A Case for Drafting Andy Dalton with the 8th Pick of the 2011 NFL Draft

We've all heard that old football adage, "Defense Wins Championships."  It's one of those things that has been said so many times that it eventually became accepted as truth.  Certainly, there was a time, before the evolution of the vertical passing game, that the saying could be practically applied to team and draft philosophy.  Recently, though, nothing could be further from the truth.  That's not to say that defense isn't important, but I'd argue that the current sweeping generalization that's more consistent with our new football reality is "Quarterback's Win Championships."

The argument isn't difficult to make to further that point.  Over the last 11 years, only two teams (Tampa Bay and Baltimore) have won a Super Bowl without an outstanding quarterback under center.  And, I'd argue that both Tampa and Baltimore would have a difficult time defending the offenses of the past 5 years given the migration of the spread offense to the NFL.  Furthermore, five of those eleven Super Bowls were won by two teams (New England, Pittsburgh), both quarterbacked by elite NFL quarterbacks.  And, even if you take minor issue with these points about Super Bowl winners, we can all agree that, at a minimum, the quarterback is:

A:  The most important position on the football team, and

B:  Capable of dramatically increasing a team's probability of winning games consistently.

As you no doubt have noticed, this post is consistent with the report that the Titans have allegedly narrowed the first round to a binary scenario:  Draft Nick Fairley or Andy Dalton.  While I'm reluctant to think they've really dumbed it down that much, we'll use that assumption for the basis this article.

So, without further ado, I invite you to follow me through the jump for an opinion that would make Mike Mayock's head explode.

The idea that this is an either/or scenario isn't entirely true.  Again, for the purpose of this article, we are deciding between Fairley and Dalton.  However, in my opinion, this becomes more of an evaluation of Andy Dalton.  We can all agree that if he's "the guy", then he's more valuable to this team than any defender available at 8.  So, what are we evaluating?  We want to know if Dalton can he become a franchise quarterback.

Prerequisites

The first thing that needs to be evaluated are what I'd call the "prerequisites".  In my opinion, there are four baseline things that need to be in place:  Accuracy, adequate height, sufficient velocity, and superior football IQ.

Of all the top QB's heading into the draft, Dalton had the best accuracy of the pack in 2010.  Additionally, the general rule when evaluating draft prospects is that they have at least a 60% career completion percentage.  Dalton comes in at 61.7%, meeting the requisite baseline for success.  As compared to his peers, only Ponder (by .1%) and Cam Newton (only 1 season) had higher career completion percentages.  In the case of accuracy, especially short and intermediate throws, Dalton easily passes both the statistical and the eyeball test.

Height is one of the most common things that come up for Dalton detractors.  Dalton comes in at 6' 2 1/4".  RC Fischer over at Fantasy Football Metrics has one of the most objective regression analysis for QB's that I've seen to date.  Coming from a smart, analytical mind like Fischer's, I'm not nearly as dismissive of QB height as I was a few years ago.  He notes that Dalton's height is his biggest concern when he's evaluated in his system.  However, I still believe that Dalton is plenty tall to be successful in the NFL.  It doesn't surprise me that height "dings" guys in a regression analysis, as shorter guys are an anomaly at the quarterback position.

That said, it's not like we're talking about Doug Flutie here.  Dalton is nearly the NFL average (6' 3" based on my research).  And, I think for the most part, when you start looking at other shorter quarterbacks (Chase Daniel comes to mind), the issue becomes arm strength.  Without the adequate frame, many of these shorter guys can't get enough zip on the ball.  In my opinion, Dalton doesn't have that problem.

Andy isn't going to wow anyone with his arm.  Then again, neither did Joe Montana, or, more recently, Philip Rivers.  As noted in Dalton's Pro Day results:

On one throw, he rolled out right and completed a 60-yard pass on the run, which is important when evaluating at his arm strength. The one legitimate knock on Dalton is his perceived lack of ideal arm strength. However, there are certain times when he has shown better than expected power on his throws.

I realize that this was a throw made in shorts, but arm strength is arm strength.  It also reinforces what I've seen on film.  When Dalton gets his feet set, velocity is rarely an issue.  Where he gets in trouble is when he throws off his back foot, and the ball tends to flutter.  

None of this is to completely dismiss Dalton's deficiency in velocity, it could be an issue at times.  I believe that it is adequate enough to make most NFL throws, though.  It didn't affect guys like Rivers and Pennington, and, given the right system, I wouldn't expect it to be an issue for Dalton either.  Moreover, recent quarterbacks have proven that arm strength can be improved as a player progresses in their NFL career.  At the end of the day, his velocity will only become an issue if the coaches try and draft him and force him into an offense for which he's not suited.  Drafting Dalton and plugging him into an Air Coryell style offense is a losing proposition.  That's not what he's meant to do, though if this staff drafts him with that intention, we have larger issues (read: incompetence) on our hands.  Conversely, if Dalton is plugged into an offense that relies on accuracy in the short-intermediate game, his velocity will seldom be a problem.

