WASHINGTON, D.C. — Buckle up your figurative chin straps, boys.
That in essence is the advice for Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield – the four quarterbacks widely expected to be taken among first top 10 picks of the 2018 NFL draft Thursday – courtesy of four retired quarterbacks who headed down a similar path long ago.
Heath Shuler. Akili Smith. Joey Harrington. Kelly Stouffer.
All of them have been labeled busts, highly drafted quarterbacks who failed to live up to expectations, and each told USA TODAY Sports that the transition from draft day to the NFL is critical.
“It happens so fast, you don’t have time to react," said Shuler, picked No. 3 overall by the Washington Redskins in 1994. “It’s like drinking through a fire hose."
Here’s some of what Shuler, Smith, Harrington and Stouffer remembered, and some of what they thought might help this year’s crop of prized quarterbacks stay on track.
Shuler finished as runner-up to Charlie Ward for the 1993 Heisman Trophy and held nearly all the passing records at the University of Tennessee before bypassing his senior year and entering the 1994 NFL draft.
He played four seasons in the NFL, throwing for 15 touchdowns and 33 interceptions before a foot injury ended his career in 1998.
“My biggest enemy was myself,’’ Shuler said. “Push, pressure myself. From high school to college, I always had always been successful. Very fortunate that I’d always been with a winning team that had a tot of talent. So I put this added pressure on myself.’’
But Shuler said much of what took place after the day of the draft was beyond his control.
“To be truthful, I think there’s so much emphasis put on those first three or four picks, or even the first 10 picks,’’ he said. “When in reality, if you’re a quarterback, it’d be much better to be drafted at the end of the first round.
“Because that means you’re going to be with a team that has been far more successful and a team that has had some playoff experience. And if they’re looking to bring you in as the next quarterback … that’s a better opportunity than it is to be a highly drafted first-round pick.’’
When Shuler joined the Redskins, they were coming off a 4-12 season. They also had a first-year head coach, Norv Turner, and first-year quarterbacks coach, Cam Cameron.
“We were all rookies. so we were pressing ourselves,’’ Shuler said. “I needed a veteran guy to put his arm around me and say, ‘Hey, you know it’s going to take some time.' "
After three disappointing seasons with the Redskins and one failed season with the New Orleans Saints, Shuler said, he made an important discovery after signing with the Oakland Raiders. Jon Gruden, then the Raiders head coach, was running the West Coast Offense, similar to what Shuler ran in high school and college.
“Oh my gosh, I should have begged before to be in this system all over again,’’ said Shuler, who re-injured his foot in training camp and then retired. “This is where I felt comfortable and that’s where I felt like I had the most to give back with my own abilities.
“Ultimately, it comes down to that coach and that system and that team around you.’’
After starting just 11 games at the University of Oregon but throwing 30 touchdowns during that impressive stretch, Smith was taken No. 3 overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1999 NFL draft.
Less than six years later, he was playing for the Frankfurt Galaxy of NFL Europe. He finished his NFL career having passed for five touchdowns with 13 interceptions.
Looking back, Smith said, a highly drafted quarterback needs to stay focused.
“The money you get and the fame and things of that nature, you have to put all of that stuff to the side," he said, “and make sure that you get acclimated with your new organization, with your new city, with your teammates and things of that nature.’’
That wasn’t easy, Smith said, after he signed a contract that was worth up to $56 million and included a $10.8 million signing bonus.
“Oh, my God, I had an uncle that had a $1 million ‘Price Is Right’ check and he was on his front lawn and taking pictures thinking that I was going to give him $1 million,’’ Smith said. “And then you got other aunties and parents and brothers, everybody is just expecting something. And it’s not fair to that individual."
In part, Smith said, he traces his failures in part to a 27-day, rookie contract holdout that he said resulted in no financial gain.
