I read a listicle recently that posited Tim Tebow, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush are some of the most overrated college football players ever. There’s no scientific way to deduce if a player is overrated or underrated, thus any such label is subjective. That said, Leinart, Tebow and Bush were all Heisman Trophy and national championship winners, and each carved a place in college football history, so I’m left to deduce that this conclusion was reached because all three were NFL draft busts (though Bush’s bust status is debatable. More that on in a moment).
While I bring up just one example, the revisionism . Search the name “Robert Griffin III” and you’re far more likely to find criticism of his current…well, everything, than you are fond reminiscing of his remarkable play at Baylor.
There are NFL draft busts whose pro failures aren’t necessarily surprising. Former Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan, suspended for the entire 2015 season, is a notable example of an NFL draft bust who wasn’t a standout in college. He made just 121 tackles and 4.5 sacks in his time at Oregon.
Jordan is also indicative more of the projects who wowed with their combine performance or physical attributes than of the college stars who just didn’t translate to the pro game.
By-and-large, players only become NFL draft busts because they set high expectations in their college careers.
I start with Reggie Bush because his NFL career is a reminder that even the bust label is highly subjective. Bush is entering his 10th season in the league, which is notable for an era in which running backs are seen as interchangeable and their shelf-lives are short.
Bush has been a steady contributor throughout his career, but never an awe-inspiring superstar. Bush is only a “bust” insomuch as his USC career was so impressive, many expected him to be the next Ladainian Tomlinson.
Bush’s Heisman Trophy may have been asterisked out of existence, but technicalities cannot erase the memory of just how incredible he was as a Trojan. When I write Bush did it all for USC, that’s no hyperbole: He scored touchdowns via the run, catch, pass, punt return and kick return in 2005, a feat only matched once in the 10 years since (C.J. Spiller, 2009).
Bush may never have come close to replicating that output as a pro, which is perhaps what the New Orleans Saints organization sought drafting Bush No. 2 overall. But with 5,465 career rushing and 3,489 receiving yards, Bush doesn’t really qualify as a bust.
Matt Leinart played just 33 games in the NFL, or 11 for every stop in his ill-fated career. Leinart is perhaps the best example of an NFL prospect failing because his college success was the result of the system in which he played.
Be that as it may, Leinart was stellar in the USC system. He won the Heisman in 2004 and had a valid case for it in 2003 and 2005. In fact, in 2003 before Reggie Bush emerged into the caliber of playmaker he’s remembered as, Leinart’s statistics were arguably better than in 2004.
Leinart is something of a forerunner to Johnny Manziel: a college football player whose fame transcended the sphere of college football fandom. Yeah, Leinart may never have made it as a pro quarterback, but paling around with Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson couldn’t have been bad.
Ryan Leaf is perhaps the quintessential NFL draft bust, remembered more for his outburst on San Diego media figure Jay Posner than anything he ever did as a Charger or Cowboy. Leaf’s life after football went off the rails, the result of a drug addiction.
Leaf is now a cautionary tale to some, a source of entertainment to others who chuckle that he once pushed Peyton Manning for the No. 1 overall spot. But Leaf earned consideration for the top spot after a tremendous career at Washington State.
Leaf led the Cougars to their last Rose Bowl appearance in January 1998, where they very nearly knocked Michigan out of the national championship picture.
Brian Bosworth’s NFL career boils down to one play. His encounter with Bo Jackson is so famous, the 2012 30 For 30 on Jackson dedicated an entire segment to that single moment.
Bosworth later starred in the forgettable action film Stone Cold and appeared as a prison guard in the Adam Sandler-led remake of The Longest Yard — which, coincidentally, also featured “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
The Boz is that rare NFL bust who managed to shake off his pro failure and get proper credit for his college career. Bosworth was a monster at Oklahoma and something of a trend-setter, hating on the NCAA well before it was fashionable. College fans rallied around his case for College Football Hall of Fame induction, which became a reality last year.
