Baker Mayfield and the Stigmatization of Short Quarterbacks

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield is one of the best players in college football, and through 10 weeks of the 2017 season he’s established himself as the frontrunner for college football’s most prestigious award — the Heisman Trophy. Despite the acclaim and accolades; however, you won’t often see the Sooner signal-caller projected in the first-round or top ten of NFL mock drafts.

One of the primary reasons for Mayfield’s lack of NFL hype, by my estimation, is his height or lack thereof. At a listed 6-foot-1 inches tall and with a rumored measurement closer to 6-foot, Mayfield falls short of the common 6-foot-2 height threshold many NFL teams hold for prospective starting quarterbacks.

The question this article seeks to examine and ultimately answer is the legitimacy of that height threshold. Is height (or lack thereof) truly a hindrance to a quarterback’s performance in the NFL?

Former NFL scout and current NFL.com media analyst Daniel Jeremiah writes an “Ask 5” column in which he surveys five NFL executives for their opinions on pro prospects in the months leading up to the draft. Most recently, Jeremiah asked for opinions on the two big-name Oklahoma quarterbacks (Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph) ahead of their interstate rivalry matchup last Saturday.

mason rudolph
At a listed 6-5, 230 lbs., Mason Rudolph possesses prototypical size for an NFL starting quarterback (photo: Bobak Ha’Eri, Wikimedia Commons)

Two of the five executives polled indicated a preference for Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, citing “size” as a primary reason for their preference. The responses of these executives seem to indicate the persistence of a “height bias” within the scouting community when it pertains to quarterbacks, although the recent success of Russell Wilson has probably forced some evaluators (like the three that answered Mayfield) to reconsider their height thresholds.

The question that comes to mind when people cite size, and specifically, height, as a reason for preferring one quarterback to another is why does this perception exist and persist?

Former NFL quarterback Rick Mirer, in an article by Jesse Temple from Fox Sports, offers one common explanation for the stigmatization of short quarterbacks: their perceived inability to view the field over massive NFL offensive linemen.

“You don’t need to see over the top of the tackle, but you need to see over the top of his shoulder pad… You don’t get the clearest picture all the time. You’re seeing glimpses of where the defense is. If you’re four inches shorter than the average height, that’s a disadvantage.” — Rick Mirer

On the surface this argument sounds logical, and there may, in fact, be some legitimacy to it, but consider the counterarguments presented in the same article by former and current 6-feet-and-under signal-callers Ty Detmer and Russell Wilson.

Detmer, a 6-foot former field general, argues that even the tall quarterbacks can’t actually see over the line of scrimmage — especially when mammoth defensive linemen are closing in with their hands up.

“No quarterback that’s 6-4 is going to throw over a 7-footer with his hands up, and then he jumps… They always talk about batted balls and all these things. Even the tallest guys, Tom Brady gets the ball batted down regularly because of the types of routes they throw. When the lineman doesn’t get a rush, they’re told to stay there and get their hands up to try to knock it down” — Ty Detmer

Wilson, a 5-foot-11 passer, offered up similar thoughts after receiving questions about his height at Wisconsin’s Pro Day back in March of 2012.

“My height’s not a factor… I played this way my whole life. The key is finding lanes and delivering the ball on time. There’s not that much of a difference if I was 6-1 or 5-11, to be honest. Playing behind the offensive line you play behind, you don’t really see over guys, you throw through lanes, deliver an accurate ball, throw the ball with arc and pace and just make plays” — Russell Wilson

The truth is, quarterbacks aren’t actually looking over their offensive linemen to see passing lanes most of the time. Typically, they’re looking through the openings in the pocket between their offensive linemen to locate downfield targets.

