Money, pressure to win contribute to NFL execs pushing the envelope
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While most of the attention this week has naturally focused on what Jeff Ireland said to Dez Bryant in the course of their now controversial pre-draft interview, the real question is: Why would the Miami Dolphins general manager even consider such a question to the highly-regarded but enigmatic Oklahoma State receiver?
Ireland has issued his apology for having asked Bryant if his mother was ever a prostitute, it has been accepted, and delving back into that part of the story does little more than continues Ireland's piņata-like existence this week. But the revealing part of this saga is trying to get at the contributing factors that have turned NFL decision-makers into one part detective, one part amateur psychologist, and one part human resource official in the course of conducting these pre-draft prospect interviews.
How exactly did we get here, with one team's no-nonsense general manager crossing the line separating tough, but necessary due diligence and an offensive question that strikes almost everyone as needless and entirely too personal? Is that what the NFL's pre-draft interview process has become in 2010, an exercise in how to administer the third-degree to prospective players, especially those with some character-issue baggage?
Yes and no was the answer I heard from several NFL club front-office executives this week, all of whom agreed to discuss Ireland's highly charged question and its aftermath anonymously, given the sensitive nature of the topic and their unwillingness to add to the level of condemnation a respected colleague already has incurred.
"Miami's mentality is pretty straight forward, pretty all-business in how they do things,'' one NFL general manager told me. "[Dolphins football czar] Bill [Parcells] is like that and so is Jeff. I'm not defending them, but I can see how they went straight at it. Their decision-makers felt they had to find out, is this the case? It is crossing the line, but there's a 'There by the grace of God go I' quality to the whole thing, and I guarantee you everybody in our business who does this felt that on a certain level.
"What happens sometimes is we become so driven to find out the truth of an issue that we throw out decorum, and we think we're playing detective in there with one light bulb shining down on this player. I think we need to all use this incident to take a step back and consider the process of questioning these players in this situation, and realize there's a right way to ask tough questions.''
In talking to club executives and personnel decision-makers, it's not difficult to find contributing factors for teams feeling the need these days to push the boundaries of what questions are fair game, especially in the case of players being considered for the very lucrative top half of the first round. They all cite a version of the following influences:
Money. It's bigger every year in the first round, and there's more at stake than ever financially in making sure a player's future is worth investing in. Prior to their Brandon Marshall trade, the Dolphins were once considering Bryant with their No. 12 pick in the first round. Due largely to his well-documented character/maturity issues, Bryant wound up dropping to the less-lucrative No. 24 slot, where Dallas got a relative bargain in choosing him.
The emphasis on player conduct by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has made teams more wary of taking the next Pacman Jones and suffering the consequences. Don't forget, owners and teams can now be fined by the commissioner if they have repeat offenders on their rosters.
The increasing pressure to win now in the NFL. With coaches and general managers no longer given anything resembling honeymoon periods, or shown much patience (see Jim Mora in Seattle, Jim Zorn in Washington, George Kokinis in Cleveland, and Eric Mangini in New York), the need to make sure you know what you're getting in the draft has never been more urgent. With no time to waste, teams aren't as inclined to consider any topics off limits, and in that environment, mistakes are made.
The understandable push back by NFL clubs against the coaching and programmed responses they get from prospects who have been taught by agents and handlers to reveal nothing too meaningful or unflattering in their pre-draft team interviews. It's a cat-and-mouse game that gets more choreographed every year, NFL club executives say.
"There are a lot of different things that come into play in this issue,'' one NFL club front-office executive said. "Teams are spending more time than ever looking at the character-issue players. We have to. The commissioner has made personal conduct very important, and when you see players like Pacman Jones get drafted and then flame out in grand fashion, teams look at that and start scrutinizing everything about the players. Maybe too much so.
"I promise you the Dolphins are not the only team that asks tough questions. Not by any stretch. What you're doing, especially at the top of the draft, is risk elimination. Some of that is about the money. It's all about making a good safe decision. There are tactful ways to ask tough questions, and Jeff didn't ask it the right way. But I understand why they asked it. You're tying to get a response from a player and find out everything you can find out about him.''
The need to be safe rather than sorry in the draft is more prevalent than ever, the club front-office executive said. And it explains how Jacksonville can take a player like Cal defensive tackle Tyson Aluala at No. 10, even though few clubs rated him higher than the bottom of the first round, and no one likely had him graded higher than Bryant, the draft's top-rated receiver.
"Dez Bryant is twice the talent Tyson Aluala is, but Jacksonville took him because he was a very safe pick,'' the club front-office executive said. "You're not talking ability, you're talking character with that pick. It's really telling. No one in their right mind would ever take Tyson Aluala over Dez Bryant in terms of ability. But in terms of character you would. You can see with that pick how much the scales have changed, and how much character means more these days.''
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