Tuesday, April 03, 2012

A Little Draft History


If it’s April in Cleveland, there are only two questions on the minds of local sports fans: How will the Indians finish this season and who will the Browns take in the draft?

As to the former, we can only hope that the roster, dotted as it is with no name position players who can’t hit and suspect pitching prospects with arm troubles and velocity problems, will not replicate the miserable spring training record it compiled. Unfortunately, it looks like it just might.

As to who the Browns will take, we can only hope it doesn’t end up in another lost opportunity, or three. When former head coach Eric Mangini, acting essentially as his own general manager, maneuvered around the draft a few years ago like a copier salesman at a Ramada Inn bar sizing up the talent on a Tuesday night, it ended in near abject disaster for the franchise.

Alex Mack has been a serviceable center, but hardly a stalwart who couldn’t otherwise be easily replaced. And he was the highlight of that draft. Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi were drafted in the second round with the idea that they’d become the foundation of an improved receiving corps. Robiskie was cut last year and Massaquoi has shown himself to be like Mack, only more so. Massaquoi is the kind of 3rd or 4th receiver that most teams already have. The depth he adds is marginal since there isn’t much talent in the 1st and second slots. (In truth, the real problem with Cleveland’s receivers is the same problem most Indians teams have historically had—plenty of players at exactly the same second or third tier talent level.) He’ll probably survive training camp this season if only because the Browns’ options are still so few.

But why single out Mangini? It’s not like any of the previous drafts were any better. Indeed, there’s only one player on the current roster from the three pre-Mangini drafts and none before that. You could go back further and chart the average length any of the Browns’ draft picks who actually stayed in the league spent in the NFL (about 2 years) to make the further point, but why bother?

The Browns are lousy at drafting and have been lousy at drafting for as long as they’ve been back in the league. It’s why they’re so bad now. But for the moment, let’s not lament the Browns and instead illustrate a much larger point as we look at some other teams’ inglorious draft history. For all the supposed science and money and time and kvetching that goes into the NFL draft by the experts employed by the teams, not to mention the curbside experts employed by networks or sitting on bar stools at BW-3, it still remains mostly a game of chance.

**

Long before now, Ryan Leaf became less a person and more a punch line. One of the best known and biggest draft busts in the history of the NFL, Leaf embodied everything that could possibly go wrong with the NFL draft. Now he’s back wearing a number, only this time it’s attached to prison garb and not a uniform.

The story of his arrest last week, and another this week, for allegedly burglarizing at least two homes to steal prescription drugs were just the latest in a long list of epilogues that have been written about Leaf. And as sad as it all is, the Leaf story is also a cautionary tale, really, on how utterly useless all the run up to the NFL draft can be.

Experts were about evenly split on whether Leaf was the better choice as the number one draft pick in the 1998 NFL draft or whether that honor should go to Peyton Manning. Manning played with the more established program at Tennessee while Leaf toiled in relative obscurity at Washington State.

But in ways in which only the draft can whip up frenzied thinking not just among fans but those paid big money to make these decisions, the argument over Leaf vs. Manning went almost down to the wire. Leaf had the better arm. Manning was more mature.

As the debate raged on, Manning vs. Leaf, Leaf vs. Manning, the San Diego Chargers, sitting at number three in the draft knew one thing: they wanted one of the two and really didn’t care which. So they swapped picks with Arizona, threw in another first rounder, a second rounder and Eric Metcalf-up-the-middle, for that right.

If you’re sensing a feeling a of déjà vu all over again, right down to the involvement of the Indianapolis Colts, there’s probably good reason. Twelve years later with the Colts having wrung out all they felt they could from Manning are now on the precipice of almost the same decision, only this time in the form of Andrew Luck vs. Robert Griffin III. The Washington Redskins, desperate for a franchise quarterback, made a blockbuster trade to ensure they’d get one of the two.

The more things change… And for what it’s worth, this is exactly the scenario the Browns, and not the Redskins, would have been walking into had they instead made the ill-advised trade for the second pick in the draft.

