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NFL Starting Quarterbacks and PIs

Here is the list in order of the top 25 ranked starting NFL quarterbacks (as assessed by the NFL.com fantasy prediction Web site) and their colleges:

Drew Brees–Purdue
Tom Brady–Michigan
Peyton Manning–Tennessee
Philip Rivers–NC State
Aaron Rogers–Cal
Kurt Warner–N Iowa
Tony Romo–E Illinois
Matt Ryan–BC
Jay Cutler–Vandy
Donovan McNabb–Syracuse
Carson Palmer–USC
Matt Schaub–Virginia
Matt Cassel–USC
Ben Roethlisberger–Miami of Ohio
Matt Hasselbeck–BC
Brett Favre–S Miss
Eli Manning–Ole Miss
Kyle Orton–Purdue
Trent Edwards–Stanford
Joe Flacco–Delaware
Chad Pennington–Marshall
David Garrard–E Carolina
Shaun Hill–Maryland
Jason Campbell–Auburn
JaMarcus Russell–LSU

I was listening to Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio this morning, and he made a really interesting observation (yes, he is a misogynist right-wing dumbfuck asshole, but he does have some insight into sports). Of those top 25 NFL starting quarterbacks, only seven played in legitimate top-25 college programs; of the top ten NFL starters, only three played at top-25 colleges.

Cowherd’s interpretation of this is that college QBs who play in top programs rarely have to struggle to win and never get hit–and rarely even challenged–by defenses, because their offensive lines and receivers so overwhelmingly physically dominate the vast majority of defensive players they face. This provides very little preparation for what they will experience in the NFL. In contrast, QBs at lesser programs have been forced to routinely succeed in situations that are much more like what they will face in the NFL: defenses that are, at a minimum, very evenly matched physically with the offense, and able to hurry, harry, and beat the living crap out of them.

This got me thinking about the relative success of PIs who trained in “top-25″ labs–huge-ass, well-funded, with tons of outstanding technical support and fancy-ass equipment and reagents, and surrounded by many brilliant people–and those who scrapped it out in smaller, less-funded, tech-impoverished, and intellectually less vibrant environments. I have my own thoughts about this, but I am interested in readers’ thoughts first.

Comments

  1. says

    Personally, I couldn’t agree more. There’s something to be said for having had to actually *make* reagents rather than having the ability to order whatever you please. There’s also a massive difference between being surrounded by a large community of people to discuss ideas with and having to figure more out ourself from the literature and contacting the right people.

    I’m willing to bet these answers will be fraught with personal bias.

  2. says

    Cowherd? His name is actually Cowherd? That’s not an epithet in PP-ese? Hilarious.

    This sounds very much like the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” philosophy…which I find to be generally true, but not universally so.

  3. microfool says

    As someone who is not a PI, a major discrepancy in your proposed analogy is that college teams don’t provide further support towards the success of QBs that leave for professional football.

    Super-funded and super-connected trainer PIs, however, are in a position to provide support for their trainees who become independent.

    If the world is a care-bears’ tea party, the scrappy PIs should rise to the top on merit, but from what I have learned here, biomedical science is not that simple.

  4. says

    hm, I guess there might be something to that whole “don’t have the money to do the whopping ass new fancy technique but asses what really need to be done and how to get around the money thing”. And yes, I also stand in the corner that you need some resistance in order to know how you move when things aren’t easy and smooth.

    Not really surprised about the NFL…

    When it comes to the PI and lab things though, I would think that the “pedigree factor” plays in more in order to GET the position, rather than suceed in the end!?! Science seems to me to be a bit more “we think you are good” than NFL that would look at yards recieved etc. Maybe I am wrong in this?

  5. says

    Not sure what the right answer is. I’d hope that better pedigree correlates to higher success rates, but who knows. We could do a study. I’ll be in touch.

  6. Larry H. says

    As I recall, Feynman mentions something like this in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. At Caltech, the cyclotron was cobbled together and outrageously MacGyvered; at Princeton everything was shiny, new & automated. The Caltech people got all the interesting results.

  7. says

    Anecdotally, your point has truthiness but microfool mentions a confound that is really hard to escape.

    I found that those who had things go well in early-mid grad school (slotted into programs, got papers quickly and easily) were less tolerant to later career frustrations (transition, grants, new projects being fucked up, assy collaborators) in comparison with others whose grad school process was more hellish.

    toughness and persistence only gets you so far though…at some point having more success trumps, even if it was because it was handed on a silver platter. That leads to the job offers and the startup packages and the kindly grant reviews…

  8. says

    New PIs who trained in well-respected labs with Prof Big Name may not get hit quite so hard by grant reviewers, selection committees, etc as Scrappy New PI solely because of their pedigree and irrespective of the merits of their work whereas NFL quarterbacks get hit hard regardless of their background.

    But maybe that’s just my warped view of things because I’m one of those that had to fight for everything to get to where I am today.

  9. says

    What microfool, DM, P-i-t said.
    The pedigree factor matters more to continued success in science, because of the relatively subjective nature of review that affects grants and publications.
    Of course, Eli Manning demonstrates that you could be mediocre-at-best and attain ‘success’ in the NFL based on pedigree too—-because of the number and quality of chances you are given and because of the talent that surrounds you.
    Just that this can happen far more easily and frequently in science.

