Updated Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 04:04 PM
In the suburbs of Atlanta, on two chilly March days last year, six men gathered from across the country to rank high-school football players.
Each of the six brought flash drives loaded with highlights of the best juniors in the country. They uploaded the videos to Scott Kennedy's computer, which he hooked up to a big-screen TV in his parents' living room in Marietta, Ga.
For two days, the six sat on couches or recliners and debated the merits of the 16- and 17-year-olds popping up on the TV. Some of the six wore slippers. All had soda or coffee by their side. For lunch, they ate ribs and brisket, then heated up the leftovers the next day, when they went at it again.
When they flew out after more than 12 hours of discussion, they had compiled a list of the 100 best recruits in the country and the 10 best players at each position.
"It's like setting up a draft," said Kennedy, Scout.com s director of scouting. "I basically play general manager among a team of scouts."
One of the most prominent players discussed was Max Browne, the 6-foot-5 quarterback from Skyline High School in Sammamish. He first appeared on the national radar during a dazzling sophomore season. And he had done nothing to disappoint since. The group awarded his consistency (along with his size, accuracy, arm strength and maturity) by making him the No. 1 quarterback in the class of 2013.
Browne always shrugged off the ranking as inconsequential. But consider, for even a moment, being recognized as No. 1 in the nation, in anything, as a 17-year-old.
Could you handle it? Would you even want to?
An easy No. 1 pick
There is an unavoidable truth that comes with rankings: Someone always has to be No. 1, even if no one deserves it.
In many years, debates have been waged over that spot. But the last three years, since the 2009 class featuring USC-bound Matt Barkley, recruiting analysts insist a worthy No. 1 quarterback didn't existed.
That includes Gunner Kiel, the No. 1 quarterback in last year's class, who Kennedy predicted would rank eighth or ninth this year — at best. That also includes Jake Heaps, Browne's predecessor at Skyline, who topped the 2010 class.
"Jake Heaps wasn't Max Browne," Kennedy said. "Jake Heaps was solid and the best guy in a bad lot."
But this year is different. The 2013 quarterback class is considered the best in at least three years. When the Scout.com analysts gathered in Atlanta to put together their first national list, there was little need for Brandon Huffman or Greg Biggins, the two regional analysts who cover the West, to lobby on Browne's behalf.
On film, all six could see what Browne brought to the table. At 6-5, he had the ideal physical stature. He delivered passes on time and usually made the correct reads. And he displayed an uncanny ability to float the ball into his receivers' hands on deep balls.
There was something else. He carried himself like a top-ranked quarterback. The way he handled interviews, the way he rallied his team from behind, the way his teammates seemed to react to him, all mattered.
Browne, the analysts agreed, would have been No. 1 in any of the last three classes.
"He was as easy a No. 1 pick as we've had," Huffman said.
The thing that rarely factored into Browne's ranking was statistics, gaudy as they were. He's Washington's career leader in passing yards (12,953) and completions (882 in 52 games), and he has thrown for 146 touchdowns in three years.
But, as Kennedy says, "The state and national record books are littered with guys you've never heard of."
Instead, it was the way Browne played — his throws and reads. College-ready throws, they called them. He stood out on video in 2010, as a sophomore, when Scout.com's analysts were evaluating his favorite receiver, Kasen Williams. By the time it was Browne's turn to go through the ranking cycle, the decision at Scout.com was unanimous.
The two quarterbacks ranked behind him — Christian Hackenburg from Virginia and Shane Morris from Michigan — both had more glaring holes.
Of Hackenburg, a Penn State recruit, Kennedy said, "You watch him drop back and throw and you say, 'OK, that's as good-looking a quarterback as there is in the country.' Then you watch him live, and he starts throwing to the wrong colored jersey a little too often."
Of Morris, a Michigan recruit, Kennedy said, "They call him Sugar Shane for obvious reasons, but I say you have to watch out for Sour Shane because if he's not focused, he can't throw the ball in the ocean."
Browne isn't without flaws — there are questions about his mobility and athleticism in the pocket — but they are far more minor. In other words, when analysts looked at Browne, they saw a polished player.
No grace period
"I'm really at the point where I hope Browne gets the nod and gets to run the show for 3 or 4 years."
— Trojan fan on a usc.247sports.com message board
There will be no grace period at USC, especially not for the No. 1 quarterback in the country. Already, Trojans fans have turned their attention — and hopes — toward Browne and his prospects of winning the starting job. (The above quote was posted in a thread titled, "let the max browne era begin.")
Browne first stepped under the microscope in 2010 as a curly-haired sophomore. He spent the previous year in meetings with Heaps and Skyline coach Mat Taylor, and his name had already surfaced in recruiting circles.
He reportedly had an offer from Washington by his first start, and backed it up with 418 yards and five touchdowns in a 39-34 loss to Liberty.
"He has a combination (of) size and arm strength that is rarely found in high-school quarterbacks, let alone sophomores," wrote Scout.com's Jake Worthen. He added, "One early critique is that he tended to lock onto a target early and he could run into trouble if he is staring down his receivers."
Browne was 15 at the time, not old enough to drive. His performances have been dissected ever since. Adam Gorney, a Rivals.com analyst, worries that high-school quarterbacks are being picked apart too harshly, their warts being seized on too much.
As Browne's senior year progressed and USC's once-promising season continued derailing, the intrigue surrounding his commitment intensified. There was speculation he might weigh his options as coach Lane Kiffin's future became murky.
Browne never wavered, not even privately. Kiffin watched him pass for 384 yards and four touchdowns in the state-championship game, and afterward, when he should have been soaking in his last high-school game, Browne still answered questions about the "firmness" of his commitment to USC.
"I've been committed there for about six months," Browne said after beating Bellarmine Prep of Tacoma. "But tonight is about Skyline."
This is the side of recruiting that often exists in the shadows. The spotlight works two ways: You are acknowledged and hyped and praised in a way that few high-school students can even fathom, but you are dissected and pestered in a way that can become gnawing.
There is an endless thirst for comment, for speculation, for information, for handshakes, for judgment. And Browne dealt with it all for three years.
"I don't even want to think about how many interviews Max has had to do in his lifetime already," Worthen said.
Browne's existence in the recruiting world officially ended on Jan. 10, the day he left Sammamish for USC. He is a college football player now. When spring practices begin in early March, Browne will attempt to win the starting job. The recruiting ranking attached to his name will have had nothing to do with the outcome.
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org
JOHN FROSCHAUER / AP
Recruiting analysts love Max Browne's size, accuracy, passing touch and leadership qualities.