What the NFL Can Learn From Ohio State

Let's not sit here and pretend Cardale Jones was a superstar who led the Ohio State Buckeyes to the National Title. He wasn't.

Let’s not sit here and pretend Cardale Jones was a superstar who led the Ohio State Buckeyes to the National Title. He wasn’t. Jones was a third-string QB who spent most of the year firmly planted on the bench and clearly honing his skills on an Xbox 360. He wasn’t even an afterthought when the season began.

Unless you were an Ohio State fan, the only reason you’d heard of him was because of an infamous tweet where he said:

“Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.”

Ohio State didn’t win the National Title because of Jones—though what he did was crazy and admirable—but because of depth. Incredible depth.

In the NFL, teams typically never want their backup to see the field. The drop-off is so significant that teams with backup quarterbacks are always thought of as underdogs. We saw what happened to the Arizona Cardinals; they looked like one of the best teams in the NFL, but they got all the way down to their third QB and they had no hope.

It’s a big part of the reason why people say college quarterbacks—by that, I mean running quarterbacks, like Johnny Manziel and RGIII and Denard Robinson—can’t make it in the NFL. Robinson turned into a running back and Manziel and Griffin are constantly talked about in terms of what they need to do to learn how to stand in the pocket and throw the ball.

The quarterback position is just too valuable. Teams can’t have their QB getting hit so much or he could get injured. As Arizona will tell you, that can sink your whole season.

The Cardinals had a great season before losing in the playoffs early with a third-string QB.

The Cardinals had a great season before losing in the playoffs early with a third-string QB.

The thing is, the college game feeds into the NFL. It seems like fewer teams at the college level run a pro-style offense every year. They want to run the spread and have quarterbacks who are able to burn their opponents on the ground and through the air. What it means is that a lot of high-profile quarterbacks—like Manziel—are entering the draft with a lot of question marks.

Why are we so sure that style it can’t work in the pros? Clearly, the primary reason is defensive speed.

A QB can run around defenders in college, but he gets lit up in the pros. Everyone is just as fast. But all that really means is that the quarterbacks are not going to have as many big runs where they break it for 60 yards and a touchdown. It doesn’t mean they can’t scramble for five to 10 yards.

After all, we don’t worry about running backs getting hurt or being too slow. These guys get hit 25 times a game. And yes, they get hurt, which is why many teams run a committee of running backs, rather than one feature back.

Is it that much easier replace a running back? Couldn’t you do the same thing with your quarterbacks? Forget finding a single Tom Brady or Peyton Manning and focus, like Ohio State did, on depth. Get two or three dual-threat quarterbacks who have about the same level of talent, rotate them and plug the next guy in if the top guy goes down.

Before saying it’s crazy, just remember Ohio State did it all year. They won with a second-string and ultimately a third-string QB.

When Ohio State's Braxton Miller went down in August, the Buckeyes didn't miss a beat.

When Ohio State’s Braxton Miller went down in August, the Buckeyes didn’t miss a beat.

It’s not a perfect plan—it may be a terrible one. For one thing, it very well may be too hard to find three quarterbacks who can all make the necessary throws. For another, cycling running backs doesn’t change the offense much, but cycling quarterbacks really does throw off the rhythm and timing of the offense. On top of that, NFL teams can’t recruit like colleges, bringing in three high-caliber prospects, so using this plan could tie up way too much money in just one position. And two-thirds of that money is on the bench all of the time. With the salary cap, it would be hard to offer big enough contracts to secure that much depth talent.

So there are a thousand and one flaws, but it’s worth considering. Are teams better with one superstar, or could they make it work if they spread that money out on depth? That way, if the starting quarterback goes down, it doesn’t entirely ruin their season.

To some degree, teams are bound to take more chances with running quarterbacks in the future. That’s what the college quarterback factory is churning out. If colleges only develop dual-threat quarterbacks, there is a point where NFL teams might have to draft and use dual-threat quarterbacks.

And, when teams are pressed into this, they’d be wise to look at Ohio State and remember to focus on depth. Because players are going to get hurt, teams can still find ways to win if they have the talent throughout the depth chart.

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