At the NFL scouting combine last Friday night, the next generation of pro quarterbacks did 15-minute speed-dating interviews with team after team. Baylor's Robert Griffin III went from discussing his peripatetic military upbringing with Chiefs coach and fellow Army brat Romeo Crennel, to explaining the Baylor route tree to Browns president Mike Holmgren, to talking three- and five-step pass drops with Eagles coach Andy Reid. "Our route tree is almost infinite," Griffin told the Cleveland coaching and scouting party. The room fell silent.
When presumptive top overall pick Andrew Luck of Stanford chatted with the Chiefs, Crennel asked him what he liked to do away from football. "Read," Luck said, giving what was likely the first such response in combine history. General manager Scott Pioli asked him to name his favorite book. "Papillon," Luck told him, referring to the 1969 tale of a Frenchman convicted of murder and eventually sent to Devil's Island. "I like historical fiction, mostly."
"Wow," Crennel said. "You remember the movie?"
"Yeah, the one with Steve McQueen?" Luck said. "I loved that too."
Barring some miracle, the Chiefs, picking 11th, won't have the chance to choose either Luck or Griffin; the pair is likely to go one-two in the first round of the draft on April 26. But that didn't stop Pioli from dreaming after he and his staff interviewed the two prospects back-to-back. "Never mind drafting these guys," Pioli said. "I wish my daughter would marry one of 'em."
There aren't many weaknesses in Luck or Griffin. For potential megastars, this year rivals 2004, when Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger came out, and 1998, the year of Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. But that's just the beginning of the 2012 quarterback story. This off-season could be the most eventful in NFL history at the position, and not just because of the depth of the rookie class, which includes not only Luck and Griffin but also Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill, a converted wide receiver, and the intriguing 28-year-old Brandon Weeden, a onetime righthanded pitcher who was drafted ahead of Curtis Granderson 10 years ago.
This year is weird too, because one of the greatest passers of all time will likely be available, as will one of the most tantalizing quarterbacks in the 19-year history of free agency. Peyton Manning. Matt Flynn.
"It's the most unusual year I've seen," said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. "You've got good college players, potentially good free agents. You've even got a baseball player. And don't forget the big kid, [Arizona State's 6'6" Brock] Osweiler. He's really interesting."
"And," another G.M. added on Sunday, "there are going to be three starting quarterbacks out there—Kyle Orton, Jason Campbell and Chad Henne. This year if you have a need, there are so many ways you can go. You can try to strike gold with Peyton, build for the future with Flynn, and I know one team that thinks Weeden can start on Opening Day and win for them. I've never seen a year anything like this one."
In interviews with personnel evaluators and coaches at the combine last weekend, the following picture emerged of this once-in-a-generation (or longer) quarterback market:
• The Colts, picking first, seem locked on Luck. The quarterback told an SI reporter on Saturday night, "You've already got me going to Indianapolis." That's because the owner does. In an SI.com story last week, owner Jim Irsay was already referring to his future QB as "Andrew."
• The Rams, at No. 2, are open for business. Two years ago St. Louis drafted quarterback Sam Bradford first overall, so last Saturday, in a meeting of the new St. Louis brain trust, chief operating officer Kevin Demoff told coach Jeff Fisher and G.M. Les Snead that they didn't have to play the phony card of threatening to draft Griffin. St. Louis is ready to deal its pick, and one NFL source said on Saturday night that the team has already had several feelers—including one from a team "you would never expect." Most likely trade-up partners: Cleveland (picking fourth), Washington (sixth) and Miami (eighth). It's likely the Rams will get the highest compensation ever for a draft choice that wasn't the first overall: at least two picks in the first round plus another.
• Flynn has admirers. A seventh-round pick of the Packers in 2008, he has made only two starts in four seasons, but both were great. Against Detroit in the 2011 regular-season finale he threw for a franchise-record 480 yards and six touchdowns. There's interest from Seattle, Miami, Cleveland and likely elsewhere. The Packers could put the franchise tag on Flynn, which carries a guaranteed $14.4 million salary in 2012. But if they do, it would be in hopes of trading him for more value than the late third-round pick in 2013 they'd likely get as compensation if he left through free agency. And in the dicey game of musical chairs involving all the quarterbacks on the market, Green Bay G.M. Ted Thompson may decide it isn't worth the risk of being stuck with a backup who'd be making $6 million more than his starter, reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers. Thompson was mum on his plans in Indianapolis; a Packers source says he hasn't made up his mind whether to franchise Flynn. "Ted's too conservative to take that risk," one general manager who knows Thompson well said on Sunday. (A team that trades for Flynn could renegotiate his contract.)
• The Manning guessing game is heating up. The six-month anniversary of Manning's major neck surgery and the date by which the Colts must decide whether to exercise a $28 million option on his contract (March 8) are looming. The strong likelihood is that Indy will let Manning go. So what team takes the risk on a soon-to-be-36-year-old quarterback who has undergone four neck procedures over the last two years? The smart money says that Manning, if released, will end up with the Dolphins, Redskins, Seahawks, Cardinals or Jets. Though Miami may not be a good fit, with a rookie coach (Joe Philbin) trying to build for the long haul, put yourself in the shoes of Stephen Ross. One of the league's richest owners, he failed to lure Jim Harbaugh or Jeff Fisher to Miami to coach; it's all but certain that Ross will push his staff to make a big splash at quarterback, no matter the cost. Griffin would be big. Manning would be too.
