Wednesday, January 17News That Matters

Josh Rosen's No. 1 priority is battling narratives, and so far he's losing


Josh Rosen is officially headed to the NFL. The now-former UCLA quarterback announced his decision Wednesday night, tweeting a statement that said he will forgo his senior season and enter the draft, where he’s projected by many to be a top-five selection or possibly even the No. 1 pick.

“Over the last three years, UCLA has helped me grow as an athlete, a scholar, and a member of the community,” Rosen wrote. “I have made some mistakes along the way; however, I am grateful that I made those mistakes backed by such a supportive and positive university, so that I could learn from them and better myself. To the UCLA students, alumni, and fans, I appreciate all of your unwavering support.”

Like every draft prospect, Rosen now faces four months of poking, prodding, interviews, workouts, and evaluations before the 2018 NFL draft finally begins on April 26. But unlike other players, Rosen’s pre-draft process will revolve around shaking a perceived attitude of entitlement and ego that has followed him since high school.

And even though he didn’t play in the Cactus Bowl in December, his trip to Phoenix for the game was a week that proved how difficult rebuilding that image is going to be for Rosen.

Why are so many concerned about Rosen’s character?

Most, if not all, NFL teams would love it if every quarterback answered every question from the media by saying nothing at all. Not in a Marshawn Lynch “I’m just here so I won’t get fined” kind of way, but with generic statements like “We just have to play our game” and “I need to trust my reads and take what the defense gives me” that turn general managers into the heart eyes emoji.

The most adept and media savvy veterans, like Tom Brady and Drew Brees, can go an entire season without saying or doing anything provocative or even interesting outside of what happens on the field.

Rosen isn’t that quarterback and has never tried to be. During his time at UCLA, he:

He was labeled a spoiled rich kid before he ever took the field for the Bruins. He was the child of two Ivy League parents and a student at St. John Bosco High School — an affluent, private Catholic school in Southern California. He didn’t do much to sway those opinions.

As a highly regarded prospect in high school, he butted heads with former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer at the Nike Elite 11 camp, disagreeing with the Super Bowl-winner’s changes to the playbook given to quarterbacks at the beginning of camp.

“I like being challenged,” Dilfer said, via The Orange County Register. “I don’t mind that stuff. My bigger thing was he thinks he knows more than he knows.”

And so, regardless of any personal growth he’s made in the last three years, his comments are viewed through that frame.

The Cactus Bowl showed the challenges he’ll face

It was impossible not to be impressed with Rosen during the Cactus Bowl Media Day. While a pair of concussions in November kept the quarterback out of action for the bowl game, Rosen carefully and thoughtfully answered every question with tact and deliberate choice of words.

One of his answers to a question about top draft prospects opting to sit out of bowl games went viral:

It’s the kind of astute answer that encapsulates the deep thinker that Rosen is, but it’s also one that can’t be boiled down to a single sound bite. That’s been an issue for the quarterback and it could’ve been again if a full video of his answer hadn’t been posted.

It could’ve been a tweet that summarized his answer with “Players are starting to realize they have a lot of power and they don’t need to be exploited when it’s to their detriment.” While that’s an exact quote from Rosen, it conveys an entirely different meaning without context.

That exact problem came to fruition when another one of Rosen’s answers at the media session grabbed headlines:

That quote — when coupled with reports that he doesn’t want to be a member of the Cleveland Browns — sounds like he’s hoping not to be picked by the team with the first selection. It fueled the notion that he’s an entitled brat who should just be grateful that a team would think highly enough to take him at the top of the draft.

But like all of Rosen’s answers, it came as part of a nuanced response to a question about where he’d prefer to go.

In it, the quarterback said he knows he has a unique personality and that it might not be the right fit for every team. If that means he goes later, then so be it, but he’s more concerned with going to the right place than the earliest place possible. Rosen also said that NFL teams would have a better idea than he would if his disposition works well for their organization.

Later, he elaborated when asked what makes his personality so unique.

