It gets more hype than ever, but the NFL draft is still a crapshoot
The NFL draft is probably one of the five biggest sporting events of the year
People treat the draft like it's a one-time event, where the fun is in the picking
Drafting football players probably shouldn't be nearly as hit-or-miss as it is
So you probably know that I was a draftnik before that word was cool. Oh, wait, that word is still not cool. OK, so, to rephrase -- I was a draftnik when it was ESPECIALLY uncool to be one. My buddy Robert and I used to skip school to watch the draft, an astonishingly sad thing to do, looking back.
Now, of course, the NFL draft is probably one of the five biggest sporting events of the year. Every year, people talk about how ridiculously big it has become, and every year it doubles in size again. This year, you know, it's the biggest thing ever. They are breaking the draft up over three days, putting the first round in prime time, bringing in Billy Crystal to co-host with Chris Berman, launching the first manned mission to Mars after the third pick and hoping to spark a national hunger strike if Jimmy Clausen does not get selected in the first four picks. Next year, it's bigger. Apparently, they will unveil dinosaurs.
The thing that amazes me about the draft is not the hype -- at some point, yeah, you get it, this thing is hyped -- but how quickly the whole NFL draft thing dies after, you know, players are actually taken by their teams. There's this huge build-up, and then when the draft's over it's like every football fan in America, all at exactly the same time, goes: "OK, that's done. Let's go to the mall." I mean, if you think about it, the draft is supposed to be the BEGINNING of something, not the end. You are taking a bunch of players who have never played a single down in the NFL, and you are hoping that they can help turn around your team's fortunes. But, it seems to me, people treat the draft like it's a one-time event, the fun is in the picking. How the player turns out seems almost beside the point.
Anyway, in celebration of draft day, I thought that instead of doing the 5,949,483,847th mock draft, I instead would take a quick look back at the last 20 years of drafts, starting with the 1990s.
FIRST PICK: QB Jeff George
George was a bad pick that has been properly lambasted through the years. But based on the other quarterbacks available that year -- Andre Ware (7th pick), Neil O'Donnell (3rd round), Scott Mitchell (4th round) and so on -- there really was nowhere great to go. George was the best of the bunch.
On the other hand, the second pick that year was the Jets' selection of running back Blair Thomas -- and that was a true disaster with one of the great running backs of all time, Emmitt Smith, taken 15 picks later. Emmitt was, in my mind, the key players on Dallas' three Super Bowl champs. Thomas scored four touchdowns in four years while the Jets went 26-38.
FIRST PICK: DL Russell Maryland
To this day, Jimmy Johnson will insist that Maryland was the best pick he ever made as a coach. It's hard to figure by the basic way we judge defensive players. Maryland was never a big sack guy (24.5 for his career) or a big tackle guy. He made one Pro Bowl. He did not make an appreciable number of big plays that anyone seems to remember. But what Johnson believes is that Maryland was so solid, so versatile and so willing, that he was the guy who made the Cowboys defense go. He was the one doing all the bits of dirty work inside so that other guys could be stars. This could be coach talk... it also could be a coach trying to defend what now seems an uninspired No. 1 overall pick. It also could have a whole lot of truth in it. Football, especially defensive football, is not about visible stars as much as it is about a group of players doing their jobs well. Maryland played five years in Dallas, and in four of them the Cowboys finished in the Top 5 in fewest points allowed.
Then he went to Oakland, and played for terrible defenses... so he couldn't do it alone.
Most NFL GMs would probably agree that no single thing is more more important than having a good quarterback. And yet, nobody really seems to know what makes a good quarterback... or how to to develop one. In 1991 the first two quarterbacks taken were Dan McGwire and robo-quarterback himself, Todd Marinovich. Then the Falcons took Favre and they traded him the very next year. Then you had, in order: Browning Nagle, Scott Zolak, Donald Hollas*, Bill Musgrave, Craig Erickson, Paul Justin, Pat O'Hara, Shawn Moore, Jeff Bridewell and Larry Wanke. So not one team that year drafted its own starting quarterback. Not one.
