Badger Quarterbacks and the NFL: What Gives?

by Maxwell Brusky

Why has Wisconsin never produced a real, lasting NFL quarterback?  You know, the kind that starts for a few years, makes a Pro Bowl or two.  The question has nagged me since barroom post-game conversation in 2004 (in Iowa City).  Other than the one-year explosion that was Russell Wilson, very little has happened in the last nine years to make the question less nagging.  If anything, Wilson’s highly special case makes the situation even more peculiar.

Wilson’s one year was the best ever by a UW quarterback, and he’s now gone on to what looks to be a very bright NFL future, but it has to be remembered that Wilson wasn’t recruited to UW out of high school in Richmond, Virginia and was a three-year, all-conference level starter for NC State before the sequence of events that brought him to Wisconsin began.  His achievements in his one year at UW, too well-known and numerous to recite, can’t be diminished, but he was a grad student taking advantage of an NCAA rules quirk that allowed him to play immediately; he wasn’t developed at UW.  He arrived fully-formed and was the perfect fit for Paul Chryst’s offense.  His “free agent” status has, to me, always lent a patina of randomness to his “matriculation” at UW; he  could have gone just about anyplace (that had a need at QB) , but he ultimately bought what Chryst and Bret Bielema sold him and chose a UW that was primed for success in 2011.

The most "NFL Ready" Quarterback developed by the Badgers?

The most "NFL Ready" Quarterback developed by the Badgers?

Before any debate over Wilson’s bona fides as a Badger gets too out of hand, I’d concede that the one-year UW playing career of the Grand Poobah of all Badgers, Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, is probably the closest analogy to Wilson’s (Google him, or wait until next offseason, I'll write something up). After an NFL career that put him in the Hall of Fame (not as a QB), Hirsch would later begin an eighteen-year, mostly successful tenure as UW athletic director. 

While young Wilson ran an eponymous football camp in Madison this summer, he’s not quite the Badger Crazylegs is, if he (or anyone else) can ever be.  I’d also concede that there is an NFL Hall of Famer “associated” with UW, Arnie Herber, who with Don Hutson and the Packers in the mid-1930s, invented the modern quarterback position. Although some basic databases list his college as Wisconsin (as well as Regis University), he apparently made no football impact at UW as the section of UW’s website for “Badgers in the NFL” doesn’t even list him.

If you’ll look at the records, you’ll see that Randy Wright, an excellent college QB, leads all Badger signal callers with 32 NFL starts – and Packer fans know how most of those starts ended and the relief they felt when Don Majkowski eventually took the starting job.  UW’s all-time yards leader, Darrell Bevell, actually registered no any NFL stats as a player.  UW’s other top quarterback in modern times, Brooks Bollinger, was drafted in the sixth round, but wound up starting a total of 10 games in a five-year career.  Bollinger’s successor at UW, Jim Sorgi, was also drafted in the sixth round; he didn’t start any games, but did hold Peyton Manning’s clipboard for five years.

Before them, Badger QBs of old were about the same, including 1952 Rose Bowl QB Jim Haluska (no NFL stats), early sixties star Ron Vander Kelen (five NFL starts; do yourself a favor and read up on the 1963 Rose Bowl, a loss but nevertheless UW football’s zenith before Barry Alvarez came to town), and early seventies All-Big Ten 33 straight-game starter Neil Graff (three years; two starts).  Occasional winners like Jess Cole, Tony Lowery, and Mike Samuel (probably unsurprisingly) registered no NFL stats at all.  The most recent contributors to the UW passing record books, John Stocco and Scott Tolzien, didn’t play or haven’t played in an NFL game.  Stocco, who is currently second on the UW passing yards list, wasn’t drafted and didn’t catch on with a team.  Tolzien, currently fourth on the list and winner of the Johnny Unitas Award (best senior QB in the nation), wasn’t drafted either and is now the primary back-up in San Francisco.  For quarterbacks who excelled as collegians, this is mighty undistinguished for a school like UW.

So what gives?  While it’s never been a national power for more than a few years at a time, UW has been playing football for over 100 years and all of that has been in a major conference.  And even though UW hasn’t won a national title, it has won 14 conference titles and has played in 24 bowls, winning 11 of them (didn’t win one until 1982, but still).  UW has also put a respectable number of players in the NFL (261 have been drafted; 77 of those since Alvarez’s first season), including Hall of Famers Hirsch and Mike Webster, and its alumni have regularly starred throughout the league’s history. 

Nearly all schools with similar histories, traditions and levels of success, and many, many with less, can claim a quarterback alum who has at least one Pro Bowl under his belt, or at least started for more than a season or two for an NFL team.  Throw in the NFL QBs from smaller, smaller conference, or less-storied schools like Fresno State, San Jose State, Louisiana Tech, etc., and then on down to UC-Davis, Youngstown State or Augustana, and the dearth of successful Badger QBs in the NFL seems even more out of whack.

