On Dec. 27, 1960, the NFL expansion Vikings did not draft a quarterback in the top 10. Eventually, the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, a new millennium and today’s NFL-leading 53-year streak of drafts without selecting a quarterback in the top 10.
“A lot of it is timing, stuff you can’t control aligning perfectly for you,” Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said. “Look at the Colts. They pick Peyton Manning No. 1 [in 1998], had all that success, win a Super Bowl. Then Peyton gets hurt, sits out a year, and they end up with the worst record and the No. 1 pick the exact same year Andrew Luck is coming out. That’s the luck of the draw. No pun intended.”
With final say and the eighth pick in Thursday’s first round, it’s Spielman who stands between the Vikings’ ever-present need for a franchise quarterback and the aforementioned streak reaching a 54th year. It’s the 17th time the Vikings have had a top-10 pick. So far, 12 of the first 16 included three Hall of Famers (Carl Eller, Ron Yary and Chris Doleman), two potential Hall of Famers (Adrian Peterson and Kevin Williams), six other players who made the Pro Bowl as Vikings and Darrin Nelson, who had a productive 11-year career.
Once again, the timing for a quarterback isn’t ideal. There isn’t a no-brainer perched atop a shiny tee in this moment of need for the franchise and for Spielman, whose résumé includes numerous highlights but who can’t afford another miss at quarterback so soon after Christian Ponder was taken 12th overall in 2011.
Spielman’s options at No. 8 could include one or all of the widely presumed top three quarterback prospects: Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Central Florida’s Blake Bortles and Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater. He also could trade for one of them near the bottom of the first round or wait for one of the lower-ranked but still suitable quarterbacks when the Vikings are on the clock in the second (No. 40) and third rounds (Nos. 72, 96).
“Finding that franchise quarterback is the hardest thing to find, but that’s my responsibility; it’s on me,” Spielman said. “But when we re-signed [Matt] Cassel at the start of free agency, it allowed us not to have to take a quarterback at No. 8. We really do not have to reach for a guy there if he’s not the right guy.”
Spielman didn’t say it, but that’s the difference between this year and 2011. If the Vikings reached for Ponder, it’s partly because the NFL lockout that offseason left them without a quarterback before the draft and no knowledge of when the lockout would end. Brett Favre’s career was over, Tarvaris Jackson’s contract was up and the Donovan McNabb trade wouldn’t come until three months later.
Desperate times and a more forgiving rookie salary cap practically screamed out for a desperate reach three springs ago.
Turner on top-10 timing
Twenty-nine of the NFL’s 32 teams have drafted at least one top-10 quarterback since that late December evening 54 years ago. The Colts and Titans (formerly the Oilers) have done it a league-high five times apiece.
The Vikings, Bills and Ravens are the only teams that haven’t done it since 1961. Of those three, only the Vikings and Bills have existed since 1961.
Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner listened to those statistics. Then he shrugged in a manner you’d expect from a 61-year-old sage entering his 30th NFL season.
“I guess you’d like your quarterback to come from the first round, but just look at what’s happened throughout NFL history,” Turner said. “Everybody thinks this is just something that’s happened in the past couple years. Russell Wilson goes in the third round [in 2012] and people make it out to be this crazy, unheard of trend developing. Hey, Dan Fouts was a third-round pick [in 1973], and he’s in the Hall of Fame.”
Turner was Fouts’ backup at Oregon in the early ’70s. He also was the Chargers offensive coordinator when they traded the No. 1 overall pick to Atlanta in 2001. The Falcons took Michael Vick, but the Chargers rebounded nicely with running back LaDainian Tomlinson at No. 5 and Drew Brees with the first pick of the second round.
“You can’t get caught up in what everybody else is saying,” Turner said. “You have to do your evaluation and make sure you’re getting a really good player. Once they’re taken, it really doesn’t matter where they were picked.”
Downhill from Tarkenton
The first quarterback the Vikings drafted was Fran Tarkenton, a Hall of Famer via the third round in 1961. Since then, they’ve selected 24 quarterbacks. Twelve never played a regular-season game for the Vikings. Two more played only one game.
The Vikings also have taken a quarterback in the top three rounds only six times. Just three of them — Tommy Kramer (27th overall in 1977), Daunte Culpepper (11th in 1999) and Ponder — were first-rounders.
“What it tells me,” Turner said, “is the Vikings have had a lot of good teams and a lot of good quarterbacks. And they also haven’t missed on one in the top 10.”
Even if the Vikings don’t take a quarterback at No. 8, they’re almost certain to take one at some point in this draft. Noted quarterback guru Turner and his son, quarterbacks coach Scott Turner, have been entrusted with influential say in the team’s nationwide manhunt for a quarterback this offseason.
The assignment: Find the next Kramer, Wade Wilson or Brad Johnson and sound the alarm against the next Bill Cappleman, Tarvaris Jackson or John David Booty.
“There is no one quality you look for,” Turner said. “It’s vision, good creativity, understanding of concepts, productivity, third down, red zone with a heavy rush. Playing quarterback in college is a totally different deal than playing in the NFL. That’s why it’s such a challenge to pick the right guy.”
Last month, Spielman agreed with the unnamed coach of a quarterback-needy team who told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King that picking among this year’s quarterbacks was a “torturous decision.” Before speaking to King, Spielman sat in his office and explained the difficulty of needing a quarterback but also needing to be ever mindful of a defense that ranked last in points allowed and blew five leads with less than a minute left in regulation last fall.
“There isn’t that Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck,” Spielman said. “There are positives and negatives with each guy, and there are so many different flavors of quarterbacks.”
In a few years, with hindsight to guide the 140-character discussion, we’ll know whether Manziel’s unbridled personality made someone a genius or a fool. We’ll know whether Bridgewater’s horrible predraft workouts were reasonable concerns or the misguided minutiae of over-analysis run amok.
We’ll also know who among the group of Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, A.J. McCarron, Logan Thomas, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray and Tom Savage were steals, if any, on the second and third days of the draft.
“You can evaluate all you want, but there’s the human element that’s also a part of this whole process,” said George Paton, Vikings assistant general manager. “You think you know all these guys really well, but how well do you really know them? That’s why we put 80 percent of our evaluation into what we see on tape. Then there’s all the other stuff that factors in. It takes months and months. But even then, you’re still wrong sometimes.”