Tales from the Vault Draft Special: Forget Shorty

Steve Seidman

It’s feeling a might draft-y in here, and that means a chilly reception for any quarterback who doesn’t stand tall in the pocket. The Vault Keeper recalls a time when pint-sized passers weren’t shunned by the NFL.

The Height Report

With Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III virtually guaranteed to be selected 1-2 tonight, fans hoping for any sort of drama from Day One of the draft are now asking: who’s going to be the third quarterback selected – and when?  A lot of draft experts and sports pundits appear to be bullish on Ryan Tannehill.  Although Tannehill started just19 games at Texas A&M and has a few issues with his passing mechanics, he’s got plenty of what the talent evaluators like to call “upside.”

Tannehill may be raw, but he’s tall.  The young quarterback is 6-4, 223 and if he were a character in a movie or novel set in the 18th century, he’d be referred to as a “strapping lad.” This is the opposite of Alan Ladd, tough guy movie star of the 1940’s, who stood 5-6 and supposedly had to stand on an orange crate when the script called for him to lock lips with his leading lady.

Kellen Moore (AP)

There’s also some interest in Arizona State’s Brock Osweiler.  At 6-7, Osweiler ‘s “upside” is 3 inches more “up” than Tannehill’s.  While the NFL’s height-obsession is good for “project players” such as Tannehill and Osweiler, it’s not so good for small fries like Kellen Moore and Russell Wilson, both of whom stand 6-0.* These passers were proven winners at the college level, and are more polished at the position than Tannehill or Osweiler.  But Moore and Wilson don‘t measure up genetically, and despite their impressive collegiate achievements, the pair is projected to be drafted in the middle rounds.

To play quarterback in the NFL, size matters. (OK, now that the inevitable “size matters” reference is out of the way, let’s move on.) Teams want hulking quarterbacks who can absorb punishment – and dish it out. Take your Ben Rothlisbergers and Cam Newtons.  These men are “beasts,” and in pro football, there’s no higher compliment you can pay a player than to call him a “beast.”  But to say that a player is “a little beast” just doesn’t have the same cachet.

Let’s Get Small

If pop music impresarios thought like NFL talent evaluators, we wouldn’t have rappers Li’l Kim, Li’l Flip, Li’l Scrappy, Li’l Wayne, or Li’l Cease,** and our world would be that much poorer because of it.  And let’s not forget Little Feat, Little Village, Little Richard, Little Milton*** and The Small Faces. Our entire popular culture would be diminished if we overlooked the undersized.  Where would we be without LEPRECHAUN and its’ sequels?  Try to imagine THE WIZARD OF OZ without the munchkins, or political punditry without Robert Reich (4-10). How about GAME OF THRONES? The series’ Emmy-award winning actor Peter Dinklage may be 4-5, but in terms of GAME’s popularity, the guy is, well, HUGE.

History buffs will tell you that when it comes to conquerors, it’s pretty hard to beat Napoleon. The Frenchman was known as much for his diminutive size as he was for his mastery of the battlefield (up until Waterloo, at least). But here’s the thing: Napoleon stood 5-6, which made him 3 inches taller than the average Frenchman of his era.

While the world of sport has been trending tall-ward for a long time, that world has always offered a place where a little guy can get a break. The Mighty Mites of sport, past and present, include:

Boxing: Frankie Genaro stood 5-1, won an Olympic Gold Medal and 96 out of 134 professional fights, including 19 knockouts. You’d have to think that every punch thrown by a man of Genaro’s size would land below the belt. But the beauty of boxing is that fights are between men of similar size, and Genaro fought in the flyweight division.

Tennis: The shortest pro tennis player is Belgium’s 5-6 Olivier Rochus.

Golf:  At 5-3 Brian Kortan was the most miniature golfer on the PGA tour.

Horse racing: Many have argued the question: who was the shortest jockey? But the answer is: all of them.

Ice hockey: The NHL of the distant past featured 5-3 goalie Roy “Shrimp” Worters, the shortest stick man ever.