Does it help to get a glimpse of the field over an offensive lineman’s shoulder? Possibly, but judging by the quotes from Detmer and Wilson it would seem that the trajectory of the football and release point (the height and arm angle at which the football is released from the quarterback’s hand) are factors that should be considered more so than height when it comes to evaluating short quarterbacks.

brady
According to Temple, the average NFL offensive lineman in 2011 measured 6-5 and weighed 310 lbs. (photo: Jack Newton, Wikimedia Commons)

The issue for short quarterbacks, then, isn’t so much an inability to see over the offensive line — it’s more an issue of being able to release the ball at a high trajectory from a lower position to prevent the occurrence of tipped and batted balls at the line of scrimmage.

At this point you might be saying to yourself, “OK, maybe seeing over the offensive line isn’t a major issue for short quarterbacks, but why hasn’t there been many successful undersized passers throughout NFL history?”

After all, only two quarterbacks shorter than Russell Wilson have succeeded in the NFL according to Temple — Eddie LeBaron, a 5-7 passer who played for the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys in the 1950s, and Doug Flutie — a 5-10 signal-caller who played for four different teams between 1986 and 2005.

lebaron
At 5-7, former Redskins and Cowboys quarterback Eddie LeBaron was the shortest passer in NFL history (photo: Bowman, Wikimedia Commons)

Furthermore, according to Cian Fahey of presnapreads.com, “only 25 quarterbacks who measured 6’0″ or less have thrown a pass in the NFL since 1990,” compared to 218 who measured above 6’1″ that have.

But I ask you to consider the number of sub-6-foot-2 signal-callers that have been drafted and given an opportunity to play in the NFL in comparison to the number who have met or exceeded the threshold.

Consider this statistic: since 2012, 68 quarterbacks have been selected in the NFL Draft. Of those 68, seven have measured below 6-foot-2. Those quarterbacks are Johnny Manziel (1st round), Russell Wilson (3rd round), Cody Kessler (3rd round), Aaron Murray (5th round), Tajh Boyd (6th round), Brandon Allen (6th round), and B.J. Daniels (7th round). Of those seven signal-callers, two were highly regarded: Manziel and Wilson.

Wilson, of course, has found great success in the league with 3 Pro Bowl selections and a Super Bowl win on his résumé in just six seasons as a pro. Manziel, on the other hand, is out of the league after a one-and-a-half-year stint in Cleveland. Manziel’s failure as a quarterback is more attributable to a plethora off-the-field issues, however.

wilson
At 5-11, Russell Wilson is the shortest quarterback in the NFL (photo: Larry Maurer, flickr.com)

The other five quarterbacks drafted over that period of time were Day 3 picks or were widely regarded as a Day 3 talent in the case of Cody Kessler, and lacked many requisite traits that caused them to be viewed as backup-caliber players at the NFL level.

The reality of the situation is that very few legitimate NFL quarterback prospects actually measure below 6-foot-2. The reason short quarterbacks are less common in the NFL is not because their height deprives them of a skill they need to succeed — it’s simply because there happens to be a smaller percentage of quarterbacks under 6-foot-2 who possess starter-level talent.

You could say the same thing about handedness. The vast majority of NFL quarterbacks have been right-handed. That’s not because being right-handed is advantageous to playing the quarterback position; it’s because more quarterbacks just happen to be right-handed.

I believe the same logic can be applied to short quarterbacks. Just because most quarterbacks measure 6-foot-2 or above doesn’t mean the ones that don’t are at a major disadvantage or lack some essential skill.

In fact, I’d argue that we’ve seen plenty of success stories with 6-feet-and-under quarterbacks in the NFL. Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Michael Vick, Sonny Jurgensen, Joe Theismann, Doug Flutie, and Eddie LeBaron all measured at or below 6-feet tall and all were Pro Bowl-caliber players at one time or another.

So is the 6-foot-2 quarterback height threshold simply imagined?

Maybe it’s that short quarterbacks haven’t been given ample opportunities to succeed or perhaps it’s just that they’re less common.

My point is, don’t write off Baker Mayfield or any “undersized” quarterback prospect simply because of their height.

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