AS TOM BRADY, IT’S AN INCOMPLETION. AS AKILI SMITH, IT’S A FUMBLE.
Synopsis: NFL teams took quarterbacks with five of the first twelve picks of the 1999 Draft. Those five QBs ran the gamut with a superstar (#2 pick Donovan McNabb), a star (#11 pick Daunte Culpepper), a disappointment (#1 pick Tim Couch), a bust (#12 pick Cade McNown), and a Top 10 Bust (#3 pick Akili Smith). Some of you (especially Cleveland Browns fans) might believe that Tim Couch was a bust, but he simply was too productive to fall into that category. In particular, he threw for over 11,000 yards with 64 touchdowns and 67 interceptions in 62 career games. On the other hand, Cade McNown certainly was a bust after throwing for approximately 3,000 yards with 16 touchdowns and 19 interceptions in 25 career games. For as bad a McNown was, Akili Smith was even worse. Specifically, Smith had career totals of approximately 2,000 passing yards with five touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 22 games. In addition, he had a career record of 3-14 as a starter. In essence, McNown was really bad but Smith was historically bad. As one of the worst quarterbacks ever drafted with an early first round pick, Akili Smith has earned the #5 spot as a Top 10 NFL Draft Bust.
#5 NFL DRAFT BUST: AKILI SMITH
The 1983 NFL Draft is often remembered as the Year of the Quarterback because six quarterbacks, including three all-time greats (John Elway at #1, Jim Kelly at #14, and Dan Marino at #27), were selected in the first round. That slogan could have been taken over by the Class of 1999 given that quarterbacks were taken with the top three picks and five of the top twelve picks in that year’s draft. However, there are two primary reasons why that didn’t happen. First, the most memorable moment of the entire draft occurred when Saints GM and Head Coach Mike Ditka took a huge gamble on Ricky Williams by trading New Orleans’ entire draft to Washington simply to move from the 12th to the 5th overall spot. Second, the quarterbacks drafted in 1999 are better known for being bad than for being good.
The five quarterbacks selected early in the 1999 Draft were: Tim Couch at #1; Dononvan McNabb at #2; Akili Smith at #3; Daunte Culpepper at #11; and Cade McNown at #12. McNabb is a probable Hall of Famer while Culpepper was a regular-season co-MVP and a 3x Pro Bowler so these two guys certainly didn’t contribute to the negative assessment of this draft class. Whether justified or not, each of the other three QBs has been named on multiple lists of all-time busts.
Benefiting from Kentucky’s “Air Raid” offense,
Couch was one of the NCAA’s leading passers as a sophomore in 1997 and as a junior in 1998. In particular, he ranked second in passing yards and touchdown passes in 1997, and second in passing yards and fourth in touchdown passes in 1998. Based on these impressive numbers, he finished 9th in the Heisman voting as a sophomore and 4th as a junior. As the likely #1 pick, he passed up his senior year and declared for the 1999 Draft. Effectively an expansion team, the Browns wanted a high-profile quarterback to jump-start the team’s return to the city. While McNabb and Smith also drew interest, there was little doubt that Couch would be selected as the face of the renewed franchise. During his five years with the Browns, Couch threw for over 11,000 yards and 60 touchdowns. Additionally, he had an efficiency rating of 75.1 and Weighted Average Value (WAV) of 20. While these numbers might not be what a team would want from a 1st overall pick, they certainly don’t qualify him as a bust.
With the first overall pick in that draft, the Browns could have (and probably should have) selected McNabb. In college, McNabb was a more efficient passer than Couch and even ranked in the top ten in passing efficiency for three of his four years as a starter. As a senior, McNabb finished fifth (just behind Couch) in the Heisman voting. Given McNabb’s six Pro Bowl selections and numerous trips to the playoffs, including one Super Bowl appearance, he certainly accomplished more in the NFL than Couch. However, the Browns didn’t have much of a supporting cast so who knows what would have happened if McNabb went to Cleveland and Couch went to Philly. Even when McNabb’s far superior career is used as a comparison, Couch was not a bust.
Not only did Couch have to look over his shoulder for McNabb, but also he had to worry about McNown. In particular, Couch lost his Playmate girlfriend after introducing McNown to her. Reportedly, McNown won her heart after wooing her with lavish gifts, including a Porsche. Now, what woman would be worth a gift like that?
FORMER PLAYMATE HEATHER KOZER
At least Couch was in elite company because McNown also stole one of Hef’s girlfriends.
