Ohio State Quarterbacks and the Mysterious Puzzle of NFL Success
Will C.J. Stroud break the mold or simply become another name in the ever-growing list of disappointing Buckeye quarterbacks?
Overcoming a narrative is a difficult thing to do. When people assume a result based on the track record of their predecessors, it is easy for a self-fulfilling prophecy to manifest into reality. In sports, we see this when specific teams hire a coach or acquire a player with a history of failure. And then it is that one coach or player that changes everything. The Chicago Bulls were a laughingstock before Michael Jordan arrived and he transformed them into a powerhouse and global brand. But there were years of losing culture to overcome before that could happen.
We are a couple of months away from the NFL Draft, where up to 5 Quarterbacks could be drafted in the first round to transform franchises that are down on their luck. The expectations levied on a young 21 or 22-year-old to save a franchise and a city are enormous. But for Ohio State Quarterback C.J. Stroud, there is the added pressure of coming from a school with a dreadful record of producing quality players at the Quarterback position. Is Stroud the one that will break the cycle of mediocrity of the Ohio State Quarterback or simply be another name added to an ever-growing list of draft disappointments?
The Powerhouse in Columbus
Over the last 10–20 years, Ohio State is the best non-southern college football team in the country. They consistently have had elite offenses, ranking in the top 10 nationally for the last 7 years. Ohio State has had 18 first-round picks and 72 total players drafted since 2010, the second most of any school after Alabama. The Buckeyes have been able to do this thanks to great recruiting classes. Within the Big Ten Conference from 2005–2020, Ohio State has had the best recruiting class in the conference in 11 out of 15 years.
Not only has Ohio State recruited at an elite level by Big Ten standards, but also on a national stage. This has led to success on the field as the Buckeyes have enjoyed a talent superiority advantage. Since 2003, the Buckeyes have only finished a season outside of the AP top 10 three times and have only won fewer than 10 games twice (COVID-shortened year excluded). These results align with the Buckeyes' success in recruiting nationally, where between 2006–2020 they finished with a top 10 recruiting class in 11 of 14 years.
This success, unlike the success from rivals Georgia and Alabama, has come in large part to Quarterback play. An indication of this is that three of the last Buckeye starting quarterbacks (C.J. Stroud, Justin Fields, Dwayne Haskins) were Heisman trophy finalists. Historically, the team has also recruited wide receivers that would have productive pro careers such as Terry Glenn, Joey Galloway, Santonio Holmes, and Michael Thomas. These quarterbacks have had great talent to throw to and have put up a lot of numbers in college. But it seems that for whatever reason that has never translated into success at the next level.
Missing the Mark
When you think of historically elite college football programs and the quarterbacks that they have sent to the pros, usually one great player comes to mind. With Michigan, it is Tom Brady. With Notre Dame, it is Joe Montana. With Alabama, it is Joe Namath or Bart Starr. But who is the name that comes to mind when it comes to Ohio State? Does the name Mike Tomczak ring a bell? Because that is the most statistically successful OSU quarterback in the NFL, ranking 145th in career passing yards in league history. Tomczak was a Super Bowl winner as a backup in Chicago in 1985 and made caused most of his damage as a backup with the Bears and Steelers.
The Buckeyes only have two players on the top 250 list of career passing yards (the other is Kent Graham ranked 236th). This pales in comparison to a school like USC with 10 players on the list, or even the Buckeyes' arch-rival Michigan with 5 players on the list. Even inferior Big Ten rivals like Purdue (7), Michigan State (6), and Maryland (4) have seen more success from their signal callers in the pros (full list here). In some respects, it is fair to say that some Ohio State quarterbacks were simply in the league at a time when their measurables and skill sets were not desirable.
