The onlookers at last week's NFL draft weren't about to let the hometown Giants forget past mistakes. When the time came for the team to make its first-round selection, the 10th pick of the entire draft, the fans on the balcony above draft headquarters in a ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel blind-sided the Giant representatives. " Rocky Thompson," they shouted, recalling one of the many choices the Giants would sooner forget. " Ernie Wheelwright. John Hicks," continued the abuse. "Who you gonna blow it on this time?"
Undaunted, New York selected Gordon King, a tackle from Stanford. When Commissioner Pete Rozelle announced that choice into a microphone, hostility ceased. In its stead a magnificent cheer arose. To hear the uproar one might have imagined that the ghosts of Frank Gifford, Kyle Rote and Y. A. Tittle had materialized in the Giant backfield.
The draft is pro football's eternal fountain of optimism, at which, supposedly, the weak grow strong. In reality, the rich grow richer, and the poor poorer. The draft, in fact, is simply one more way of proving the lone indisputable truth of pro football life—a team is only as strong as its front office.
A survey conducted by College & Pro Football Newsweekly of first-round draft picks in the 1970s indicates that not only does the draft not promote equality, but it actually widens the gap between the NFL's best and worst teams. For instance, Kansas City, the club that tied for the worst record in football last year, is also the team that has blown the most first-round selections, four, in the 1970s. (By "blown," the paper means the draft picks are no longer playing football.) By contrast, powerful Los Angeles has all nine of its selections still on the roster, and seven of them start, a change of pace for new Coach George Allen, who was without a No. 1 pick in his seven years with the Redskins.
In addition, out of the past three drafts it is the perennially strong Cincinnati Bengals who have added the most players to their roster, 26. The Rams and Cowboys are tied for third in this category with 22 newcomers each. An upstart here is rapidly improving San Diego, second-ranked with 25. It should be noted that Charger Coach Tommy Prothro and General Manager John Sanders learned the pro personnel business with the Rams. If competitive balance is truly the objective, the NFL should hold annual drafts of front-office personnel.
Still, the draft persists, if for no other reason than that it is the lone event on the NFL calendar where the offensive linemen get cheered. Offensive linemen were actually the stars of this year's draft, leading the way in the first round. Five of them—King, Ohio State Tackle Chris Ward (Jets), Michigan Tackle Mike Kenn ( Atlanta), Washington Center Blair Bush ( Cincinnati) and Alabama Guard Bob Cryder ( New England)—were among the first 18 choices.
King was the second offensive lineman picked. Coincidentally, the first, Ward, also ended up in New York and also was wildly cheered by the draftniks at the Roosevelt, who had earlier pleaded loudly with Jet officials to select him. Ward is a 6'3�" 280-pounder, and Jet Coach Walt Michaels, noting that he had drafted another massive tackle, USC's Marvin Powell, in the first round the previous year, said, "Ward will be one of our two bookends—and we're thinking of a 10-year span." It is NFL dogma that offensive linemen are wise choices for weaker clubs. Their longevity means they will probably still be knocking people around several years down the road while their team has had a chance to rebuild itself.
While almost every pro personnel man rated Ward the nation's best lineman, one draft observer close to the Ohio State scene disagreed. "I know Ward and he has no fight in him," said this man, requesting anonymity. "Ward didn't play in the Senior Bowl because he was afraid of how he would look against the tougher competition. He's overweight with a lot of baby fat on him." Sure enough, a day after the draft, the Jets ordered Ward to lose 10 pounds.
Former Jet Fullback Matt Snell, who played at Ohio State and is now an agent, disagreed with the Jets' choice on different grounds. "I think they need other things," said Snell, noting that Jet runners ranked last in the AFC in total yardage in 1977 and had a long gain of just 27 yards. "A great back can make an ordinary lineman look good. I never saw an ordinary back do anything for a lineman."
No one claimed that King lacks fight. As one scout put it, "He's not like other guys from Stanford. He's mean." King indicated his nature in describing how he plays his position. "The competition in the pits is more than big bodies on a collision course," he said. "If you can break your opponent's will, you can make him give up. If you hit hard on every play, it starts to work on the opponent's mind. And if you can keep doing it, he's going to forget some defense. When you get a guy thinking survival above all else, you sense you've got him and maybe the rest of his team, too."