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Drilling for draft nuggets

With little hard news, draft prospects the buzz in Palm Beach

Updated: Thursday April 1, 2004 2:36PM
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Ben Roethlisberger
Rams coach Mike Martz says Ben Roethlisberger has the ingredients to be a great quarterback.
Gary Bogdon/SI

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The first time I attended the NFL meetings in this venerable institution, The Breakers -- which I'd guess was about eight years ago -- I must have heard about the hotel's gastronomic signature number, the Jalapeno Cheesecake, half a dozen times before I ever reached my room. So that night, although I didn't have dinner here -- I mean, who could afford it? -- I dropped into the coffee shop and ordered a slice of the Jalapeno Cheesecake, which was exactly as it sounded, a cheesecake loaded with jalapeno peppers.

The effect was like biting into a jolt of electricity, like metal hitting a filling in a tooth. Shock therapy. Then I began watching the effect it was having on other people who had ordered it. A lot of gagging and spitting involved. Well, The Breakers' signature number was dumped shortly thereafter and I believe its creator will be out of prison on a work-release program soon, but aside from that, things haven't changed all that much since my first visit.

You try to gather little snippets that will help you in setting up your mock draft board. You go over, with the coaches, some thorny moments from the last season, in a much more relaxed atmosphere this time. There hasn't really been much hard news this year -- I mean, it isn't like the time Al Davis had a major law suit going against the league, and the meetings were divided into warring camps.

In the elevator, my first morning here, I ran into Buddy Nix, the assistant GM of the Chargers, who have the first pick in the draft. So who's it gonna be?

"Well, you could go conservative, you could go with the safe pick," he said, "and take the tackle from Iowa [Robert Gallery]. "Or," he added, his eyes lighting up, "you could gamble a little and take the guy with the big upside, the quarterback from Ole Miss [Eli Manning].)"

Six years ago I'd had the same conversation, at exactly the same time of year, with Bobby Beathard, the GM of the Chargers, who had the second overall pick. He said he could go conservative and take the safe guy, Peyton Manning, or he could gamble on a big strong QB from Washington State with "unlimited potential" named Ryan Leaf. History has ... ah, you know.

"It's a draft that's deep in quarterbacks," Rams coach Mike Martz said on Sunday. "I don't think I've ever seen it that deep."

Anyone who really jumps out at you?

"The kid from Miami of Ohio," he said. Ben Roethlisberger. "I love that kid. Not that we'd ever get a chance to get him, and not that I don't really like our own guy, Marc Bulger, but Roethlisberger has it all. Here's something I learned from Ernie Zampese when I first began to coach .... the top three things you look for in a quarterback are, 1) accuracy, 2) intelligence and 3) mobility, and those are the things this kid has."

It was an interesting talk, and then, without warning, the conversation switched to the most controversial call of the coach's career, when he went for the field goal instead of the go-ahead TD at the end of the championship game against Carolina. And, oddly enough, it wasn't me who switched topics. Martz brought it up himself, as if he were still trying to exorcise a demon.

"I'd gotten burned twice in that situation, going for the touchdown," he said. "We'd already had breakdowns in our blocking scheme in that game. Guys came in free. I didn't want a turnover, a fumble, a forced interception."

I started to tell him that I thought it was negative thinking, the wrong message to his players, etc., but he stopped me and said it himself.

"Negative thinking," he said. "Fear. It's not good. I was thinking that we had a hot kicker and if we got into overtime, Carolina was tired and we'd get into field goal range and ..."

"They were so tired I think you could have run it in," I said, and once again he agreed, sadly. I was beginning to feel ashamed of myself for joining the howling mob and taking a shot at him in print after the game (My God, was it only two and a half months ago? Seems like a year) -- not as viciously as other people had done, but still -- a strong enough rip. "I should have run it in." he said. "You're right, they were tired. Negative thinking," and he shook his head.

The $68.69 brunch

I am a connoisseur of all-you-can-eat presentations. The Breakers offers a Sunday special buffet brunch for $68.69 per person, including service and tax. Four years ago it was $60. One writer told us he took his wife and her parents to the thing and it cost him $240.