Consider Joe Germaine, who was drafted in the 4th round and was only ever a backup in the early 2000s. Germain measured in at 6’1”, which in the NFL of 20 years ago was too short for a pocket passer. Troy Smith, another undersized quarterback that won a Heisman trophy while at Ohio State. Smith in today’s NFL would have been considered an interesting prospect, one with mobility and arm talent even if he had a smaller stature than others. But back in 2007, his height was a concern for teams that only wanted statuesque pocket passers. Much of the quarterback talent that played for the Buckeyes, simply did not translate to the standards of the NFL.
But today’s NFL is a different league, one that prioritizes mobility as much as arm talent. We have seen this with players like Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, and Kyler Murray. The current hope for Buckeye quarterbacks is Justin Fields, quarterback for the Chicago Bears. He has not contributed to winning yet in the NFL, leading the Bears to a dreadful 5–20–0 record. And while he has not displayed excellent vision as a passer, he has set records as a running quarterback. It remains to be seen if he will translate into a true franchise star quarterback but he has a better chance than his predecessors to break the mold.
Stacking the Deck
Currently, in the NFL, 8 wide receivers played for Ohio State in college. None of these players are over 30 years old, meaning that they played for the school within the past decade. This is an abundance of talent at the position that Ohio State quarterbacks have been fortunate to play with. It is an advantage that quarterbacks from schools like Oregon or Kentucky do not have the privilege have. The same can be said for Alabama quarterbacks and the embarrassment of riches that they have at the skill positions.
The NFL from a talent perspective has very thin margins. Even teams that are perceived as terrible like the Houston Texans are littered with players that won accolades and showed excellent ability in college. There are no games against competition like Akron in the NFL. There is adversity, defenses have athletes that are stronger and faster than those on the collegiate level. Up until recently, Ohio State has enjoyed a massive talent disparity over the rest of the Big Ten. From 2000–2020, the Buckeyes sent 31 players to the NFL that was selected in the first round. Wisconsin has sent 15, Michigan has sent 14, and no other Big Ten school has sent more than 10.
There is something to be said about a lack of adversity that has led to the stunted development of these quarterbacks. That they are in essence playing football on easy mode because the talent gap is so wide. They did not play with a level playing field to develop better habits that are translatable to the NFL. Patrick Mahomes went to Texas Tech, a middling Big 12 school that, where he was beaten up by TCU, Texas, Baylor, and Oklahoma. Joe Burrow had to overcome the giants of the SEC in Georgia and Alabama en route to winning a national championship in Baton Rogue. These players have not been accustomed to leading their teams through tough times, through repeated stints of losing. And the quarterback position is the one where these intangibles are the most important. This lack of adversity adjustment and subsequent immaturity has seemed to be the Achilles heel of Ohio State quarterbacks.
The Potential of C.J. Stroud
This is the narrative that C.J. Stroud enters the NFL against. That he is from a school that is a graveyard for professional quarterback dreams and aspirations. Stroud has the tools that many have been asking for in a modern quarterback. He has some mobility to create time to throw the ball and certainly has arm talent. His record against the most talented rosters in his time as a starter is a mixed bag. Two losses against rival Michigan, an admirable performance against a superior Georgia team, and a shootout win against Utah in the Rose Bowl.
Stroud has endured some adversity unlike some of his predecessors. The Buckeye's defense was suspect and he had a rotating room of running backs with a less-than-OSU standard offensive line. But his faults in big games and the inflated statistics against MAC opponents and the dregs of the Big Ten will cause some scouts to wonder what the outcome of drafting him to a developing team will be. Time will tell how the cards will unfold for Stroud.
In Ohio State’s case, they of course have no real vested interest in the professional success of their former players as long as they are winning games while they are in Columbus. But if Justin Fields and C.J. Stroud prove to be draft busts, one has to wonder if up-and-coming recruits will think twice about donning the scarlet and gray. The Ohio State quarterback trademark of undersized and mobile passers has never been more aligned with what the NFL is looking for in a quarterback prospect. If this trend of a lack of success continues then maybe it is fair to call it a curse. Regardless of your feelings on Ohio State as a whole, it is still a shame that such an iconic school has never produced an elite quarterback. Maybe C.J. Stroud will be that player.