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Draft shmaft – Why the NFL Draft Is The Biggest Crapshoot In Sports

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

 

It’s time for the NFL’s annual player selection derby, more commonly known as the NFL Draft. Time to get your team back on the road to championship greatness. Sure it is. 

NFL followers/fans/draftniks get super worked up about the NFL Draft. Why? Can anyone actually accurately predict anything about it? It hasn’t happened yet in human (including nose tackles — barely) history. 

I hear wedding bells

Noted life philosopher Frank Sinatra once quipped, (paraphrasing) “A second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.” Is the NFL Draft just a second marriage opportunity for 32 teams and their legions of shmexperts? You bet your cap space it is. And as such, in this springtime marrying season between players and teams, there is no shortage of wedding planners. And prognosticators and experts and schmexperts and most of all … know-it-all fans, who cringe, cry, declaim and agitate over whom their team’s brain trust picks to wear their team’s colors. 

Fans know what they want. Teams know what they want and what they can get — only as the player selection derby unfolds. More often than not, the two ideals don’t align. The result: Angst! Venom! New URLs purchased for http://www.fire[yourteam’sgeneralmanager].com. 

Repeat after no one: “I dunno.”

Nobody knows. But that stops absolutely no one from acting like they do. Perhaps we can allow a little logic to take over the perception of the NFL Draft? To wit: The NFL’s experts plan for this moment with all their energy and acumen. It’s their career focus. And they don’t know: 

1)    who their guys are going to be and 
2)    how their guys are going to work out. 

In other words, the trained, experienced experts don’t know. Thus, therefore, ergo, two other interested parties also don’t know: you and me. 

We don’t know. 

The NFL Draft has become a cottage industry that supports many thousands of shmexperts who poke, prod, proselytize and pronounce the football fitness of young athletic men — most of whom they’ve never met. Most of whom they’ve never witnessed in person — in action or in conversation.  

But pronounce, they will. Edumacate, they shall. And we lap it up. 

We don’t have to ask why. We willingly and repeatedly invest hope in our chosen teams. We dream of glory achieved vicariously through strangers unified by clothing and equipment adorned in similar color schemes. 

Never mind that we can no longer avoid the nagging questions of whether or not it’s healthy to play or promote football. The tolls taken for our high-priced amusement by exceedingly well-compensated athletes are high. So high, the NFL has clearly shrouded the impact of the many debilitations incurred by football players — for decades, as is now becoming apparent. 

The dilemma is a new factor for today’s football fans. Read Mike Freeman’s succinct explanation of the great, new quandary football fans must now confront … all the while trying not to legislate and politicize America’s favorite sport out of existence. 

Program! Get yer program! Can’t tell the players from the fans without a program!

Perhaps the most oft-stated NFL bromide is this: Your quarterback is your program. You’re going nowhere without him in today’s NFL. You have to start with a quarterback, right? Not so fast. 

There really is only one rule in the NFL Draft: Do not pass up a great player. “Drafting for need” is far more myth than most followers of the NFL Draft can acknowledge. Don’t take it from me. Take it from an NFL general manager who has his team in the playoffs almost every year (via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel): “We try to draft the best player available,” Green Bay Packers General Manager Ted Thompson said. “I say this every year and everybody says, ‘Yeah, right.’ We think it’s important to stay focused and try to take the best player.”

It really is almost that simple. The risks of passing on a great player are too great. The only practical exception? The quarterback position. And we’re seeing it play out right now. 

Everyone believes you must obtain a “franchise” quarterback. And yet, nobody knows who they are for sure. For every Peyton Manning, there are one or more Ryan Leafs. Now that the hay is in the multi-million-dollar barn for Manning’s career, it’s worth noting that leading up to draft day 1998, there was a long, much-deliberated debate about who was the better quarterback between Manning and Leaf. 

Both put up gaudy numbers and led their teams to championship games (both failed to win). Both had histories of aberrant behavior / allegations of wrongdoing. One turned out to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The other a sad outcast that flamed out of the NFL in spectacular fashion. The Washington Post lists Leaf as the NFL’s worst all-time draft bust.

Déjà vu all over again

Someone is going to get Leafed. This week. Maybe more than just one team will get Leafed. Will it be the Los Angeles Rams or the Philadelphia Eagles, both of whom have traded into the top two spots in the draft, presumably to select either North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz or California’s Jared Goff? 

Whispers already abound saying that neither Wentz nor Goff are of the caliber of last years’ top two-drafted quarterbacks, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. History tells us that almost certainly one of them will be a huge, franchise-sinking disappointment. Says former NFL head coach Brian Billick, “I don’t care how good you think you are at evaluating quarterbacks, history will tell us that it’s a roll of the dice.”

So perhaps the best news for the Rams and the Eagles is that nobody knows which guy is going to kill a franchise. Therefore, there’s still legitimate hope that their bold moves might pay off. Both teams gave up king’s ransoms to get to the top two draft positions. (Nobody does that unless they’re picking a quarterback.) For what the Eagles gave to the Cleveland Browns to move into the second pick, the quarterback they will select must be a once-in-a-generation talent in order for it to pay off. 