  10. Physiobabe says

    I’d say that half the guys from the entire list are from legitimate top 25 programs. Syracuse is no where near a top 25 program now but they were a top 15 program when McNabb was there. Of the top 10 QB’s I say 6 were on a squad that was a top 25 program while they attended. That’s key because not all programs are perenial top 25. Prior to Pete Carroll going to USC in 2001 they were a train wreck. Since then they are always ranked in the top 5 in the nation. Vandy, E. IL and N. Iowa are the only schools that pretty much have zero chance of being in the top 25.

  11. says

    I do think having the pedigree helps a lot in getting a job and initial grants, however on its own will not guarantee continuing success and grant renewals. (It also highly depends on which labs one has been in and the quality of training – I’ve been in large labs with excellent training but mostly you’re thrown to the sharks). I think there are advantages and disadvantages. In the large labs you are generally under high pressure to produce, without as much direct supervision or mentorship. You get less feedback both on your science and on your grant/paper writing. They can also be quite internally competitive. On the flip side you don’t have to do a lot of the menial things that distract from data-producing work and therefore have time and energy to devote to both intellectual work and publication production. The biggest problem I have personally encountered from a big-lab postdoc going to run their own lab, is that the only framework they have for lab management is large lab, when lab management is very different when you’re starting out with a handful (or less!) of employees.

    Personally I hope to seek a variety of lab sizes, mentorship styles and techniques before I set out for running my own lab (or whatever I decide to do – I have plenty of time for deciding still!). I think there is something to be gained from every lab experience, even (especially) the bad ones.

  12. says

    Oh, that’s a lovely fantasy you’ve got going there CPP. If it were true, we should see the most fabulous results coming out of the most underfunded, least well-connected folks. And yet somehow it seems like well-connected well-funded white dudes keep rising to the top of the glory heaps. I wonder why.

    But wait, you say, it’s not just glory, it’s actual quality of work produced that really matters. Well, it doesn’t matter if no one pays attention to you, cites your work, gives you funding to continue, or remembers your name after your contribution. Even worse, if they just take credit for the work you actually did, which they can do, because they are better connected and better funded and better placed than you are, and already better known. I’ve seen it happen in the history books and I’ve seen it happen to people I’ve known in modern day life.

  13. says

    I think this has more levels of complexity than first appear. At the extremes, yes, there’s Something To It (For extremes, I’m thinking of a friend who got an MA from a bi-directional school, who very much wanted to go on to grad school in a Big Program, but who (a) likely would not have gotten in and (b) likely would not have been able to do the work at the level needed to succeed. I’m also thinking of people who would succeed in nearly any environment.) But for the rest of us shmoes, there’s a combination of what one thinks one can accomplish, and what one’s professors tell one that one can accomplish, and the opportunities one even knows are available (internship? what’s an internship? why would I want one? and how do I get one? And what would I do with one or pay the rent if I had one??), and so on.

    In sum, it is possible for not-that-great people to succeed, largely (but not solely) because of the institutional associations they’ve been able to garner, possibly by means of a talent that is overrated or in high demand, and it is also possible for someone who would have been great to be thwarted, because the grind of MacGuyvering one’s whole life and the lack of knowledge about what’s possible and how to achieve it, is simply missing.

    Sometimes access to “brilliance” is necessary not because of the funding, equipment, support, etc., but because one’s own abilities need that access in order to shine.

  14. dr leigh says

    dude, i got my fucking ass whooped in a top program, working for a well-known PI. i sure as fuck hope i’m more prepared for continued ass-whoopings than a phd from care bears university.

  15. Jeff says

    It’s a nice analogy, but the reasoning is flawed–the primary reason why there’s less of a connection between top college QBs and NFL productivity is because the skills that make an NFL QB are not easily measured (like baseball pitchers). Arm strength is the only measurable; you can’t measure raw speed or overall strength to determine an NFL QB; they need accuracy, pocket presence, ability to throw under pressure (which may be developed, as you note), and the intelligence to dissect complicated pro defenses, all of which are much harder to evaluate at the high school to college lever than the speed/size/quickness abilities so important at other football positions.

  16. Jim says

    It looks like if you want to play QB in the NFL, you should head to West Lafayette and play at Purdue.

  17. says

    The Cowherd argument (and thus, the premise of this article) is pretty flawed. Of the 25 QBs listed here, all but 7 went to a major conference program.

    Of the 7 remaining players: Chad Pennington’s Marshall went 13-0 his senior year, and his number 1 receiver was Randy Moss. Garrard’s ECU was ranked as high as 16th. Favre’s Southern Miss beat #6 FSU. In 2003, Roethlisberger led the Miami Redhawks to a MAC championship with a 13-1 record, a No. 10 ranking in the Associated Press poll and a 49-28 victory over Louisville in the GMAC Bowl. Flacco transfered to Delaware from Pitt, and took his new team to the DI-AA championship where they lost to perennial power App State (who, I think, beat Michigan that year). UNI was 8-4 with Warner, so maybe this is an outlier, but he was national player of the year. Romo won the Walter Payton award as a Senior and E Ill made the playoffs.

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