Watching J.P. Losman play quarterback at Venice High six years ago, it became quickly apparent that he had such exceptional skills it seemed likely — even certain — that he would develop into a starting quarterback in the National Football League.
And that’s now happened. The Buffalo Bills made Losman a first round draft choice, had him learn as a backup to Drew Bledsoe last season, then handed him the starting job, and discarded Bledsoe, who has Super Bowl experience.
The team’s owner, Tom Donahue, said the Bills want to win and Losman gives them the best chance, The Bills feel he is such a major talent that he should not be held back.
A lot happened between Venice High and last Saturday, when the Bills opened training camp with Losman officially taking over the position.
A lot worth reviewing. A lot that makes for a dramatic tale.
I saw Losman play football for the first time in a game at University High. A couple of plays became etched in my mind. First, the ease in which he completed a play that not many have the ability to complete. He rolled out to his right with fluid strides, buying time away from a pass rush, then effortlessly threw 35 yards to an open receiver in the end zone. Touchdown.
He was 6-foot-3, about 215 pounds and could run as well as he could pass. A second play that day confirmed my thoughts. No Venice High receiver was open, so Losman raced down the left sideline and went 40 yards before he was stopped.
College scouts noticed. Losman attended a camp at UCLA and was so impressive he was offered a scholarship by the Bruins.
He accepted, and it seemed like a perfect story. Local kid will stay home and play before family and friends. Except he didn’t stay at UCLA very long. He left after one spring practice.
What happened? It depends who you ask. But the fact is Losman shopped for another destination, a school that would play a wide open style featuring the quarterback. That turned out to be Tulane, so he’d be playing in New Orleans instead of Los Angeles.
He looked at Purdue and San Diego state, who operate out of a shotgun formation. UCLA refused to deviate from the quarterback taking a handoff from the center. And Bruin coaches talked about Losman’s poor mechanics.
UCLA had five quarterback candidates then, the most prominent being Corey Paus. It was proper for Losman to be relegated to a backup role while he developed, but he was impatient.
“I was shocked when he left,’’ said Bob Toledo, the head coach. Through a series of events Toledo was ultimately dismissed, and UCLA hired Karl Dorrell, the present coach.
Perhaps it is simplyfying a complex situation to say Toledo would probably still be the coach if he had an NFL-caliber quarterback such as Losman leading the team. But, without doubt, the departure of Losman played a part in the deterioration of a program that had reeled off 20 consecutive wins while Toledo was the coach.
While UCLA has struggled in recent years, cross-town rival USC has won the last two national championships and had Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks in Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.
But Losman moved out of town for the purpose of advancing his football career.
When he went to Tulane he did not become an immediate starter because Patrick Ramsey was there. Ramsey, who has an exceptionally strong arm but not the running skills of Losman, had a grand college career and became a first round NFL pick, the final selection in the first round by the Washington Redskins.
Again, those who knew Losman best believed he would excel when given the opportunity. And when it came time for NFL teams to select him Losman went earlier in the first round than Ramsey had gone.
The Bills wanted him, knew other teams were interested and traded up on the day of the draft to make sure they’d be able to choose Losman.
This was no longer a kid from Venice High merely hoping to succeed. Losman prepared hard, both on and off the field. He became known as a student of the game and even took a course giving instruction in how to deal with the media.
But he missed most of his rookie NFL season after suffering a broken ankle when tackled by a teammate in practice. He returned to throw only six passes, completing three for 32 yards with one interception.
Now that he’s an NFL starter, the issue in Buffalo is whether he should be encouraged to take advantage of his running ability. Many NFL coaches want their quarterbacks to play it safe when a passing play breaks down.
But one reason Buffalo drafted Losman was the Bills were intrigued by his ability to run.
Coach Mike Mularkey plans to take advantage of an added weapon, having a quarterback who is a running threat. Mularkey left no doubt about his intentions when he called a quarterback run — a play on which Losman gained seven yards — on the first one Losman ran on the day he resumed practice after recovering from the broken ankle.
“I’m going to let him run,’’ said Mularkey. “That gives us one more weapon. He’s been drilled to slide and get out of bounds.’’
Mularkey coached Kordell Stewart when he gained 500 yards in a season, so he has experience with a quarterback who’s a gifted runner.
Last week in a Bills’ scrimmage Losman broke free for an 82-yard touchdown run. Sometimes he runs when a pass play breaks down. Other times he runs on a designed play.
He was also impressive in throwing two touchdown passes to Lee Evans during a drill when extreme defensive pressure was put on Losman. Mularkey expects opponents to force Losman to make quick decisions, a common practice when a team starts an inexperienced quarterback, so he’s trying to prepare Losman in practice.
There is no doubt about Losman’s competitive drive. I saw a game when he was hit hard many times through three quarters and Tulane trailed, 24-7. Then Losman got into a groove that produced a comeback which almost won the game. Tulane didn’t have an outstanding offensive line and that helped prepare him for the defensive pressure he’s going to see.
We’ll never know how much of an impact Losman would have made in college football if he had stayed at UCLA or transferred to another high profile program. Had he gone to Purdue, for instance, he would have played against Michigan and Ohio State and had a chance to throw passes in Rose Bowl games.
But he took a route he felt would lead him to the NFL, and he was right about that. We see a lot of football players in Westside high schools and only a small number make it to a starting position in the NFL.But he’s there now.