The Great Quarterback Grab: The 1999 NFL Draft, the QB’s, GM’s and the fallout

Couch, McNabb and Smith – quite possibly similar to the name of your local towns solicitors’ office. The aficionados of Football will recognise the list as the names of the first three players drafted in the 1999 collegiate National Football League draft. They were of course all quarterback’s and surprisingly, acknowledging how important the position to be, it was only the second time in draft history (1971) that the first three players selected were signal callers.

The 1999 draft kicked off on the April 17th and would take place over two days, the venue Madison Square Gardens, New York. It would be the first time the Tennessee franchise would operate as the ‘Titans’ after dropping ‘Oilers’ from its name.

Texas running back and Heisman winner Ricky Williams was the hottest commodity, so much so that the New Orleans Saints would trade every 1999 pick and future picks to get their hands on the outstanding ball carrier.

New Orleans Saints went all in on RB Ricky Williams, trading 8 picks to select the talented Heisman winner (Photo source: (Manny Millan/ Sports Illustrated)

However, the pre-draft buzz surrounded the quarterback Class of ’99. Perhaps the best collection of signal callers to hit the professional ranks for several years; a group almost comparable to Elway, Marino and co. selected in the 1983 draft.

Cleveland Browns

Shiny and brand new Cleveland Browns would leap-frog the Philadelphia Eagles, as a new franchise and would pick first in the 1999 draft. Instead of trading the pick for numerous selections and thus strengthening several positional areas, management committed and were resolute in their decision to use the pick bestowed upon them to make a franchise defining draft choice.

It was to be a major statement of intent. An indication to the future of the franchise. The Browns were going to draft a ‘franchise’ Quarterback prospect. That rookie, the young man that would carry the future fortunes of the franchise on his broad shoulders was University of Kentucky stand out Timothy ‘Tim’ Couch. Couch had wowed the Wildcat alumni by throwing 8,000 yards in the previous two years at college.

New-era General Manager Dwight Clark had been recruited by the new owner, Alfred Lerner, following a three-season spell in similar position for the San Francisco 49ers.

The Browns took nobody of any great significance for the position of quarterback in their supplemental draft, adding additional pressure to take a QB early, the focus intensified on Cleveland’s first pick. As a franchise decision, it may have been (if not bold to heap such pressure on a rookie) the right decision.

A GM lives by his quarterback recruitment, legendary GM Ernie Accorsi recognised early that any success he was to achieve was going to be directly attached to his recruitment and retention of the right player at QB.

Clark’s decision to retain the pick and his staff’s evaluation of the talent backfired magnificently. By placing the weight of the franchise on his shoulders Couch immediately struggled, a second season golden spell that led to the playoffs only subjected the player to a lingering extraction from Cleveland. A career defining broken leg compounded his misery and he was released by Cleveland.

A short shift followed in both Green Bay and Jacksonville, however, Couch would not throw the pigskin in anger at either team. It was a disastrous end to his short career that promised so much, yet was probably condemned the moment Dwight Clark and the Cleveland Browns drafted him in the number one position.

Clark – famous for ‘The Catch’ in his playing days – lasted just three seasons at the helm of the Cleveland Brown reboot, he would never work in a GM capacity again, his stewardship, sadly, was epitomised by the Tim Couch selection. Hindsight is a virtue, in later years Dwight Clark would admit that perhaps he should have selected cornerback Roland ‘Champ’ Bailey (selected 7th by the Washington Redskins) and recruited a more experienced quarterback to guide them through the first few difficult seasons.

Meanwhile, Tim Couch would disappear from the professional ranks of the game and would become a future poster boy for the draftniks and analysts for the years to come as the definitive number one bust.

Picks two and three

The Eagles, who Cleveland leap-frogged, selected the athletic four-year starter out of Syracuse, QB Donovan McNabb. He went on to have a successful career and led Philadelphia to a Super Bowl appearance in 2004. McNabb spent 13 years in the League (11 with Philadelphia) and was a 6x Pro-Bowler. He is the all-time Eagles leader in pass attempts, pass completions, passing yards, passing TDs and his 3,469 career rushing yards ranks 6th all-time for NFL QBs.

Cincinnati selected Oregon QB Akili Smith 3rd. Smith was athletic and exceled physicall as a QB, however, poor SAT scores at high school and a poor initial showing on the NFL-administered wonderlic test should have given teams caution. While Smith always displayed great athleticism, his inability to master the game mentally caught up with him in the NFL. After four years, Smith was still unable to master the Bengals playbook and ended a 4 year stint with Cincinnati appearing in only 22 games. In these 22 games he averaged a 46.6% completition percentage, threw for 2,212 yards with 5 TDs and 13 INTs. He also ammassed 13 fumbles and had a career passer rating of just 52.8.

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