So the fates of a host of quarterbacks are intertwined this year. But for two of them, Manning and Luck, the family connections go back much longer—three decades, in fact.
In September 1982 Archie Manning, playing out the string of his career, was traded from the Saints to the Oilers. Gifford Nielsen was the second quarterback in Houston, and the third was a rookie from West Virginia, Oliver Luck. That's right—Andrew's future father.
"I was the gofer," Oliver said on Sunday. "Archie didn't move his family, so he'd go back and forth once a week to New Orleans, and sometimes he'd bring his two boys back." Cooper Manning was eight at the time and Peyton, six.
"Archie would say, 'Hey, take 'em for ice cream, a hamburger,'" Luck said. "I'd put 'em in my Mazda RX-7 and take 'em out. Maybe play putt-putt golf with them. Good kids."
As a young quarterback Andrew had a direct connection with the Mannings. In eighth and ninth grades he attended the Manning Passing Academy, the summer quarterback camp the family hosts in Louisiana. And while he was at Stanford, Andrew twice served as a counselor at the camp, where he tried to glean kernels of advice from Peyton. "He was my football hero," Andrew said on Saturday night, in a downtown Indianapolis hotel room that looked out over the skyline and Lucas Oil Stadium, the House That Peyton Built. "But I was lucky. Because my dad played football and I was around the game growing up, I was never starstruck. And Peyton never made you feel that way. He was great to be around. It's the classiest family."
Few quarterbacks will enter the NFL as pro-ready as Luck—maybe none have since Manning was selected No. 1 overall by the Colts 14 years ago. Last season at Stanford, Luck consistently got to do something that quarterbacks rarely do in pro ball: He went to the line of scrimmage with three plays and, depending on the defensive scheme he saw, Luck picked which one to run. Imagine the speed needed to process and communicate that information. "It was an intellectual challenge," Luck said. "How could we make it so we don't have any negative plays? I'm fortunate they trusted me to do that."
That plus Papillon plus the fact that Luck didn't have cable TV his first 2½ years at Stanford have branded him as, well, different. "Don't go making me into a nerd," he said with a laugh.
Outside the hotel, although he wasn't looking, Luck's future home stadium loomed. There's not going to be too much pressure on him: If the Colts draft him, he'll be compared for the rest of his life to one of the top quarterbacks of all time. And he'll be compared to Griffin, one of the most intriguing quarterback prospects of all time. Luck was able to sidestep the spotlight and have a fairly normal student life for much of his Stanford career. That's not going to happen in the NFL, where 750 media members cover the underwear Olympics known as the combine. How will he handle the mayhem to come?
"That's a great question," he said. "I wonder that too. I think what will help me is, I truly care about the opinions of a few people—my family, my close friends, my coaches, my teammates. Aside from that I can live with whatever people say about me. But it may be unnerving. I don't know. I haven't been through it yet."
If there's one thing Luck must do to ensure his top-pick status, it's to prove to skeptical scouts and coaches that he has a deep arm. He didn't throw at Indy, so that test will come on March 22, at Stanford's pro day. For Griffin the job between now and the draft will be to show he can play in a more standard offense than the Baylor spread, in which speed receivers created the best big-play threat in college football last year. "We ran the spread, yes," Griffin told SI on Saturday night, just before embarking on an evening of more interviews with pro teams. "But we also ran the pro style inside the spread. It's not an under-center game anymore anyway. The college game is seeping into the pro game. When I watch the Saints I see Drew Brees spreading the field, and we run plays like that. We have progression reads just like in the NFL. I'm reading leverage, I'm reading coverage. So I'm not concerned that I can't do that in the NFL, no matter what offense they ask me to run."
Griffin ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the combine, but he said repeatedly that he views himself as a drop-back quarterback who can run—not a running quarterback who can throw. It's clear that NFL teams view him as a pro-ready passer.
The charismatic, ever-smiling Griffin is the kind of figure who naturally attracts people, big and small. Last fall Mike Vick regularly tweeted excitedly during Griffin's Baylor games, I see you son! Griffin was incredulous but got a kick out of that. His coach at Baylor, Art Briles, says, "He makes people want to follow him."
Which a camera crew was doing Saturday night. As Griffin made his way to his first interview of the evening, with the Dolphins, he turned around and mischievously said to the camera, "I'm taking my talents to South Beach!" Like Luck, Griffin would be competition for LeBron James from Day One.
LUCK MUST PROVE TO SCOUTS HE HAS A DEEP ARM, WHILE GRIFFIN HAS TO SHOW HE CAN PLAY IN A STANDARD OFFENSE.
Photograph by TODD ROSENBERG
WHO'S NEXT Luck (left) and Griffin (6) are almost certain to go one-two, while Tannehill (15) and Weeden (17) could push their way up the charts in coming weeks.
Photographs by TODD ROSENBERG
IMPRESSIVE AT INDY Griffin ran the 40 in a scorching 4.41—one of the fastest times ever for a QB—and Luck showed his hops during cone-drill warmups.