Randy Mueller laughed at the question. The former Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints general manager is intimately acquainted with the pressures of the war room, and I wanted to know if the intense Internet, TV and print hype that now accompanies the NFL drafts impacts the first-round choices that some teams make.
"I would hope media coverage doesn't have an influence," Mueller responded, letting his words hang for comic effect. "But you're asking the wrong guy. Last year during the draft my daughter called and said, 'Dad, I love Ginn, but you're going to need a bulletproof vest to get home.' "
When Miami drafted wideout/kick returner Ted Ginn Jr. with the ninth overall pick in 2007, suffice it to say that the paying customers were not pleased. Seduced by the prospect of landing former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, who'd been lauded by analysts as a potential No. 1 overall selection for months, the season ticket holders who attended a team-sponsored draft party next to the Dolphins' training facility vented their frustrations at first-year coach Cam Cameron, creating one of the more hilarious scenes in the history of fan rallies.
It's too early to tell whether Mueller and Cameron whiffed on their pick, but don't think their experience won't be fresh in the minds of at least some of their peers when they're on the clock at Radio City Music Hall in New York this weekend. In an era of instantaneous analysis, the easiest way to avoid ridicule is to stick with choices that are the heralded as no-brainers – the war room equivalent of punting on fourth-and-inches or playing the prevent defense with a seven-point lead in the last two minutes.
Last week, in examining the preponderance of first-round selections which ultimately fall flat, I wrote that an entire column could be devoted to the way teams muck up their first-round selections. Voila! This is a sore subject with many behind-the-scenes talent evaluators, who cringe as their bosses (or coaches entrusted with final authority over the draft) let outside forces pollute what should be a detached, analytical decision.
The problem, as expressed by one scout, is that "the majority of first-round picks are decided by the guys who know the least."
He's talking about coaches, general managers (at least the ones who didn't start out as personnel men), owners and even Internet columnists and their ilk. We'll address them in that order:
• How do the coaches screw it up? First, they allow their desire for instant gratification to override the best long-term interests of the franchise. "They want to draft for need instead of taking the best player on the board, because they want to win now," says one NFC scout.
Coaches also let their egos cloud their judgment. In the fall, scouts travel to colleges, observe players on tape and in person and talk to their coaches and others involved with the football program. Then, beginning with the postseason All-Star games and continuing with the NFL scouting combine and various pro days, organizational grades are affected by an overemphasis on the dreaded measurables and, in some cases, personality and intelligence tests.
"Here's the problem," one AFC scout explains. "The coaching staff goes into the process backwards. We watch all that film first and then see them in shorts and at the combine and try to confirm what we saw them do on the football field. Coaches get their first look at these guys at the Senior Bowl and the combine, and then they go back and watch film and try to confirm those impressions. But everything they see on film has been skewed by what they saw in the workouts."
When judging a player with prolific size and speed who wasn't especially adept at making plays in college, coaches are known to rationalize the discrepancy by concluding that their collegiate counterparts were to blame. Says an NFC scouting director: "Coaches always say, 'He wasn't coached right. I'm the one who can bring it out of him.' And they're usually wrong. The sad thing is, when they get to the NFL, sometimes these guys get the least coaching of all."
Adds Mueller: "I think you've definitely got to be careful. Coaches should have input, but they bring a whole different line of thinking to the process. Sometimes before a draft, the personnel guys and I would leave the meeting room at night and come back in the morning and all the cards had been moved around. We'd say, 'Damn, there must have been a couple of more all-star games in the middle of the night we didn't know about.'"
• As for the general managers, too many of them tend to stick with what is viewed as the safe pick – in the eyes of the majority of their peers and as expressed in media coverage – rather than selecting the player they think is best. With so much attention focused on the first round and increased impatience from owners, the easiest path toward self-preservation is to go with the guy who's being talked up as a can't-miss prospect. That way, even if the player turns out to be a bust, the GM can deflect blame by assuring his boss that "everyone else had him rated just as high."
