Crypt Ohio: A Historical Graveyard of Buckeye State Quarterbacks (Part I)

Blake Fumble

Take the time to talk with any aged sports fan rooted in Western Pennsylvania, and eventually the topic will turn to the Valhalla of quarterbacks who have emerged from the area like a wellspring. Names like Johnny Unitas, George Blanda, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino have all been inscribed into the annals of professional football greatness. On the surface, it seems like the worst sort of cherrypicking imaginable. Nevertheless, that is a fairly impressive list of quarterbacks to call the watershed of the Allegheny and the Monongahela home.

Across the state line, in Ohio, the historical disposition of the quarterbacking profession remains a far foggier enterprise.

I write this post as another professional quarterback perceived to have great promise for one of the two Ohio franchises is shuffled toward the waiver wire with great fanfare. The Cleveland Browns announced, via new Director of Football Operations Sashi Brown, that Johnny Manziel will be among the teams cuts on March 9th when his $4.6 million dollar salary can be quietly moved onto the next years’ cap. Saddled with off-the-field chaos overshadowing on-the-field mediocrity, Manziel takes an uncertain future into the professional sports wilderness. Back in Cleveland, the Browns and their fans are faced with yet another offseason in which their franchise savior may await.

This state of affairs is nothing new for either professional franchise in the state of Ohio. The Browns have been in management purgatory almost constantly since their franchise relaunch in 1999, and seem perpetually years away from turning a corner in a division featuring two of the NFL’s most stable franchises (Pittsburgh and Baltimore). The Bengals are in much better shape both institutionally and talent-wise, but seem frozen by the specter of repeated playoff failures. The recent and insane AFC Wild Card game loss against a Steelers team being held together by the stringy remains of Le’Veon Bell’s ACL is but the latest example. And it was but twenty years ago that the Bengals themselves were the Browns of today: poorly run and hopelessly talentless.

The fact remains that neither team has won a championship since Jim Brown ran roughshod over opposing defensive lines during the Kennedy administration. The Browns have never appeared in a Super Bowl, and the Bengals last appeared in one while George H.W. Bush was seeking the Republican nomination in 1988. Bad quarterbacking can’t account for all of this failure, but its worth considering whether even one moderate success from the list below would have made a difference in some years when an opportunity presented itself unexpectedly.

Upon further reflection, it seems to problem may go beyond the purview of even the Browns and the Bengals. On the college side, the lack of professional success from Ohio State alums in particular, given the school’s blue chip reputation, is borderline phantasmagorical. Cardale Jones, he of 269 career pass attempts in college, represents the freshest face attempting to kick this trend. But history is against him in many respects.

The question becomes how bad this state of affairs actually is? Are Ohio teams at all levels just historically unlucky with a few high profile quarterbacks? Or is there something deeper here that can be uncovered from a deeper analysis?

Time to do an autopsy of Ohio quarterbacking: the good, the bad, and the Schlichter.

First, though, I need to set a few methodological ground rules in order to narrow the pool a little bit. Because of length, I will be posting this list in two parts. The first will include all quarterbacks drafted in the first four rounds by either the Cleveland Browns or the Cincinnati Bengals since 1969. I’m including examples from later rounds if they had interesting careers or fascinating personal tidbits, but it’s not worth listing a 15th round pick from 1977 that never played a down in the NFL (and believe me, there are a lot of those) just for the sake of being thorough. The second part (posted in time for Super Bowl Sunday) will include two categories: quarterbacks drafted from Ohio colleges and universities, and quarterbacks drafted by the Browns or Bengals from Ohio colleges and universities. Since this list is considerably shorter, I will include any quarterback regardless of round that falls into these two categories.

Oh, and two more rules:

No Ohio prep quarterbacks. This list is long enough as is. Feel free to do the research on that end if you’d like, but I’ll pass.

No quarterbacks currently with the Browns or the Bengals. Manziel will be released soon, but you don’t need me to tell that story for you – Google will suffice. As for the Bengals, A.J. McCarron was a 5th round pick and therefore falls outside of the established guidelines. Andy Dalton is a Top 10 quarterback who will only get better as his competition gets older and he matures into his prime. I’m ready to declare him a total success and therefore exempt from this list.

(Although, it wasn’t that long ago that Dalton’s worth of a contract extension was up for considerable debate…)

 

Part I: Quarterbacks Drafted by Ohio Teams

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Mike Phipps, CLE (1st round, 3rd pick, 1970, Purdue)

Can hardly be considered a total bust given his five years as the Browns’ starter, including a playoff appearance in 1972 and over 10,000 career passing yards. However, he was taken two picks after future Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, and was traded twice in his career for future Hall of Famers (on draft day in 1970 for Paul Warfield, and to the Bears in 1977 for Ozzie Newsome).

