Less-renowned conference has produced ig time QB's

Published October 8, 2006

The addition of Bucs rookie Bruce Gradkowski makes five former Mid-American Conference quarterbacks among the NFL's 28 starters in Week 5.

More than the SEC.

More than the Big Ten.

More than the Big East.

More than the ACC.

Only the Pac-10 has produced more quarterbacks who will start NFL games this week than the mighty MAC, and just barely. The Pac-10 has six.

Whoda thunk it?

Here is today's MAC starting lineup: the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger of Miami (Ohio), the Jets' Chad Pennington and Jaguars' Byron Leftwich of Marshall, the Browns' Charlie Frye of Akron and Gradkowski of Toledo.

"That conference has long been underestimated. You see them show up and blast people," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "It's a credit to the coaches in that conference. Hopefully, they'll start to get their justice as a real strong football program."

The MAC is a 12-team league comprising schools in Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and New York. Its teams have nicknames such as Chippewas, Golden Flashes, RedHawks, Rockets and Zips. They rarely crack the Top 25, and their football stadiums combined probably don't hold as many people as Michigan's or Tennessee's.

Yet the NFL loves MAC quarterbacks.

Pennington, Leftwich and Roethlisberger were first-round picks. Frye went in the third round, and Gradkowski hopes to rekindle Tom Brady's magic as a sixth-round pick.

What explains this unlikely phenomena?

First, when NCAA Division I-A scholarships were reduced from 95 to 85 in the early 1990s, a trickle-down effect occurred. Players who used to get full scholarships as backup quarterbacks at big schools were unwilling to sit on the bench and pay tuition. More quality quarterbacks began going to small schools.

Second, quarterbacks at small schools typically do not have bruising running games to fall back on in a pinch. The offensive linemen are smaller, which promotes passing.

Wide-open offenses are standard fare in the MAC, a trend that has found its way to the NFL.

Typically, MAC quarterbacks know how to manage the game by reading defenses, minimizing turnovers, throwing the ball away to avoid negative plays and keeping an eye on the clock.

Third, quarterbacks at small schools rarely leave early for the NFL. That means they gain more experience as three- and sometimes four-year starters. Their stars do not shine as brightly, but in some cases, they are more polished.

Gradkowski was not at the top of Mel Kiper's draft board, but he does sit atop the I-A record book as the all-time most accurate passer with a 68.2 completion percentage.

"It's really a simple thing," Toledo coach Tom Amstutz said. "The offenses in this league are all spread, throwing-style offenses. A quarterback is going to use his arms and legs to throw the ball all over the field. It's a good quarterback league."


The Pac-10's five: By the way, when Kansas City's Trent Green returns from the concussion he sustained in Week 1, Damon Huard will return to the bench, leaving the Pac-10 with five staring quarterbacks. Can you name them?

Answer: Cincinnati's Carson Palmer (Southern Cal), Denver's Jake Plummer (Arizona State), Arizona's Matt Leinart (Southern Cal), Dallas' Drew Bledsoe (Washington State) and Washington's Mark Brunell (Washington).