Baseball: MLB history is rich with the stirring deeds of tiny folk, and I’m not just talking about Bill Veeck promotions or Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese, who was an average-sized 5-10.  But any short-list of the diamond’s small men would have to mention 5-5 Freddie Patek, who once observed: “I’d rather be the shortest player in the majors than the tallest player in the minors.”

Pro Basketball: In the NBA, teams have always liked to play their “bigs,” but every once in a while, they’ve played their “smalls,” notably 5-3 Tyrone Mugsy Bogues, 5-5 Earl Boykin and 5-7 Spud Webb. FYI: Nate “Tiny” Archibald wasn’t really tiny. He was 6-3, which is only “tiny” in comparison to the likes of Yao Ming (7-6), Sean Bradley  (7-6) or Manute Bol (7-7).

NFL quarterback is a profession in which there is no room for a “Pee Wee,’ “Tiny, “Shrimp” or “Spud.” Still, giants didn’t always rule the turf.  The night the draft was  held in 1939, the second quarterback taken was 5-7 Davey O’Brien, who was the 4th pick overall (Eagles) nearly 75 years ago.  The first quarterback taken in 1939 was Hall of Famer Sid Luckman, who at 6-0 towered over O’Brien, but not many others.

Eddie LeBaron was probably the toughest small soldier to play quarterback in the NFL.  The “Little General” stood 5-9 and lasted 11 years in the NFL, rising above the terrible teams (Redskins and Cowboys) for which he played.  Known for his accuracy and mettle, LeBaron completed nearly 60% of his throws in 1957.  He is the shortest quarterback ever to be selected to the Pro Bowl (he went 4 times) and is honored in the Redskins Ring of Fame.

In 1985, 5-10 Doug Flutie was bypassed by many teams because of his (lack of) size.  He wasn’t taken until the 11th round, but played 12 seasons in the NFL (Chi, Buff, SD and NE) and was a starter for the Bills and Chargers.  Before the long strange trip of this short talented quarterback had concluded, Flutie passed for 86 touchdowns, ran for 10 more, and in his final pro football game, drop-kicked an extra point.

Though Flutie’s not making it into any Pro Football Halls of Fame outside of Canada, the Hall in Canton includes Fran Tarkenton, YA Tittle, Len Dawson, and Sonny Jurgensen, all of whom were barely six feet tall.  Joining them there to make Canton seem like the “It’s A Small World” attraction at Disney World:  5-11 Ace Parker and 5-10 Benny Friedman, who predates Sammy Baugh to claim the distinction as pro football’s first great passer.  While stats from his era are not always reliable, Friedman is credited with 20 scoring passes for the Giants in 1929.

Granted, “short” quarterbacks like Tarkenton, Tittle and Jurgensen thrived during an era when there wasn’t a lot of what Keith Jackson would call “tall timber” toiling in the trenches. It’s true that for the quarterbacks of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, the passing lanes were a lot less clogged with big bodies than they are now.  Still the half-pint Hall of Famers mentioned above had to contend with the likes of Big Daddy Lipscomb and Ed “Too Tall” Jones, as well as assorted Purple People Eaters, Orange Crushers, and Doomsday Defenders.

Down To The Short Hairs

If you had to pick the most productive quarterback in today’s game, Drew Brees would probably be your choice. The 6-time Pro Bowler is the only quarterback to throw for 5000 yards in two different seasons.  In 2011, Brees set league records for passing yardage and completion percentage while throwing for 46 touchdown passes.  Brees is listed at 6-0, and seems to have mastered the position despite being the Martin Short of NFL quarterbacks.  He moves nimbly in the pocket to find the most wide-open passing lanes, and uses an assortment of throwing angles.  What he lacks in height he makes up for with smarts. Yet, on draft weekend, few teams will be looking for the next Drew Brees, which is too bad.  Not that I’m knocking king-sized quarterbacks.  I wish nothing but the best for Ryan Tannehill, but I also hope that Russell Wilson and Kellen Moore find success in the NFL.  To paraphrase Freddie Patek: “I’d rather be the shortest starting quarterback than the tallest quarterback holding a clipboard.”

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