FORMER PLAYMATE BRANDE RODERICK
Unfortunately, The Girls Next Door wasn’t being filmed at the time because those episodes really would have been Must See TV. Hef’s show was on E!, but NBC owns that channel so the slogan still works. In an interesting twist, Couch won back the heart of the woman in the first picture (Heather Kozar) and ended up marrying her. Regardless, McNown earned some D-bag points for violating the Bro Code. Hef must have agreed because he banned McNown from the Playboy Mansion (for the second offense, not the first).
While McNown’s character was questionable, his incompetence as an NFL quarterback was certain. As a 4-year starter at UCLA, McNown threw for almost 11,000 yards and 70 touchdowns. In addition, led the NCAA in passing efficiency in 1997 and finished 10th in the country in passing yards in 1998. As a senior in 1998, McNown edged both Couch and McNabb by finishing third in the Heisman voting. Despite his college accomplishments, McNown was only the 5th quarterback taken in the 1999 Draft. Sometimes, the 5th quarterback doesn’t come off the board until the 4th or 5th round, which still would have been too high for him. During his two-year professional career, McNown compiled a record of 3-12 in 15 games as a starter. In addition, he threw for approximately 3,100 yards with 16 touchdowns and 19 interceptions in 25 career games. If McNown had played in Detroit or Cincinnati, he may have survived for a few more pathetic seasons but he played in Chicago so he was blown out of the “Windy City.” He had opportunities with the Dolphins and 49ers, but never played in a game for either team. Too bad those teams didn’t need a pick-up artist because Miami and San Francisco would have been ideal locations for McNown’s true talent.
CADE McNOWN – TOP 10 BUST HONORABLE MENTION
For as big of a bust as McNown was, Smith was even bigger. In particular, Smith had a worse record (3-14 vs. 3-12), fewer yards (2,212 vs. 3,111), fewer touchdowns (5 vs. 16), and a lower efficiency rating (52.8 vs. 67.7). On top of that, Smith was taken nine picks earlier (3rd vs. 12th). Overall, McNown is exempt from being declared a Top 10 Bust because he was drafted too low (i.e. outside of the first ten picks) but still deserves an Honorable Mention for his abysmal production.
While at Oregon, Smith split time at quarterback during his junior season and only became the full-time starter for his senior season. Making the most of his limited time, Smith finished his senior year ranked as one of the NCAA leaders in touchdowns (#7), yards (#6), and efficiency rating (#3). Apparently, Smith showed teams enough from his one stellar season and during workouts to be considered one of the best three quarterbacks in the draft. Furthermore, he even was mentioned as a possible #1 overall pick.
As previously discussed, the 1999 Draft is probably best remembered for the draft-day trade that resulted in Ricky Williams going to the Saints for a total of eight draft picks. Several weeks prior to the draft, Coach Ditka had made his intentions known publicly that he would consider trading the team’s entire 1999 draft, which consisted of six picks, to get Williams. With the 1st and 2nd overall picks in the 1999 Draft, the Browns and Eagles both badly needed quarterbacks so they weren’t interested in trading their picks despite the attractive offer. After Cleveland took Couch and Philadelphia took McNabb, Ditka targeted Cincinnati and increased the offer to include the Saints entire 1999 draft plus their 1st round picks in 2000 and 2001, and their 2nd round pick in 2002. In all, the Bengals would have gotten eight additional draft picks (including two 1st rounders) simply for moving down from #3 to #12 in the first round. Click here for an analysis of Ditka’s gamble on Williams.
Unlike the other two teams ahead of them, the Bengals had a veteran quarterback (Jeff Blake) on their roster so they had more flexibility to consider Ditka’s offer. However, the Bengals had lost confidence in Blake over the prior two seasons. As a result, they ultimately decided to keep their pick in order to take Smith. At the time of the selection, Bengals President Mike Brown said, “It was a generous offer, but we felt now is the time to get the quarterback.” When asked about the risk of picking another bust, Bengals Coach Bruce Coslet added,
I’m tired of hearing about David Klingler. Why don’t you guys write about John Elway and Dan Marino? The story of this draft is we got Akili Smith and a lot of people had him No.1 on their boards. I’m very pleased.
AKILI SMITH WITH THE COMMISH
In addition to paying a hefty price by not accepting Ditka’s offer, the Bengals paid a hefty price when they finally signed their rookie quarterback. After a 27-day holdout, Smith ultimately agreed to a $56 million deal with $10.8 million up front. At the time of the signing, Tim Sullivan of the Cincinnati Enquirer lamented:
Sudden wealth has ruined more careers than shredded ligaments. It is the crucial test the scouts can’t perform when they examine college prospects — the speed at which ready cash clouds their judgment and erodes their enthusiasm. As the great jockey, Eddie Arcaro, once said: “It’s hard to get up in the morning when you start wearing silk pajamas.”
