Honorable Mention Selection Criteria

Tony Mandarich Exemption (Not Bad Enough)


Synopsis: To the extent that a bust can be described as having a bad career, a Top 10 Bust can be described as having a really bad career. Whereas most players referenced as all-time NFL busts were really bad, Tony Mandarich is an exception. Compared to the roided-out Adonis before the 1989 Draft, the roid-free version of Mandarich was not as strong and not as fast. Regardless, he still was good enough to survive in the NFL for six seasons over a ten-year period (i.e. two three-year stints separated by a four-year absence). Having played in 86 games (including 63 starts), he hung around long enough to escape being considered a Top 10 Bust. However, he still received an Honorable Mention given all of the pre-draft hype and post-draft disappointment surrounding him. This post references his career as an introduction to the 3rd criterion used to refine the list of Top 10 NFL Draft Busts.  


When determining potential Top 10 Busts, I developed the following criteria as a way to eliminate less deserving candidates.

  1. The player was selected with one of the first 10 overall picks (aka The Brady Quinn Exemption).
  2. The player needed to be a bona fide superstar coming out of college (aka the Troy Williamson Exemption).
  3. The player’s on-field performance was not just bad, but rather really bad (aka The Tony Mandarich Exemption).
  4. The player’s unproductive career cannot be the result of an injury (aka the Steve Emtman Exemption).
  5. The player was given a fair shot to compete on the field (aka The Rich Campbell Exemption).

In this post, I establish the third criterion by detailing the selection of Tony Mandarich by the Green Bay Packers with the 2nd pick in the 1989 draft.

While the concept of bad versus really bad should be self-explanatory, apparently it’s not. To help with the distinction, I have developed an objective standard based on the statistic Weighted Average Value (WAV). As a point of reference, Peyton Manning’s WAV of 172 is the highest in league history while the average WAV for a top 10 overall pick is 54. To separate the “bad” from the “really bad,” I have used a WAV threshold of 13, which is less than 25% of the average WAV for an early first round pick.

Adding some subjectivity to the mix, I granted bonus points if the player’s poor performance seems even worse when compared to a subsequent draft pick (i.e. someone whom could have been taken instead). At the same time, bonus points also were granted for off-field failures since they help define the player’s character as a bust. This last addition is gratuitous but who doesn’t like some personal controversy to humanize players who were put on pedestals from the time they were acne-faced (or acne-backed) teenagers. Regardless (or irregardless thanks to the now acceptable misuse of the original word), bonus points cannot overly penalize a player who actually was somewhat productive throughout his career.

Some have argued that Tony Mandarich was a complete bust, even one of the all-time greatest busts. After all, Sports Illustrated had hyped the Michigan State tackle as the “Incredible Bulk” and “The Best Offensive Line Prospect Ever.” Named consensus first-team All-America for the 1988 season, Mandarich was a finalist for the Outland Trophy (as the best interior lineman) and finished 6th in the Heisman voting. In addition, his combine numbers (especially his 40 time of 4.65 seconds and 225 lb. bench press of 39 reps) were superhuman for a lineman. As shown by this photograph taken at the combine, Mandarich truly was a freakish physical specimen.

Tony Mandarich
Mandarich – without pads! What scout could have looked at this 22-year-old and thought it was all-natural?

With the highest rating ever given to a prospect, Mandarich was drafted by the Green Bay Packers with the 2nd overall pick in the 1989 Draft. After three lackluster NFL seasons, however, he was denounced by Sports Illustrated as “The NFL’s Incredible Bust.” By now, everyone knows that his physical attributes and college success were provided by syringes full of steroids. He clearly wasn’t the same dominant player off the juice. Despite SI’s condemnation, Mandarich cleaned himself up and enjoyed a second career with the Indianapolis Colts after a four-year absence from the league.

tony mandarich colts
Apparently, Mandarich’s time with the Colts was much happier for him

Over his entire career, Mandarich started 63 of the 86 games in which he played. In addition, he had a WAV of 28, which is more than twice the threshold established for a Top 10 Bust. While Mandarich certainly didn’t live up to the positive hype that existed before the 1989 Draft, he also didn’t live down to the negative hype that existed after he was cut before the 1992 season. Based on his resilience and second career with the Colts, he inspired the Tony Mandarich Exemption. Specifically, the exemption applies to all players who just weren’t bad enough to be considered a Top 10 Bust.

Without this exemption, Mandarich would have been a shoo-in as a Top 10 Bust because he had a lot of bonus points. In particular, he was drafted immediately ahead of three Hall-of-Famers: #3 pick Barry Sanders; #4 pick Derrick Thomas; and #5 pick Deion Sanders. In addition, his personal failure as a self-admitted steroid user and pill popper added to his professional failure. Regardless, the list is reserved for the “worst of the worst” and there simply were players much worse than Mandarich. Regardless of the exemption, Mandarich still earns an Honorable Mention given all of the pre-draft hype and post-draft disappointment surrounding his career.

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