This is how dramatic the NFL's 61st annual draft was last weekend: The most interesting story line unfolded on the hardscrabble west side of downtown St. Louis on Sunday morning, as Rams officials awaited the arrival at their offices of their first pick, running back Lawrence Phillips. Would battered-women's groups picket, protesting the selection of a 20-year-old man on probation after pleading no contest to assaulting a former girlfriend? Would Phillips be suitably repentant in the glow of one of his most rewarding days? And would he heed the advice of his media coach, former sports anchor Andrea Kirby, and prove to be as adept at handling a horde of reporters as he had been at running through packs of would-be tacklers while starring at Nebraska?
No pickets. Very repentant. Great posture, nice smile and warm and fuzzy answers.
A vanilla couple of days, a vanilla draft. From the time last Saturday when the New York Jets made Southern Cal wideout Keyshawn Johnson the No. 1 pick, this draft was the most predictable in memory. Experience tells you to expect a shocking trade-up early on, as the San Francisco 49ers did last year when they jumped 20 spots to select UCLA wideout J.J. Stokes. It tells you teams will jockey for the chance to pick a franchise quarterback. Not in 1996, when there were no such players to be had. "Here's how predictable this draft was: We asked our coaches to rank the offensive linemen in the order they thought they would be taken," said St. Louis vice president of football operations Sieve Ortmayer. "They picked the top 11 exactly how they ended up falling."
Sure, the Oakland Raiders leapfrogged eight spots into the ninth position so they could choose Ohio State tight end Rickey Dudley. And it was surprising to watch Phillips last until the sixth pick, because the Jacksonville Jaguars, who had the second choice, turned out to be poor poker players and the Baltimore Ravens, picking fourth, were scared off by Phillips's past. Those eye-openers aside, here's what NFL draftniks were asking last weekend:
•Will the Dallas Cowboys pick anyone America has ever heard of? Other than Kavika Pittman and Stepfret Williams, of course.
•Will megamillionaire Jets owner Leon Hess have to take out a loan from Bill Gates to pay for all the offense he has stockpiled through free agency and the draft? Including projected contracts for wideouts Johnson and second-round pick Alex Van Dyke of Nevada-Reno, Hess in 1996 will pay about $32.75 million in combined salary and bonuses to seven players.
•What was Rams owner Georgia Frontiere doing working the phones at the club's draft table in New York? It seems that Frontiere had had some dental work done in New York last Friday. When the dentist said he couldn't complete the work until Monday, Frontiere sauntered over to the festivities. Hey, it's her team.
After the 30 teams had completed the task of choosing 254 players, here were the clubs whose draft haul appeared to be the most intriguing—or the hardest to figure.
"Baltimore blinked," St. Louis assistant head coach Johnny Roland said on Sunday. "Its loss is our gain." Ten days earlier Ravens owner Art Modell had said he would take Phillips with the fourth pick. Check that. When the Arizona Cardinals surprisingly took Illinois defensive end Simeon Rice with the third pick (and not UCLA tackle Jonathan Ogden, as expected), Modell said he had a dilemma. Or, depending on your perspective, an out. In today's NFL nobody is more image-conscious than Modell, who has been excoriated for moving his team out of Cleveland. The Ravens went for Ogden, and at No. 5 the New York Giants were in the market for everything but a running back. Sitting sixth, the Rams put aside Phillips's off-field problems and pulled the trigger. "Because we feel [Phillips's criminal behavior] wasn't a pattern and because he's been dealt with legally, we think he deserves another chance," said Rams president John Shaw. "We give second chances in our society."