My dictionary defines a “draft” as “a current of air,” but that doesn’t nearly do justice to the National Football League’s version, the latest edition of which wrapped up on Saturday. The NFL Draft has become a veritable hot-air hurricane, one that sweeps all other hype before it.
ESPN and sports pages throughout the nation obsess for weeks about which NFL teams will choose which players in the three-day annual draw and TV gab fest, which in any endeavor other than sports would be illegal. (How would you like to have been “drafted” by, say, an accounting firm in Green Bay, Wisconsin, when you completed college?) The thing has become has become a capital “E” Event, with last week’s host city, Chicago, renaming itself “Draft Town” for the occasion and setting aside parkland to stage satellite entertainments to surround it.
Then, once the picking is done, the abovementioned news outlets scurry to grade the teams on how well they did, heedless of the fact that no one has much idea how, or if, the young men involved will perform in actual professional football. So thick is the dust cloud the blow generates that it takes weeks to dissipate.
The draft succeeds as show biz because, as we illustrate in many ways, we love to be conned, and because the NFL has mastered the art of conning. It does this partly by exploiting another national trait, our fascination with technology. Not content with merely scouting its prospects in action the way our other professional sports do (pretty much), it has erected an elaborate structure it would have us believe has made drafting into a science. The February before the selections are made it summons candidates to a week-long “combine” in Indianapolis in which they are measured, weighed, timed, tested, poked and prodded, all the better to take chance out of the drafting equation. This has become a news-media event in itself and things like weight-room reps and vertical-leap heights are breathlessly reported, as though they held the keys to gridiron excellence.
If some teams are to be believed, they’ve also developed techniques to discern a prospect’s “character,” which in NFL Speak means ferreting out the predilection of these big, aggressive and over-trained individuals to do things like beat up their girlfriends or drive while intoxicated. You’d think that the frequency with which such things occur anyway might cause skepticism of such claims, but usually it doesn’t.
Quarterback is football’s most important and closely inspected position, and most drafts hinge on quarterback prospects. This year’s was no exception, with Jared Goff from the U. of California and Carson Wentz from North Dakota State U. (!?), being the top two overall picks. Nonetheless, the big brains who do the selecting frequently err on QBs, registering a long list of high-choice failures (JaMarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf, Rick Mirer, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, Matt Leinart, Cade McNown, Johnny Manziel, etc., etc.). It’s worth noting that the best pro quarterback of recent years, Tom Brady, didn’t go until the sixth round of his draft year (2000), with 198 players picked ahead of him.
Top defensive selections often don’t fare much better. Jadeveon Clowney, the lineman/linebacker from the U. of South Carolina who was the most-hyped defensive player in recent years, was the first player chosen in 2014, but he’s proven to be a fragile sort who has missed almost as many games (15) as he’s played (17) in his first two seasons with the Houston Texans and hasn’t starred in most of the ones in which he’s appeared.
Further, the crapshoot that the draft always was has become more so in recent seasons. That’s because of the gap that’s developed between the NFL’s game and the one being played at most of the colleges that happily serve as the league’s feedlots.
Sports Illustrated magazine devoted a recent article to this subject. It’s worth quoting at length:
“On Saturdays, most college games are high-scoring affairs ruled by simple schemes on both sides of the ball and even simpler techniques. Quarterbacks rarely call plays or take snaps under center. The receiving routes are basic and offensive linemen don’t often get into the three-point stances which are the norm in the NFL.
“This affects the defensive side as well. Ends can’t develop pass-rush moves because the ball gets out so quickly. Defensive backs need to protect space so few of them have ever played man coverage, again the norm in the NFL. Linebackers in college are more adept at dropping into a passing zone than shedding a blocker. College safeties are like goal keepers in soccer, just trying to keep the ball in front them.
“Sundays, on the other hand, are a chess match. Quarterbacks bark out complicated play calls in the huddle and then change them at the line. Defenses bluff in and out of different looks and then bring an unorthodox blitz with press-man coverage. The offensive line has to execute double teams from three-point stances or the running game doesn’t go anywhere.”
“A [prospect] can have all the talent in the world but our [NFL] game is all about fundamentals and these players don’t have them,” summed up Dave Gettleman, the Carolina Panthers’ general manager.
“In my 25 years in the NFL I’ve never seen a larger disparity between the college and pro games,” added Stephen Jones, director of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys.
So I hope you enjoyed the show but save the grades for later; your team’s prize selection probably will look like Tarzan but might play like Jane. To paraquote Forrest Gump: “The draft is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”