Jim Kensil, executive director of the National Football League, stepped up to a microphone in the Georgian Ballroom of New York's Americana Hotel and, in the uninflected tones of a station-master, recited, "The New York Giants on their second-round pick select Tom Mullen, guard, Southwest Missouri State." Two hundred people cordoned off behind velvet ropes in the back of the room booed. This was last week's NFL draft, and to the fans it seemed that the Giants had made yet another pick that the world would little note nor long remember. (Let's hear a locomotive for Louis Thompson, '67.) It was not just that Tom Mullen was unknown—even Commissioner Pete Rozelle admitted he didn't recognize the first 10 picks in the second round—it was the awful suspicion that neither this draft, nor any single year's draft, could by itself turn the hapless Giants around.
The theory behind the draft is that by selecting players in the reverse order of the teams' final standings, the weaker clubs eventually will catch up with the stronger ones. No way. As elsewhere, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
And for all the trappings in the Georgian Ballroom—an electric scoreboard clock ran down the time allotted each club for its selection—the draft had the suspense of an I Love Lucy rerun. Decisions were made elsewhere, and Draft Central was little more than a glorified switchboard. The Minnesota Vikings, for instance, were represented by their equipment manager and the Rams' phone was manned by two high school students from Massapequa, N.Y. Not that the NFL would ever let its hair down in public. In years gone by it was the practice to make facetious selections in the last round—Hiram Walker, I.W. Harper, John Wayne from Apache State. This kind of levity is now frowned upon.
The first round has always been the most serious. Last week, as expected, the No. 1 selection was Ed (Too Tall) Jones of Tennessee State, a 6'8", 265-pound defensive end chosen by Dallas on a pick acquired from Houston. Another Tennessee Stater was taken fourth and three more were selected in the second round, but UCLA led all schools with 12 players, while Penn State, Colorado and Michigan had 10 apiece. The Big Eight led the conferences with 51 selections, with the Big Ten (38) second.
Washington Coach George Allen again made the most dazzling trade, dealing off three draft choices originally held by three different clubs in three different divisions in three different rounds in three different years for Charger Guard Walt Sweeney, who will be 33 in April.
But for all the wheeling and dealing, the draft does not work. The worst team in football—this year as well as last, the Houston Oilers—drafts first in each round, which means it has the first selection, the 27th, the 53rd and so on. The best team—this year as well as last, the Miami Dolphins—drafts last, or 26th, 52nd and so on. The 26th selection is presumably better than the 27th and the 52nd better than the 53rd. Thus the real advantage gained by Houston over the stronger teams is one man, the first pick, and there is not one man on the face of the earth who could turn the Oilers around. Furthermore, strength begets strength: Miami's castoffs are better than Houston's, so they can be dealt away for high draft choices. Going into the draft Miami was tied for the most picks, 22; Houston had the fewest, 11.
With 26 teams drafting, the blue chippers are spread too thin. Thirty-five of the 80 pros originally chosen for last month's Pro Bowl were first-round choices. Only 11 players were second-round picks, while seven were free agents. Wide Receiver Harold Jackson and Tight End Bob Trumpy were 12th-round choices, Linebacker Nick Buoniconti a 13th. Miami's offensive line is composed of four free agents and a 14th-round selection. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. A team can only count on a first-round pick to fill a gap, which is why the few clubs that can really hope to improve themselves in the draft are those near the top of the pack. The Vikings, 7-7 in 1972, lacked only an explosive running back. After deliberating for all but 10 seconds of their 15-minute first-round allotment last year, they chose Chuck Foreman, and went to the Super Bowl. Had Foreman gone to Houston he would have been swallowed up the way John Matuszak was.
Even No. 1 picks don't come with any guarantee. The 1970 first round produced John Small, Bob Anderson, Sid Smith, Larry Stegent and Walker Gillette. George Allen seems to have the best grasp of the odds. "People say George Allen doesn't use the draft," says Rozelle. "The heck he doesn't. Take the draft away and he could never have built the Redskins." Allen was in peak form last week, acquiring four veterans—Sweeney, Los Angeles Wide Receiver Joe Sweet, and Linebacker Ed Mooney and Guard Cornelius Johnson of Baltimore—for six draft choices, the highest being a fourth, and a reserve running back, George Nock.
The draft needs drastic overhauling. One possible solution would be to open the first round only to teams with losing records, the second round to those that won just one game, the third to those that won two or less and so forth until the .500 level is reached. Thereafter the draft would proceed as of yore. Under this system Houston would have had the only pick in the second round this year, which would have been the 14th man selected. The Giants and the Chargers, who won two games, would have led off the third round, followed by Houston alone. Chicago, the only team to win three games, would have opened the fourth round, followed by Houston, San Diego and the Giants, the latter two alternating in successive rounds since they had identical records. In this manner Houston would have picked first, 14th, 17th, 19th and 25th. Teams with two wins would have had four choices in the top 27 and teams with three wins, three in the top 28.
Rozelle admitted he would like to see something of a similar nature instituted. Still, he doubted that any system was foolproof—that is, proof against fools—repeating what George Preston Marshall, the late owner of the Redskins, had said about another proposal to bring about more equal competition: "You can't legislate intelligence."