Perhaps, though, some explanation emerges from the phrasing, a “school like UW.”  As the above shows, though, that “like”-ness can’t really be found in the level of historical success and depth of tradition.  Maybe then the like-ness is in the style of play on offense and the type of player recruited by a particular coach and his staff?  Certainly in recent times, UW has justly garnered a reputation as “Tailback U,” but when UW has had the most success (1993, 1998, 1999, 2006, 2010 and 2011), there was a quarterback who added highlight plays (some more than others, certainly, i.e. Samuel) to his skills as a game manager (plus, for what it’s worth, first-team all-league or better pass catchers).  

To be sure, UW’s record books for passing were re-written by the quarterbacks who played for Alvarez or Bielema, and when the quarterback play has been average or worse, most recently in 2008 and 2012, UW’s almost standard 210 plus yards per game rushing couldn’t do it alone and those teams underachieved.

This probably unsurprising phenomenon occurred before then, too, when Dave McClain, a true disciple of the Woody and Bo offensive school and architect of UW’s limited early 80s success, had Jess Cole and Randy Wright.  During the early 60s and early 50s, UW’s other “modern” high points (i.e., Rose Bowls/league titles), you find Haluska and Vander Kelen (who was ninth in the Heisman voting; TE Pat Richter was sixth).  While UW has consistently been more or less run-oriented, its high-water marks have occurred when it’s had an effective passing game – which requires an effective quarterback.  In other words, UW is hardly stranger to very good, and occasionally great,  quarterback play, and whatever they were as recruits, there’s been several UW QBs that weren’t exactly duds in college, even if they haven’t been All-Americans.    It’s only when these players have attempted to move to the next level where they’ve been so oddly underwhelming.

Is there anything to be gained by looking at other somewhat comparable programs who haven’t put effective quarterbacks into the NFL?  There may be others, but the closest I’ve found are Nebraska, Oklahoma (until very recently, with Sam Bradford), North Carolina, and Oklahoma State (until even more recently, with Brandon Weeden).  All of these schools have produced pros by the dozens, but none of them but Bradford and maybe yet Weeden have been successful pro quarterbacks.  The overall level of success by Nebraska and Oklahoma is, of course, well above UW’s, and that by Oklahoma State and North Carolina is probably below it, but as for pro quarterbacks, their numbers have been just as dismal as UW’s. 

Given that Nebraska and Oklahoma are “traditional powers” that have had Heisman winners at the position (Eric Crouch, Jason White and Bradford), they’ve also generally had their pick of the litter recruiting-wise at all positions, including quarterback.  More recently, UNC and even more so OSU have brought in plenty of QB talent, but still none have found lasting success in the pros.  Like UW, it simply seems that whatever success their QBs had in college just hasn’t translated to the pros.  While the analysis has been somewhat superficial, I don’t see any common thread that can be drawn between these programs that would solve the mystery.

With all that said, all I can come up with is that it’s just bad luck - the same kind of college football irrationality that has produced the AIRBHG, 2011’s Hail Mary games, or any of the truly wacko occurrences every year that make or break seasons or make or break programs for years at a stretch.  Maybe UW’s quarterbacks just didn’t have the size or the speed or the big arm necessary for NFL success (some of the recent ones), or just wound up behind depth charts (Vander Kelen, who was behind Fran Tarkenton for most of his pro years)?  But it seems a little more than passing weird (pun intended) that no Badger quarterback has started more than ten pro games except Wright, who started just 32.  Maybe just “bad luck” shouldn’t be an answer, but if anyone can come up with something more compelling, I’m all ears.

With this backdrop, it is interesting to note the uptick in recruiting for quarterbacks in the latter Bielema years and now with Gary Andersen.  Curt Phillips in 2008, John Budmayr in 2009, and Joe Brennan in 2010 were all highly touted out of state recruits; none have truly panned out for various (some hard luck) reasons.  UW brought in only in-state walk-on Joel Stave for 2011, and following Wilson’s success, brought in the highest regarded one of recent times, Bart Houston for 2012.

Andersen, who oversaw the development of two very solid college QBs at Utah State,  got off to a rousing start quarterback-wise by bringing in the nation’s top JUCO QB for 2013 in Tanner McAvoy, who was also a top twenty-five QB recruit when he was originally brought in by South Carolina (an SEC school!) for 2011.  McAvoy appears to have the size, speed, arm strength and athletic combination to shine in college – and maybe in the pros.  He’ll compete with Phillips and Stave for the 2013 starting job and has another year of eligibility after that. 

That hasn’t been it for Andersen at QB, either; he recently brought in Utah’s top QB Austin Kafentzis for 2015 (over BYU, Utah and Utah State), and then D.J. Gillins, a Jacksonville, Florida kid who rates by one service as the fourth-best dual threat QB, for 2014.  Will the present and future UW QBs be stars in college?  Will they finally give UW an NFL star – or even a three-plus year starter?  Hell, with the NFL’s newfound emphasis on the read-option, maybe one of these dual-threat UW QBs will be the one to find the NFL Promised Land.  Of course, only the proverbial time will tell, but Andersen’s QB recruits do at least raise the level of anticipation and future expectations.