For Zabransky, it’s really about a skillset of intangibles that extend far beyond the measurables.
The game does disclose part of the story, though. “I think it tells everybody that I’m mentally tough,” Zabransky said to the media during Combine week. “I can withstand and overcome tough circumstances. I think there were some question marks after my junior season about how string I was, but to throw an interception and be down by a touchdown with less than a minute to go and you pull out a victory, I think that answers a lot of questions.”
Of course, most to the questions he’s had to answer lately have been about the game itself – especially the overtime period. In upsetting Oklahoma, 43-42, the Broncos had a 28-17 third quarter lead, watched the Sooners go up 35-28 late in the fourth, and tied the game on the amazing “Hook and Lateral” play. With the Sooners playing prevent, Zabransky threw 15 yards on a fourth-and-18 from the 50 to wideout Drisan James. James dumped the ball to Jerard Rabb in stride, and Rabb ran the final 35 yards for a touchdown, crossing the end zone with seven seconds left in regulation. On the play, Zabransky was trailing as a possible outlet receiver. The extra point tied the game at 35.
The Broncos trailed in overtime after an Adrian Peterson touchdown run, but won the game on two incredible plays – first, when Zabransky ran in motion to his left, and wide receiver Vinny Perretta, who was lined up as a running back, took the snap and rolled to his right, then threw a touchdown to tight end Derek Schouman, who was lined up as a receiver, to bring Boise State within one point at 42-41. Then, in going for the two-point conversion, Zabransky faked a throw in the direction of a trips-right formation, and handed the ball left to running back Ian Johnson, who scored the deuce that finished this miraculous game.
Zabransky did say that NFL scouts talked to him about the game to a point. ‘They mention a few things about it. The majority of our talks have just been background checks and character checks. Talking about childhood and life before football. (But) everyone’s been on the same page, saying that it’s one of the greatest games they’ve ever seen – one of the craziest games.”
The game, as he has discovered, eventually took on a greater meaning for others. "It’s just the Cinderella effect, or the 'Little Engine that Could' kind of thing," Zabransky said. "That game was broadcast everywhere. We have an Air Force base right in Boise with a unit over in Iraq, and we have guy that we work with who’s associated with the wives of a lot of the soldiers over there. He said that it gave a lot of them hope, and was something special in a larger spectrum that just football.”
Now it’s time for the Combine, and the next proving ground. From the RCA Dome, veteran scout Tom Marino said that Zabransky’s 40-times were 4.58 and 4.58. However, the most important things Marino saw gave a picture of a maturing player. “He’s got kind of an odd motion,” Marino said. “More of an arm thrower, not a snap thrower. With some quarterbacks, you see the ball accelerate out of their hands, and they have that quick snap motion. I wasn’t that impressed with this throwing motion in the bowl game, but I saw improved accuracy and velocity here.”
Marino thinks that Zabransky’s a very intriguing player who improved his stock here. “Zabransky needs to be studied,” he said. What Marino also said is that some Combine drills for quarterbacks are inconclusive; one can watch a throwing motion and miss the timing of a route. Generally, it’s only possible to lock in on individual aspects as opposed to seeing how a quarterback functions in a unit.
That’s where game film comes in.
Zabransky wants people to know that the “small-school overachiever” label isn’t the whole picture. There are physical and mental skills and talents he believes will serve him more than well enough in the NFL. “I think I can do everything’” he said. “I think I have a wide range of talent – my athleticism, as you guys will see on Sunday, will be on the top of the quarterback list. I’m very confident, and I’m ready for any system. I can drop back in the pocket, get out of the pocket, run and make some guys miss.”
Intelligence? Check. “It was called Circus. Triple Right Slide Left Circus. Triple right is three receivers on the right, one on the left, Slide is the protection, and Circus is the play call,” he said of the famous play that brought the Broncos to the verge of that regulation tie.
When asked if he could handle the complexity of a West Coast Offense - the kind of multifaceted set of schemes that help a short-to-midrange thrower without a deep arm - he was definite in his response. “We went in to games with 80 to 100 plays and typically, over half of the pass plays would be new pass plays,” he said. “If you can understand a concept, you can branch things off of that concept and create new ways of attacking the defense. I think I could pick up any offense pretty quickly.
Speed and escapability? You got it. How about the fact that he holds the record for the longest run in school history, an 85-yarder against Hawaii in October of 2004? When a quarterback is beating defensive backs in a downfield chase, does he lose his wind down the stretch? “Not too gassed. I was a little leaner then, about 200 pounds,” he said. “That was 20 pounds ago. We were running a play action max protect. They brought an all-out blitz, held the receiver and doubled the tight end, and there were two guys out there. I had a blocker in front of me – my running back, Jeff Carpenter – and I went down the sideline, gave a guy a little hesitation move, he stopped his feet for a second, and it was just a race.”
He’s also found a good balance between the film room and the weight room. “I think film comes first if you have to choose between the two. Being a quarterback, you definitely have to be in the film room, but a lot of my success has come from the weight room and being diligent in my workouts. I think that’s Boise State’s model, though – the blue-collar mentality. That’s allowed us to beat some team’s you’d think we couldn’t beat. We’ve got six guys here (at the Combine) and that comes from hard work and athleticism as well.”
Ah, yes – the small-school bias. Zabransky has been compared by some to Jeff Garcia, an undrafted quarterback who found his way in the Canadian Football League, and parlayed a Bill Walsh invitation to the NFL in 1999 into a career most would be very proud of. The comparisons may be about more than just the style or mobility – are there people who question Zabransky’s ability to stick in the NFL? To even get drafted?
“If you can play football, you can play football,” he said. “That whole thing, the numbers game, that can only take you so far and you have to be able to go out on the field and win games. If you are 5-2, 105 pounds but get the job done…who’s going to argue with you?
“The NFL knows," he continued. "They had a discussion (during the Combine) about great players who get passed over or drafted late or don’t get drafted at all, and a majority of those players were quarterbacks. I think a lot of coaches and owners and GMs know that it’s tough to judge a guy on his competitiveness and leadership. There’s a lot more that plays into being a quarterback than just stature for one and a lot of it has to do with the chalkboard and stuff like that.
Still, Zabransky acknowledged the doubts that surround any potential draftee who doesn’t do his thing in a marquee conference. In the Western Athletic Conference, respect can be an elusive commodity. When asked what he thinks concerns scouts the most about him, Zabransky said that it’s “the conference that we played in is what they’ll talk about We’re a mid-major conference and not playing very many tough teams. But if you look at the games that we played against teams that were tough and how we played and how well I played against them, I did whatever it took to win those games. I have the mentality to win all those football games.”
Winning is the bottom line for Zabransky – it’s what he can point to in the Fiesta Bowl. It’s what he can point to because he won 32 of 37 games he started at Boise State. When you’re getting lost in the shuffle from a “name” perspective beyond one miracle game, it can be difficult to separate yourself as a prospect.
“I always was confident that I could do those things on the football field,” he said, when asked if that Fiesta Bowl performance opened his eyes to what he could do against tougher competition – and by extension, the NFL. “I think I proved to a lot of people what I could do and I always thought I had that capability. Playing against athletes like that, it just propels you to play that much better. The NFL has tons of those players, and that will help me play better.”
For Zabransky, the numbers will tell part of the story. The rest is up to him.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, and a contributor to FoxSports.com. Feel free to contact him here.