*Hollas is famous -- or at least famous around my house -- for being the starting quarterback for my greatest ever Strat-o-Matic coaching achievement. I was coaching the atrocious 1992 Bengals against the 9-7 Washington Redskins -- I was a huge underdog -- and early in the first quarter I put Hollas in the game. The thing about Hollas was that he could run a little bit. He couldn't throw at all. But he could run a little bit. And Chardon Jimmy absolutely did not know what to do. By the time he figured out what defense to use to stop Hollas, I put Boomer Esiason back in the game... and pulled off the upset.
FIRST PICK: DL Steve Emtman
Emtman is one of the all-time busts at No. 1 overall, but to be fair that really was a pretty atrocious draft. The best defensive lineman taken was probably Chester McGlockton, who I will only remember for two things:
1. The day the Raiders were playing Kansas City he, supposedly, told the Chiefs players not to block him too hard because he was going to sign with the Chiefs the next year.
2. He offered the nicest no-comment in NFL history. McGlockton did not talk to the media, but whenever someone would ask him for an interview he would always say, in a perfectly calm voice, "No, thank you."
Emtman is involved in one of my favorite ever college football stories, one I'm pretty sure I've told before. But I'll tell it again... a good friend of mine was a left tackle at Kansas State when they faced Washington and Emtman. You might remember that Emtman was an absolute beast in college -- that should be obvious since he was the No. 1 overall pick, but even that does not begin to describe just how big and strong and fast Emtman was. He was inhuman. Anyway, he played inside a lot at Washington, so my buddy Michael did not block him much. But one time, Emtman came around on a stunt, and Michael was isolated with him.
So Michael set himself and held out his arms and did all the things that he had been trained to do. Emtman then picked him up and threw him out of the way, like he was a giant aluminum can. That's pretty typical, I guess, of Emtman. My favorite part of the story is that when Michael went to the sideline, a coach started screaming at him: "You have to set yourself! Lower you butt! Punch with your hands!" On and on, just screaming, and all the while Michael was thinking: "Um, he picked me up and threw me out of the way. I don't think blocking technique is the issue here."
Once again, the quarterback situation was pretty bleak. The two best quarterbacks to come out of the 1992 draft were Jeff Blake (6th round) and Brad Johnson (9th round). First-rounders David Klingler and Tommy Maddox... not so good.
FIRST PICK: QB Drew Bledsoe
The Giants really set up their 2000 Super Bowl appearance by taking two excellent defensive players in the same draft. This also was the draft that, eventually, created that remarkable Kansas City Chiefs offensive line of 2002-2005. The Chiefs scored more points than any team in the NFL over those four years. Priest Holmes set the record for most touchdowns in a season. Another year, Larry Johnson ran for 1,750 yards and scored 21 touchdowns. Trent Green made two Pro Bowls. There is no question, looking back, that the key was having Roaf at left tackle and Shields at right guard.
Bledsoe was the best No. 1 overall pick up to this point in the 1990s. You probably didn't know -- I certainly didn't know -- that Bledsoe is sixth all-time in passes completed (3,839), eighth in yards passing (44,611) and 13th in touchdown passes, just three behind Dan Fouts. This was a pretty good quarterback draft. Mark Brunell was sort of a poor man's Bledsoe -- he was a fifth-round pick. Green was the last quarterback taken -- eighth round -- and he had a nice career behind that great offensive line in Kansas City.
FIRST PICK: DL Dan Wilkinson
You could certainly argue that Bryant Young, taken with the seventh overall pick, was the best defensive player in the draft... especially if you feel, as some do, that Harrison was overrated. Young was terrific, but I think Harrison, for several reasons, was one of the real impact defenders of the last 15-20 years.
I was in Cincinnati in 1994, and back then I used to think that one of the main purposes of the NFL was to pull tricks on the Cincinnati Bengals. I would imagine Mike Brown being at owner meetings and other owners walking up to him and saying, "Man, do you smell that upman?" And Mike would say, "What's upman?" And they would say, "Nothing, what's up with you?" and then run off giggling.
