The hottest debate topic in the football world is just how short one quarterback prospect is. At Oklahoma, Kyler Murray was listed at 5-foot-10. A Sooners staffer swears that the figure is accurate, claiming the program’s training staff measured Murray at 5-foot-9 and seven-eighths inches. When Murray was drafted by the Oakland A’s last June, he apparently grew an inch, as the franchise listed him at 5-foot-11. Several betting sites allow users to bet on Murray’s eventual NFL combine height, with one putting the over-under at 5-foot-10 and another at 5-foot-9. In advance of the measurement, I prefer to go off the most unassailable data point we have available—this photograph of Murray standing next to 6-foot-1 Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa at the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
As you can see, Murray is 5-foot-4, tops.
But unlike with randos claiming to be 6-foot-1 on dating apps, teams will know Murray’s true height by the time they meet with him. This week he’s attending the NFL combine, and will have his vitals precisely measured. We will know Murray’s official height, down to the eighth of an inch.
Regardless of whether Murray checks in at 5-foot-8, 5-foot-9, 5-foot-10, or 5-foot-11, he will be shorter than NFL teams have historically considered acceptable for a quarterback. If he’s taken on the first night of the 2019 draft—and all signs indicate that he will be—Murray will become the shortest quarterback ever selected in the first round.
And regardless of whether Murray checks in at 5-foot-8, 5-foot-9, 5-foot-10, or 5-foot-11, teams shouldn’t care. There is little compelling data to suggest that short NFL quarterbacks are doomed. What matters with quarterbacks is not how big they are, but how good they are at throwing footballs. And my goodness, Kyler Murray is really, really good at throwing footballs.
There are some benefits to professional quarterbacks being taller than the average adult. I would think that it’s easier for taller people to throw things hard than it is for short people, because they have longer arms. The list of the hardest-throwing pitchers in Major League Baseball last year features players of all heights, but is disproportionately populated by taller pitchers. The list includes 6-foot-4 Aroldis Chapman, 6-foot-8 Tayron Guerrero, 6-foot-8 Dellin Betances, and 6-foot-6 Noah Syndergaard, among others.
However, the NFL has taken this relatively basic assumption and turned it into team-building law. Traditional football logic suggests that short QBs could struggle to see over their offensive line, and that taller quarterbacks are less likely to have their passes tipped by opposing defenders. I suspect that scouts believe taller quarterbacks are superior leaders too, because, hell, other players literally have to look up to them.
This logic does not necessarily hold up. For example, Murray had only five passes batted down at Oklahoma last season, the fewest among this year’s elite prospects. Daniel Jones, a 6-foot-5 QB prospect out of Duke, had 12. (Similarly, tall players tend to lead the NFL in tipped passes.) The reason is relatively easy to parse. Murray is spectacularly mobile, one of the best running quarterback prospects the game has ever seen. Most 6-foot-5 QBs are … not that. Murray is great at throwing from the pocket, and can also ably move his body to create throwing lanes if needed. A large number of taller quarterbacks amount to stationary prey for hunting pass rushers.
Look at this clip of Murray, from December’s College Football Playoff semifinal matchup against Alabama. While the world yells about whether Murray can see over his offensive linemen, he simply scoots around the pocket and unleashes a perfect bomb:
TOUCHDOWN— Sooner Gridiron (@soonergridiron) December 30, 2018
Kyler Murray finds Charleston Rambo for his first career touchdown.#BoomerSooner pic.twitter.com/ehSKH5KBRp
Yet faulty football logic has endured, and it’s long dictated that mostly tall players have been scouted at quarterback. There has never been a QB under 6 feet tall selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Going back to 2000, only 10 quarterbacks have even measured in under 6 feet at the combine, and nobody under 5-foot-10. Since the AFL-NFL merger, only seven QBs shorter than 6 feet have started a regular-season NFL game. Meanwhile, 114 quarterbacks who are exactly 6-foot-3 have started at least one. Despite being rare, the few diminutive quarterbacks who have made the league have excelled. That seven-man list of sub-6-foot quarterbacks includes a Hall of Famer (Sonny Jurgensen), a Pro Bowler (Doug Flutie), and a Super Bowl champion (Russell Wilson).
Since 2000, only five quarterbacks 6 feet or shorter have been picked in the first three rounds of the draft: Wilson, Drew Brees, Michael Vick, Johnny Manziel, and Pat White. Manziel and White were busts, but Wilson is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, Brees is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and Vick is one of the most dynamic quarterbacks the game has ever seen. Compare this to the much longer list of quarterbacks 6-foot-6 or taller taken in the first three rounds over that span: Joe Flacco, Josh Freeman, Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler, Mike Glennon, Ryan Mallett, Sean Mannion, Matt Schaub, and Andrew Walter. Just one of these players, Flacco, has achieved any meaningful NFL success. The only person excited about these guys is Tall Quarterback Enthusiast John Elway, who has stockpiled as many as possible on the Broncos roster. (I believe his endgame is to build a Tower Of Tall Quarterbacks from atop a Rocky Mountain peak that allows him to touch outer space.) The above list of short QBs has five names and three superstars; the above list of tall QBs has nine names and eight crappy guys.
