One of the blessings and curses of having had a blog for seven years is that all of my opinions are preserved in cyberspace. There is a record against which my predictive powers can be judged. In the realm of my predictions that were totally wrong, "Matt Ryan will be a bust" ranks right up there. My beef, expressed in these two posts, was that Ryan's college stats were underwhelming, but various distributors of conventional wisdom were smitten with Ryan's looks and ability to ace an interview. While this might be a case where Ryan's advocates were right for the wrong reasons, the fact remains that they were right and I was wrong.
In retrospect, the flaw in my reasoning regarding Ryan was not contextualizing his college stats. Ryan threw 19 picks his senior year in college. Here is the list of immortals who had a better adjusted yards-per-attempt in the ACC in 2007: Sean Glennon, Cullen Harper, Chris Turner, Thaddeus Lewis, and Drew Weatherford. It seemed reasonable to hold Ryan's lack of success against him. If he was truly the best quarterback in college, then why was he statistically the sixth-best quarterback in the fifth-best conference?
The answer is that Ryan was not in an ideal situation for a quarterback. He played in a conventional, pro-style offense that wasn't exactly hard to defend. He did not have a collection of threatening receivers. Take a look at the list of his receivers in 2007 and then ask yourself "have I seen any of these guys playing on Sundays?" The answer, in case you are wondering, is that Ryan's BC receiving corps has combined for five catches and 38 yards in the NFL, thanks to tight end Ryan Purvis. Thus, it's fair to conclude that Ryan spent his senior year throwing into small windows to receivers who were usually covered. This degree of difficulty was good preparation for the NFL.
Look at recent NFL Draft examples for further evidence that playing for a non-elite program is a good harbinger for a quarterback's development. The starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl will be Eli Manning, who played with a talent disadvantage at Ole Miss, and Tom Brady, who played with a talent advantage at Michigan, but that advantage was mitigated by an offensive scheme that repeatedly led opposing defensive players to say "we knew what was coming" after games. The 2005 Draft featured three top quarterback prospects, one of whom played at Vandy and has been a success in the NFL, and the other two who played at USC and Texas and have turned out to be busts. Mark Sanchez, the next USC quarterback to go in the first round, is on his way to a disappointing end in New York. The lesson here is that quarterbacks from elite programs generally have the dual advantages of having time to throw and open receivers to hit, which means that they are not prepared for the NFL experience.* Insert here the maxim from the military that boot camp should be as difficult as possible to prepare for battle conditions.
* - Two recent counter-examples: Matt Stafford and Cam Newton. Stafford was surrounded by great talent at Georgia and has turned into an excellent NFL quarterback. Newton was surrounded by good talent at Auburn, but also had the benefit of a great offensive scheme that made life easier on him. Nevertheless, Newton has also shown very promising signs in his first year in the NFL.
This is a very long lead-in for the point that Greg Schiano should not be judged by the list of star college coaches who failed as head men in the NFL. This column by Mike Freeman from CBS is typical of the reaction that meets college coaches generally and has met Schiano specifically:
Most of all, the problem with this move is the history of college coaches with little or no professional coaching experience: They have failed miserably. I mean, great college coaches. The best of the best, who left college with national titles and sparkling reps, then went to the pros and self-imploded. Some of these men didn't leave pro football. They were chased out. They ran away at trans-warp speed...
Can Schiano buck the trend? It can happen, but Steve Spurrier likely thought the same. He burned out quick in Washington. Nick Saban is the best coach in college football today. He left the Dolphins in disgrace. Remember Bobby Petrino in Atlanta? Just two years of pro experience, went to the Falcons, lasted one year. Players thought he was a joke. Lane Kiffin was a disaster.
What's the common thread with Spurrier and Saban? They both went from coaching SEC powers, where they had a talent advantage, to mismanaged NFL teams, where they had a talent disadvantage. Petrino coached the Falcons for all of 13 games in the aftermath of the franchise quarterback pleading guilty to participating in a dog fighting ring, so his stint in Atlanta is not a referendum on him one way or the other. (His cowardly manner of leaving the team is another matter entirely.) Kiffin wasn't even a head coach in college before getting the Raiders job and his performance at Tennessee and USC was decidedly underwhelming until, shockingly enough, he got to coach a healthy, mature Matt Barkley. Kiffin's credential when the Raiders hired him (other than his last name) was his work at USC where, again, he operated with a significant talent advantage.
Schiano might garner a series of "meh" reactions from college football fans based on Rutgers output after their explosion onto the scene in 2007, but his experience might be the right one to prepare him for the NFL. Starting in 2011 and moving backwards, here are Rutgers' recruiting rankings in the Big East according to Rivals: second, sixth, third, third, third, sixth, fourth, and third. The conclusion is simple: in an eight-team conference, Rutgers had decent talent, but nothing overwhelming. As a result, Schiano had to focus on getting more out of his three-star guys than his coaching rivals were getting out of theirs. That experience prepares him for the NFL, where talent is distributed far more evenly than it is in college.
In fact, if Rutgers' merely decent recruiting rankings reflect that Schiano is an underwhelming recruiter, then this fact might actually be a good sign for Schiano in the NFL. When Saban and Pete Carroll moved to the NFL, they were both leaving behind a primary asset: top recruiting ability. That recruiting ability undoubtedly led to their success at LSU and USC, thus leading the Dolphins and Seahawks to pay for a skill that would not translate to the NFL. Schiano might not have experienced success on the level of Saban or Carroll, but if his success was the result of good player development and acumen with strategy and tactics in lieu of bringing in great players, then he is well-prepared for the NFL.
I would like to join the chorus in claiming that the Bucs are doomed. With the Saints looking formidable as long as Drew Brees is in his prime and the Panthers looking threatening if they can pull their defense up to mediocrity, the Falcons need the Bucs to serve as the basement for the NFC South. Otherwise, the division could become the bloodbath that Fox imagines the NFC East to be. It would be great if Schiano fails to arrest the Bucs' decline, but based on our own experience in watching Matt Ryan succeed despite an underwhelming college resume, we shouldn't dismiss Schiano just because he had only one season at Rutgers in which his team lost fewer than four games. His experience of coaching against opponents with similar talent levels will have him ready for the NFL.