“I don’t know. It’s what my coaches tell me. My advice from Coach [Jim] Mora and Coach [Jedd] Fisch was don’t be fake when you talk to people because you don’t want surround yourself with people who enjoy and want to be around a separate self that you’re pretending to be. Be authentic, be real, and that’s one of the biggest piece of leadership advice I’ve ever gotten is to be authentic and be real, because you have to be the same guy every day and it’s hard to be someone you’re not every day.

“When it comes to the draft process, I’m going to be — I’m not going to say anything stupid — but I’m going to be my authentic, true self and hopefully someone in an organization says ‘That’s my guy.’ I’ve gotten along with Coach Fisch really well. Coach Mora really got to know my personality to find a really good coordinator that I’d mesh with, and hopefully in the NFL I find that right team that really thinks like they found a good match for me.”

Nothing about that answer screams cocky or privileged. But it’s verbose and much different than the kind of responses to questions that his crosstown rival Sam Darnold gives:

Does Darnold mean that? Would he really be as happy to play for the 0-16 Browns as he would literally anywhere else? It really doesn’t matter. The point is that Darnold’s answer checks the humble and grateful boxes.

It’s narrative-busting time for Rosen

In December, many of Rosen’s teammates at UCLA came to the quarterback’s defense when there were rumors that he was “despised” by players on the team.

The months before the NFL draft will likely bring more rumors; it comes with the territory.

Two years ago, cornerback Eli Apple was knocked for his inability to cook — a criticism similar to one Peyton “can’t open a can of soup” Manning received in 1998. Four years ago, Marcus Mariota was deemed too nice to lead a team.

Rosen should expect unnamed scouts to chime in about him, too. Even in December, there were anonymously sourced reports about his decision to enter the NFL draft, weeks before he eventually announced his choice. He pushed back against those reports on Twitter:

There were rumors that Rosen wouldn’t play in the Cactus Bowl because he’d rather prepare for the 2018 NFL draft instead.

“I want to be clear on this: Josh wanted to play,” UCLA interim coach Jedd Fisch said after the game. “Josh was unable to play because of the fact that he had two concussions over a four-week span in November and our physicians didn’t feel comfortable putting him out there and putting him at risk for the possibility of a third concussion.

“He’s NFL ready. And I think everybody could use another year of college. But yeah, I think he has the ability to go out there and throw any ball to anybody he wants. He has incredible accuracy, he’s incredibly talented and I’m sure if he wants to move on, he’ll be able to do that. If he wants to come back, he’ll help this team.”

It echoed what Rosen and his teammates said about the quarterback’s desire to play in what turned out to be his last game on the UCLA roster.

“I know he’d love to be out here with his team just because he’s done a lot for us and he’s the type of player who fights to get on the field,” UCLA wide receiver Theo Howard. “He fought through stuff this season. Hopefully he has a great future in whatever he does.”

And then there were the reports that he doesn’t want to be picked by the Browns, and would prefer to go to the New York Giants instead. Whether that’s true or false might not matter. Even before he became general manager of the Browns, John Dorsey reportedly had little interest in Rosen.

The real importance of the report of Rosen’s uneasiness about Cleveland is what it seems to say about his personality. And he has until April to fight against those narratives to convince teams that he’s worth picking.

Rosen’s arm will win over a team

He doesn’t speak in tired sports clichés like most NFL quarterbacks, but it’s hard to imagine 32 teams finding him toxic. Even after listening to him talk for more than a minute, it’s difficult to see how even one team could think so.

But if executives are uncomfortable with Rosen’s persona, his skills as a passer will win people over. Even with Darnold stealing much of the attention in Los Angeles, draft experts have raved about the UCLA quarterback’s ability.

“Physically, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Rosen’s game,” ESPN’s Todd McShay said.

Rosen is a 6’4 pocket passer with the arm strength to connect on the deep ball and rare accuracy that allows him to make any and every throw necessary to succeed in the NFL. He made plenty of poor decisions that led to interceptions, but he also wasn’t helped by a UCLA offense that consistently allowed pressure and dropped passes.

The biggest question for NFL teams, though, will be their comfort level with a quarterback who hasn’t been afraid to speak his mind and answer questions more truthfully than most. Rosen has until April to win those decision makers over.

December was proof that even when he says nothing objectionable at all, he has an uphill climb to change opinions.

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