Last, the thing that has recently jumped out to me about Dalton is his perceived football IQ.  The information I have to go off of is limited, but in the couple of times I've gotten to see him on the whiteboard he has blown me away.  He's not only regurgitating plays like some of the other prospects, but he seems to have a genuine understanding of "why" and not just "what".  Moreover, he had complete command of the offense at TCU, with the ability to make audibles to the line, receivers, and plays.  Again, much of this is just based on the few interviews I've seen on television, but in those meetings he's displayed superior football knowledge to that of his peers.

Grit

With those prereqs out of the way, let's continue forward with the part of the article that's much more subjective.  Once you find a QB with the requisite physical tools to succeed at the next level, the remaining part of the equation is almost entirely mental (things like system, and coaching also have some influence as well, but that's a different topic altogether).  Mental is a fairly broad term, so let's narrow that down to one specific thing:

Does the prospect have the drive to out work his peers and battle through tough situations?

Much of this opinion is based on the timely Wired article released in March that looked to understand "Which Traits Predict Success?"  This part in particular, piqued my interest:  

Think, for instance, of the NFL Combine: Players perform in short bursts (40 yard dash, short IQ test, catching drills, etc.) under conditions of high motivation. The purpose of the event is to see what players are capable of, to determine the scope of their potential. The problem with these tests, however, is that the real world doesn’t resemble the NFL Combine.  Instead, success in the real world depends on sustained performance, on being able to work hard at practice, and spend the weekend studying the playbook, and reviewing hours of game tape. Those are all versions of deliberate practice, and our ability to engage in such useful exercises largely depends on levels of grit. The problem, of course, is that grit can’t be measured in a single afternoon on a single field. (By definition, it’s a metric of personality that involves long periods of time.) The end result is that our flawed beliefs about talent have led to flawed tests of talent. Perhaps that explains why there is no "consistent statistical relationship between combine tests and professional football performance." We need to a test that measures how likely people are to show up, not just how they perform once there.

The article links to a study done in 2000 on expert performance where the author notes:

When experts exhibit their superior performance in public their behavior looks so effortless and natural that we are tempted to attribute it to special talents.  Although a certain amount of knowledge and training seems necessary, the role of acquired skill for the highest levels of achievement has traditionally been minimized.  However, when scientists began measuring the experts' supposedly superior powers of speed, memory and intelligence with psychometric tests, no general superiority was found --the demonstrated superiority was domain specific.  For example, the superiority of the chess experts' memory was constrained to regular chess positions and did not generalize to other types of materials (Djakow, Petrowski & Rudik, 1927).  Not even IQ could distinguish the best among chessplayers (Doll & Mayr, 1987) nor the most successful and creative among artists and scientists (Taylor, 1975). In a recent review, Ericsson and Lehmann (1996) found that (1) measures of general basic capacities do not predict success in a domain, (2) the superior performance of experts is often very domain specific and transfer outside their narrow area of expertise is surprisingly limited and (3) systematic differences between experts and less proficient individuals nearly always reflect attributes acquired by the experts during their lengthy training.

Both of these are just long winded ways of saying that experts (in our case franchise QB's) aren't any more "talented" than their peers, they just work harder.  By putting in more hours, and constantly practicing/studying, the elite QB's have more "domain specific" information to pull from in game situations.  As mentioned before, there needs to be a baseline intelligence, but beyond that success isn't about who has the highest IQ.  Sage Rosenfels could have a higher IQ than Tom Brady, but it's Brady's repetitions in practice and in the film room that distinguish the two. Things like diagnosing a disguised zone blitz, understanding hot reads, and identifying coverages are a result of hours of hard work that turn into easier pattern recognition in live situations.

The issue, of course, with this is that it's extremely ambiguous, and almost impossible to quantify.  And, that's where homework, and somewhat of a leap of faith comes into play.  When I watch Dalton, he has a drive and a passion that I don't see out of many prospects.  There's anguish on his face when Gruden shows him his interception against Wisconsin where the checkdown is wide open in the flat.  When the play shows up on the screen, the viewer can see that Dalton immediately recognizes the play and we see how much it pains him.  It's a stark contrast to other prospects (Newton, Gabbert) who also identify mistakes, but seem to laugh it off.  Dalton, even in a winning Rose Bowl effort, still seems haunted by this play.  That is what I want to see out of my signal caller.  Someone that demands perfection, even in a winning effort; constantly critical of their own QB play.

So, that brings us back to our main question:  Dalton or Fairley?  Or, as we said earlier, is Andy Dalton a good bet to become a franchise quarterback?  Based on my research, I would pull the trigger at 8.  The term "reach" gets thrown around some, but no one ever remembers a "reach" 3 years later if the pick, especially a QB, pans out.  Moreover, you serve to lose a lot more by missing on a franchise QB than you do to gain by trying to squeeze out a little extra value in the draft.  

The Titans should feel comfortable with drafting Dalton with their first selection.  There's no such thing as a sure pick.  With Dalton, though, he appears to have all the necessary prerequisites.  And, more importantly, he comes across as the hardest working QB in this draft.  When you combine those things, Andy Dalton has all the tools in place to possibly become a franchise quarterback, and that makes him worth the risk in the top 10.

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