Thursday, May 11, 2006

Draft: Enough with the good old days

One Colt and one Giant ... Hey, it's Henry Moore's entire career!

Not being much of a draft guy, I'm hardly qualified to comment on this year's selections (though I'll happily crap all over the Buffalo Bills like everybody else just to make myself feel better). But I recently came across a dog-eared copy of the Sports Illustrated draft preview issue at the gym. In the introduction to the magazine's coverage is this passage:
"Years ago teams scouted players by what they read in newspapers and magazines, and by word of mouth, and that method worked pretty well. In 1956 the New York Giants picked Sam Huff, Jim Katcavage and Don Chandler in Rounds 3,4 and 5, respectively; the next year they selected Don Maynard in the ninth round. Huff and Maynard (who became a star with the New York Jets) made the Hall of Fame, and the Giants went to six NFL championship games with Katcavage and Chandler.

"Today the Giants have a 17-man scouting and personnel staff and employ a psychologist who uses a 480-question personality test to help project how well a prospect will fit into the team, but they would kill for the kind of production they got from their '56 draftees -- any team would."
If you can't figure out what's wrong with this passage, then you probably see it as a sign of the New England Patriots' genius that they were able to draft Tom Brady in the sixth round. More on that in a bit.

In 1956, the Giants drafted Huff in the third round, which means every team in the NFL passed on him at least once -- including the Giants themselves, who used their first pick that year on fullback Henry Moore. Huff went to the Hall of Fame as one of the greatest linebackers of all time. Moore lasted two seasons in the league (one with the Giants, one with the Colts) and will be best remembered as ... the Giants' first pick in the 1956 draft.

In 1957, the Giants drafted Maynard in the since-discontinued ninth round, which means every team in the league passed on him multiple times -- including the Giants, who used their first six picks on tackle Sam DeLuca (who never played a down for New York or any other NFL team but later bounced around the AFL), back Dennis Mendyk (who never played an NFL season), tackles Larry Wesley and Bob Hobert (ditto for both), quarterback Chuck Curtis (nope) and back John Bookman (one year with the Giants, plus two in the AFL).

In other words, the draft strategy that SI says worked "pretty well" in the Eisenhower years involved taking player after player who would never amount to anything while an electrifying receiver who would help change the way the game was played was left rotting on the board. Crafty!

Why has the NFL's pre-draft talent-evaluation process evolved into the ridiculous pseudoscience it is today? Because the old way of doing business -- throwing darts at a Street and Smith's college football annual -- was turning up benchloads of stumblebums and never-will-bes rather than competent professional football players, let alone bona fide stars. Evaluation methods were so primitive that even when the Giants managed to get a budding superhero like Maynard into their camp, they couldn't recognize him for what he was and let him go after one season.

At some point along the line, NFL teams recognized that if they did a better job scouting, evaluating and grading players, there was less of a chance that they'd load up on Mendyks instead of Maynards. Sure, the process has gotten absurd in its phony precision and forest-for-the-trees brain testing, but nowadays everybody takes every good idea four steps too far. ("Let's put the cheese inside the crust!") Football isn't any different. But just because teams rely too much on 40-yard-dash times and 225-pound bench-press reps doesn't mean those things shouldn't be measured -- and considered when making a pick.

Back to Tom Brady. People with limited knowledge of football tend to misinterpret the fact that New England was able to draft Brady -- who we now know is a sure-fire Hall of Famer -- in the sixth round, when most teams are picking up punters and burning spare picks on Division-III projects. Such people view it as evidence of genius on the part of the Patriots: This team can find superstars anywhere! Guess who doesn't see it that way? The New England Patriots. To this day, the Pats organization, starting with Bill Belichick, views the circumstances of the Brady selection not as the ultimate triumph of the team's scouting and personnel system, but rather as an utter breakdown of that same system. That the team passed on Brady six times in the 2000 draft before picking him still makes the folks in Foxboro shudder like a driver who narrowly avoids a car accident. Six times, the Pats were on the clock with Brady on the board. Six times, they left him up there. Among the guys they took instead of Brady: defensive end Jeff Marriott and tight end Dave Stachelski, neither of whom played a game as a Patriot; tailback J.R. Redmond, who carried the ball 164 times for 527 yards in three seasons; and DB Antwan Harris, who started two games in four years.

The Patriots front office is well aware that Tom Brady could have gone to any of the 30 other teams in the league in 2000. Today he could be preparing to lead, say, the Dallas Cowboys to their fourth Super Bowl title in six years. Or, just as easily, he could be turning to dust on the bench behind Whoever McPassy in Oakland or Tampa or Buffalo because those teams, like the Patriots, didn't see Brady as anything more than a potential backup. The 49ers could have taken Brady rather than Giovanni Carmazzi. The Browns could have take him rather than Spergon Wynn. The Steelers(!) could have taken him rather than Tee Martin. And, of course, the New England front office could have decided instead to draft the other QB they had on their board, Tim Rattay, who was still available when their turn to pick came around.

That the Patriots got Tom Brady at all (and that Drew Bledsoe nearly died on the field, giving him a chance to play) was a matter of luck. That the New York Giants wound up with Don Maynard in the throwaway rounds of the 1956 draft (regardless of whether they were smart enough to keep him) was also a matter of luck. The difference is, in today's NFL, Tom Brady is the exception. In 1956, Sam Huff and Maynard were the rule. Today, every other team looks at Brady and says, "We can't afford to let the next guy like that slip by us." In the late 1950s and '60s, every other team shrugged their shoulders at Maynard, said "Them's the breaks," and flipped the page in Street and Smith's.

In the draft, good luck for one team means bad luck for the other 31. No one wants to rely on luck, everyone is trying to strip luck out of the process, and that's why the Giants -- and the Patriots and the Steelers and everyone else -- rely on enormous scouting and personnel staffs to decide on draft choices, rather than fat guys picking names out of the newspaper.