Or, instead of getting Leafed, both teams could get the next Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton. It is possible. It’s also historically an extremely low chance. The odds say one or both of these two teams has made a horrible mistake. USA TODAY’s Jarrett Bell writes, “The hit-or-miss ratio for first-round quarterbacks — and even for those chosen in the top five slots — is about dead even … there are just as many stumbles as hits.”

The only thing we know for sure: It’s way too soon to tell. 

The most likely teams to get Leafed this year? Count the remaining quarterback-needy teams: The New York Jets, The Denver Broncos, and Cleveland Browns, who have to give rigorous consideration to selecting one with their first-round pick. The consensus is that the remaining QBs, Paxton Lynch (Memphis) or Christian Hackenberg (Penn State), all have question marks that make them boom-or-bust for any team that might take them in round one.

The matter of drafting NFL quarterbacks is a microcosm of the draft’s efficacy toward building a team’s current and future roster. When it comes to plucking and developing quarterbacks — by far the most important player on the field — the NFL is surprisingly more miss than hit. Am I overstating it? Not according to NFL.com writer Kevin Patra, who, upon evaluating the NFL’s ability to develop quarterbacks had this to say: “Those drafted outside the first round are almost … doomed to failure.”

For such a high-stakes, megabucks entity, the NFL’s inability to develop the game’s most important position is vexing. How is it that the NFL’s brain trust is comfortable with leaving the success of their 32 member teams to the roulette wheel?

Feeling lucky?

At NFL.com you can “predict the pick.” In their Mock Draft Central section, you too can join the masses in getting most of it wrong, while declaring yourself a winner. Perhaps that is the key to the draft’s appeal: You can be wrong far, far more than you are right, but still feel like a winner. It’s like campaigning for elected office without the bothersome outcome of then having an actual job to do. 

Noted sports commentator Winston Churchill once stated, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” I think he was misquoted. I believe he was talking about the NFL Draft. Because the NFL Draft is clearly the worst way to build your roster. Except for all the others. 

Of course, the smart teams build their roster through the great crapshoot that is the NFL draft. But even if we focus purely on the draft as a means to build a roster, it’s not that simple. Trade up? Trade down? Stay put? Trade out? Take as many swings at the plate as you can get? Find that one guy that can put you over the top? Replace starters? Build depth? Recruit for the future? Which combination of options will your team be forced to take … before telling you that this was how they hoped it would all work out ohandbythewaygetyourseasonticketshere?

It’s all perceived value. Is this guy worth this pick at this time for this team? Again, nobody knows and in all practical terms, such considerations go out the door as soon as the bodies show up for the first practice. From there, you make your own way on or off the team. Sure, some high draft picks will get a little more rope to prove they should stick. But ultimately, your draft status doesn’t matter when it comes to your ability to keep your coaches and front office staff (the decision-makers) employed in the NFL. 

Have you ever known you were going to win the lottery? Just knew it? Of course not. But you played. For the “experts,” making the picks in the NFL draft (according to Mike Freeman) is the same way: “… draft picks are like lottery tickets. The more you have, the better chance there is of winning the Mega Millions Powerball.” More experienced but no luckier than you, the “experts,” at least, get to play NFL lottery once a year. 

Bringing it home

By now, every team has a face-to-palm story. Here is Seattle’s: The Seattle Seahawks have an interesting history when it comes to the NFL Draft, especially the first round. If the Seahawks select an actual living, breathing human with their (current) 26th pick in the draft, it will be the first time in four years they did so. For the past three years, they haven’t picked anyone in round one. Not even a quarterback. 

Most 12s would name Brian Bosworth (1987 supplemental draft) as the Seahawks’ worst-ever first pick, when it comes time to label draft picks busts or keepers. Actually, The Boz was undone by 65-year-old shoulders, and was out of the league after three abbreviated years. He amassed 80 tackles in his first season, which lasted only 12 games. Those 12 games are the most he ever played in a year — he never played a full NFL season. But he was the real deal for a brief moment in Seahawks history. 

Who wasn’t the real deal for the Seahawks, was one Owen Gill, whom the Seahawks used their first selection on (second round) in 1985. The former Iowa Hawkeye was cut at the end of training camp and never played a regular season down for the Seahawks. When your top pick is so bad you cut him before the season starts, that’s a draft screw-up for the ages. 

The Seahawks could have literally thrown a dart at an open phone book (yes, people used them back then) and achieved the same results. For less money and discomfiture. 

Enjoy the ride

Noted media critic Louis C.K. has this to say about all the shmexpert voices of today: “Perception is created and twisted so quickly.” He’s right. He was referring to media critics, but this also applies to NFL Draft critics. Clearly, nobody knows how any player is going to pan out. The only sensible approach to the draft is to just enjoy the ride. Let it go. Glass half-full and all that. 

So your team just picked a guy. No need to hate. Save that beer-fueled vitriol (unless you’re in San Francisco; in which case, save your whine-fueled vitriol) over how your team fared in the 2016 draft. Because you don’t know. Nobody does. 

But by all means, tune in to the draft. Just don’t give it too much weight. Don’t let your team’s perceived drafting acumen ruin your spring and summer. For 31 teams and their fans, that’s their job for your fall and winter. 

 

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