 

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Ken Anderson, CIN (3rd round, 67th pick, 1971, Augustana College)

Perhaps the quintessential example of a good-but-not-great quarterback who simply refused to give up his starting job and remains one of the most underrated signal callers of his entire era. Anderson led the Bengals to several playoff appearances during the 1970s, and posted one of the best seasons in franchise history while leading the team to their first Super Bowl appearance in 1981. He led the league in completions twice (1974, 1982), completion percentage three times (1974, 1982, 1983), passing yards twice (1974, 1975), QB Rating four times (1974, 1975, 1981, 1982), went to four Pro Bowls, and was named All Pro once (1981, at the age of 32). And were it not for an unfortunate injury suffered by another quarterback appearing later on this list, he most likely would have never had the opportunity to accomplish any of it, at least not in Cincinnati.

 

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Brian Sipe, CLE (13th round, 330th pick, 1972, San Diego St)

Falls as far as can be outside of the established criteria, but makes the list as one of the biggest draft steals of the entire 1970s. Sipe took over the starting job from Phipps in 1976 and became a franchise staple for the rest of the decade. His career culminated in 1980, as leader of the “Cardiac Kids” team that won the AFC Central and narrowly lost in the Divisional Playoff to the eventual champion Oakland Raiders in one of the most devastating losses in franchise history.

 

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Randy Mattingly, CLE (4th round, 100th pick, 1973, Evansville College)

Never played in an NFL game, had three unremarkable seasons as a backup in the CFL, but is the older brother of former Yankees star first baseman Don Mattingly.

 

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Mike Boryla, CIN (4th round, 87th pick, 1974, Stanford)

Never played for the Bengals, as he was traded during the draft to the Eagles where he started for three seasons and made the Pro Bowl in 1976. After retirement, he remained in the Philadelphia and started a side career as an actor in addition to a day job as a lawyer. In 2012, Boryla premiered a well-regarded one-man show entitled The Disappearing Quarterback, featuring anecdotes from his time as a player and criticism of the league’s handling of player injuries and health.

 

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Gary Sheide, CIN (3rd round, 64th pick, 1975, BYU)

Never appeared in an NFL game, but the coupled with the Boryla choice from the year before, it seems indicative of the Bengals desire to find a potential replacement for Anderson. Often credited as the first in a great string of BYU quarterbacks throughout the 1980s, including Jim McMahon, Steve Young, and Ty Detmer.

 

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Jack Thompson, CIN (1st round, 3rd pick, 1979, Washington State)

Owner of an incredible nickname (“The Throwin’ Samoan”), Thompson rewrote the PAC-10 record books and seemed poised to take the reins from an aging Anderson. He showed little in five starts over two years, and was eventually traded to Tampa Bay where he washed out after one season as a full time starter. To make matters worse, Thompson was taken before Phil Simms and Joe Montana and became the first of several high profile busts hailing from the Cougars (the others being Timm Rosenbach and Ryan Leaf).

 

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Paul McDonald, CLE (4th round, 109th pick, 1980, USC)

Drafted to help replace an aging Brian Sipe, he was the primary starter for the Browns in 1984 and played poorly enough that the franchise spent a No. 1 pick in the 1985 Supplementary Draft on Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar and never looked back.

 

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Dan Feraday, CIN (12th round, 333rd pick, 1982, University of Toronto)

Never played a down in the NFL, but is to this day the only quarterback ever to be drafted from a Canadian university.

 

Jeff Christensen, CIN (5th round, 137th pick, 1983, Eastern Illinois)

Notable only because he was the first quarterback drafted after the 1st round in the famous “Year of the QB” which saw six (John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien, and Dan Marino) taken during the opening frame. He’s also the only person on this list to be on the rosters of both Cincinnati and Cleveland during his career.

 

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Boomer Esiason, CIN (2nd round, 38th pick, 1984, Maryland)

Easily the most notable quarterback for the Bengals between Anderson and Carson Palmer, Esiason had several fantastic years running Sam Wyche’s no-huddle offense, and led the franchise to their last appearance in the Super Bowl in 1988 while being named First Team All-Pro. His performances after that season, however, were marked by increasing mediocrity, cementing his status as a very good career quarterback with statistics bolstered in part by his longevity.

