SI Vault
John Underwood
December 13, 1971
As director of player personnel, Joe Thomas built the Vikings and the Dolphins into powerhouses. How does he do it? Well, if the artichoke method doesn't work, try a right cross
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December 13, 1971

This Joe Had Better Be Good

As director of player personnel, Joe Thomas built the Vikings and the Dolphins into powerhouses. How does he do it? Well, if the artichoke method doesn't work, try a right cross

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Night flights and psychology are not what brought Joe Thomas' name into the light and onto the pages of the 37th Edition, of course. What has done that is a consistent ability to pick, say, a Kiick out of 100 running backs named Jim, to draft him out of Wyoming in the fifth round and then to wait with forgivable indulgence for the day when others awaken to recognize him as "the best all-round back in the AFC." (Any fool can draft O.J. Simpson.) What separates Thomas is an uncanny sense of feel for a player's potential. This leads him to sift through 300 letters a year from guys trying to get into (or back into) pro football and pick out. as though it were perfumed, the one marked " Garo Yepremian, place kicker." It also inspires him to trade a defensive back named Mack Lamb to San Diego for an offensive guard named Larry Little, and for Little to become a Dolphin star and be voted the best offensive lineman in the AFC in 1970 and Lamb a line of type under "players released."

Those who have traded with Joe Thomas, who have, as one described it, suddenly looked up to see him running oil' with the cake when no one even knew he was at the party, say it is not the kind of thing you care to do every day. Three years ago Miami needed a middle linebacker. Thomas wanted All-AFL Nick Buoniconti of the Patriots. Boston needed a quarterback. Thomas sent films of third-string rookie Quarterback Kim Hammond in action. The films showed Hammond at his best. Boston asked Thomas to throw in Wide Receiver Howard Twilley. "No, but I'll tell you what."" said Thomas. "You can have Hammond and [Linebacker] John Bramlett." After a week of phone calls, the deal was made. Buoniconti today is Miami's defensive captain; Twilley is a regular. Bramlett is a substitute at Atlanta. Hammond is in law school.

"It's embarrassing." Thomas says, "but I guess I never had a bad trade." In 1967 he traded Quarterback Jon Brittenum, obtained the year before as an eighth-round redshirt draftee, to San Diego for a third-round choice, with which he subsequently signed Dick Anderson. Brittenum is now out of football. Anderson is Miami's strong safety.

Meanwhile, whenever Joe goes to Cleveland he has to explain all over again to his writer friends there that the trade he made for Wide Receiver Paul War-field two years ago—Cleveland got a No. I draft choice, with which it took Purdue Quarterback Mike Phipps—was good for both sides "in the long run." "Sure. Joe." they say and roll their eyes.

What further sets Joe Thomas apart has been his ability to anticipate trends in the pro game, and then, intuitively, to find the players to make the trends work. "Trends," Thomas says, "are usually started by one man. Jackie Robinson, for instance." In 1961, Minnesota's first year in the NFL, Thomas' third-round draftee was a scrawny blond-haired preacher's boy from Georgia named Fran Tarkenton. Tarkenton was well known as a quarterback who ran around a lot. Everybody laughed and covered their eyes. Quarterbacks who scrambled were anathema to the pros. Quarterbacks were expected to drop back seven, step up two and throw—and laugh it off when the pocket collapsed on top of them. "But no matter what kind of football team you're building," says Thomas, "the first thing you need is a quarterback, and if you are an expansion club you had better have a quarterback who can move, because with the blocking you'll get there won't be a pocket fit to live in very often."

For four seasons after that, the backroom polemics between Thomas and Norm Van Brocklin, then the Viking coach, over Tarkenton were the talk of the Minnesota office. Van Brocklin was a classicist, a no-run, drop-back passer himself in his glory days with the Rams and Eagles. He kept coming up with reasons to get rid of Tarkenton. Thomas kept fending him off.

In Tarkenton's first game for Minnesota he passed for four touchdowns and ran for one as the Vikings routed the Bears. One time around and the league was amazed. It had never seen such scrambling. "When you drafted that kid," Gino Marchetti told Thomas two years later. "I thought he'd be dead before the season was en or. Now I have nightmares about having to chase him." The Tarkenton-Van Brocklin romance never did get off the ground, however, and they have gone their separate ways—Tarkenton to the Giants, where he still hasn't been knocked out of a game in 11 years, and Van Brocklin to Atlanta—but the trend was established. In 1967, when Thomas drafted Bob Griese another lightfoot, nobody laughed.

It is no accident, either, that Miami's running game, considered the best in the AFC with Kiick and Csonka as the principals, features unflashy backs who are exceptionally strong, who can brute through a pileup to a five-yard gain. who can catch passes and, as the sine qua non. can block. Thomas has leaned to that type. Time spent as defensive coach of the Colts and Rams taught him that "raw speed can be overrated. Quick feet arc more important, and with defenses as big and fast as they arc today the best backs arc the ones who can make room for themselves, and each other. If all a rabbit had was straightaway speed, there wouldn't be any rabbits left in the world." At Minnesota, he drafted much the same way ( Tommy Mason and Dave Osborn), and the Vikings became a strong running team.

As executive assistant to Dolphin Managing General Partner Joe Robbie, Thomas' position cat ties with it additional powers (negotiating contracts, for one), but in many cases "director of player personnel" is still a euphemism for talent scout. The need to gussy up the title is an indication of the status the job has acquired since the days not long ago when owners and coaches arrived at the annual player draft with a stack of football magazines and a copy of the AP All-America team as their only references. Pittsburgh's first personnel man was a funeral director and sports statistician named Ray Byrne. Eagle publicist Jim Gallagher remembers that the guts of his research amounted to newspaper clippings and football guides.

Most personnel men today arc ex-professional players or coaches, some at high levels. Red Hickey of the Cowboys was the head coach of the 49ers from 1959 through part of 1963; Jim Lee Howell of the Giants was their coach from 1954 through 1960. There are exceptions. Cincinnati's Pete Brown, the head coach's son, never coached or played after he left Denison. Gil Brandt, who heads up the far-flung Dallas scouting operation in his role as "vice-president in charge of personnel development." did not play football beyond high school and was taking baby pictures in Milwaukee when he got his start by drawing up imaginary draft lists.

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