INDIANAPOLIS - Bite your tongue, John Elway.
Asked for his thoughts on fellow famous quarterback Johnny Manziel, the Denver Broncos executive vice president blurted, "I think he's a great little player."
Immediately sensing the irony and hearing chuckles around the room at his NFL Scouting Combine press conference Friday, Elway immediately added, "I shouldn't say 'little,' I'm sorry," before laughing off his own Freudian slip.
Earlier that day during the scouts' poke-and-prod session, Manziel measured 5 feet, 11 3/4 inches tall.
When he was playing on the field, Elway, who stands 6-3, defeated 6-2 Brett Favre in his first of two Super Bowl victories. From the front office, Elway convinced 6-5 Peyton Manning to bring the Broncos back to the big game, and Manning's potential heir is 6-7 Brock Osweiler.
But Elway, Manning and the Broncos came up short in Super Bowl XLVIII to a guy who at the 2012 Combine topped out at 5-10 5/8.
"Russell Wilson, he's got everything, except he's not 6-3," Elway said. "But he's got everything else, and he proved that this year."
When he was a draft hopeful, Wilson admired 6-foot-tall Saints star and 2010 Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees. Now Wilson's playing the superhero for undersized prospects like Texas A&M's Manziel, South Carolina's Connor Shaw (6-0) and Clemson's Tajh Boyd (6-1.)
"He's got a shiny rock on his finger now, and he's 6 foot," Shaw said Saturday. "Yeah, there's not a specific mold you have to fit anymore to be an NFL quarterback."
The sobering reality: Wilson is the exception, not the rule.
Short QBs, long odds
It was easy for Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll to tear down the adage.
"Prior to the past couple years, the general thinking was that a guy of Russell's stature couldn't play," Carroll said. "Which, obviously, is wrong. It's just wrong."
Well, they're not totally wrong. There were 125 quarterbacks selected in the last 10 NFL drafts. Of them, only 12 were shorter than 6-2, and nine of those were taken in the fifth round or later.
Wilson is the only one who has ever started in an NFL playoff game. The cases of short, successful college quarterbacks who struggled as professionals include Colt McCoy, Troy Smith and Chase Daniel.
"Not everybody who's 5-11 and a half can play quarterback," Carroll said. "You've got to be a great player, regardless of how tall you are."
With his college credentials at North Carolina State and Wisconsin unquestioned, Wilson's quarterbacks coach entering the 2012 Combine, Chris Weinke, declared, "If he was 6-5, he'd be the No. 1 pick in the draft."
Wilson was drafted 75th overall, a third-round pick. Boyd, Shaw and Georgia's Aaron Murray (6-1) are projected as late-round selections or preferred free agents.
"The thing with Russell is, looking back from a comparative standpoint, he pretty much endured the same thing I'm going through right now," Boyd said. "I mean, look at what I did for the past three seasons. People lie, numbers don't. I've been consistent. I've been one of the best guys."
Part of the mystique Manziel, Boyd and Shaw displayed in college was their ability to make something out of nothing.
"There are times where plays aren't going to go as scripted as people draw them up on the white board," Manziel said. "Whenever that does happen, you need to take off and get outside the pocket and extend plays.
"But at the same time I want to be a guy who can drop back and go through my progressions, go through my reads and really take what's given to me by the defense."
Wilson isn't considered the same "pro-style" drop-back quarterback as Manning, Brees or Tom Brady, which his coach uses to his advantage. Dual threats today like Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III (when healthy) give defensive coordinators headaches.
"College football has really allowed us to see the quarterbacks as athletes away from the pocket," said Carroll, who won BCS championships at Southern Cal in 2003 and 2004. "The pocket is where we're counting on them to play the game, but there's nothing more difficult for a defensive coach to deal with than the scrambling quarterback. That's the most unpredictable factor, and we're seeing more and more of it."
Boyd was a maestro on third-and-short for Clemson, while Shaw could take a broken play and turn it into a 16-yard scramble to prolong the drive.
"However, we've also seen that you can't last in this league running the football as a quarterback," Carroll countered. "You just can't do it. The guys are just too physical and the pounding's too great."
Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien considers the quarterback's girth as well as his height.
"It's one thing to be 5-11, but a guy that's built very stoutly," O'Brien said, "he can take some of the pounding he may take if you run that style of offense."
Boyd weighed in at 222 pounds at the combine; Shaw and Manziel are 15 pounds lighter, which is why Shaw, always tough but injury-plagued at South Carolina, predicts he would run less in the NFL.
"That's definitely the plan. I don't want to take any unnecessary hits," Shaw said. "When someone gets ahold of you, it's going to hurt a lot worse than it did in college. So I've got to play a little smarter at the next level."
Success over stature
At the top this year, Manziel is combatting Central Florida's Blake Bortles (6-5) and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (6-2) to be the first quarterback drafted.
"I play with a lot of heart, play with a lot of passion," Manziel said. "I feel like I play like I'm 10 feet tall. A measurement to me is just a number."
Once Johnny Football goes, the Wilson idolizers available are Shaw, Boyd and Murray. As starting quarterbacks at their respective schools, Boyd was 32-8, Shaw 27-5 and Murray 35-17.
"My record speaks for itself in the SEC," Shaw said. "I think people look at your individual stats more than the results you had as a team, and this is a team game. Priority No. 1 wherever you go is to win, and we did a bunch of it."
All three players, during media interviews this weekend, emphasized their knowledge of the game compared to less-experienced prospects.
"Luckily for us - myself, Tajh and Connor - we have a lot of film," Murray said. "So they just have to turn on the tape. I have 52 games for them to watch, so they have a lot of film to analyze and critique."
Besides Brees and Wilson, shorter quarterbacks just haven't thrived in the NFL. Obstacles rarely slowed Shaw in college, so he's ignoring them as a professional.
"Yeah, we all played for a very long time and played in really tough conferences and we won in tough conferences, been in very close games, played in big games," Shaw said. "I think that kind of translates. It'll be interesting to see on the next level."
Former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)×
Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd was the first quarterback in ACC history with 30-plus touchdown passes in three seasons. He set an ACC record with 107 career touchdown passes.×
South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw posted a 27-5 record as a starter for the Gamecocks. In 2013, he had 24 touchdown passes and one interception.×
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