As humans we elicit some of the most powerful curiosities and questions about our feelings on life: Why are we here? What came first, the chicken or the egg? Does fate exist? Similar to life, football has many philosophical / historical questions that are posed by numerous analysts and fans. Was Bo Jackson the best athlete to ever play? What is more effective, a spread or pro style offense? Did Dez Bryant catch the ball? All are up for debate, but I wanted to tackle one narrative that is popular in the football world. The narrative of USC quarterbacks being destined to fail at the professional level. Analyzing this from a case-by-case study will provide context and help us form an opinion on the USC quarterbacks of old, while the world gushes over the incumbent star darling – Sam Darnold.
Todd Marinovich (USC 1988-1991)
The expectations were very high for Marinovich. Before playing a down at USC, California Magazine and Sports Illustrated came out with cover issues of the young star high school quarterback that proclaimed he was a “ROBO QB” and “Bred to Be a Superstar.” Since a very early age, Todd’s life was dictated heavily by his father Marv, which led to Todd never really making his own decisions. His father’s austere upbringing to maximize Todd’s athletic profile may have been detrimental toward his development as an adult. Once Todd reached high school, he started to go astray toward drugs and alcohol and Todd battled those demons throughout his time at USC and in the NFL. One can conclude how his unique upbringing affected his judgment as an adult. He even once stated “I don’t want to be Todd Marinovich” during his freshman year at USC. Todd’s notoriety expanded after an impressive comeback victory against Washington State in his redshirt freshman season that prompted former president Ronald Reagan to give him a phone call. Todd was on top of the world, but substance abuse was his dark universe. He was drafted by the Raiders at 24 in the first round of the 1991 NFL draft, after starting only two seasons at USC with a 29-25 touchdown/interception rate and not even six months removed from being arrested for cocaine possession. He couldn’t stay sober in the NFL. After failing his third reported drug test, he was suspended for the 1993 season and subsequently released by the Raiders. I recently watched an interview with Marinovich on NBC’s The Dan Patrick Show. He seems to be doing very well and I admire the honesty that he has come to find through a struggling past. While pursuing his art career, he also helps young teens and adults who have substance abuse issues.
Carson Palmer (USC 1998-2002)
I have felt for a while that the Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer has somewhat debunked the USC quarterback myth. Palmer started his college career under the tutelage of head coach Paul Hackett and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. He then had a phenomenal senior season in Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow’s second year at the helm, which was capped off by an impressive Orange Bowl victory over Iowa. Palmer’s pro-style pedigree led him to be the number one draft pick. Palmer was able to redshirt his rookie season and learn behind a competent starting quarterback in Jon Kitna. Palmer has had an unconventional professional career, which saw him briefly retire to force a trade to Oakland, while feuding with Cincinatti Bengals owner Mike Brown. But before the discord, Palmer helped stabilize a franchise that hadn’t had a winning season since Boomer Esiason was running the offense. He has thrown for over 40,000 yards and has a touchdown to interception ratio of 285-180, despite a rash of injuries that have sidelined him throughout his career. Although he is still playing, his career statistics are Hall of Fame worthy, but his playoff record is not. Palmer is 1-3 in the playoffs, with an ugly six turnover debacle in 2015 at Carolina. For what it’s worth, he was dealing with a finger injury to his throwing hand. Carson will suit up for Bruce Arians and the Arizona Cardinals this year and take another kick at the elusive Lombardi trophy.
Matt Leinart (USC 2003 – 2005)
USC was on top of the world when Leinart was leading the team to a 37-2 record, while earning a Heisman trophy and being the talk of college football. Leinart’s college accolades and statistics were beyond impressive; although most would argue (now) they were the product of a great team with a lot of talent. His NFL career wouldn’t be as golden. Leinart was drafted 10th overall in the 2006 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals. He was the last player of his draft class to sign his rookie contract, which evoked public criticism from head coach Dennis Green. Not a good start for Matt. Leinart did show promise in a Week 6 game of his rookie season against the vaunted undefeated defense of the Chicago Bears. He threw 2 first-half touchdowns, but the Bears rallied late and found a way to win… I guess the Bears were who the Cardinals thought they were, but they let them off the hook. Green was fired at the end of the season and replaced with Ken Whisenhunt. Leinart broke his collarbone in Week 5 and Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner replaced him for the final 11 games. Warner finished the season with 27 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. No one predicted the 36-year-old, two-time MVP quarterback, who was cast away by the Giants, would come one ridiculous Ben Roethlisberger pass and arguably the best catch in NFL history away from bringing the Lombardi to Arizona in the following season, but Kurt Warner did just that. Leinart didn’t have a chance to earn that starting job back and by most accounts he didn’t deserve it. Leinart, who was not known for his Joe Flacco-type arm or Drew Brees-type mechanics, was a known partier, who lacked the necessary work ethic to overcome his limitations at the NFL level. He admittedly butted heads with Whisenhunt and didn’t seem mature enough at the time to handle the responsibilities of an NFL quarterback. He was released by Arizona in 2009 for the likes of John Skelton, Max Hall, and Derek Anderson. After former USC coach Pete Carroll didn’t make a move on the free agent, the Bills became a potential landing spot, but Leinart couldn’t earn a spot on their roster either, while losing out to Kevin Kolb, Thad Lewis, E.J. Manuel, and Jeff Tuel. Leinart played six years in the NFL and never came close to living up to the hype of his illustrious college campaign at USC.
