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The sad history of USC quarterbacks in the NFL

Matt Ufford takes a look at the last three USC quarterbacks to make it to the NFL, all from the Pete Carroll era and all with strangely sad tales.

Brian Spurlock- USA TODAY Sports

In the Super Bowl era, USC quarterbacks have won six national titles and 22 conference titles. Yet no USC quarterback has ever played in a Super Bowl.

The disconnect in transition from Southern Cal to the NFL seems programmed across generations: Rob Johnson and Rodney Peete had similarly long careers navigating the backwaters of the NFL's less successful franchises; Paul McDonald and Sean Salisbury were even less successful. And long before Matt Leinart or Todd Marinovich were first-round busts, the Chiefs used their top pick on Pete Beathard, who bounced around the NFL for a decade, never completing half of his passes in a season. He finished his career with 43 touchdown passes and 84 interceptions.

With the game constantly changing, though, it makes more sense to examine recent history. Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, and Mark Sanchez were the outstanding quarterbacks of the Pete Carroll era at USC. Palmer led the Trojans to an Orange Bowl victory and became the school's first quarterback to win the Heisman; Leinart became the second, going 37-2 over three seasons. After USC started John David Booty (excluded from this review because he never threw an NFL pass), Sanchez stepped in without missing a beat, going 12-1 and winning a Rose Bowl MVP before declaring for the draft.

The NFL is cruel and shitty for many reasons, but singularly so for USC quarterbacks thrust onto pro teams with less talent relative to the competition. These pro teams are invariably located in cities with imperfect weather and a media less inclined to fawn over a golden boy groomed since puberty for the job. Palmer, Leinart, and Sanchez have each made millions of dollars in the NFL, but all have been snakebitten by some combination of injury, bad luck, poor coaching, on-field mistakes, and sexy jacuzzi parties.


The pass is beautiful: a long parabolic arc that hits Chris Henry in stride on the right sideline for 66 yards. It is the first play of the 2006 Wild Card game against the Steelers, the longest pass play in Bengals playoff history, and the end of Palmer's short career as an elite pro quarterback. The play ends with Henry tackled at the Steelers' 22 and Palmer crumpled at his own 5, supine and writhing after Kimo von Olhoeffen hit him low and shredded his ACL and MCL.

This is not to say Palmer hasn't played well since: he rehabbed quickly and played all 16 games the following year (no easy task; just ask Robert Griffin III) and even made the Pro Bowl. But the Palmer of 2005 -- who led the NFL with 32 touchdown passes and a 67.8 completion percentage while only throwing 12 interceptions in his second year as a starter -- never reappeared. His accuracy dipped, the Bengals' organizational dysfunction resurfaced, and he struggled with elbow problems, likely the cumulative result of throwing on his surgically repaired knee.

His tenure in Cincinnati ended after the Bengals went 4-12 during the 2010 season, Palmer's eighth with the team. Palmer stated that he'd rather retire at the age of 31 than play for the Bengals again: "I have $80 million in the bank. I don't have to play football for money. I'll play it for the love of the game but that would have to be elsewhere. I'm prepared to live my life." Think about that for a moment: Palmer, the first overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft, younger than both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, was ready to never play football again at the age of 31. That's how much playing for the Bengals sucks ass.

Bengals owner Mike Brown, who created his perpetual failure machine with nepotism and frugality, refused to accept free draft picks from a quarterback-starved league. "Carson signed a contract. He made a commitment. He gave his word," Brown said. "We relied on his word. We relied on his commitment. We expected him to perform here. He's going to walk away from his commitment. We aren't going to reward him for doing it."


Brown finally cracked halfway into the 2011 season, sending Palmer to Oakland for a first-round pick and a conditional second-rounder, one of the many reasons that the Raiders have managed to stay a less-successful franchise than the Bengals over the last couple decades.

There is a reason Oakland's die-hard fans cheer from the Black Hole: because the physics of collapsed stars apply to the Raiders. As quarterbacks cross the event horizon of being an Oakland Raider, their photons are slowed to zero, so we as observers never see them disappear. We just end up looking away.

Palmer, however, achieved escape velocity in a trade to the Cardinals in the spring of 2013. He led the Cardinals to a 10-6 record, becoming the first player in NFL history to throw for 4000 yards for three different teams. He was even better this year, winning each of his six starts as the Cardinals raced to the top of the NFC. His 11 touchdown passes to three interceptions was the best ratio of his career.

And then, in Week 10 this year, he crumpled to the turf against the Rams without being touched, his ACL torn again. It took Carson Palmer a decade to rebuild his career, and his resurgence didn't last a full season before he suffered the same injury that stole his potential in the first place. But even if he never plays again, he'll finish his career as the best pro quarterback to hail from USC.


The internet was unkind to Matt Leinart. The internet is rarely kind to anyone, of course, but in 2014 it's at least predictably cruel. Today's athletes have a facility with social media, and the news cycle moves quickly enough to get past Johnny Manziel's latest kerfuffle.

This was not the case in 2005, when Leinart passed on millions of dollars to stay his senior season at USC ("probably to have sex!" said the blogs). Or in 2006, when Leinart was photographed nuzzling an attractive brunette in a club after the Heisman presentation. Or when he got ex-girlfriend Brynn Cameron pregnant. Or when he hooked up with Paris Hilton  (allegedly!).

E.J. Manuel, Kevin Kolb, Jeff Tuel, and Thad Lewis made the Bills; Leinart did not.

After Leinart got drafted (he fell to tenth overall), the rumor mill got even less flattering, thanks to photos surfacing from a jacuzzi party with Nick Lachey, ASU undergrads, and a beer bong. Perhaps he could have saved himself from accusations of immaturity if he had lived up to his pedigree, but alas: a sprained left shoulder his rookie year, a broken clavicle the next, then a spot on the bench behind Kurt Warner, who took the Cardinals to the Super Bowl. When Warner retired, Leinart not only lost the starting job to Derek Anderson, he was released in favor of Max Hall and John Skelton.

