<
>

How Jeff Fisher succeeded with a small-school quarterback in Steve McNair

Way back in 1995, Jeff Fisher's Houston Oilers were coming off a disastrous 2-14 season in which Fisher took over as the head coach 10 games in. At the end of that season, owner Bud Adams announced that his franchise would relocate to Tennessee in 1998.

It was a hectic time for Fisher and the organization. Warren Moon had departed after the 1993 season in a trade to the Minnesota Vikings, leaving the team to sift through the likes of Billy Joe Tolliver, Bucky Richardson and Cody Carlson. While his owner was announcing the team's relocation, Fisher was focused on finding the franchise quarterback his team so desperately needed.

With the third pick in the 1995 draft, the Oilers appeared poised to land one of two top signal-callers. One was a strong-armed pocket passer from a major college program. The other was a tough, athletic prospect from a Division I-AA school facing questions about how he'd fare against elite competition.

Fisher and the Oilers ultimately opted for door No. 2, choosing quarterback Steve McNair from tiny Alcorn State even with Penn State's Kerry Collins still on the board. In the latest example of how much the NFL has changed in the two-plus decades since, the Carolina Panthers actually traded that year's first overall pick to move down so they could take Collins with the fifth pick, and the Bengals moved up for running back Ki-Jana Carter with the first choice.

Twenty one years later, Fisher isn't exactly in quite the same position as the coach of the Los Angeles Rams, though he is going through relocation again. His team gave up six picks over the next two years to move from No. 15 to No. 1 in this year's NFL draft, presumably to land the quarterback the Rams believe can get them over the hump after four seasons of coming up short.

But the decision Fisher and the Rams must make with that first pick does bear some similarities to that 1995 draft. Once again, the draft's top two quarterbacks come from very different places. Cal's Jared Goff played at a Pac-12 conference school with 37 games under his belt. North Dakota State's Carson Wentz spent his college career at an FCS school and made only 23 starts.

Though Wentz certainly looks the part of an NFL quarterback at a listed 6 feet 5, 237 pounds and has displayed all the physical tools and intangibles to deserve consideration as the No. 1 pick, there still seems to be that nagging question related to his level of competition. Even now, after so many players and quarterbacks have come from tiny schools to become NFL stars, it's still a concern in the eyes of some NFL evaluators.

But it probably isn't one for the Rams, considering that Fisher's best run of NFL success came with McNair at the controls.

"I don't think it hurts knowing that you've done it," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. "These guys are all smart. They all understand and see the whole league and know that Joe Flacco can do it, Phil Simms can do it, name any small-school quarterback that has come in the league and had success, it can be done. Maybe there's a slight level of more comfort than if he had never had that."

What's more, Fisher and the Rams have spent plenty of time studying Wentz, including a private workout earlier this offseason. Asked by ESPN's Shelley Smith if his experience with McNair would alleviate his concerns about taking a quarterback from a small school, Fisher pointed out that the comparison between the players can't necessarily be made while also offering a glowing review of Wentz.

"Everybody’s different," Fisher said. "What Steve did at Alcorn is different than what Carson did at North Dakota State. They're different. They're both winners. They were both very successful. Carson will be in a Super Bowl. He's got that kind of ability. It's hard to compare the two of them because defenses are different, offenses are different, competition is different, but he's a good football player."

Long-time NFL coach Rick Venturi sees Fisher's time with McNair as another box that can be checked in favor of Wentz if the Rams want to go that direction.

"There may be a confidence level that they're not afraid of it and I wouldn't be afraid of it," Venturi said. "I think this kid, I think Wentz, I have heard Jon Gruden say he is as good, as pro ready a guy because of his mentality and the offense that he plays in as anyone, so I think if anything he has an advantage based on his background regardless of the level of competition."

As Venturi pointed out, Wentz actually has an advantage in that he played exclusively in a pro-style offense and was under center far more often than Goff. Like any young quarterback, Wentz will have some learning to do when he gets to the NFL, whether it's with the Rams or someone else. That also doesn't mean he'll sit and learn for most of his first two years the way McNair once did.

"It was a great experience [coaching McNair]," Fisher said. "I miss him. I think you have to take this into consideration. Every player is different at every position. Our organizational philosophy and coaching philosophy is not to put someone in before they're ready to play, so we'll address that. When he steps under center, then he's ready to play."

In the final evaluation, the Rams are unlikely to use Fisher's experience with McNair as a reason to draft Wentz. But it's fair to assume it won't be a reason to take Goff instead.