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April 27, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: Smith was victim of circumstance

MORGANTOWN — As Day 2 of the NFL draft dawned, with West Virginia University quarterback Geno Smith still in attendance, the biggest topic of discussion centered around how Buffalo could have possibly looked past him to make Florida State’s E.J. Manuel the only quarterback taken in Thursday’s first round.

Former Mountaineer tight end Anthony Becht, who played in “The League” for more than a decade and now is a media type with solid connections, mentioned that he had spoken to someone within the Bills organization and that they said some of the reasons for the decision were “athletic ability, upside, arm strength, also showed good charisma in the one-on-one meeting” and that the zone read he played at FSU was a factor.

If this is true, and there really is no reason to believe it isn’t, it would rank among the most ironic of snubs in the history of the NFL draft, for all this while everyone believed Smith was operating within a high tech, futuristic offense designed by Dana Holgorsen.

That it wasn’t the zone read run by Robert Griffin III and the young quarterbacks who are taking over the NFL didn’t seem to be that big a factor, Smith hardly being the Marc Bulger type of quarterback of the Don Nehlen era or the run-first Pat White type of quarterback of the Rich Rodriguez era.

Using hindsight, however, one realizes that even Smith saw his lack of a background in the zone read style of offense as a stumbling block in that he made sure to mention that he could run any style of offense whenever given the opportunity.

“I think I have the skill set that fits any offense,” Smith said when visiting the New York Jets, the team that eventually selected him in Friday’s second round. “I can play within the pocket, but I’m athletic enough to run that style of offense. I have the ability to. I don’t think that’s my game. I don’t think my game is predicated around that. If a coach wants me to, I’ll definitely be all for it.”

Smith liked to say he won games from the not with arm or his legs, but from the neck up.

In a normal year, Smith’s style of play would be no problem whatsoever. His accurate arm and good speed would be the kind of assets coaches were looking for, but he happened to come along in the midst of a revolution in the NFL.

What has happened is that the innovations that have been brought into the college game by the likes of Mike Leach, Holgorsen and Chip Kelly and their legion of followers are being adapted into the professional game now.

“Forever in the history of the NFL, the brain drain went from the NFL down to college, and all the college coaches would go to NFL camps and try to learn as much as they could and all that information and technique and production got pushed down to the college level,” NFL Network and Notre Dame analyst Mike Mayock said during a press conference this past week. “And now, because the college game has changed so much, the NFL has become fascinated about the spread and how they’re identifying mismatches in space.

“I’ve never seen in my life more NFL coaches call up their college buddies and say, ‘Hey, can I come watch you coach? Hey, can I sit down and watch tape with you? Hey, talk to me about tempo. How many snaps a game are you getting? Why are you getting them? What’s the best way to do it? How do you rotate your players?’” Mayock added.

Holgorsen understood it, too.

“That’s what you see the NFL kind of going to a little bit,” Holgorsen said in recent press conference, referring to the way Tavon Austin’s NFL stock rose recently before the draft. “From the current head coaches and offensive coordinators that were there last year to some of the guys that have been hired, you’re seeing a movement toward a little bit more of the college game.”

It would seem to be more of an all-out plagiarism of the college game, but not the college offense that Holgorsen had run with Smith. In this zone read era, Smith attempted only 11 designated rushes out of the spread and averaged only 2.5 yards a rush. It wasn’t that he couldn’t run, averaging 7.2 yards on scrambles, but that on called running plays he had his problems and that seemed to worry the NFL scouts and coaches.

That is why Smith was drafted by the Jets, a team that has not adopted the new philosophies, allowing him to fit in without much adjustment.

Why do quarterbacks now have to run in the NFL?

Because the league has moved away from the traditional idea that built it, and that is the running back.

Oh, there were great passers and receivers in the NFL, but when you thought of the NFL you thought of O.J. Simpson, Bo Jackson, Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and the like. They aren’t gone, as evidenced by Adrian Peterson’s 2,000-yard performance last season, but for the first time in 50 years not a single running back was selected in the first round this year.

Add the changing style in the league away from what Smith was best adapted to run and consider that there has been a game of musical chairs with quarterbacks within the league over the past year, leaving very few openings, and you come to understand that Smith was done in more by circumstances than by any real or perceived deficiencies in his game.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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