2012 NFL Draft: What Papa John’s can teach us about Big 12 QBs

With Baylor’s Robert Griffin III, Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill and Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden going in the first round, the pros bet big on Big 12 quarterbacks in this year’s NFL draft.

Yet, for all the statistical eye candy that the league has pumped out behind center, Big 12 QBs have enjoyed little success on the next level. The conference hasn’t produced a high number of busts, but it also can’t claim any truly elite NFL QBs yet. Vince Young probably stands as the conference’s most successful field general to date in the NFL, which isn’t saying much.

Paul Myerberg of Presnap Read has argued that the Big 12’s calling card actually leads to these signal callers’ downfall in the pros. The spread offense has helped their offenses put up Nintendo numbers in college, but it doesn’t prepare quarterbacks for the NFL, or so the theory goes.

That certainly could be true, although the premise is not without its flaws. Namely, some NFL QBs who played in unconventional offenses in college outside the Big 12 are experiencing success – Cam Newton being the latest example.

(And consider the implications if this is true. More NFL franchises are converting to spread-ish offensive schemes, which would theoretically put Big 12 quarterbacks ahead of the curve going forward.)

Personally, I think the best explanation for the lack Big 12 success stories on the next level is pretty simple. The credo of pizza chain Papa John’s offers some insight: “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza.”

He and Karl Welzein might be the only people alive who would use the word “better” in any context to describe his pizza, but credit Papa John Schnatter for hammering his tagline into consumers’ collective consciousness. And you know what? Papa’s gotta point.

Not about his pizza, of course, but the ingredients. If you’re choosing between X number of pizzas, the one with the best ingredients is the most likely to give you the best slice. Similarly, the sturdiest structures are generally built from the strongest steel. And so on.

Frankly, Big 12 teams haven’t been cooking with the best ingredients at QB. For the most part, the league’s field generals tend to be overachievers – Todd Reesing, Josh Heupel, Chase Daniel, Graham Harrell. In fact, a big selling point of the spread is that you don’t need an overly talented quarterback to thrive.

How often do the most prodigious Big 12 quarterbacks have the physical ability of a Newton or a Matt Stafford? Even Sam Bradford, the No. 1 pick overall in 2010, didn’t have those kinds of tools coming out of college. Vince Young, the Big 12’s most physically gifted quarterback ever, throws the ball like he’s playing beer pong.

Recruiting rankings add some weight to the idea, too.

QB Recruiting (2002-2012)
Conference Top 10 QBs
ACC 36
Big Ten 29
Big 12 34
Pac-12 38
SEC 52

To assess the talent quotient in each of the power conferences, I tallied up the where the top 10 pro-style and dual-threat quarterbacks as rated by Rivals signed out of high school between 2002 and 2012. Flat out, the quarterback studs are flocking to the SEC and, to a lesser extent, the West Coast. Of the 220 recruits included, 189 initially signed with schools from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10/12 and SEC. Of that 189-man subset, 52 went to the SEC. The Pac-10/12 only had 10 teams during 10 of the 11 years covered and still snagged 38 top 10 QB prospects, more than the ACC (36) and Big 12 (34) and Big Ten (29).

Not surprisingly, the SEC (13) and Pac-12 (10) led the way in quarterbacks selected in the NFL draft during the six-year period from 2006 to 2011. The Big 12 had seven, while the ACC and Big Ten had five each.

In reality, we’re dealing with such small sample sizes here that we should refrain from making any hard-and-fast conclusions. Even so, in my mind, much like the conference’s recent domination over college football, the SEC’s ability to pump out NFL QBs likely has more to do with the caliber of its talented players than style of play.

Which brings us back to the Big 12.

Like Bradford before them, the talent differential between the three QBs taken this year in the draft and predecessors such as Heupel is enormous. Far from being dink-and-dunkers content to feast on quick routes and five-yard gimmes, Griffin, Weeden and Tannehill all demonstrated an ability to time and again make NFL-level throws and do so with precision. Physically, they have the size, athleticism and arm strength that have become almost mandatory to survive as a pro QB.

Simply put, we’re talking about a different caliber of Big 12 quarterback, built with better ingredients.