There’s always a question about Cam Newton, isn’t there?
Did he or didn’t he? And if he didn’t, did his father? And if his father did, well, did Cam know? Or didn’t he?
Will he or won’t he? Return for another year at Auburn? Be the first player selected in the NFL draft?
You remember the NFL, the league where management and labor can’t decide how to divvy up an annual pie of nine billion bucks to everyone’s satisfaction. Will they play this year, or won’t they?
But let’s stick with Newton. The latest question becomes, will he be the NFL’s Next Great Thing? Or the next JaMarcus Russell? Or perhaps something in the middle of the spectrum?
If the NFL’s draft history is any guide, the odds of Newton forging a Hall of Fame career are long indeed.
The NFL has conducted 75 player drafts over the years, and the old AFL added six of its own in the ‘60s. The draft dates back to 1936, when a running back named Jay Berwanger became the first player ever selected.
Berwanger, a man of firsts, also copped the initial Heisman Trophy in 1935. He played for the University of Chicago. The Maroons, a charter member of the Big Ten, quit playing football in 1939. Something about the relative importance of academics and athletics. They returned at the Division III level in 1973.
Berwanger also quit playing football. He chose to become a sportswriter rather than play in the NFL. Imagine that.
And he also established a trend. Running backs have been chosen with the first overall draft pick 23 times. However, the last running back taken first was Ki-Jana Carter of Penn State, chosen by the Bengals—who else?—in 1995.
Thirteen defensive linemen have been taken first overall, seven offensive linemen, five wide receivers, three linebackers, and a defensive back. For trivia buffs, the defensive back was Gary Click out of Colorado A & M, by the Steelers, in 1956.
Quarterbacks? Through 1997, 19 quarterbacks had been selected with the first overall pick. But beginning with the Colts’ selection of Peyton Manning in 1998, quarterbacks have been the first player selected 11 times in 14 years.
Certainly the new rules, which have transformed the NFL from a running league into a passing league, have driven this change in emphasis. Yet the new rules haven’t insured success for the coveted pick taken with “first dibs.”
We’ve already cited JaMarcus Russell as the poster child for a draft bust. Tim Couch and David Carr were no bargains, either, but both were tormented by expansion team offensive lines. Has Alex Smith shown you anything yet? Me neither.
Eli Manning won a Super Bowl, though many wonder how. Carson Palmer’s had a nice run in Cincinnati, where success remains ever elusive. But you don’t associate any of these players with the words “Hall of Fame.”
The two most recent picks have shown promise. Sam Bradford had a nice rookie season, and Matthew Stafford has played well — when he’s played. Which hasn’t been often.
That leaves two of the recent 11. Peyton Manning could retire tomorrow and be escorted into the Hall of Fame at his earliest opportunity. Michael Vick remains his own special case. Hall of Fame talent for sure. Hall of Fame brain, not for sure.
The decade from ’83 through ’93 produced an interesting array of first-pick quarterback selections. John Elway and Troy Aikman are the Hall of Famers from this group. You also had Vinny Testaverde, who fashioned a 21-year career; Drew Bledsoe, displaced as the Patriots quarterback by Tom Brady; and my personal favorite, Jeff George. He could throw a football through a brick wall. He could put his head through one as well.
The ‘70s produced another first-pick Hall of Famer in Terry Bradshaw. Steve Bartkowski and Jim Plunkett both had fine careers, so call it a decade without a first pick quarterback bust.
Not so the ‘60s, which produced the likes of Jack Concannon, Terry Baker and Roman Gabriel with the first pick. The ‘50s were worse, with Randy Duncan, King Hill, George Shaw, Bobby Garrett and Bill Wade. Among all these luminaries only Wade won a championship. He quarterbacked the ’63 Bears, who won with a ferocious defense and in spite of an anemic offense.
The ‘40s produced the trio of Harry Gilmer, Frank Dancewicz, and Angelo Bertelli, who lasted eight seasons — combined — in the league.
So there’s the history. If Cam Newton’s career leads him into the pro football Hall of Fame, he clearly will have defied the odds.