From The Rose Bowl to the NFL

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In 2015, the Rose Bowl was considered one of the most NFL scout–friendly in recent memory. Nearly two dozen of Florida State’s and Oregon’s players were possible 2016 draft picks – including both team’s starting quarterbacks, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Florida State’s Jameis Winston – and the 2015 Rose Bowl illustrated how the “Granddaddy of Them All” has grown to be the nation’s premier combine for NFL hopefuls.

The oldest of the bowls, the Rose Bowl has – since 1902 – been the home of 19 Heisman winners and 208 consensus All-Americans. While it is no longer a possible site for the National Championship Game, the fact that it has traditionally hosted the post-season matchup between the Big Ten and Pac-12 championship winners means many of the nation’s best players are regularly displayed during the annual New Year’s Day contest.

With such a dominant conference being a regular participant, it often is more newsworthy when a Rose Bowl team fails to produce a first-round draft pick. Just weeks away from the big game, it appears that the Rose Bowl will not fail to show off the NFL’s future stars.

Flowering Success

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While it is difficult to say which college bowl game has yielded the best crop of NFL stars, there is enough evidence to support the argument that the Rose Bowl is a contender for the title. Take, for example, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady – a 10-time Pro Bowl selectee. Playing for the University of Michigan, he was backup quarterback while 2000 Pro Bowl selectee Brian Griese led his team to the Rose Bowl and a share of the 1997 National Championship. Brady went from being seventh in the Wolverines depth chart under Griese to winning the Orange Bowl his senior year in overtime to being a sixth round draft pick and fourth-string quarterback to becoming the Patriots’ starting quarterback and leading his team to four Super Bowl wins and nearly a decade and a half of league domination.

Since 1970, the NFL’s elite players meet up in the league’s all-star game, the Pro Bowl. The reputation of the game itself has been somewhat belittled due to the fact that the league has softened up many of the rules of engagement at the Pro Bowl to prevent injuries – such as no kickoffs, no blitz, and no press coverage except within the five-yard line – the honor of being called a Pro Bowler is matched only by being called a Super Bowl winner. Since 1995, 57 Rose Bowl players have had the honor of being called NFL Pro Bowlers.

The largest group in this exclusive club comes from Miami with 13. Other large contributors include the overall draft leader USC with eight, Michigan with eight – including three Rose Bowl losses – and the University of Texas with five.

Measuring Greatness

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One of the best college football teams of all time is the 2001 Miami Hurricanes. Undefeated and untied, the team had a perfect season, capped by a Rose Bowl win and the consensus National Championship. Fueled by frustration of being shut out of the 2000 BCS National Championship Game, despite outranking Florida State – who would play in and lose the game – in human polling, the Hurricanes went out to prove that they are a caliber of champion that even the BCS computers cannot deny.

Scoring 512 points in the season while only yielding 117, the 2001 team beat their opponents on average by 32.9 points. The team has set the NCAA record for largest margin of victory over consecutively ranked teams – beating Syracuse and Washington by a remarkable combined 124-7 – and set the school record for scoring. Of this team, the Hurricanes had overall 38 players drafted into the NFL. Of these 38, 13 are responsible for 46 trips to the Pro Bowl:

The Hurricanes’ only Rose Bowl win came in 2001.

Other teams that have a large number of Rose Bowl participants who became NFL Pro Bowlers include Michigan (33 Pro Bowl appearances from four Rose Bowl appearances since 1995), USC (20 Pro Bowl appearances from six Rose Bowls) and Texas (15 Pro Bowl appearances from one Rose Bowl appearance).

The Right Stuff

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When looking at the percentage of participants from winning Rose Bowl teams who have been drafted, an obvious pattern emerges. Not counting teams that appeared in the Rose Bowl as part of various National Championship compacts, Big Ten teams – Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, Ohio State, and Washington – tend to yield higher percentages of NFL draftees than their Pac-12 rivals. This is despite the fact that the current draft leader is a Pac-12 team.

While it is difficult to say what exactly about these teams make them so attractive to NFL scouts, it can’t be argued that it is because of better Rose Bowl performances; the Pac-12 currently leads the Big Ten in win percentages and in margins of victory at the Rose Bowl. The Rose Bowl winner with the highest percentage of drafted Rose Bowl participants is neither from the Pac-12 or the Big Ten, however – it’s the 2001 Miami Hurricanes at 58.33 percent.

