The Clowney Conundrum

February 25, 2014 by Peter King

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — I don’t have the answer on Jadeveon Clowney, who looked like such a can’t-miss prospect Monday at the NFL Scouting Combine. No one does.

Clowney had one sack in his last 33 college quarters of football. That just confounds me. It bothers me, and how can GM Rick Smith and coach Bill O’Brien, sitting in Houston with the top pick in the draft, watch the performance they watched in Indianapolis, with Clowney showing ridiculous speed and athleticism for such a big man, and not wonder, “Did this man really get one sack in the last 600 or so snaps of his college life? What is wrong with this picture?” On the one hand, Smith and O’Brien have to think of Clowney and J.J. Watt tormenting the AFC South for the next six to eight years. On the other, they have zero questions about Watt’s desire, and probably a hundred about Clowney’s.

I covered Lawrence Taylor for four seasons of his New Jersey prime, 1985 through 1988. He’s the best pure pass-rusher I’ve ever seen. Clowney is two inches taller and 23 pounds heavier than Taylor was, plays stronger from the look of the tape, and Clowney’s 40-yard-dash time basically matches Taylor’s—4.53 seconds.

Stats aren’t everything. And sacks are overrated. But Clowney had one sack and three passes defensed in his last eight games. He had nagging injuries, and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has openly questioned Clowney’s work ethic. People have been quick to pooh-pooh Spurrier’s criticism, because Spurrier failed so spectacularly as the Washington coach when he had his NFL chance. But Spurrier was around Clowney every day. You weren’t. I wasn’t. Does he have an axe to grind? I suppose he might, but why would he? No, I take Spurrier’s comments seriously, and so should Clowney. And so should the teams at the top of this draft.

I mention Taylor because I believe being great as a pass-rusher and pulverizing the quarterback got him out of bed in the morning. And he was a sick, sick competitor. In 1988, the Giants were without Phil Simms, Harry Carson and Carl Banks for a crucial game at New Orleans, and there was absolutely no way Taylor should have played in the game; he had a partially torn pectoral muscle and torn shoulder ligaments, and he played with a harness strapping his upper left arm tight to his torso. Taylor had three sacks, two forced fumbles and seven tackles. Giants, 13-12.

But that’s not the best I’ve seen Taylor. That happened in a replacement game in 1987. The players were on strike, and the league fielded bush-leaguers so the owners wouldn’t have to refund TV fees. With the Giants 0-4, Taylor crossed the picket line and tried to beat the Bills by himself, playing both ways, linebacker and tight end. Buffalo lined up a truck driver from Illinois, Joe Schulte, to block Taylor. Schulte was called for seven penalties on Taylor. In the second half, with the refs not watching, LT drove his fist into Schulte’s throat. “How do you like that, sucker!” Taylor snarled at him. The Giants lost, but owner Wellington Mara thought it was Taylor’s best game as a pro.

Jadeveon Clowney dazzled the NFL with a blazing 4.53 40 but his choice to skip certain drills, combined with an underwhelming performance in the bench press, have left more questions than answers. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Jadeveon Clowney dazzled the NFL with a blazing 4.53 40 but his choice to skip certain drills, combined with an underwhelming performance in the bench press, left more questions than answers. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

My point: Can Clowney have that kind of rare desire, or even 75 percent of it? Can he play through the pain when his team really needs him?

I came here Monday to speak to a couple of Penn State classes, and afterward was able to spend some time with new football coach James Franklin. In the past two seasons at Vanderbilt, Franklin game-planned for Clowney in the SEC twice and Clowney made his share of plays, getting three sacks. I asked Franklin if he saw a consistent force when Vanderbilt prepped for Clowney.

“He’s a once-in-a-lifetime talent,’’ Franklin said in his office at the Penn State football facility. “Although people are going to look at the film and say it’s a risk, it may be a risk worth taking.”

That’s the rub: “may be.” You take a guy that high, you want it to be “will be.”

Said Franklin: “I coached in the ACC when Julius Peppers was at North Carolina, so in a lot of ways I was thinking there was similarities between him and Clowney. With Peppers, we always felt like you were better off running at him, not away. He was so athletic, he could run you down. I remember two years ago, we took the same approach with Clowney. We said we’re going to try to get him to rush up the field and then get a guard or somebody to kick him out and then that would be a great plan. I’ll tell you what: He destroyed us. Physically destroyed us. Running at him, running away from him.

