underneath him. He can get rid of it from any place he needs to. He makes all the throws, deep and short. He’s one of the few guys that has taken snaps consistently from underneath the center.”
Contrast those comments with all the talk that surrounded Tim Tebow, who was taken by the Denver Broncos 151 spots earlier.
Everyone, including Tebow himself, talked about how much work he needed before he mastered the nuances of being an NFL quarterback, including but not limited to taking a snap from center, pocket presence and a throwing motion needed to deliver the ball on time and on target.
With all those questions, how is it that Tebow was coveted so much more than Smith?
Size has nothing to do with it. Smith, at 6-foot-5, is two inches taller. At 225 pounds, he gives up 20 to Tebow but easily meets any accepted standard.
Character and background make no significant difference either. Not only do the two share the same hometown (Jacksonville, Fla.), they’re also members of the same church.
The truth is that the perception of Tebow is heightened by the fact that he played in multiple SEC and BCS championship games for Florida, while Smith settled for appearances in the New Orleans and Motor City Bowls at Florida Atlantic.
This is how Ryan Leaf gets drafted second overall in 1998 after playing in the Rose Bowl with Washington State but Matt Hasselbeck lasts until No. 187 that same year. It’s also how a future Hall of Famer like Kurt Warner (Northern Iowa) and a current MVP candidate like Tony Romo (Eastern Illinois) don’t get picked at all.
That’s why, as Broncos fans look intently upon the second halves of their team’s preseason contests and wonder whether Tebow can be a good (or better) NFL quarterback, Titans fans can watch Smith and wonder when he will be a good (or better) NFL quarterback.