Give credit to independent thinkers like Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian (remember the outcry when he took Edgerrin James over Ricky Williams in '99?), Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson and San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith for being especially adept at trusting their scouts' evaluations and ignoring the outside noise. Not coincidentally, those four men also happen to have very impressive track records.
• Owners, too, get seduced by the star power of certain prospects and can impose their will either explicitly or implicitly. An example of the former occurred two years ago when Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams decreed that his team would draft quarterback Vince Young No. 3 overall. His motivation? He knew that selecting the high-profile Houston native would tweak the city's former mayor, with whom Adams has been feuding since he moved the Oilers to Tennessee.
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank is far less egregious in his meddling, and he deserves credit for hiring a highly regarded former New England Patriots scout, Tom Dimitroff, as his GM earlier this year. But Blank has also been accompanying Dimitroff on player visits (including a recent trip to Boston to see top quarterback prospect Matt Ryan), claiming he'll have no actual input into who the GM chooses on draft day. That sounds a bit delusional. If Blank drops a casual comment into conversation about how impressed he was by a certain player, it's hard to imagine it not having at least some effect on the new GM's mindset. And if Ryan is on the board (as expected) when the Falcons pick third? After the Michael Vick fiasco, conventional wisdom suggests that Blank would love for Dimitroff to draft another player lauded as a potential franchise quarterback. "Owners want to see instant excitement from the fans," says one personnel man. "You know they're going to gravitate toward stars."
• Speaking of stars, do the people in my business really play a role in this? Like Mueller, I find it hard to fathom that media hype or scrutiny would have any impact on what player a team chooses, with so much at stake competitively and financially. But some of those on the inside swear it's so. "You wouldn't believe how much the media's involved in this stuff," the scouting director says. "You know how many times in draft rooms the top personnel guy or head coach will say something like, 'Well, so-and-so is supposed to be the top-rated guy'? They'll say, 'How can we take this other guy? We'll get crushed in the media.' People are giving grades the day after the draft, and the best way to get an 'A' is to go with the guys who the experts are projecting as the top picks."
So there you have it, a four-pronged recipe for turning a rational decision into an unnecessarily muddled one. Then again, scouts are plenty capable of screwing things up themselves.
"Scouting is like anything else," the scouting director says. "The buzz gets started, and scouts can get caught up in it and start listening to everybody else instead of making their own determinations. Some guys will compare notes instead of trusting their own eyes. And ultimately, the guys who make a name for themselves in this business are the ones who don't just go with the flow."
Ask Mueller, who this year came to the conclusion that Michigan tackle Jake Long is the best player in the draft. "That's who I would have taken at No. 1," he says.
Of course, Mueller won't be in the war room when the Dolphins make the first overall selection on Saturday. He didn't need that bulletproof vest after picking Ginn, but he and Cameron did lose their jobs after Miami's 1-15 season.
Even so, Mueller doesn't second-guess his decisions.
"The bottom line when you're in that seat," he says, "is you've got to be a good listener, sort out all the noise and ultimately do what you think is right."
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL):
"I got a kick out of your 'Draft Numbers Don't Add Up' column, not only because of the majesty of your prose but for the reference to Richard Todd. My father shares the same name with that forlorn Jets QB and it reminded me of one of many fabrications he told a gullible little boy growing up learning to love pro football. 'Apparently' he had gotten many a phone call from Jets fans who couldn't believe a pro QB was living in Michigan in the offseason. It wasn't until I grew up and understood what a TD-to-interception ratio was that I realized he picked the wrong athlete to falsely impersonate. Thanks for the laugh and keep up the great work. The only gripe I have is that you're ruining my Sopranos experience. I'm watching them on DVD and I'm only through season 3. You've become quite the suspense buzzkill anytime you compare an incident with the Jets to a character's death on the show. Otherwise, I love your columns and I'll be looking forward to the first 32 Questions for the upcoming season. If I ever run into you covering my crappy Lions this year, we'll do a Don Julio shot from one grammar Nazi to another."
