Looking ahead to next week's NFL draft, in which they have the third overall pick, the Arizona Cardinals recently compiled a 50-play highlight tape of Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips. As the Phillips highlights lit up the screen in a darkened room at the team's Tempe complex last week, Cardinals scouts knew immediately who would be at the top of their draft-day wish list. "Best football player in this draft," one scout said in the darkness. "Is that Jim Brown up there?" another scout asked.
Phillips has made a remarkable comeback as a draft prospect. He seemed to have knocked himself out of high-first-round contention last September, when he was kicked off the Nebraska team after, according to police reports, knocking down a former girlfriend and dragging her by the hair down three flights of stairs as she screamed for help. Phillips pleaded no contest to assault and trespassing, and in December the court put him on a year's probation and ordered him to undergo counseling to learn to control his anger.
But Phillips's draft stock has risen dramatically since he was reinstated by the Cornhuskers in October. He gained 188 yards in Nebraska's last three regular-season games and turned in a stellar 165-yard effort in the Fiesta Bowl. Among NFL owners, coaches and front-office people, Phillips's enormous talent and the positive impression he has left in personal interviews outweigh the gravity of his assault case. He is almost certain to be taken among the top six picks. Gil Brandt, the former Dallas personnel guru, is one of many who think he'll be the first player selected.
The 5'11", 225-pound Phillips is a potentially stronger and faster version of Emmitt Smith. If your NFL team needed a running back, would you pass him up? "It's a classic case," said New England owner Bob Kraft, whose Patriots will pick seventh but won't have to make a politically difficult decision on choosing Phillips because they already have rushing sensation Curtis Martin in their backfield. "Do you sell your soul for a mess of pottage?"
Last week, in his first interview in two months, Phillips told reporters in St. Louis, where he met with Rams officials, "I feel pretty comfortable about my anger and the way I'm going to control myself right now." In fact, he has done such a good job convincing NFL people of his improved temperament that SI couldn't find one team with a pick in the top 10 that admits to having eliminated him from consideration because of the assault. The best guess is that Phillips will go to the Baltimore Ravens, who pick fourth, or to St. Louis, which on Monday acquired the sixth pick from the Washington Redskins for defensive lineman Sean Gilbert.
Whoever drafts Phillips will face a public outcry. That would be especially hard for Baltimore owner Art Modell. After being widely vilified for uprooting his Cleveland Browns, Modell must now win over fans in his new city as well as sell 100 luxury boxes, 7,500 club seats and 50,000 seat licenses to fill a stadium Baltimore is building for the 1998 season. Making Phillips the franchise's first draft choice could be politically explosive. "Whoever drafts him, there will be women out there picketing," Ravens director of football operations Ozzie Newsome told The Baltimore Sun. "But do we get paid to win games or have nice people around?"
Four of the other teams drafting in the top 10—the Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 2, the New York Giants at No. 5, New England at No. 7 and the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 10—need too much help at other positions to use their picks on Phillips. The Cardinals, for all their drooling over his highlight film, probably won't choose him, either; they had a bitter experience with their two top picks of 1994, linebacker Jamir Miller and wide receiver Chuck Levy, both of whom were suspended for substance abuse within a year, and they may be scared off by Phillips's past. That leaves the New York Jets (who have the first overall pick), the Carolina Panthers (No. 8) and the Houston Oilers (No. 9) in the running for Phillips, along with the Rams, the Ravens and any other team that trades up to get a shot at him.
In scrutinizing Phillips, some teams may have set franchise records for most homework done on a prospect. One team sent its security officer to Phillips's hometown of West Covina, Calif., for three days to investigate the player's past, then sent the official to Nebraska to do the same. Around the league, a sympathetic profile seems to be emerging. After seeing Phillips at the scouting combine in February, one team's personnel director wrote, "Football is his life. He is environmentally handicapped, but this is not a bad kid." The environmental handicap? Phillips left his troubled family life behind at age 12 and spent much of his adolescence in a group home. "Lawrence basically stands alone in the world," Rams general manager Steve Ortmayer said after meeting with the 20-year-old Phillips last week. "At his age that can't be easy."
Houston coach Jeff Fisher dined with Phillips last Thursday at a restaurant near the Astrodome. "We talked at the scouting combine," Fisher said, "but those interviews tend to be rehearsed. I wanted to sit down and ask him different kinds of questions." Phillips gave some answers that Fisher liked. When the coach asked what he planned to do after his rookie year, Phillips responded, "I want to take some of my money and build a boys' home." When Fisher told him he would be hazed about the assault, perhaps even by his teammates, Phillips said, "I'll deal with it. I'll earn their respect off the field, and I'll earn their respect on the field."
The next day Fisher took Phillips to his office and put on a Nebraska videotape. In the middle of one running play, Phillips asked Fisher to pause the tape. "I studied Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk and Emmitt Smith before last season to learn more about rushing," Phillips said. "Now watch this move. I learned it from Barry." Fisher rolled the tape, and it showed a jitterbug, Sanders-type of move. Fisher noticed that Phillips made more yardage than he should have on the play. "I am convinced that this guy is going to have a marvelous pro career," Fisher said later.