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The Joey Harrington Theory

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Imagine a world without sports. You’re a Hollywood writer and the hero in your new movie is named Joe Montana. The producers would laugh that name out of the room because it is unbelievable and ridiculous. Yet we love sports when impossible feats stem from individuals with names that beget instant iconography. Babe Ruth’s called shot. Joe Namath’s promise. Usain Bolt’s record setting speed. Tiger Woods’ killer instinct.

Any review of previous NFL draft boards will show that there is a lot more to sports than measurable athletic tests. What separates great athletes from great players is a combination of intelligence, instinct, leadership, and confidence. Colin Cowherd has a theory that the quarterback is always the best looking player on the team because, at an early age, he is the most confident kid in his middle school; so he becomes the shortstop and quarterback. Confidence goes beyond looks. It can also be brought up by a name. Take a look at a fraternity composite photo and you’re certain to see a couple of Tanners and at least one Carson. As douchey as these tools might be, it doesn’t change the fact that they have bold personalities and always manage to pull a hot slam piece (sorry).

Bolt took the confidence that came with his strong name and combined it with his once-in-a-generation speed into becoming an Olympic legend. In a sport as individualistic as sprinting it is certainly the reason for his marketability. In team sports, confidence and other intangibles have a much larger role. Montana was one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, winning four Super Bowls. His leadership, confidence, and poise were all larger factors in leading those iconic San Francisco 49er teams. As great as he was, there was no chance that “Joey” Montana would have dressed varsity in high school let alone win four rings. Joey Montana’s crowning high school achievement was getting to second base after prom with a flute player who sat in the chair behind him in band class.

Take a look at the current class of NFL quarterbacks and you’ll see that all the successful ones go by the adult version of their names. Thomas Brady is the name of a five-year-old who plays with micro-machines. Tommy Brady, although perfect for a stereotypical Boston accent, is a weekend bartender at Bennigan’s. Joseph Flacco is a choir boy, not a Super Bowl MVP. Benjamin Roethlisberger is an upstanding member of the community. Matthew Ryan is a bank manager in Philadelphia. Cameron Netwon is the spoiled toddler who is screaming while you’re trying to enjoy eggs benny at brunch. A quick look back at the recent NFL playoffs reveals that the only quarterback not to pass the name test was Andy Dalton, who had the worst quarterback rating. Norv Turner still has a job if his starter is Phil Rivers (see: Phil Simms, Phil Mickelson, Phil Jackson).

The franchise that has suffered the most over the past decade from this phenomenon is the Detroit Lions. In 2002, with the third overall pick, they selected Joey Harrington. Over the course of four seasons with Detroit, Joey, the wittle kid, managed only 18 wins. In 2009 the Lions would make a similar decision in drafting Matthew Stafford. Matthew is more talented than Joey, but his success has not yet matched his talent–blessed with one of the powerful throwing arms in league history, he’s averaged 5,000 yards over the last two seasons. He’s won nothing. For him to evolve he must drop the kid name, cut his Bama Bangs, and find a way to lose that fat baby face.

When that happens, expect MATT Stafford to run the NFC North.