Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Don't Believe the Hype

Once upon a time in a little town called Jeannette, there lived a boy named Terrelle Pryor. Now Terrellle was young but he wasn’t little. He was as tall as the day is long and stronger than a team of oxen. Terrelle could outrun a bolt of lightening, catch the thunder on the tip of his pinky finger and throw the entire storm to the other side of the world.

News of Terrelle’s athletic feats traveled far and wide. As he came of age kings from distant lands begged Terrelle to come lead their armies. They made him promises, gave him gifts and offered him his choice of the most beautiful women in the kingdom

Which is why he won't choose Michigan.

Unless he likes sheep, they love their sheep in Michigan. Ba-a-a-a.

Being in Columbus I get treated to a front row viewing of one of the most ridiculous events in sports: college football recruiting. Sometimes fans get credit for being smart, too often sports columnists do and most people assume that coaches have a head for the game but when you witness a recruiting frenzy first hand you realize that everybody is an idiot.

I don’t know Terrelle Pryor. I’ve never seen him play. He could be a great guy and a phenomenal athlete. He could be a total jerk and a complete bust. Knowing what I do about reality I figure he’s somewhere in between on both counts. Knowing what I do about football I seriously doubt he’s going to make or break any of the college programs that are courting him.

A few years ago the Ohio State Buckeyes landed one of the hottest quarterbacks in the country. Everybody loved Justin Zwick. He was tall, athletic, smart and had a cannon for an arm. He looked like a young Bret Favre. Of course he was picking apart high school defenses and he played on a pretty good team that had a dominant line and receivers who could actually catch the passes he was throwing. Justin enrolled at Ohio State and learned Jim Tressel’s program. After a couple of years Ohio State was led to a perfect season by a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback. It wasn’t Zwick.

Troy Smith might not have received a scholarship from Ohio State if Tressel didn’t think that signing the athletic young man would all but guarantee the Buckeyes could lock up Ted Ginn Jr. the following season. Such are the politics of the recruiting trail. Smith was told he could try his luck at QB but that he might better serve the team as a defensive back. Or waterboy. Smith put in his time and emerged as the best quarterback in Ohio State history. You could argue that point but you’d be arguing against his Heisman. No other Buckeye signal caller can lay that trump card down. Sorry, Art.

It’s not Terrelle’s fault that he’s the object of so much hype. He’s a great athlete and football fans are so bored with every other aspect of their lives that they have to obsess about a high school senior who is trying to finish his basketball season. He’s got a full plate and a lot to ponder but fans seem to think that this is an egotistical game. Even if it is, he’s in high school. He should be enamored with the publicity. He might as well ride that wave now because they won't be singing his praises when he gets redshirted.

Buckeye fans are wringing their hands over the possibility of Pryor spurning Ohio State in favor of Michigan, Penn State or Oregon. If he chooses Michigan most fans are ready to write off the next four years. How can the Buckeyes beat Pryor?

It’s almost as though the Buckeyes don’t have anybody at the QB position right now. Sure, that Antonio Henton character had everybody excited when he was recruited but now Pryor is the toast of the town. And there is this Boeckman guy who started every game last year but at 23 he’s too old to do improve this year. Pryor is the key. Without him all is lost.

In basketball it makes sense to get excited about one player. LeBron James single-handedly makes the Cavaliers a contender. Take him away and the Cavs become a 25 win team. In football a player is just 1/11th of whatever side of the ball he's on. And that's simplifying it a bit because when it comes to football the whole is GREATER than the sum of the parts. That's why the Giants upset the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Pryor draws comparisons to Vince Young because of his athleticism and size but Vince Young was successful because Texas had a great line, a solid defense and talented backs and receivers. Young added a dimension that made it hard to stop Texas but if the only weapon teams had to stop was Vince Young the Longhorns would have lost every game.

That’s why we have busts. So many great college players trade Heisman Trophies for clipboards when they get to the NFL. The reason they looked so good in college is because thy played for a great team. We thought Reggie Bush was going to make us forget all about Barry Sanders but Reggie’s NFL team isn’t head and shoulders above the rest of the competition. It turns out that all of the flash we saw in Reggie at USC was the product of a loaded program. Reggie’s a great athlete but he’s not exactly a threat to get into Canton without paying full admission.

We give Mike Shanahan credit for being so crafty when it comes to finding successful running backs but the talent d0oesn't lie with Shanahan or the backs, it's always been the offensive line. Look at the difference between Steve Young in a 49ers shirt and the guy who played for Tampa. Great players are often the product of great teams. There are a few rare exceptions, like Barry Sanders, but generally the all time great players played for all time great teams. In the NFL, lousy teams are rewarded for their failure by getting the best picks in the draft. So every year we see the top collegiate performers get plucked from great teams and plugged into miserable circumstances. Then we blame the players for failing to meet expectations.

We don’t notice it so often during the transition from high school to college but that’s only because we don’t spend our Saturdays watching 10 high school games on 8 different ESPNs. We don’t look up high school stats and standings online every Monday when we should be working. If we did we’d notice a staggering number of great high school players dropping off the radar at the collegiate level. People who follow recruiting will sometimes ask what happened to a certain recruit but they always chalk his failure up to effort or attitude. We never consider the fact that the player was evaluated on the merits of his high school team rather than his own ability. And that's why some of the better players in the NFL have been coming from some of the weaker teams in college football. Those mid majors have to evaluate talent differently so they find more dynamic players.

I hope Terrelle Pryor has a fantastic career. I hope he exceeds all expectations but when it comes to football I know better. Even if he is all that he has been made out to be he will only be as good as the rest of the players around him. That’s why football’s so much better than other sports. It’s too bad fans can’t keep that in mind.

No comments: