It’s December 23, 2012, and it’s another very unfortunate day to be an Oakland Raiders fan.
The game hasn’t gotten out of hand just yet, but it will. They usually do in Oakland, which is 4-10 on the year, dropping six of its last seven, hopelessly out of playoff contention.
It’s third and one with a little more than two minutes remaining in the first quarter against a Carolina Panthers team that isn’t very good, either. Oakland quarterback Carson Palmer takes the snap on his own 29-yard-line and rolls out right.
“Palmer not a noted mobile…” the announcer begins to say. And then he’s cut off, interrupted by a vicious blind side hit from Carolina’s Greg Hardy that could be heard over the broadcast.
The crowd roars and then hushes.
“You hope he’s OK,” the announcer adds.
He’s not. His ribs are cracked. He would never take another snap in an Oakland uniform.
But another former USC quarterback would. Matt Leinart, the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner, finishes the game, completing 16 of his 32 passes for 115 yards, zero touchdowns, and 1 interception. The next week he is benched. He will never take another regular season snap in the NFL.
That ugly day, however difficult it may be at times to believe, is perhaps the most accurate summation of how USC quarterbacks, some of the most brilliant players in the history of college football, have fared in the NFL.
There is no one reason for the breathtaking misfortunes of Trojan quarterbacks in the NFL. They are myriad and bizarre, a result of agonizing luck, chronic strings of injuries combined with the aforementioned lack of luck, non-football issues and countless others. It doesn’t begin with Palmer, though many see him as the face of the nearly two dozen USC signal callers who haven’t quite managed to figure it out at the NFL level. Palmer is simply the most recent iteration, the first of the newest generation of USC quarterbacks to be put through the wringer.
After Palmer was drafted first overall in 2003 by the Cincinnati Bengals, two more – Leinart and Mark Sanchez – were taken in the first round over the next six years. Another pair – John David Booty and Matt Cassel – were drafted in the later rounds. Cassel didn’t start a single game at USC, but then again, he had backed up two Heisman winners in Palmer and Leinart, something nobody in the history of college football had ever done before. New England took a flier on him over Heisman winner Jason White and the much more accomplished Timmy Chang.
Two more, Matt Barkley and, most recently, Cody Kessler, have also been taken in the draft since Palmer. Barkley has already been traded by one team (the Eagles), released by another (Cardinals) and found his way onto the practice squad of another (Bears).
And so here is the current fortunes of the seven USC quarterbacks drafted since 2000: two are out of football, four are fighting for roster spots and one, Palmer, is a starter.
Maybe, given USC’s history, that’s not such a good thing.
Does it surprise you that of the 109 USC players to have played in a Super Bowl, not one has been a quarterback?
Some have been close.
Pat Haden was the first Trojan to have a bona fide shot in the Super Bowl era. Haden, like a great many of his fellow Trojans, was brilliant in college, appearing in three Rose Bowls and winning a pair of national titles. But when he left USC he found himself backing up a pair of NFL stars in James Harris and Ron Jaworski. After injuries to both – one of the few times injuries have worked in the favor of a USC quarterback’s career – Haden was pressed into duty, performing well enough to carry the Los Angeles Rams, which had drafted him in the seventh round in 1975, to the 1976 NFC Championship game.
And thus begins the first of many playoff blunders delivered by Trojans.
Haden went 9 for 22 for 161 yards. He threw 2 interceptions and was sacked three times. The Minnesota Vikings beat the Rams, 24-13.
Had Haden played in the era of social media and 24-hour hot takes, he would have inevitably been dubbed “not clutch.” For no matter how phenomenal his regular seasons were, he couldn’t deliver in the big games. The next season he collapsed in the playoffs again, this time in the first round, completing just 14 of his 32 passes for 130 yards and 3 interceptions.
A year later, the Cowboys drubbed the Rams, 28-0, in the NFC Championship game.
Does Haden’s curious penchant for postseason tumbles ring familiar? It should. The only USC quarterback to one-up Haden in that department is the only USC quarterback who current has a starting job: Palmer.
Palmer earned notoriety early in his career for, more or less, performing with the timeliness of Haden: Magnificent in the regular season, awful in the playoffs when he managed to get there. But that isn’t an entirely fair characterization.
During the first play of the 2006 AFC Wild Card game against the Steelers, Palmer hit Chris Henry for 66 yards. It was the longest play in Bengals playoff history.
Palmer wouldn’t take another snap.
While Henry was flying downfield, taking the attention of the crowd with him, Palmer was lying on his side, gripping his left knee, which was now home to tears in his ACL and MCL.