“First things first, get your butt in (training) camp,’’ Smith said. “You may only get one opportunity at a signing bonus. But at the end of the day, if you get in camp and you take care of business, you’ll be able to enter into your second contract in the NFL.
“What was the holdout really about? The holdout turns out to be more about the dislike between the Browns family and Leigh Steinberg (Smith’s agent at the time).’’
Though Smith also said he doesn’t think any young quarterback could have succeeded with the Bengals at that time, he cites his own behavior as part of the problem.
“I ran from Cincinnati to come back to San Diego to party and do things like that, looking for temporarily pleasure,’’ he said. “If you go to a Cleveland Browns or something like that, obviously things aren’t where they need to be. You don’t run from that situation.
“You go to a local boys and girls club. You go to an at-risk or group home or something like that and you start working with the people in the community. It will keep you grounded. it will keep you humble.’’
In 2001, a billboard in Times Square read “Joey Heisman.’’ Harrington, then racking up yards and touchdowns at the University of Oregon, finished a respectable fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting before being picked No. 3 overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2002 NFL draft.
He played six seasons and passed for 14,693 yards, but had a sub-par quarterback rating of 69.4 while throwing for 79 touchdowns and 85 picks.
“I think the biggest piece of advice that I could pass on to anybody is don’t ever lose belief in yourself,’’ Harrington said. “When you get to the level where you’re theoretically one of the 32 best people in the world at what you do, you’re competing against the best in the world and not everything’s going to go right all the time. And there may be some significant stretches where you struggle.
“But no matter what happens, you can’t lose belief in yourself. The moment you lose belief in your ability to play and your ability to compete in the NFL is the moment you’re done. Because doubt breeds hesitation, and hesitation creates mistakes.
“The difference between a touchdown and an interception in the NFL is fractions of a second. And so if you doubt yourself enough to hesitate, that potential touchdown turns into an interception.’’
After his third year in the league, Harrington said, he consulted a sports psychologist for the first time.
“That’s the only reason I continued in the NFL is because I started working with one,’’ he said. “I mean, I struggled in Detroit. And for me, it was really the first time I had had any sort of failure, public failure, and so that was rough. I didn’t deal with it well. And had I not sought out a sports psychologist afterward, I would have been in some trouble.
“There’s 100 guys that can make every single throw in the NFL. They can throw every deep comeback, they can throw every post route. What separates success from failure is absolutely minute in the NFL. Not only is it minute, but it’s all in your head.’’
By the end of his senior year at Colorado State, Stouffer was the school’s career leading passer but suddenly in limbo. Picked No. 6 overall in the 1987 draft by the then-St. Louis Cardinals, Stouffer held out when contract negotiations fell apart. A year later the Seattle Seahawks acquired his rights.
He threw for seven touchdowns and 19 touchdowns during his five-year NFL career.
He emerged as the starter midway through his rookie season, but injuries helped derail his career.
“All of the sudden you’re hurt and out for six weeks," he said. “Well, for me that was a huge challenge because I didn’t know how to take that. So what begins to happen to me is I begin to lose my confidence, I begin to just feel differently about myself even though it was things out of my control.
“Before long I found myself really questioning my ability to do the job. And once you start thinking that way, the world begins to spin out of control as far as football is concerned.’’
A head-spinning experience is what this year’s prized rookie quarterbacks can expect, Stouffer said.
“I think the best advice I could give is you have to realize it’s going to be a completely different animal and there really isn’t anyway to circumvent the learning curve you’re going to experience,’’ he said. “That’s just simply part of the process and really unavoidable, and that doesn’t mean that something is wrong. It doesn’t mean the sky is falling.
“It just means that you’re at a different level now and there are grown men that play the game at the highest level everywhere you look. In the end, it’s a football game. It really is just a game that is a played in a similar way that these kids will be used to. And so before long you’ll find yourself realizing it’s somewhat business as usual.
“Once you get past that initial shock.’’
So buckle up those chin straps, boys.