UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen

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Baffoe: Who's Afraid Of A Smart QB?

Symbolizing an NFL trend, Josh Rosen's intellect appears to turn some off.

Tim Baffoe
April 04, 2018 - 10:08 am
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By Tim Baffoe--

(670 The Score) More and more, the NFL is becoming a microcosm of America itself. Besides the Sunday ritual religious comparisons aplenty, there are the intersections of wealth, treatment of women, political activism, criticism and modification of rules and sighing over some of those rules making the world “softer.”

Also, there’s a conditioned fear of intelligence woven throughout the league as there is in the real world. As the general public reflexively bristles at that which takes a reasoned-but-critical approach to the status quo, so it goes for a critical thinker who wears a helmet and shoulder pads. “Real Americans” is a political term coded in various ways, one that implies the opposite of collegiate and educated, which recently became associated with “elitist.” The term “elite” in football-speak is so clichéd and nebulous that it has become a joke in itself sarcastically asked about quarterbacks.

As the NFL Draft nears in late April, the spotlight is laser-focused on the available quarterbacks as usual, with one of the top choices being Josh Rosen out of UCLA. Whether he’s “elite,” we can’t mockingly discuss until he’s had significant NFL snaps. But the discussion of Rosen has gone beyond his passing skills for a while now, with a tone of “elitist” in considering the person outside of the helmet.

Rosen is a really smart individual in the film room but also beyond football. And football worries about really smart guys being too smart for football. Which is silly to anyone who can separate the game from the fact that human beings of various complexities play it.

"Because of fit, I would take Sam Darnold if I were the Cleveland Browns," Rosen’s former UCLA coach Jim Mora told NFL Network last week. "I think (he has) that blue-collar, gritty attitude. I think his teammates will love him. I think the city will love him. He'll say the right things. He'll come in and represent well. I think he kind of represents what Cleveland is. And then if I was one of the New York teams, I'd take Josh like that. I think they're both going to be great pros."

Usually a coach goes to bat for his former players, so that raised eyebrows. But it’s not just the lack of endorsement for top quarterback pick from Mora that’s interesting. Notice the specific word choice. “Blue-collar.” “Gritty.” “Say the right things.” “Represents what Cleveland is.”

Clichés by Mora, sure. But code, too. Cleveland is Midwestern and perceived working-class. That’s “real America.” New York is coastal, understood to be out of touch with flyover America. Elitist, even.

What “right things” Darnold would say that Rosen wouldn’t would seem to touch on Rosen’s outspokenness and lack of an NFL-approved platitude filter. At UCLA, he criticized the notion of “student-athlete” and philosophized on the worth of college players risking themselves for millions made by schools. He's known to have thoughts on serious stuff outside of football, a penchant for critical thinking and questioning authority and even (gasp) empathy.

A piece in The Athletic this week relayed a story from Rosen’s high school coach on how the quarterback -- who comes from a comfortable financial situation -- was bothered by multiple teammates of his not being able to afford a trip to play a team in Hawaii. Rosen created a discount program with local businesses in Bellflower, Calif., with proceeds going to the St. John Bosco football team, and the trip for those players got funded. Rosen also told his coach not to tell those players what he had done, and the coach only spoke of it now since they had all graduated.

“Josh takes a lot of hits in the media with how outspoken he is and some of the things he says,” the coach, Jason Negro, said. “But actions like that? I mean, I think it's a testament to his character and who he is.”

“Character issues,” the drafty buzz term that means “could potentially end up on the news for the wrong things,” has not been attached to Rosen. But his problematic brain -- and not in the CTE way -- might affect his draft position just as much.

Mora then attempted to clarify his remarks with Sports Illustrated’s Peter King.

“Josh, I think, without a doubt, is the No. 1 quarterback in the draft," Mora said. "He’s a franchise-changer. He’s got the ability to have an immediate impact. His arm talent, intelligence, and his ability to see the game and diagnose the game is rare. He’d come to the sidelines after a play and it was uncanny—he could right away say exactly why he made every decision.

“He needs to be challenged intellectually so he doesn’t get bored. He’s a millennial. He wants to know why. Millennials, once they know why, they’re good. Josh has a lot of interests in life. If you can hold his concentration level and focus only on football for a few years, he will set the world on fire. He has so much ability, and he’s a really good kid.”

Rosen isn't a football robot is what Mora is trying to say in a way that doesn’t betray the culture of football that sort of secretly prizes a lack of sentience. “Football intelligence” doesn't mean critical thinking skills, the latter of which Rosen seems to have in spades and the former he may, too. But Mora, putting himself in the shoes of current NFL general managers and coaches, knows that Rosen is really good at football while not needing football. Rosen comes from a lot of privilege and knows it. His life will likely turn out just fine if he tears every ligament in both knees tomorrow.

For the NFL, one of the scariest players is one with nothing to lose, one who would put a greater cause than football above football. It’s not as though such a player hasn’t been blackballed from the league before.

And as Rosen doesn’t absolutely need football -- regardless of him seemingly really loving it enough to not just use a UCLA economics degree and alumni connections and nepotism to make big bucks not getting bruised repeatedly -- he’s a potential liability to an NFL team investing in a franchise quarterback. He could one day sooner than later decide getting his head pounded isn’t worth it. He could decide that having grown men in polo shirts yell at him isn’t necessary. He could use his status and empathy to push off-the-field sociopolitical issues that don’t fall into the safe zones of NFL charitable causes.

Do NFL general managers agree with Mora, who's a former NFL head coach? Maybe more so now than before he spoke on Rosen. Which, if you are totally invested in what is absolutely best for a football team and provides the greatest reward-vs.-risk ratio as general managers and coaches are, is in bounds for examination. Same if you’re a football fan who prizes entertainment over people.

If you think about this situation the way Josh Rosen likely would, though -- that a talented person in any walk of life might have his value questioned because of his self-awareness and critical thinking -- it’s a pretty silly state of affairs.

Tim Baffoe is a columnist for 670TheScore.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not Entercom or our affiliated radio stations.