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Cool, and sorry about "The Sopranos" spoilage. If it makes you feel any better, I absolutely won't reveal what goes down in the final scene of the series finale because it …
" 'It was Richard Todd, he of the 121 career touchdowns against 164 interceptions.' Ummm … Joe Namath had 173 TDs and 220 picks."
Uh, yeah, but Broadway Joe also had one indelible guarantee, a Super Bowl ring and a much more impressive babe-to-interception ratio.
"Enjoyed your article on draft numbers not adding up. I do disagree on one player you put under the label of 'a run of ugliness,' that being Chad Greenway. Greenway did miss his rookie season with a knee injury but came back last season in what was thus in effect his rookie year and had a major impact for the Vikings. He didn't make the Pro Bowl but was second on the team in solo tackles with 105 plus a few interceptions (one he took back for a TD) and some forced fumbles. Overall he had a really nice 'rookie' season."
Overland Park, Kan.
Thanks for clarifying that. Realistically, very few players should be evaluated one way or the other until after they've played three NFL seasons. Exceptions would be guys like Adrian Peterson and Ryan Leaf.
"I agree with you that it's really stupid to be all excited and analyzing the football schedule already (although at least you are getting paid to be this stupid!) and I can't believe I am one of the fans who do this … although last year I knew when the schedules were actually coming out so at least this year I am not so bad (still nursing some leftover Super Bowl pain/bitterness with my Patriots and my Buckeyes in that other championship game) as I didn't know until they were actually out! But it fills that void that we are missing from February to … July? Actually mini-camp starts in June and well rookie camp is in May and of course the draft is coming right up! Boy, it's a long offseason huh? :-) BTW … did people take your mock draft waaaaaay too seriously? Yikes! Guess we have some other teams here in Boston to focus on so we don't have to do that! :-) (Of course you are right on the money with that No. 1 pick!)"
Thanks, and if someone out there could print me up a T-shirt reading "At least I'm getting paid to be this stupid," I'll wear it to the season opener.
"I completely agree with you on it's too early to tell, but I can tell you (as a Bears fan) that I'm looking forward to Week 1. Plus I like going on the road. (Not to be a kiss up) But I really enjoy your columns, regardless."
Trust me, after last week's Trippin' onslaught, I'll take all the kissing up I can get.
"I have to agree with your Trippin' Tuesday article about the schedule release. Thanks to newspapers, the internet, fan sites, and round-the-clock coverage on television, sports fans are inundated with more information than ever. Trying to predict how the season will turn out according to the schedule is an exercise in futility, much like trying to figure out how many Bengals will be arrested this season. How many people looked at the schedule for last season and exclaimed 'Oh, New York will be reinvigorated by a Week 17 game with New England and they will win it all?' Only one guy, and they're still filing the paperwork to get him out of the mental institution. Yeah, it's fun to look at the schedule and see what matchups look intriguing, but that's really all you can get out of it, and anyone who thinks otherwise is either one of the talking heads on TV trying to fill up broadcast time or one of your readers who write in with gems like 'da skedul iz welly impurtent cuz seading n the playoffs iz vary impurtent so whoevar wins mostest games earlie has mostest momantum.' Also, props on your mock draft. I enjoyed reading the hate mail nearly as much as the draft comments. Maybe next year you should put the word 'mock' in 72 point font so that more people get it."
I didn't realize Tom Coughlin was in a mental institution. I thought he was just kind of quirky.
"Your Ultimate Mock Draft was obviously intended to be a parody of mock drafts, yet the MENSA members of your readership write in to bash your picks and question your qualifications for having/keeping your job. My question is this: Do you keep track of how many emails you get per week, and can you assign the corresponding number to each email you receive from these eidiots? Example: 'Your a eidiot. And a dildo. Tom Minnesota (Email No. 100)' I know most of them won't get it, but those of us with working brains will understand. Keep up the entertaining work."
Thanks. Alas, my filing system isn't that sophisticated. But that is a good idea. If only I had a research assistant.
