Once next month’s NFL Draft is firmly in the rear view mirror, there will be plenty of sobering reminders of just how inexact a science NFL player evaluation really is. Thanks to a fantastic ESPN documentary, we all have become familiar with the underwhelming group of six quarterbacks taken before Tom Brady in the 2000 draft.
Despite being drafted three rounds higher, Brady’s stiffest competition for the title of greatest quarterback ever was also passed over numerous times in the 1979 NFL draft. Joe Montana was drafted by the 49ers with the last pick of the third round. We have met “The Brady Six”. Now, let’s meet “The Montana Three.”
Jack Thompson- “The Throwin’ Samoan” was widely viewed as the prize of the 1979 quarterback class. He ended his college career at Washington State as the NCAA’s all-time leader in passing yards. He also set conference records for completions and touchdown passes in what was then the Pac-10.
The Bengals drafted Thompson with the third overall pick as the heir apparent to veteran signal caller Ken Anderson. However, Anderson played too well to be replaced by the youngster. Thompson started just five games in his Bengals career. He watched from the bench as Anderson led Cincinnati to the Super Bowl following the 1981 regular season.
Ironically, that Super Bowl marked the first of two occasions where Cincinnati would come up just short against their former assistant coach Bill Walsh and his quarterback Joe Montana.
Thompson was traded to the Buccaneers in 1983. He started 16 games over two seasons. Tampa Bay tallied a team record of just 3-13 in those games. Thompson retired after the 1984 season with 33 touchdowns, 45 interceptions, and just four wins as a starting quarterback. He now works as a mortgage broker and occasional high school and college quarterback coach.
Steve Fuller- Fuller was an All-American at Clemson. The Chiefs used their first round pick on him in hopes of ending the quarterback carousel the franchise had been on ever since the retirement of Super Bowl IV winner Len Dawson.
Fuller ended up being just another guy on that carousel. Due to injuries and poor performance, Fuller never finished a complete 16-game season for the Chiefs. Fuller completed under 60% of his passes in Kansas City, threw ten more interceptions than touchdowns and went just 13-18 as a starter.
Fuller closed out his career as the backup in Chicago earning a Super Bowl ring with the 1985 Bears and retiring a year later. Eventually, the Chiefs did snag Joe Montana by acquiring him in a trade in 1993. “Joe Cool” spearheaded Kansas City to back-to-back playoff appearances before calling it a career.
Phil Simms- Here is where this short list gets saved from its own documentary. Phil Simms was no Joe Montana, but he was pretty darn good. The Giants raised more than a few eyebrows by taking the largely unknown Morehead State product in the top 10. A 14-year career, two Super Bowls and a league MVP later, no one remembers that.
While people in the Chiefs and Bengals organizations still lose sleep over passing on Montana, the Giants came out just fine. Like many things in life, hindsight is 20/20 when it comes to the NFL draft. Both Montana and Brady were not full time starters in college.
Even so, it is hard to imagine what scouts were looking at when they came across two of the all-time greats.
Stories like that of Montana and Brady are shining examples of the fact that some guys cannot be defined by just a sheet of paper with a bunch of numbers on it.