Earlier this month, when Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth made on-field news of the worst kind, doing serious damage to both his reputation and AndreGurode's face, you couldn't help but wonder whether he had set off a chain of events that would haunt his NFL career for years to come.
I also couldn't suppress a quick secondary thought: Was this the curse of the NFL's 2002 draft class striking yet again, albeit in a slightly different form?
Haynesworth's act of career self-destruction occurred in a year in which so many of his 2002 first-round draft-mates have seen their football fortunes head in a direction -- for the most part a desultory one -- that wasn't foreseeable on draft day, a scant 4½ years ago. Almost half of that draft's first-round selections are either wearing different uniforms (with some players even on their third teams) or out of football altogether.
More so than any recent draft, the class of 2002 has become the NFL's version of the Bermuda Triangle, with the resulting wreckage visible to all.
"It was a bad group of players for the most part,'' said one veteran personnel man for an NFC club. "The talent level wasn't there that year. There were some great picks, but you either hit a home run or you swung and missed. Badly. It was a big boom or bust year.''
The examples of 2002's spotty first-round track record are bountiful. In this year alone, as those players entered their fifth NFL season, trades have relocated Joey Harrington (No. 3 overall pick) from Detroit to Miami, Patrick Ramsey (32nd) from Washington to the Jets, Javon Walker (20th) from Green Bay to Denver, Ashley Lelie (19th) from Denver to Atlanta, Donte' Stallworth (13th) from New Orleans to Philadelphia, T.J. Duckett (18th) from Atlanta to Washington and Mike Rumph (27th) from San Francisco to Washington.
And there's more tales of woe. Plenty more. No. 4 pick Mike Williams, the supposedly immovable object/offensive tackle from the University of Texas, was finally given up on by Buffalo after four years. He signed with Jacksonville after being given his release but went on injured reserve with a bad back during the preseason and will not play in 2006. The Browns this preseason also surrendered their fight to make something of their 2002 first-rounder, running back William Green, who was put on IR and later released with an injury settlement.
Some 2002 first-rounders didn't even make it to 2005 without either changing addresses or having their careers ended. Arizona defensive tackle Wendell Bryant (12th), a repeat offender in the league's substance-abuse program, was released in preseason 2005 and is no longer in the NFL. Chicago's Marc Columbo (29th) and Oakland's Phillip Buchanon (17th) and Napoleon Harris (23rd) were all dealt away last year, as was St. Louis' Robert Thomas (31st). Buchanon (Tampa Bay) and Thomas (Oakland) are both with their third teams already.
When you factor in the trouble that Haynesworth (15th) has brought upon himself in Tennessee and the underachievement of players such as Kansas City defensive tackle Ryan Sims (sixth), who doesn't even start for the Chiefs, and Jets defensive end Bryan Thomas (22nd), whose impact has been modest from Day One, 17 of the first round's 32 players have been mentioned above for less than glittering reasons.
The NFL draft is a crapshoot of sorts every year, but 2002's first round might be in a class by itself.
"I think it's obvious looking back that the first round wasn't graded correctly,'' said a veteran AFC club personnel man. "You can't say that draft was devoid of players, because then you look at the second round and you see guys like Clinton Portis, Sheldon Brown, Antwaan Randle El, Deion Branch, LeCharlesBentley and Ryan Denney.
"Some guys who went in the second should have been first-round picks, and some guys in the first didn't belong there. A lot of it was poor scouting, and just poor decision-making. Cleveland took William Green 16th overall, even though the coach there [Butch Davis] had Clinton Portis at Miami. He could have had his own guy at running back, and he took Green instead. How does that happen?''
"How does that happen?" was what everyone was asking on the first day of the 2002 draft, after No. 6 Minnesota failed to turn its selection in on time and wound up being leap-frogged by No. 7 Kansas City. Remember that embarrassing gaffe? The Vikings sure do, because they intended to take Sims, the North Carolina defensive tackle, at No. 6, but instead had to settle for University of Miami offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie at No. 7 after the Chiefs nabbed Sims.