He would lead the Bengals back to the playoffs in 2009 after claiming the AFC North Division title. But he would collapse in a home game with the New York Jets, completing only half of his passes, throwing 1 touchdown to 1 interception while watching another USC quarterback, Sanchez, move on.
Sanchez, for his part, would defeat the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round before bowing out to the Indianapolis Colts, finishing his rookie season just one win shy of a Super Bowl berth.
Palmer, the first USC quarterback to win the Heisman, wouldn’t reach the point that Sanchez did in his rookie season until 2015, which is inarguably the best year of his career. He set career highs in quarterback rating (104.6), yards (4,671) and touchdowns (35) as the engine behind one of the NFL’s most potent offenses.
And then suddenly, abruptly, almost violently, it all came crashing down. In the NFC Championship game against the Carolina Panthers, Palmer turned the ball over six times, disappearing in the game he was needed most. Arizona lost, 49-15.
“This is as low as you can feel,” Palmer said afterwards. “You put so much into this and you come into the season with such high expectations. To lose like this hurts.”
Indeed, though he was speaking of pain of the metaphorical sort. Other Trojan alum have seen their Super Bowl chances disappear due to broken bones, sprained knees and myriad other issues. Haden, during the 1979 season, broke his finger and had to sit out as Vince Ferragamo led his Rams to a Super Bowl title. In 2003, Playing for Carolina, Rodney Peete, the first Trojan to win the Johnny Unitas Award, was replaced by Jake Delhomme in the third quarter of the first game of the season. Delhomme would take the team to the Super Bowl, where Carolina lost to the Patriots.
Kyle Wachholtz was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1996, but they didn’t have much need for another quarterback, what with the team being led by Brett Favre, and he was eventually moved to tight end. The Packers won the Super Bowl that year. Wachholtz didn’t play a snap. He hurt a disc in his back in practice in 1998 and never played football again.
Rob Johnson, owner of the highest sack-to-passing-attempt ratio in NFL history, sat on the bench as Brad Johnson (no relation) quarterbacked the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl title over the Oakland Raiders in 2002. Two years later he would undergo Tommy John surgery, a strange operation for an NFL quarterback, and never take another NFL snap.
Those are, to be frank, the more normal circumstances that can plague players’ careers. Injuries happen in football. But how do you explain some of the other peculiar bouts of bad luck that have been heaped upon USC quarterbacks?
Grenny Lansdell was taken in the first round of the 1940 draft by the New York Giants. He played in exactly two games, completing two of his three attempts. He then joined the Army during the throes of World War II, never to play football again. Worse yet, another USC quarterback, Paul McDonald, who won a national championship in 1978, lost a spot on his team, the Dallas Cowboys, because he made the team.
You read that correctly.
In 1987, McDonald beat out Kevin Sweeney for the Cowboys’ third string job – but the players went on strike, and the NFL mandated that only replacement players could play. So who would be the new starter for the Cowboys? None other than Sweeney, the very man whom McDonald had beaten out.
There has been some measure of success enjoyed by USC quarterbacks, to be sure. Cassel made a Pro Bowl and was even given a franchise tag by the Patriots, that despite New England also employing a quarterback by the name of Tom Brady. Leinart was the original starter of an Arizona Cardinals team that made it to a Super Bowl. Had he not suffered two season-ending injuries in a matter of five sacks to begin his career, it’s a wonder what might have been for Leinart, because in the scant few instances he was healthy, he was actually quite good.
Even Sanchez, despite being synonymous with the phrase “butt fumble,” made the AFC Championship game in his first two seasons, winning as many playoff games as Russell Wilson. Rudy Bukich, the MVP of the 1953 Rose Bowl, won an NFL Championship with the Bears in 1963.
But it is difficult to ignore history, whether it is relevant to each individual quarterback or not (and it is, most assuredly, not).
“The whole stereotype about the SC quarterback seems to be the hot topic,” Barkley said at his NFL Scouting Combine. “I think it’s unfair to stereotype anyone in this regard. Are all Michigan quarterbacks going to be great because Tom Brady went there or all Tennessee quarterbacks going to be great because Peyton Manning went there? You can play that game forward and backward. Every situation is different for every person. It’s unfair to put us in the same category.”
Unfair, perhaps, but there is an undeniable trend to be noticed. And until a Trojan quarterback breaks the mold of the assembly line of busts that have come out of Southern California, the paradigm of a USC quarterback in the NFL will remain exactly that: a bust.