The NFL's big bang

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 22, 2012 - 10:49 PM

The NFL draft has exploded in popularity and scrutinization in the modern era.

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No expense is spared these days when the annual NFL draft is staged at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

Photo: Christopher Szagola, Associated Press

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Once upon a time, in a world far different from ours, professional football drafts were held as people tended to other matters. Players were chosen without fanfare; without hugs from the commissioner; and without the instant analysis of 42 million television viewers with couch sores from watching seven rounds extended over not one but three days.

"My first job in football, I'm 13 or 14 years old and I'm a runner during the AFL draft in the early '60s," said Joe Horrigan, a vice president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "There were 28 rounds or whatever it was. And it was all held in one day, so I'm running the streets of New York at all hours of the morning."

It wasn't exactly glamorous work.

"I'd sit in [AFL Commissioner] Joe Foss' office until teams called their picks in to him," Horrigan said. "Every round, he'd write the picks on a sheet of paper, stick it in an envelope and hand it to me. I'd run over to the Waldorf Astoria to a room with maybe half a dozen newspaper reporters in it. I'd hand them the sheet of paper and, well, that was it."

The NFL wasn't any different. No Chris Berman. No squadrons of former players to break it all down. Heck, there wasn't even a senior version of Mel Kiper Jr.

The draft has come a long way since it was born in 1936. Player evaluation began to evolve in 1963 with a rudimentary precursor to today's scouting combine. Then came the 1970s and a Pittsburgh Steelers team that validated the increased emphasis on the draft by masterfully hand-picking the pieces that would form one of the most dominant dynasties the league has ever seen.

Things were progressing off the field, too. On Sept. 7, 1979, ESPN was launched. A few months later, the network asked then-commissioner Pete Rozelle if it could televise the 1980 draft in its entirety. Rozelle's answer -- "Why would you want to do that?" -- proved that not even a true league visionary could have anticipated this much hype.

Let history show ...

With the third overall pick on Thursday, the Vikings appear to be in a no-lose situation. They'll have the first swing at the best non-quarterback prospect and couldn't possibly lose by filling a need with USC left tackle Matt Kalil, LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne or Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon. Right?

Well ...

If the first 76 NFL drafts have taught us anything it's this: Appearances can be deceiving. Not to mention embarrassing when viewed through years of hindsight.

Since 1980, the third pick in the draft has produced Hall of Famers Anthony Munoz (1980), Barry Sanders (1989) and Cortez Kennedy (1990). But No. 3 also has given us some unforgettable flops such as:

• Andre Wadsworth instead of Charles Woodson (4) in 1998.

• Joey Harrington instead of Dwight Freeney (11) and Ed Reed (24) in 2002.

• Gerard Warren instead of LaDainian Tomlinson (5) in 2001.

• Braylon Edwards instead of Aaron Rodgers (24) in 2005.

• Akili Smith instead of Edgerrin James (4), Ricky Williams (5), Torry Holt (6), Champ Bailey (8), Daunte Culpepper (11) and Antoine Winfield (23) in 1999.

"When you're picking, you know you're not always going to be right," Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said. "No one is ever perfect in this business. Everybody makes mistakes. The key is getting to a point where I know I can sit there at the end of the draft and say to myself, 'There is nothing I can think of that I could have done more to be better prepared for the decisions I made.' "

In addition to Spielman, the Vikings have a director of player personnel, a director of college scouting, an assistant director of college scouting, seven college scouts and two personnel consultants -- Paul Wiggin and Jerry Reichow -- with a combined 96 years of NFL experience. They also can walk down the hall and chat with a guy named Bud Grant if the need arises.

In other words, the Vikings have the manpower to handle a detailed scouting process that takes 11 months to piece together before draft day arrives. Most teams do, which certainly wasn't the case on Feb. 8, 1936, when the NFL's nine teams traveled to the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Philadelphia for the first draft.

Berwanger, Shakespeare, Rossi

The first-ever pick was Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger, who never played a down in the league. The Eagles traded him to Chicago, where Berwanger asked Bears owner George Halas for $25,000 over two years. Halas said no, so Berwanger went into the foam- rubber business and also worked as a sportswriter for the Chicago Daily News. Talk about a different era, financially.

The third pick that year was William Shakespeare. No, not that William Shakespeare. This one was a star at Notre Dame. But he, too, never played a down in the NFL, choosing a life in business instead.

A decade later, Cal Rossi was a star running back for UCLA. He also became the perfect illustration for just how inept scouting could be in the early decades of the draft.

"Cal was the only player to be drafted twice," Horrigan said.

Twice?

Yes, twice. After World War II, the Washington Redskins were a team in disrepair under owner George Marshall, who didn't believe in spending money on scouts. In 1946, the Redskins drafted Rossi ninth overall only to discover that Rossi was a junior, which was a problem since only seniors were eligible for the draft.

"George was embarrassed by his stupidity and drafted Cal again the next year," Horrigan said. This time, the Redskins used the fourth overall pick on Rossi.

"The only problem is everyone in the league knew Rossi wasn't going to play pro ball," Horrigan said. "Everybody, except the Redskins."

Rossi, a top-10 pick two consecutive years, not only never played a down in the NFL, he never even intended to. Somewhere, JaMarcus Russell has to feel a little better.

"There were a lot of misses back then because teams had one, maybe two scouts to cover every school in the country," said Hall of Famer Jack Butler, who played cornerback for the Steelers (1951-59) before becoming a scout for the team and the director of the league's first scouting service.

There was no Internet to rank every player in the country. No up-to-the-microsecond tweets of information. No pro days. No combine. And only a handful of games were televised. After television was invented, of course.

"It was a tremendous expense to scout college players," Butler said. "A lot of teams just didn't have the money to visit every player or bring in every player to see their doctors. That's when we decided something had to be done to improve the process."

Butler helped form the first multi-team scouting service in 1963. Three teams joined together to form what was called LESTO (Lions, Eagles and Steelers Talent Organization). The Bears joined in 1964, giving the organization its current name, BLESTO.

It didn't take the Bears long to cash in. A year after joining the group, they had the third and fourth overall picks in the 1965 draft. They used the third pick on Dick Butkus and the fourth pick on Gale Sayers.

Not a bad day in the league's 77-year history of teams struggling to pick the studs instead of the duds.

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