Passing the Test of Time

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The average NFL career lasts approximately three years. However, depending on how much buzz the player can create when entering the league, career lengths can grow dramatically. For example, a player who appears on his franchise’s roster his rookie year will see an average of six years in the league. Players who have played three player pension–creditable seasons will see seven years. First-round draft picks will see nine years, and Pro Bowlers can see approximately 12 years on the gridiron.

As such, teams that produce a large number of Pro Bowlers will have players with the longest professional careers. Michigan, with 33 Pro Bowl–playing Rose Bowl alumni, tops the scale for longest average NFL careers among Rose Bowl winners at 8.22 years. The 2001 Miami Hurricanes come in second with 7.29 years, and the 2006 Texas Longhorns come in third with 6.96 years.

Clocking Teams’ Viability

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Being a first-round draft pick is by no means an indication of future success. Tom Brady, the league’s top-ranked quarterback and current passing leader, for example, was chosen in the sixth round of the draft. However, for NCAA schools, average draft picks help to quantify the strength of a program and its attractiveness to recruiters.

Among Rose Bowl–winning teams, Texas and Miami – each with only one appearance in Pasadena – have the best draft averages. This is in part due to the exceptional strength of the 2001 Hurricanes and the 2006 Longhorns. The 2003 Oklahoma Sooners – another one-time Rose Bowl attendee – comes in third.

When considering the “usual suspects,” Michigan State has the best draft average among teams with multiple Rose Bowl appearances. This is followed by draft pick leader USC, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

Mapping Rose Bowl Draft Picks

In the NFL, draft picks are allocated in reverse order of the teams’ performance in the previous years: The worst-performing team goes first, and the Super Bowl winner goes last per round. While there are notable exceptions, this typically means that historically weaker-performing teams – such as the Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Chicago Bears – will see bowl MVPs more often than other teams.

Analysis of the teams that received Rose Bowl draft picks reveals this trend. Wisconsin, for example, saw the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons take the larger shares of the school’s draft picks, while USC saw many of their all-stars go to the Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Seattle Seahawks.

Talent is only a small part of what it takes to win in the NFL, which explains why such regular infusions of talented new blood does not necessarily equate to success. In a sport that values teamwork and passion first, getting drafted is only the first step. What a player does once on the team can be just as important as what he does before being drafted.

Elements of Success

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Typically, when contrasting two sets of teams – one winning and one losing – it is usually assumed that all elements of the winning teams will exceed all elements of the losing teams. This assumption would include draft picks among Rose Bowl winners and losers; it would be safe to assume there would be more draft picks among Rose Bowl winners than among losers.

When looking at draft picks by team positions, however, a surprising fact emerges. Though defensive linemen, tight ends, and defensive backs are drafted from winning teams by significant margins, most positions are drafted from winning teams at higher percentages than losing teams.

However, for kickers and punters, the opposite is true. While it is virtually unknown for a punter from a winning Rose Bowl team to be drafted, punters from losing teams are drafted at nearly 10 percent. This may be due in part to the fact that scouts tend to look closer at big playmakers for winning teams, while the entire team – typically for lower draft picks – is considered for losing teams.

For overlooked positions, such as the kicking team, it is sometimes best not to be the winner. However, this is small comfort. For college football’s most hallowed postseason showplace, the idea is to win and show the world the hearts and pride of the players who proudly wear their teams’ colors.

Methodology

We looked at every player to participate in the Rose Bowl since 1995 and compared success in the NFL. Any redundancies caused by players playing in multiple Rose Bowls were removed, and we compared the Rose Bowl data to NFL draft and player career data. The rosters for Rose Bowl teams were posted as partial rosters; although they appear complete, there is a possible loss of data. Many players participated in multiple Rose Bowls. Because of this and the fact that many players both won and lost Rose Bowls, it wasn’t easy to look at winners versus losers. So, whenever winners or losers are mentioned it means this: Winners won at least one Rose Bowl, and losers lost every Rose Bowl they participated in.

Sources

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