I say this because of the Dan Wilkinson scam. I saw several Ohio State games that year. I saw Dan Wilkinson play. And I have to tell you, not once did I think about him being even an especially good player, much less the No. 1 pick in the draft. I will admit, up front, that I do not exactly consider myself an expert of interior line play. I didn't watch Wilkinson much. Still, if someone's THAT GOOD you would think you would notice it, right? I mean, you would expect the player to be like Ndamukong Suh, you know, singlehandedly blowing up offensive lines, sacking quarterbacks and stopping criminals and defusing bombs all at once. Wilkinson, in my memory, did none of these things. He obviously did something well because he was selected All-America despite making just 44 tackles, 13 of those for loss. The numbers, apparently, could not describe the sheer mayhem Wilkinson created.
The Bengals had the No. 1 pick, and it seemed pretty apparent to those of us who did not know much that Faulk was the guy. He had run for something like 5,493,584 yards at San Diego State. But then, all of a sudden, people started talking about Dan Wilkinson -- suddenly known as "Big Daddy" Wilkinson -- being the No. 1 guy. Really? Dan Wilkinson? Hmm. Interesting. You started hearing people talk about his massive strength -- I will never forget that the Bengals strength coach called him "Freakishly strong." Freakish. Yes. That's what the Bengals needed. And while, no, he had not put up big numbers, you started hearing about the way teams had to block him, with four or five men and a battering ram and an electric fence. The longer the talk went on, the more apparent it became that not only should the Bengals take him but they would be FOOLS if they did not take him.
And so... they took him.
And I suspect that behind closed doors, every single GM and football staff in the NFL laughed their heads off.
FIRST PICK: RB Ki-Jana Carter
Tony Dungy turned around Tampa Bay football... but really, the key was this draft, when the Bucs got the heart of their defense with a couple of brilliant first-round picks.
I was in Cincinnati this year, too... and the Ki-Jana Carter experience was very different from the Dan Wilkinson experience, at least for me. The day before the draft, I wrote that the Bengals should find a way to get Ki-Jana Carter. I felt sure, absolutely sure, that Carter was going to be a big-time player, a playmaker, exactly what the Bengals needed. Of course, I don't know anything. But when the Bengals the next day actually traded up and got Ki-Jana Carter, I could not help but feel thrilled... they saw it the same way I did! I had been writing a column in Cincinnati for about a year, and I was finally in the flow, finally in the middle of things. The Bengals PR staff even clipped out a couple of paragraphs from my column and handed it out to the writers. I was at the heart of things.
When you're a sports columnist in a town, people tend to think (against most of the available evidence) you have some real power. I would get dozens and dozens of emails and letters every month from people who wondered why I had not yet fired Tony Muser or Dave Shula or Carl Peterson or Herm Edwards or Quin Snyder. I STILL get emails from people wondering when I will fire Trey Hillman.
Of course, you can respond by saying that you're just a silly sports columnist who has no power in such things... but that isn't 100% true. It's probably 95% true. But not 100%. People involved do read the paper. Talk radio sometimes amplifies what you write. Television sometimes builds off of talk radio amplifying what you write. I've written here before that when Kansas State hired Bob Huggins as basketball coach, I asked the athletic director why and he said, "Well, I'll be honest with you... your column about Huggins was really the big reason." No, I don't believe it was the BIG reason, but it's easy to forget that these are human being making sports decisions, and human beings are swayed by any number of things. Allard Baird, when he was GM of the Royals, used to tell me that he never read the paper -- and unlike every other person who said that... I believe him. I believe him because of his reasoning. When I asked why he did not read the paper, he said, "Because I know it would affect my decision-making." See, that makes sense.
My point is, I felt that in some way I had encouraged the Bengals to take Ki-Jana Carter. I was confident that it was a good move, exactly what the Bengals needed, the kind of move that turns around a franchise.
Ki-Jana Carter blew out his knee on his third carry of the preseason.
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