"You can buy a washing machine for that," was the Flaming Redhead's line. So now for $274.76 you can get...what? The same washer, newer model, I guess.

I cruise the buffet, lightly browsing without actually indulging. This must be done, of course, without the Redhead's presence, because she absolutely forbids this practice, fearing that should I be caught, the shame would be unbearable. There is never any problem, however, as I am skilled at posing as an honest-to-goodness guest, paying $500 or more for a room, rather than the journalistic, expense-account schnorrer that I really am.

The room service menu is hilarious. A cup of tea: $7.50. An order of toast: $6. And so forth. Fourteen dollars for a grilled cheese sandwich.

The Palm Beach dining scene is an odd one. There is actually a Zagat's Guide for the city, and it includes Boca Raton, Jupiter and West Palm, and contains 164 entries. As dinner hour approaches the Concierge desk at the hotel looks like something out of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, with four concierges in near-formal dress all madly working the phones setting up restaurant reservations.

I get to know one of the concierges, who's from New Jersey, and in a moment of stunning frankness he tells me that there are perhaps half a dozen restaurants worth eating in. "Make that three," he says upon reflection.

I remembered that four years ago there was a restaurant down the street called Amici's that made me happy for two reasons. I could park on the street, thereby avoiding the hated (at least by me) valet parking, and there was some kind of good deal on the price. So we went to Amici's, and yes, we parked on the street again, and yes, there was an extraordinary deal called the Early Bird Special, $18.95 for appetizer and main course, choose anything on the menu, and in this town, a break like that is almost unheard of.

The meal was OK. Zagat's mentioned it as an "island gathering place ... where you can rub elbows with celebs and beautiful people. " (Between forkfuls, I guess.) What it was, actually, was a hangout for 75-year-old dowagers, dressed to the nines and all aboard for the Early Bird Special. The smell of dead husbands hung over the room. At the next table, an 80-year-old dutchess was getting the financial straight talk from her "companion."

"The bill is $60, so you can't leave less than $9, because that's 15 percent."

News from all over

Inside stuff from sources I can't name or they wouldn't talk to me any more:

The real reason Joe Gibbs came back was because his son, Coy, the ex-Stanford linebacker, wasn't doing too well on the NASCAR circuit and wanted a shot at being a coach in the NFL. So he has a job on Joe's staff (Quality Control Coach/Offense).  ...

From someone familiar with the modus operandi of Redskins owner Dan Snyder: "If Gibbs runs into problems, Snyder won't go after him, not the first year, anyway. He'll go after one of his assistants. With Norv Turner, it was Mike Nolan; with Marty Schottenheimer, it was Jimmy Raye; with Steve Spurrier, it was Marvin Lewis. In the second year, it'll be Gibbs' turn." ...

From a 49ers source: "Last year Terrell Owens used to physically threaten Jeff Garcia before games. 'Get the ball to me or I'll beat the hell out of you.' That kind of thing."

Then Owens would go out and short-arm the ball and give up on patterns. As a follow-up, I asked Philly coach Andy Reid about Owens, at Wednesday's NFC coaches-media breakfast. How many years of study did you do on Owens, and what did you see?

"I studied him the last two years. I saw a big, strong, smart receiver."

Any evidence that he gave up on patterns?

"None. Not many people worked harder than he did."

I would like everybody to remember these words, particularly in November and December when the weather turns miserable. ...

I asked someone close to the Cleveland situation how Garcia would do with his new club. He turned his thumb downward and gave it the Bronx cheer.

"He won't get the coaching he needs," he said. "He won't get the protection, either."

From a TV source: "They'll probably go to a 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday format when the new contract kicks in for the 2006 season. Fox is the network pushing for it. You can bet it's not CBS, which has 60 Minutes. The show that's really gonna be hurt is ESPN's NFL PrimeTime at 7:30 p.m. Sundays, you know, Chris Berman and Tom Jackson going over the games. A lot of people like to watch that, but it'll be gone, finished. There might even be some overlap between the late game, which actually starts at 5:15 and the 8:30 ESPN game.