Mark Sanchez (USC 2005 – 2008)
Sanchez spent most of his time at USC backing up Matt Leinart and John David Booty, but when he got his chance during his junior season – he shined. With only 16 games under his belt, the neophyte became the fifth pick in the 2009 NFL Draft by the New York Jets and their brash new head coach Rex Ryan, who epitomized bravado. Deemed “The SanCHISE” by Ryan, the inexperienced signal caller led the Jets to two AFC Championship games in his first two seasons. Impressive – yes. The whole story – no. The Jets had one of the best defenses of the era, led by Darrelle Revis, and one of the best rushing attacks, which consisted of Thomas Jones, Shonn Greene, and eventually LaDainian Tomlinson. Their offensive line had Pro-Bowl talent in the likes of D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Alan Fanaca, and Nick Mangold, so it is safe to say the Jets were loaded with talent. After the Jets missed the playoffs, with an 8-8 2011 season, where they lost the final three games of the season and Sanchez gravely struggled, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer announced that he would not return to the Jets, so Ryan brought in Tony Sparano as the new offensive coordinator. Sanchez had his best statistical year with the Jets in the 2011 season. Switching from an Air Coryell system to a more unconventional Smashmouth system was enough for a young quarterback to handle, but not in New York. The Jets traded for Tim Tebow in that same offseason, which sparked controversy throughout the lockerroom and, of course, in the New York media. Every time Sanchez would struggle, the chants for Tebow became louder and it seemed to affect the confidence of the young quarterback. He showed that he was raw, indecisive, and overwhelmed, while the Jets lacked an offensive guru who could help maximize what he had to offer. His career with the Jets came to a head on a nationally televised event against a division rival on Thanksgiving Day. Three fumbles that resulted in three New England Patriots touchdowns in the time it may have taken you to check the turkey. The infamous “butt fumble” was as synonymous to Thanksgiving as pilgrims and stuffing in 2012. The Jets drafted Geno Smith in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Sanchez was supposed to be the starter that season, but inexplicably, Rex Ryan had Sanchez on the field during the fourth quarter of a preseason game. One big hit by the Giants’ Marvin Austin and a labrum tear to the shoulder of the Jets quarterback and Sanchez’s Jets career was over. One can see how Sanchez may not have received the best situation, outside of those first two seasons, in New York, but he is still a journeyman in the league and by all accounts is a quality backup. A very wise man once said that development isn’t always linear and in the case of Mark Sanchez’s career success, that rings true.
Matt Barkley (USC 2009 – 2012)
Similar to Darnold, Barkley made an impact early at USC. He was the first true freshman to ever start at quarterback for the Trojans and he led an impressive 4th quarter comeback drive to secure the victory against the highly ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in his second collegiate game. Barkley was all the hype, but one star in the Pac-12 was shining brighter and that was Stanford’s Andrew Luck. Barkley lost all three of his matchups to Luck in college and when the draft came around, some draftniks felt Barkley could have been the number 2 pick behind the Cardinal, but Barkley had something else planned. Despite a stellar junior season, Barkley shocked college football and decided to return for his senior season and go for the BCS Championship, as the Trojans couldn’t compete for the honor in the previous two years due to a postseason ban because of the acceptance of improper benefits by Reggie Bush. This decision turned out to be a mistake. The Trojans lost their week 3 matchup in 2012 at Stanford, despite there being no Andrew Luck, and they stumbled to a 7-6 record. Barkley separated his throwing shoulder against UCLA in the final game of the regular season and he couldn’t return for the Sun Bowl, in which the Trojans lost. Concerns about the injury, his arm strength, size, athleticism, and ability to win in big games led to Barkley falling to the 98th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles and new head coach Chip Kelly. Barkley was drafted to be the third string quarterback behind Michael Vick and Nick Foles, but Kelly’s stay in Philadelphia would only last to the end of the 2015 season and his methods were atypical of what most NFL teams execute, which may not have helped Barkley’s development. Barkley found himself starting for the Bears in 2016, when Jay Cutler and Brian Hoyer were both injured. He had a touchdown-interception ratio of 8-14, with a 59.7% completion percentage and a 1-5 record with a very bad Bears team. He will be backing up Bryan Hoyer, again, for the 49ers and their new innovative head coach Kyle Shanahan.
These five Trojan signal callers do not represent the entirety of USC quarterbacks. Sure, quarterbacks like Rodney Peete, Matt Cassel, and Rob Johnson had careers that expanded over 10 years, but the highlighted synopses above provide context into the more coveted prospects that donned the cardinal and gold. Coveted prospects like Sam Darnold. Marinovich had a divergent upbringing that may have led to the inner demons that were evident before he was drafted. Palmer has had a successful NFL career, but has had little success in the playoffs. Leinart lacked the work ethic and was replaced by future Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner. Sanchez was raw and never really had a consistent offensive mind to guide him in New York. Barkley had concerns in college that have not been rectified in his few years in the NFL, while also being drafted into an aberrant situation under Chip Kelly. There are reasons for each of their paths and some are negatively self-inflicted, so maturity and character go a long way. So, as the college football world fawns over Sam Darnold and NFL teams are “Sucking for Sam,” I pose this question: Does that Trojan insignia give any trepidation to NFL teams? I can see how it may be a concern that in the Super Bowl era, USC quarterbacks have ridden their way to six national titles, but not one USC quarterback has ever played in a Super Bowl. Should this be held against Darnold? – NO. Darnold is his own entity and he will be evaluated on his traits, character, and success this season. Expectations are incredibly high heading into his redshirt sophomore campaign. Stars tend to shine the brightest under immense expectations and pressure. Darnold beamed against Penn State in the Rose Bowl last season; will he shine again?