Rob Oller: Nowhere to go but up? Justin Fields' NFL future faces low bar for Buckeyes QBs
Justin Fields need not turn into Tom Brady to become the best NFL quarterback to come out of Ohio State. Moving past Mike Tomczak will get the job done.
Buckeyes failing to find NFL success at football’s most important position is not exactly front-page news. Or front page in the wrong way? Some think Art Schlichter had the most potential to make it big in the pros, but the former No. 4 overall pick of the Baltimore Colts instead gambled away the majority of his post-college years in prison.
Fields faces a low bar in moving to the top of the list. If it were a limbo contest he would barely need to bend his knees.
That is no insult to Tomczak, who made the most of his abilities by carving out a 15-year career that included a 42-31 record in 73 starts. He also held the NFL-record with 10 consecutive wins for a first-time starter, until Pittsburgh rookie Ben Roethlisberger broke it with 13 straight in 2004. (Might such a post-college career earn Tomczak a spot in the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame?)
Such accomplishments make Tomczak, a three-year starter for the Buckeyes (1982-84), the most successful NFL quarterback to have played in the Horseshoe. Correction, to have played in the Shoe for Ohio State. Brady, John Elway (Stanford), and Drew Brees (Purdue) also saw action in Ohio Stadium.
That’s the surprising part. Despite leading college football with 85 all-time draft picks, Ohio State has never produced an elite NFL quarterback. The best one didn’t even get drafted; Tomczak signed with the Bears in 1985 as a free agent.
“It’s a crapshoot, where 50% make it and 50% don’t,” Tomczak told me after the Bears selected Fields 11th overall on Thursday. “But I do see an absence of Ohio State presence at that position, which is a head-scratcher.”
Is it? Closer inspection reveals that, instead of making no sense, Ohio State failing to produce Pro Football Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks is just common sense.
“It’s lack of conceptual offense. Nobody had an offense to build an (NFL) quarterback,” said former Ohio State quarterbacks coach Fred Zechman, who from 1979 to 1982 coached Schlichter and Tomczak. “Ohio State until recently had to have a quarterback whose main job was ‘Don’t screw it up.’ ”
Truth. The Buckeyes have had 22 quarterbacks selected since the draft began in 1936, and most until the 1990s were game managers whose main responsibility was getting the ball into the hands of playmakers. And by playmakers I mean handing the ball to running backs.
Woody Hayes would rather have self-extracted his molars by needle-nose pliers than risk his quarterback throwing an interception. Earle Bruce followed Hayes, and while he loosened the offense it still was not creative for its day.
“We never went to the shotgun or sent four receivers vertically,” Tomczak said. “I might have been the least prepared going into pros in 1984, just from a passing standpoint.”
John Cooper brought more of a pro-style offense to Ohio State, and some of his quarterbacks, including Bob Hoying and Kent Graham, enjoyed more NFL success than others. But none had phenomenal pro careers. Graham threw 39 career touchdowns to 33 interceptions; Hoying tossed 11 TDs to 15 picks.
Jim Tressel followed Cooper, but his 10-year tenure was heavy on Tresselball, relying on defense and special teams to create favorable field position for the offense. Even Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith flamed out quickly in the NFL. Urban Meyer followed Tressel, but his spread offense too often resembled a modern version of the 1970s quarterback option.
“By the time Urban got there he definitely wanted a Tim Tebow-type of quarterback,” Zechman said. Translated: when in doubt, run the QB.
Things have changed under Ryan Day, but how much his pass-friendly offense impacts quarterback success in the NFL remains to be seen. Dwayne Haskins appeared primed to succeed when Washington selected him No. 15 overall in 2019, but two years later and he is third string in Pittsburgh, proving that high NFL achievement ultimately rests with the player.
Does the quarterback work hard? Does he own the locker room as a leader? Can he adjust to the speed of NFL defenses? Is he a knucklehead? A quarterback with a million-dollar arm but 10-cent brain has no chance of excelling in the NFL.
“It takes a lot to succeed,” Tomczak said. “I know all the work I put in. People think they work hard, but the results are not there.”
Will Fields finally be the quarterback to break the Ohio State jinx?
“There were a lot of mixed feelings about him,” said NFL scout Gil Brandt, who insisted that over 60 years of work he has never witnessed anti-Ohio State quarterback bias among player personnel executives. “He was my seventh-ranked player, but my third quarterback. I really didn’t know where to put him.”
Good question. If things fall right, and my hunch is they will, put him atop the list of Ohio State QB alums. But no worries, Mr. Tomczak. It's not a far fall.
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