"Hey Mike, great mock draft. I am so glad that I have finally found someone who thinks so abstractly and like me! This is what I would be saying if I was a genuine idiot. Sorry bro, the fact that this is your job and that you're getting paid for this bologny is ludocris. Seriously man, your cloumn sheds light on the idea that there are millions of people out there doing jobs for which they are totally incompotent. Congrats on being an individualistic thinker, everyone is entitled to an opinion … but maybe in the future you should keep yours to yourself and save people like me the anger that results from your writings. PS. Jay Cutler … Top 10! Thanks."
Seriously man, I'll try really, really hard to be "compotent" in the future.
"Mike, your reply to Jon Ingrum from Colorado last week was a work of pure genius. As a former reporter who used to get angry letters/phone calls from time to time, I often dreamed of responding sarcastically, while also correcting their spelling and grammar on our editorial page. Unfortunately traditional newspapers look down on ridiculing the readership. Perhaps I should go into online journalism next just so I can post moronic e-mails and my sarcastic responses in front of millions. This former reporter thanks you for doing something that I'm sure all of us in the field would like to do every day."
Dude, come join the party. There is more than enough grammatically incorrect hate mail to go around, I'm sure.
"Before my question I'd like to congratulate you on pointing out the constant spelling and punctuation errors in emails – one of my hobbies also – which similarly endears me to friends and relatives. My question is: why Reading? As a lifelong Liverpool fan who has become so emotionally attached to the Houston Texans over the past few years that I have the Bull logo tattooed on my shoulder, I wonder if you are experiencing the same pain as I? Are you living through the years of hurt so that, when redemption finally comes, you can claim it as rightfully yours? Or is your mum from Reading?"
No, my mum is from Detroit. The Reading affliction is a recent one, but as a long-suffering alum of the University of California, I promise you that I am living through years of hurt (hopefully closing in on ultimate redemption).
"Just so you're clear on this, the Patriots pick 7th in the draft. Great article though besides that."
Ding ding ding! We have another winner. Break out the giant stuffed pig. (For those of you who are lost, see last week's Trippin' …)
"Given that you, Mr. Smith, are such a huge 'fan' of people who are grammatically incorrect I have a question for you. Why is it that you slam everyone who writes you and uses poor grammar but you seem to always forget little things in your articles? In your most recent posting you wrote ' … given that it was both a historic night and a stirring Super Bowl preview.' The proper grammar here would be to use the word 'an' before a word beginning with the letter H, but what would I know, right? I went to Arizona State, Go Devils!"
How are Sun Devils when it comes to name recognition? Kindly learn mine before you attempt to discern the lessons of grammar. (As for your specific complaint, all I know is that the last time I wrote "an historic" in my copy, I got emails claiming that it should be "a historic" because the h isn't silent. But don't worry – I'll get this sorted out, or my name isn't Michael Smith.)
"I am furious! ESPN … you have a responsibility to provide worthy service, and yet you allow this hack to post an article like this!? 1) to even suggest that Albert Haynesworth would be the top pick in a fantasy draft definitely proves Silver's idiocy when it comes to anything sports related … 2) to pick Tom Brady over Peyton Manning? Holy crap! This has been the barometer for showing who does and who does not understand football over the past 4 or 5 years … The answer to the question of who is the greatest QB in the NFL is Peyton Manning … No brainer! and yet this retard doesn't even offer a word of explanation of why Bill Parcells, a known football genius, would make a bonehead GM move like that! (expletive) ! this is crap, ESPN! you cannot keep providing this kind of (expletive) service to your customers who expect a certain standard … this not only fails to meet that standard, it fails to meet any standard! (Expletive) you ESPN! until you do something about this kind of (expletive), you are on my (expletive) list!"
If it makes you feel any better, ESPN is on Mr. Smith's (expletive) list, too.
"You're a douche bag."
Note to research assistant: "You're a douche bag. Kurt location unknown. (Email No. 1)"
"No Randy Moss in the first round. I guess you nothing about football"
No Moss, dude. No más.