Here’s a scatterplot of every quarterback measured at the NFL combine since 2000, sorted by their official combine height and Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value stat. (This metric isn’t perfect, but is designed to assess how valuable a player was for how long, which is noteworthy with regard to the draft.)
My first takeaway: 6-foot-5 has been the most successful quarterback height. Sixteen QBs who entered the league this century have surpassed 100 career AV, and six of them (Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, and Cam Newton) are exactly 6-foot-5. Peyton Manning, the all-time career leader in AV, is also 6-foot-5, but isn’t represented on this scatterplot because he was drafted in 1998.
But if I were running a team, I wouldn’t exclusively wait for prime 6-foot-5 quarterbacks to show up. While only 16 players 6 feet tall or under are listed on this scatterplot, representing about 8 percent of the total, that group accounts for three of the QBs with a career AV over 100, or 18.7 percent of the total. Meanwhile, there are 111 players listed between 6-foot-1 and 6-foot-3 (55.7 percent); that group has produced just four of the 100 career AV players (25 percent). And the 16 players listed at 6-foot-6 or taller have produced just one quarterback (Flacco) with 100 career AV. Here’s each quarterback height range broken down by average career AV:
Other investigations seem to similarly debunk the tall QB myth. Rich Exner of Cleveland.com found that quarterbacks 6-foot-1 and shorter actually have the best passer ratings of any height group if given the opportunity to consistently start. Of course, short quarterbacks rarely get that chance. NFL teams are much more likely to invest in tall quarterbacks, and as this chart on Reddit shows, the average quarterback taken in the first round of the draft is two full inches taller than the average quarterback taken in the seventh round. A FiveThirtyEight investigation of QB height found a slight correlation between height and quarterback success, but that quarterback height was much more strongly correlated with a player’s draft position. After accounting for draft position, FiveThirtyEight found there’s actually a negative correlation between height and success—meaning that taller QBs drafted earlier have historically performed worse than shorter quarterbacks drafted earlier, because teams overvalue height when picking early.
The mistake teams are making is treating quarterback like every other position in football. At the vast majority of positions, physical attributes are strong indicators of success, which is why the combine exists in the first place. Teams should be scouting for fast and agile wide receivers, explosive and strong edge rushers, and powerful and nimble offensive linemen.
When it comes to quarterbacks, however, teams shouldn’t place much stock in measurements, 40-yard dash times, bench press reps, or shuttle runs. Quarterbacking is based primarily on one weird skill, the capability to accurately throw a funny-shaped ball. If that skill were closely connected to one physical trait, we’d know. Instead, it’s tied to how well players’ eyes, brains, arms, and hands work together. Being strong or tall or fast might help, but none of those qualities can define the position.
I think that’s part of the magic of quarterbacks. There is no singular blueprint to success. Tom Brady is an immobile Greek statue; Ben Roethlisberger is a pudgy catapult; Cam Newton is a mountain with legs; Drew Brees is a sentient JUGS machine; Eli Manning is a dad who’s late to pick up his kids from their swim lessons; Deshaun Watson is a lanky speedster; Patrick Mahomes II is a wiry throw-god sent from another planet to destroy us. There are so many ways that a quarterback can be great, and so many ways that a great quarterback can look. That NFL teams have decided there is an archetype they should try to draft amounts to collective laziness or dumbness. The truth is that front offices cannot show up in mid-April, point to The Most 6-foot-4 White Guy on the board, and pick him. Franchises must actually watch quarterbacks play football to determine who is good.
The good news is that watching Murray play football is an unbridled joy. His lone season as Oklahoma’s starter was one of the best quarterbacking seasons in college history. It was the most efficient passing season ever (11.6 yards per attempt, breaking Baker Mayfield’s record from the year before), a feat he somehow accomplished while also running for 1,001 yards. Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus recently tweeted that if Murray couldn’t run, he’d still be a legitimate quarterback prospect, and that if he couldn’t pass, he’d still be a legitimate running back prospect. (Unspoken: If he couldn’t do either, he would be a top MLB prospect.) I agree. Murray has multiple elite-level talents, and you’d be a fool to believe his running ability somehow detracts from his throwing ability, or vice versa. Murray’s unique skill set is a football revelation. He doesn’t look or play like anybody in the NFL, which might scare people who want football to fit within a neat box, but should thrill those of us who are curious about the football futures forward-thinking teams seem interested in pursuing.
I’d be willing to bet that Murray is somewhere between 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-10, but wouldn’t care if he was actually 5-foot-6 or 6-foot-5. He could be any height, and he’d still be Kyler Murray. And Kyler Murray is the best quarterback prospect in this year’s draft.