"There's another suggestion, too, that people are taking seriously, and that's to move the Pro Bowl to the dead week before the Super Bowl."

Absolute lunacy, I told him. They'd lose all the players from the two best teams, plus a lot more from the two losers in the conference championship games.

"They don't care," he said. "They want to prop up the Pro Bowl ratings, and they feel that having football on while it's still in a hot part of the season is the way to do it." ...

From Dan Rooney, chairman of the NFL's Compensation Committee, on Monday: "We voted today to extend the commissioner, Paul Tagliabue." (Gosh, the guy's 6-foot-4 already. How much taller do they want him?)

So what was done, already?

Planned celebrations or festivities on the field involving two or more individuals will now draw a 15-yard fine, in addition to a monetary penalty -- make that a 15-yard penalty and dollar fine. Ditto the "introduction of foreign objects," based on the desire to keep America clean.

This is a serious matter, and I absolutely refuse to take it lightly. I mean, who wants kids at all levels from peewee to high school whipping out their Sharpies and cell phones and dancing and prancing and doing all kinds of whatall? And you know, of course, that kids copy everything they see in the NFL.

I made a suggestion in regard to this issue, and it was not acted upon. My suggestion was to avoid fining and penalizing any demonstration that was funny. Thus, Chad Johnson's sign, Dear NFL, Please don't fine me again would not draw a fine and a penalty, but those end zone dances and celebrations would.

At the Tuesday session all sorts of things were passed. The Competition Committee reminded the officials that the five-yard chuck rule on DBs vs. receivers had better be enforced, as well as holding, because passing yards per team per game (200.4) were at an 11-year low. And rather than blame the fact that quarterbacks just aren't as good as they used to be, and there's too much of the choked off dink-passing offense, plus the fact that defensive guys are getting better, it's easier to whine and ask the officials to give the receivers more help. And of course they get more help than they deserve in the first place.

Instant replay is a go for five more years, and now, if you're a good boy and win your two challenges, you get a third one. Selfishly speaking, I don't like anything that will lengthen the games and create more overlaps with the next set of games, thus fouling up my charts even worse. What a stupid, narrow-minded, myopic approach...see, I've said it for you. Don't you have anything more sensible to say about replay? No. It's all been said already. Too much, actually.

The league lawyer stood up at the Tuesday press conference and said how wonderful it was that the court will hear the league's appeal on the Maurice Clarett case, and Clarett's lawyers said, by phone, so what? It's pretty heavy going when you've got to listen to a lawyer on a podium, and right now I'd lay around 8-1 that the Clarett side wins and the NFL loses another antitrust issue, just as it used to do regularly when Tagliabue was its lawyer.

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And while much of this was going on, Raiders boss Al Davis, in a side corridor, held court, as he always does at these things. The trick is to find out where Al has decided to convene his court, and then make sure you catch as much of it as you can.

"What do you think about Warren Sapp's statement that you were the deciding factor in his coming to Oakland?" a West Coast writer said, setting Al up with a slowball.

"It wasn't me, it was what I told him," Davis said. "And guess what I told him."

"How much you were gonna pay him?" a Tampa writer said.

"Correct," said Davis.

He spotted me, leaning against a wall. "I see you over there, Paul Zimmerman," he said. "Cliff Branch, Lester Hayes, John Madden, Tom Flores .... Flores won two Super Bowls, only Hispanic coach in the NFL, what do you have to say?" He was asking me when we were going to vote those ex-Raiders into the Hall of Fame. I mumbled something about it depending on whom they were coming up against, and he waved it away, with disgust. Then he spotted a clock on the wall.

"Is that 6 o'clock?" he said. "What's Tennessee doing?" Blank faces all around.

"You don't know what I'm talking about, do you? Women's basketball. They're playing now. The advances made in women's sports are just amazing."

Exit Davis. Exit the league meetings. Next year, Maui. Hope I'm still around.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Paul Zimmerman covers the NFL for the magazine and SI.com. His Power Rankings, "Inside Football" column and Mailbag appear weekly on SI.com.

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