Did Smith’s newfound wealth negatively impact his career? Who knows. However, Smith believes that his rookie holdout did hurt him in the long term. After his NFL career ended, Smith said, “I should have just told my agent to take whatever they were offering me and got myself in camp, that (the holdout) is the biggest reason I struggled in the NFL.” As you might imagine, the reaction to the quote wasn’t too kind. First, the quarterback brought it upon himself. Second, it’s hard to rationalize that a short-term holdout could have such a long-term negative effect. Then again, it seems to be a recurring theme for numerous Top 10 Busts or Honorable Mentions (e.g., Heath Shuler, JaMarcus Russell, Kelly Stouffer, and Matt Leinart).
Similar to the other top QB picks from the 1999 Draft, Smith began his rookie season as a backup. While Smith carried the clipboard, Blake started the first 12 games of the 1999 season for Cincinnati. The seven-year veteran put up decent numbers (2,670 passing yards with a 77.6 passer rating), but the Bengals had a 3-9 record so he was benched in favor of Smith. Throughout the remainder of the season, Smith showed his inexperience and put up some poor numbers (800 yards, two TDs, six INTs, and a 55.6 passer rating). In addition, the team continued to lose and had a 1-3 record in Smith’s four starts. Regardless, the Bengals were comfortable enough with him to let Blake go after the season.
Unfortunately, Smith didn’t get any better in his second season in the league. In particular, he threw for 1,300 yards with three touchdowns and six interceptions, and had a 52.8 passing rating in 12 games. With Smith under center, the Bengals began the 2000 season with a 2-9 record. In response, the team replaced him with an even “bigger loser” (a.k.a. Scott “The Biggest Loser” Mitchell).
SCOTT MITCHELL – A DIFFERENT KIND OF BIG LOSER
Mitchell had been a decent quarterback with the Lions for a couple of years in the mid-90s, but was completely washed up by the time he got to Cincinnati. In his one and only outing during the 2001 season, he went 4-12 for 38 yards and three interceptions for a 3.5 passer rating. Perhaps needless to say, that was the final outing of his career. Unlike Mitchell, Smith lasted two more years with the team. However, he was on the roster as a 3rd string QB and only got two more starts (both losses). When Marvin Lewis was brought in as a new coach before the 2003 season, Smith was cut and his career was over.
AKILI SMITH – D’oh!
The following table summarizes the career of Akili Smith as well as the other four quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 1999 Draft.
AKILI SMITH AND OTHER NOTABLE QUARTERBACKS FROM THE 1999 DRAFT
Most of these numbers have been discussed previously, but it’s worth noting that Smith’s passer rating of 52.8 and Weighted Average Value (WAV) of 1 are incredibly low, even for a Top 10 Bust. In the previously referenced Cincinnati Enquirer article, the journalist offered Bengals President Mike Brown’s perspective on the quarterbacks highlighted in the previous table. In particular, Sullivan wrote:
There are five quarterbacks who went in the first half (of the first round) of the draft,” Brown said, standing beneath an umbrella Tuesday afternoon at training camp. “If it runs true to form, one or two will pan out, one will be mediocre, and two will wash out.
Whether intended or not, the image of Brown with an umbrella provided an ominous foreshadowing for Smith’s career. Regardless, going to the substance of Brown’s statement, let’s see how good his prediction was.
- “One or two will pan out” – McNabb certainly did while Culpepper arguably did (at least for the five seasons during which benefited from the Randy Moss Effect). Depending on whom you ask, some people will say only one QB panned out while others might say two panned out so the statement works.
- “One will be mediocre” – In 62 starts, Couch had a passer rating of 75.1 while throwing 64 touchdowns and 67 interceptions. His career only lasted five years, but his stats during his time in the league were quite mediocre.
- “Two will wash out” – Given the abysmal careers of Smith and McNown, Brown was right again.
Overall, Brown gets an A+ for his prediction. Unfortunately, he gets an F for taking Smith. First, he could have taken Culpepper instead. Second, and more importantly, he could have converted the pick used to take Smith into nine picks (including the 12th overall pick in 1999 and two additional first round picks in 2000 and 2001). Arguably, Brown might have been able to get the picks as well as Culpepper. If he had, the Bengals likely would have avoided so many years of futility. Since he didn’t, the Bengals continued to struggle and Akili Smith earned the #5 spot as a Top 10 NFL Draft Bust.