INDIANAPOLIS — Ha.
That was the snap-laugh reaction from Dwayne Haskins, when someone brought up a certain piece of not-so-crisp analysis that has gone viral for its appeal to lovers and haters alike.
You missed it? Stephen A. Smith, the edgy ESPN voice, maintained during a debate last month that the former Ohio State star is “more of a runner than a thrower” – the punch line for reasoning to consider Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray as the top quarterback in the upcoming NFL draft.
Oops. Haskins led the nation last season in passing for 4,831 yards and 50 TDs, while running for a paltry 108 yards, 1.4 per carry.
“I can maneuver if I need to, but I’m deadly in the pocket,” Haskins said during a press conference on Friday, a day before he would showcase his big arm during the quarterback drills at the NFL scouting combine. “So that’s all I feel about it.”
Just perfect. Haskins, 21, didn’t seem agitated, annoyed, pestered or insulted – and didn’t seem to take it personal to the point of throwing it back in Smith’s face.
Of course, he’s probably only been asked about it something like 4,831 times since a coach told him of Smith’s faux pas. You wouldn’t blame him if he were a bit testy. Yet he was so cool about it, seeming to just accept it as it was – a big blunder – while realizing it has a long shelf life on social media.
“Obviously, it’s not true,” he said calmly after one of the four times he was asked about either Smith’s remark or the mythical perception that he’s more runner than passer during an 18-minute media session.
Then again, Smith, who has apologized and corrected his viewpoint, in some manner helped the cause of a player who could be the first quarterback selected in the draft.
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If you didn’t know that Haskins isn’t a “running quarterback” – an assumption historically applied to African-American quarterbacks – you know now. He’s more Peyton Manning than Michael Vick. In his one full season as a starter, he had a 70 percent completion rate, with just eight interceptions on 533 throws.
It also has helped Haskins demonstrate, with his responses, just how equipped he will be to handle the heat, the scrutiny and, yes, silliness that he will encounter as the face of an NFL franchise.
The game has evolved to the point where there’s legitimate debate, and not just with Stephen A., about whether a team will have a better chance to win with a quarterback like Murray – a dual-threat who can sting defenses with his fleet feet as much he can with his cannon arm, despite measuring 5 feet, 10 inches – versus a pocket passer like Haskins with prototype size (6-3, 220).
There’s much less debate when it comes to the non-physical traits: Regardless of the style, your NFL quarterback still needs to possess a certain demeanor that handles assorted forms of pressure – on and off the field.
If first impressions matter, Haskins struck me as well-equipped to deal with the intense scrutiny and heat that is surely coming on the next level – perhaps even in the Big Apple environment.
“Being the face of the franchise, everyone is watching you,” Haskins said. “You have to be able to lead other men. It’s a lot of responsibility.”
Ready for that? “Without a doubt,” he replied.
He is also determined to swing the debate amid buzz that Murray is gaining momentum as the top quarterback – and maybe destined as the No. 1 pick overall in the draft. Maybe there was a statement, intentional or not, with Haskins’ approach to the combine workouts that contrasted with Murray’s plan.
Murray: No throwing, timing or testing with the other quarterbacks at Lucas Oil Stadium. Like many top prospects over the years, he’ll wait for a showcase on campus, with Oklahoma’s Pro Day slated for March 13.
Haskins: No consideration that he wouldn’t participate on Saturday. “I was going to throw, no matter what,” he said. And no worries. “I’ve been throwing for 11-plus years,” he added. “That’s all I do.”
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Yet the primary mission for Haskins during the combine has little to do with his physical skills. It was about football IQ. In entering the draft after a redshirt sophomore year, he had just one full season as a starter at Ohio State. He came here with the purpose, “to show how smart I am,” he said.
As of Friday afternoon, he had met with the first three (the Jaguars, Raiders and Saints) of at least a dozen teams he had scheduled think sessions with.
“I just got on the board and showed what I know as far a nuances of the offenses, protections, things of that nature,” he said. “I just want to show that I handle the playbook.”
The essential question won’t be answered until the NFL draft on April 25. At least four teams currently slotted among the top 15 picks – the New York Giants, Jacksonville, Miami and Washington – have obvious needs for a young franchise quarterback. And cases can be made for a few other teams that should consider a new quarterback. Given the premium on the position, it’s easy to envision a team trading up to get in front of the Giants, holding the sixth pick overall.
Then again, trade shuffle or not, succeeding Eli Manning with the Giants has a certain appeal. Haskins grew up in Highland Park, N.J., before moving to Potomac, Md., when he was in ninth grade.
“I grew up a Giants fan, so it would be a dream come true going back to where my family is and play for that great franchise,” he said. Prolific was the word he used to describe what a unit could be in joining forces with reigning offensive rookie of the year Saquon Barkley at running back and all-pro credentialed Odell Beckham Jr. at wide receiver.
“Either way it happens throughout this process,” he added, “I’m just going to be happy to be in the NFL. New York, of course, would be a great spot for me.”
There’s no debate that Haskins can sling the football better than he can run with it. But the debate that pits him against Murray could continue for years. While Murray doesn’t hesitate to express the goal of being the first quarterback drafted, Haskins downplays the possibility – another slice of contrast.
“I’m not worried about Kyler,” he said. “I have to worry about me.”
The draft slot means only so much, he insists.
“For me,” Haskins said, “it’s about being with the right franchise, the right team and winning a Super Bowl.”
Which would be quite another way to go viral.