 

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Doug Gaynor, CIN (4th round, 99th pick, 1986, Long Beach State)

Erik Wilhelm, CIN (3rd round, 83rd pick, 1989, Oregon State)

Donald Hollas, CIN (4th round, 99th pick, 1991, Rice)

Three unremarkable and short-lived backups from the Esiason era. I only remember Wilhelm because I somehow made the Super Bowl with him at quarterback during a season of Tecmo Super Bowl when I was a kid.

 

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David Klingler, CIN (1st round, 6th pick, 1992, University of Houston)

Like Thompson, a flashy quarterback who rewrote college record books (most notably the NCAA record for most passing yards in a game that was broken by Washington State’s Connor Halliday in 2014) and was brought in as heir apparent to an aging starter in decline. His abysmal 4-20 record over three seasons began the downward spiral of the Bengals as the worst franchise in professional sports during the decade of the 1990s. Along with fellow former Cougar Andre Ware, it’s interesting to wonder whether his career would have been different had he come along twenty years later when quick reads out of the shotgun became more en vogue.

 

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Eric Zeier, CLE (3rd round, 84th pick, 1995, Georgia)

The last quarterback drafted by the original incarnation of the Browns, Zeier lasted a few seasons as a spot starter but never seriously challenged for a full time job.

 

Tim Couch, CLE (1st round, 1st pick, 1999, Kentucky)

Akili Smith, CIN (1st round, 3rd pick, 1999, Oregon)

Undoubtedly the nadir of bad professional quarterback play in the state of Ohio. The intention was for Couch and Smith to become rivals, if not on the level of Brady/Manning, at least rising to the stage of Roethlisberger/Flacco. It wasn’t to be. Smith looked so lost in his one year as a starter in Cincinnati that they immediately decided to reboot and cut ties, leading to the number one pick two seasons later. Couch fared better, but was saddled with a poor offensive line typical of expansion franchises and failed to develop his elite skills while running for his life. His golden moment to lead the Browns to the playoffs in 2002 was usurped by journeyman Kelly Holcomb, and his career never recovered. Neither have the Browns, making him perhaps the most devastating failed pick on this list.

 

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Spergon Wynn, CLE (6th round, 183rd pick, 2000, Texas State)

Notable for two simple reasons. First, he came from my soon-to-be wife’s alma mater. Second, he was the quarterback drafted before New England took Tom Brady.

 

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Carson Palmer, CIN (1st round, 1st pick, 2003, USC)

Finally became the blue chip quarterback to lift the Bengals out of the doldrums, yet still never fully realized his potential in Cincinnati. A potential Super Bowl run in 2005 folded under the arm of Kimo Von Olehoffen, and subsequent years were defined by increasing discord with the front office until he was traded to Oakland following the 2010 season while still in his prime. His late career resurgence with Bruce Arians in Arizona has pushed his career into borderline Hall of Fame territory, which could be cemented by finally winning the big game before he retires.

 

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Luke McCown, CLE (4th round, 106th pick, 2004, Louisiana Tech)

Failed to reach even the standard set by his older brother Josh (who currently plays in Cleveland), but he deserves credit for hanging on as a journeyman backup for longer than most other quarterbacks drafted by the Browns.

 

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Brady Quinn, CLE (1st round, 22nd pick, 2007, Notre Dame)

Although he likely would never have achieved the stardom thrust upon him after leading Notre Dame to the 2006 Sugar Bowl, Quinn’s career was derailed as much by bad circumstances as bad play. He could never quite escape the shadow of Derek Anderson, suffered untimely injuries when he did get chances, and never gained the trust of a new coaching staff after Romeo Crennel was fired. That being said, Quinn’s play on the field did little to help his case. He squandered a second chance with Kansas City in 2012 so badly that he hasn’t been seen in professional football since.

 

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Colt McCoy, CLE (3rd round, 85th pick, 2010, Texas)

Considering his ceiling was tabbed as a solid journeyman backup coming out of college, it should be no surprise that he failed to exceed that status in Cleveland and remains in that role currently for the Washington Redskins.

 

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Brandon Weeden, CLE (1st round, 22nd pick, 2012, Oklahoma State)

I can appreciate the Browns’ thought process here, even if the results didn’t match their expectations. At 29 years old when drafted, Cleveland hoped that he’d be mature enough to step in and provide stability at the quarterback position, doing just enough to help an above average defense carry the team into the playoffs. Unfortunately, Weeden never really got on track, and is now in one of the worst possible positions to be in as a quarterback: early thirties with no real track record of success. His poor performance in Dallas this past season likely ended his chances as a professional starter for the time being.

 

To Be Continued in Part II

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