Boz’s time as a Sooner is now regarded so fondly, a Rebel Wilson-voiced kangaroo fawns over him at diners — with the aforementioned Matt Leinart, no less.
It’s also fitting that after 30 For 30 went so hard on his Bo Jackson encounter, the ESPN documentary series also honored Bosworth with his own film last year.
EVERY 2001 HEISMAN TROPHY FINALIST
Joey Harrington, Rex Grossman and David Carr: What’s your initial reaction reading those three names in a row? Maybe it’s memories of Super Bowl interceptions, dozens of sacks or…what did Joey Harrington do in the NFL, exactly?
If you know Harrington, Grossman and Carr for their college careers, you were wowed on a weekly basis. The three were integral in ushering in an era of pass-happy offenses: Carr passed for 4,839 yards and 46 touchdowns in 2001; Grossman racked up 3,896 yards and 34 touchdowns; Harrington went for 2,764 yards and 27 touchdowns.
None of the three won the award; that went to Nebraska’s Eric Crouch, an option quarterback who the St. Louis Rams drafted in the third round as a wide receiver.
Crouch and the Huskers played in the BCS Championship Game, but were just the sacrificial lamb necessary to appease the Miami Hurricanes. The 2001 Hurricanes are arguably the greatest team of all-time — and if not the greatest, certainly in the running — loaded with NFL talent.
Jeremy Shockey, Andre Johnson, Clinton Portis, Frank Gore, Willis McGahee, Ed Reed, Jonathan Vilma…and Ken Dorsey.
Dorsey was among the 2001 Heisman finalists and went on to an abbreviated pro career. Dorsey’s tenure isn’t even a footnote in the annals of the NFL, but his place as quarterback as one of college football’s best teams ever is worthy a full chapter.
ROBERT GRIFFIN III
Before RG3 became the favored punching bag of every meme-posting NFL “comedy” hack infecting social media, he was the most exciting quarterback in college football.
Griffin’s Heisman win over Andrew Luck in 2011 was the catalyst for many-a column touting their arrival in the NFL the sport’s answer to Bird-Magic. Luck’s success and pro-style pedigree are probably chalked up as victory for traditionalists who see Griffin’s dual-threat playmaking as gimmicky. Whatever.
Luck is an outstanding quarterback and was a joy to watch at Stanford, but players like Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Charlie Ward and others help differentiate the Saturday product from Sunday’s.
Even including Griffin is premature; he’s only three years removed from wowing on his way to the Heisman at Baylor, and he’s just two seasons removed from winning the PFWA and Associated Press NFL Rookie of the Year awards. Alas, this is the instant gratification world sports fans now live in.
There’s an exception to every rule, and Tim Tebow is the counter to the current trend of players being labeled NFL draft busts too quickly. His ardent supporters have clamored for him to get another opportunity after the abrupt end to his run in Denver, and Chip Kelly is giving him that opportunity in Philadelphia.
If there’s anywhere in the NFL Tim Tebow could flourish, it’s Philadelphia, because Kelly’s system is the closest anyone in the NFL runs to Urban Meyer’s scheme. Tebow was the perfect quarterback for Meyer’s offense at Florida.
Before Tebow was disingenuously co-opted as a representative of a political agenda, he was one of the best college quarterbacks ever. Tebow became the first player to score 20 or more passing and rushing touchdowns in the same season, a feat only since matched by Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel, Jordan Lynch and Colin Kaepernick.
Tebow made a strong case in 2008 to become the first two-time Heisman winner since Archie Griffin in 1974 and 1975, scoring 42 total touchdowns on the season.
And while Tebow was runner-up to new teammate Sam Bradford in the ’08 Heisman vote, his head-to-head win in that season’s BCS Championship Game was a nice consolation prize.
So there you have it. The NFL draft busts of the 2015 class — and there will most certainly be a few — deserve to be remembered for their college accomplishments as much as their professional futures.