“Teams would try to take him out of the game by tempo and try to wear him down physically, playing fast, which you saw early this year. I don’t think there’s any doubt that he was probably the most game-planned against player in the country, from that perspective. And I think he’s unbelievably gifted.”

So now we wait. Teams send the scouts and assistant coaches with the investigative-reporter gene to Columbia, S.C., to dig into Clowney’s work habits and his love of the game, and they watch the tape, and they see how hard he played consistently. Where Clowney goes, and who takes him, could be a bigger story in the draft than where Johnny Football goes.

Now on to your email:

The 49ers are 36-11-1 in three seasons under Jim Harbaugh, who has also guided them to a 5-3 record in the playoffs. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
The 49ers are 36-11-1 in three seasons under Jim Harbaugh, who has also guided San Francisco to a 5-3 record in the playoffs. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

HECK OF A POINT, BUT … Jim Harbaugh’s first three years with the previously underperforming 49ers have been at least as good as anyone expected and most of the recent coverage has been supportive of a pricey extension. However, aren’t you surprised there hasn’t been more blowback since he has two years left on his contract, received $25 million guaranteed and is said to be asking for more than several Super Bowl-winning coaches make (such as his brother John or his archrival Pete Carroll)? Would the same sportswriters be as supportive of a similarly successful and combative player wanting to renegotiate after three years of a five-year deal?

—Mark

It’s not really the sportswriters who matter here. The team engaged in contract-extension talks with him, and the two sides couldn’t reach a deal. The fact is, the team would like to keep Harbaugh and adjust his contract, and so I don’t think it’s a very big deal what we think in this case.

I AM AWARE OF THE GOOD AND THE BAD OF JOE PATERNO, YES. You took a picture of yourself outside the Paterno library and posted it on Twitter? You should be ashamed of yourself. I suggest you wake up and read the Freeh Report some time, then re-read it if you still don’t get it.

—Adam

Thanks, Adam. I am not willing to consign a man like Joe Paterno to a legacy of total disgrace because he didn’t do the right thing on Jerry Sandusky.

TALK BACK

Got a question for Peter? Send it with your name and hometown to talkback@themmqb.com and it might be included in next Tuesday's mailbag.

ANIL THINKS I AM WRONG ABOUT SLURS. What is and isn’t a slur? If you only enforce penalties on use of the n-word, then is it okay to call Manti Te’o a slur? As an Indian person, I would be offended that the n-word is banned but being called a towelhead isn’t. What about a new slur that comes up? Will there be a list? When will it be updated? Will the refs have to memorize it? Lastly, what constitutes a slur? If the ref says ‘Redskins ball’ should he be booted from the game or fined because enough people consider that just as offensive as the n-word?’

—Anil

Some words in the United States evoke rage and extreme anger. Not many. The n-word is one of those words. If other words enraged and offended the American public the way the n-word does, I am sure the league would consider banning them. How can the league anticipate words the vast majority of those in the game and the stands have never heard used? Regarding the Washington team name, it’s clear there is a dispute about whether the name is a slur or not. There is no dispute that the n-word is a slur.

ON THE LIONS AND TAYLOR LEWAN. Okay, I’ll bite: Why an offensive tackle to the Lions instead of a wide receiver/cornerback/safety? Heck, even a linebacker makes more sense.

—Laura Brevitz

Putting Taylor Lewan 10th was more a fit for a player who I think will go in the top 10 than a player fitting a team right now. In a fruitless exercise like that one, it’s more important to me to get the right players in the slot than to match perfectly team to player, particularly 2.5 months before the draft.

WOMEN NEED TO BE RESPECTED. One thing that struck me about the whole Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin affair and came to the fore again with the Ray Rice video is how the released texts and tweets showed the really poor opinion and treatment of women by the players. I think this is an under-reported aspect of the Incognito story. These two recent high profile cases, and maybe add in the Darren Sharper rape accusations, make me think that there should be some coverage of the attitude towards women and the culture that supports it.

—Brian

Well put, Brian. Thanks.

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