Four decades of big surprises, bad misses and colossal busts
Posted: Tuesday April 20, 2004 12:24PM; Updated: Tuesday April 20, 2004 5:20PM
Sports Illustrated senior writer Paul Zimmerman will cover his 39th pro football draft this weekend. SI.com asked him to share some of his favorite draft observations and experiences.
SI.com: What was your most memorable draft day moment?
While everyone was high on Tony Mandarich before the 1989 draft , Dr. Z had his doubts.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Dr. Z: I used do the draft for ESPN. Yep, I'd be right up there on the anchor desk with Joe Theismann and Chris Berman, and one year ... it must have been '88 or '89 ... Chris asked the question: "What will the player of the '90s be like?"
The cliché answers floated around for a while -- "Bigger, faster, stronger," and so forth. But I was always looking for the unusual, so when it was my turn I said, "The player of the '90s will be so sophisticated that he'll be able to pass any steroid test they come up with."
Ooooh! Hoisted skirts and eeek all around. I was waiting for someone to ask me what I meant, and then I'd say, harking back to something the East German track coach told me in an unguarded moment during the 1976 Olympics, that the masking agents were running way ahead of the drug testing, which was having a hard time catching up.
I never got a chance. Both my confreres said, "Well, I'm not touching that one," and right after my remark we went to commercial. When we came back I was off the set. The switchboard had lit up like a pinball machine. And thus ended my career at ESPN.
SI.com: What is the most surprised you've ever been by a pick?
Dr. Z: When the Redskins drafted Cal Rossi, a UCLA back, in the first round in 1947. I was only a wee thing in those days, but I was interested in the draft. Also college football, especially the West Coast variety, and I remember that the Skins had drafted Rossi in the first round in 1946. It surprised me because I thought he was a junior.
Turns out he was a junior, and Washington owner George Preston Marshall, who did his scouting by reading Peterson's Football Annual, as everyone else did, blew it. But he really loved Rossi, so next season his first-round pick was again Rossi. If he'd have done a little homework, he'd have known that the guy never wanted to play pro football. He was headed for graduate school and never played a down in the NFL.
SI.com: Any good picks you remember being wrong about?
Dr. Z: Dan Marino. I relied very heavily on NFL superscouts in those days, particularly when it involved the QB position. The reviews on Marino were mixed, but the guy I talked to most often (No, I won't name him ... why flog a retired scout?) was the most negative. So in my ESPN analysis I used his opinion as my own and mentioned that "Marino's techniques are wrong ... he pushes the ball."
The result was that Marino didn't talk to me for five years or so, and every time I saw Don Shula he went bonkers. "A pusher, huh? A pusher! What do you think of my pusher now? Big quarterback expert, huh?" and on and on. I mean, this lasted for years.
Finally, the next time he did it I wrapped a handkerchief around a pencil and waved it in the air. Surrender ... I surrender. So he eased off, but he'd still occasionally mutter something about "these experts ..."
SI.com: How about the bad pick you were most right about?
Dr. Z: Tony Mandarich. Honest, I really wasn't nuts about him, as everyone else was. I remembered all too clearly the game Michigan State played against Georgia in the Gator Bowl during Mandarich's senior year. The Bulldogs had this French pass-rush specialist named Richard Tardits -- "Monsieur le Sac," they called him -- and he was giving Mandarich a really rough time. Big Tony had trouble moving his feet and I thought, "Wow, this guy is gonna struggle against NFL rushers."
SI.com: Who is the smartest draft strategist you've covered?
Dr. Z: Oh, I guess Bill Walsh, when he was riding high with the Niners. His trades were so profuse and so complicated that I couldn't begin to describe them, but good things usually came of them. I also really like the way Jimmy Johnson attacked the draft when he first came into the league. He targeted the man he most wanted, Emmitt Smith, worked a complex series of trades, beginning with the Herschel Walker deal the year before Emmitt came up for selection, traded up on draft day to get his runner and wound up with the leading rusher of all time. And don't forget Jimmy was a guy who was new to the NFL.
SI.com: Which team has the best draft history?
Dr. Z: Let's say best draft history for a given period, since it wouldn't make much sense to do a 68-year workup. The best draft run ever, over half a dozen years -- and this is significant since it built the team into a four-time Super Bowl champion -- was the streak the Steelers enjoyed between 1969 and '74. In five of those six years Art RooneyJr.'s personnel department picked at least one Hall of Famer, reaching a crescendo of drafting magnificence in '74, when their first three choices -- Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert and John Stallworth -- each made the Hall of Fame, and so did their fifth choice, Mike Webster. Five more players drafted during these six years -- Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Ham, Franco Harris and Mel Blount -- were also enshrined, giving Rooney and his crew nine Hall of Famers drafted over a six-year period. I don't think that record ever will be topped.
SI.com: Which franchise has the worst draft history?
Dr. Z: The Steelers in the years before Rooney took over (in 1966). Even his first draft in '66 was no bargain. West Virginia fullback Dick Leftridge, whose NFL career covered eight carries for 17 yards, was his first round choice.
"It was a good thing my father owned the team," Rooney says. "You see, in those days nobody wanted to play for the Steelers, so you had to find guys who weren't going to go to the AFL. There was a guard for Michigan named Tom Mack whose father had been a cop in Cleveland. He loved my dad and Tom said he'd play for the Steelers, but we chose the fullback instead. So Mack went to the Rams and ended up in the Hall of Fame."
It was even worse in the pre-Rooney years, though, because the Steelers traded away their choices (five of the first six, including the No.1, in 1965; their first seven in '63; numbers two through six in '62, and the same general format in 1958 through '61). And their meager 10-year run of first-round picks, 1956 through '65, looked like safetyman Gary Glick; QB Len Dawson, who sat on the bench for three years and then was traded to Cleveland for end Preston Carpenter and defensive back Lowe Wren; fullback Jack Spikes, who played in the AFL instead; and local Pitt halfback Paul Martha, who became a defensive back.
"Meets the run well and tackles like he's diving into a pool," was what the Steelers' press guide said about Paul.
SI.com: Which pre-draft trade had the biggest impact?
Dr. Z will answer select user questions each week in his NFL mailbag.
Dr. Z: In 1938 the Bears traded an end named Eggs Manske to the Steelers for Pittsburgh's draft rights. Pittsburgh had the worst team in the NFL in '38 so the Bears drafted first next year and selected Sid Luckman, who became the first great T-formation quarterback in history. By the end of the '38 season Manske was back with the Bears anyway. And if you want to know how Eggs Manske got his name, the answer is from his father, who was also named Manske.
SI.com: What's the best quote you heard from a newly drafted player?
Dr. Z: On draft day in 1971 we interviewed John Riggins, the Jets' No. 1 choice. It was late in the day and I was pretty tired, and the best question I could come up with was that stupid old cliché, "What was your greatest sports thrill?"
"Watching the neighbors' pigs being born," said Riggo, who was from Kansas.
SI.com: Which team has the most rabid fans on draft day?
Dr. Z: That's an easy one. Only two sets of fans are in the Garden's old Felt Forum, Jets and Giants, unless some Eagles fans manage to make the 100-mile trip to New York. For some reason the Jets fans are always louder, more animated, more spirited, and they always seem to be the ones waiting in line two hours ahead of time to get into the place.
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.