Leinart landed in Houston in 2010 as Matt Schaub's backup. After more than a year on the bench, Leinart earned a late-season start against the Jaguars in 2011 when Schaub injured his foot. Leinart completed 10-of-13 passes with a touchdown and no interceptions, but suffered a hard hit at the end of the second quarter that broke his collarbone. For the third time in eight starts spanning six years, he had suffered a season-ending injury.

Leinart is out of football at the age of 31, his last professional dalliance a preseason stint with the Bills in 2013 -- E.J. Manuel, Kevin Kolb, Jeff Tuel, and Thad Lewis made the roster; Leinart did not.

While his attitude and immaturity certainly hurt his early career, I can't help but wonder about the missed opportunities. What if he'd entered the NFL Draft after winning the Heisman? What if he could have finished the 2011 season with the playoff-bound Texans? Could Pete Carroll have resuscitated Leinart's career? Did he really deserve to get cut from the Cardinals after completing almost 80% of his passes that preseason?


Perhaps the NFL machine was less than fair to Leinart, but his undoing was largely his own. His lasting legacy will be "Now there was a guy who loved college girls."


Imagine if Matt Leinart hadn't been replaced by an aging Hall of Fame quarterback. And he didn't get injured. And he kept on being the starter despite getting progressively worse at the quarterback position. And he did it in America's largest media market. For four years.

That's Mark Sanchez: "Matt Leinart, but luckier and maybe a little smarter." Sanchez, like Leinart, kept the gossip mill stirring, from courting a 17-year-old girl to dating Hilary Rhoda, the model he met at his beach-themed GQ shoot. He also talked freely about his love of Broadway musicals and presented an award at the Tonys:

While you're likely to bump into other New York athletes at Scores, you're more likely to find Sanchez at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. He's seen just about every show out there, many of them multiple times. His truck is cluttered with cast albums.[...]

Aside from just enjoying the music, Sanchez says he feels a kinship with Broadway performers. "Their life is so regimented-like mine. They have eight shows a week. They have to take care of their bodies, stretch, eat right, take care of their voices. You know, their voice is like my arm." [GQ]

For a sport as unapologetically and stereotypically meatheaded as football, I can't help but admire Mark Sanchez's resolute dedication to giving no fucks about what anyone thinks about his tastes. The problem with the quote above is that Sanchez's arm -- or his use of it, at least -- has been far less reliable than any Broadway performer. In his four years as a starter for the Jets, he was historically bad at playing quarterback, a fact that didn't stop the Jets from signing him to a multi-million-dollar extension. Also, lest we forget: the butt fumble.

The butt fumble happened on a nationally televised primetime Thanksgiving game against a division rival, one of three consecutive Jets fumbles that led to three Patriots touchdowns in the span of 52 seconds. It became the rare sports phenomenon that went viral outside the world of sports fans; EVERYONE saw it.

That was essentially the end for Sanchez as a Jet. Rex Ryan spent the rest of the season vacillating between Sanchez and Greg McElroy as the starter, and neither made a case to keep the job. Neither made a case to be a backup, really.

The next year, 2013, was Sanchez's last in New York. He injured his shoulder while playing behind a makeshift offensive line in the fourth quarter of a preseason game -- the tabloids and sports radio feasted on this -- and Ryan named rookie Geno Smith the starter while Sanchez rehabilitated. In October, Sanchez had season-ending surgery, a precursor to his release the following spring. It was a merciful ending to an ignominious two seasons.

And yet.

There is his playoff success: two AFC Championship Game appearances in his first two years in the league, with four road playoff wins along the way. Wins are a faulty metric for measuring quarterbacks, but Mark Sanchez notched as many playoff victories in his first two years as Russell Wilson. Again: faulty metric, but still. That's not nothing.

Any condemnation of Sanchez's career is also hamstrung by his rebirth in Philadelphia. In four appearances for the Eagles since Nick Foles broke his collarbone, Sanchez has completed 62.3% of his passes, with seven touchdowns and six interceptions. He has thrown for over 300 yards in each of his three starts, and against the Panthers, he threw for over 265 yards without an interception for the first time in his career. In short, he has been ... kinda good. It is a testament to coaching: another feather in Chip Kelly's cap, and reason enough for Brian Schottenheimer to never hold another coaching job in pro football.

It is rare to have a five-year veteran starting quarterback who's an unknown quantity, but such is the depth of the Jets' dysfunction. Mark Sanchez may yet prove to be more than adequate, perhaps even very good. For now, he is a survivor, and that is enough.


The narrative threads connecting Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, and Mark Sanchez are privilege and talent. All three went to high school in Orange County and were highly-sought prospects who started for Pete Carroll at USC. All three were top-ten picks in the NFL Draft.

Where they diverge -- and intertwine -- is injury and the resulting hardships of the NFL. Palmer has twice suffered a catastrophic ACL tear. Leinart's final game action in the NFL was replacing an injured Palmer for the Raiders in 2012. And Sanchez, who missed a year with a shoulder injury, is getting a second chance on a new team thanks to the starter's broken clavicle -- the same injury that derailed Leinart's second chance. Sanchez may yet replace Palmer as the Cardinals' starter, just to complete the ouroboros.

In a moderately dispassionate evaluation, Palmer's decade of competent quarterbacking buoys the Trojan trio to "almost average," while the headlines generated by the younger two guarantees a baseline of entertainment. Ultimately, though, I cannot recommend a USC quarterback for your pro team -- unless the only other option is a Notre Dame alumnus.