Would they have fared better than San Diego? Probably, but how come whenever someone says Griffin’s name I can’t help but hear them say “JaMarcus Russell?” Maybe they’re really saying “Akili Smith.” That may be unfair.

While the parallels are almost scary between then and now, there are some differences. In the first place, by all accounts Griffin is more physically gifted then Leaf was (not to mention Russell or Smith). Part of the reason Leaf looked so good resulted from the relatively inferior competition he faced each week playing for Washington State in the then PAC-10. (Heck, the now PAC-12 is an awful conference still). It’s that simple fact—it’s difficult comparing players across conferences—that contributes to the voodoo nature of the NFL draft in the first place.

But more importantly, Griffin, by all accounts is far more mature then Leaf then or even now. Griffin shows up for his interviews with teams and answers in a straightforward fashion. Leaf always had an entitlement chip on his shoulder and stiffed the Colts on a pre-draft interview, thus likely sealing his fate as a #2 choice.

Let’s not forget, though, that both Russell and Smith were also supposedly mature beyond their years, although in both cases that proved not to be true. Russell, in particular, was highly touted by Phil Savage who, before he imploded in Cleveland, was one of the more respected scouts in the NFL. Savage raved about Russell in ways usually reserved by a father for his son. It sounded like pre-draft hype and perhaps it was but I did sense that Savage really meant what he said. He had a relationship with Russell that dated back several years and seemed thoroughly convinced that he would be a franchise quarterback for some lucky team. He wasn’t.

Still, the object lesson of Manning vs. Leaf is that when there’s a near sure bet on the table in the NFL draft, you take it and don’t look back. Manning, given his upbringing and maturity (the son of a NFL quarterback, a 4-year college starter) was a near lock to be a good NFL quarterback. It was only a question of how good. Leaf, Russell and Smith can with the label of having greater potential upside. Initially the only question was how quickly it could be realized. Ultimately it was a question of why wasn’t it ever realized.

Given this history, the Colts then just as the Colts now will take the bird in the hand and draft the son of former NFL quarterback and a 4-year college starter instead of the player with the potentially greater upside. Though the Colts haven’t made their plans public just yet, it would be a shock of seismic proportions if they didn’t draft Luck. They will.

The Redskins will take Griffin and hope that the thrill ride of potential doesn’t break down quickly like it did for the Chargers (Leaf), the Raiders (Russell) and the Bengals (Smith).

The Browns on the other hand may end up not doing what they need to with the 4th pick, filling in the massive gaps on this team on both sides of the ball, and instead fall prey to this week’s flavor of the day, Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill, because some unaccountable talking heads from ESPN were jazzed by Tannehill’s pro day work out. For what that’s worth, that means that Tannehill looked awfully good wearing shorts, throwing out patterns to friends while assistant coaches chased him with blocking dummies. Not exactly game conditions.

If the Browns make that move, they do so knowing it will be a reach and the fans should accept that fact. Tannehill is smart but he started for the Aggies for only a year and a half. It’s not exactly a tremendous body of work on which to judge, which means that you’re buying potential and not actual production. It’s something that so many teams do as they convince themselves they’re smarter then everyone else. Usually they end up looking dumber then everyone else a season or two later.

**

It would have been a nice story if Leaf or Russell or Smith had gone on to have decent NFL careers, but it was never meant to be. In each case, none were nearly as good as the pre-draft hype. The arms were big but there are plenty of guys tossing footballs through hoops at carnivals with big arms.

What they each lacked, ultimately, was the intelligence and maturity it takes to play one of the most difficult positions in professional sports. To succeed as a NFL quarterback you have to be able to make that throw across your body and across the field to an outlet receiver who’s broken loose in the secondary and you have to do it while 4 or 5 guys all weighing at least 300 pounds collapse the pocket or seal you off on the edges. You also have to know what every other receiver is doing at the exact same time and then you have to discern the true defensive formation being run and not the one that’s being shown. And for good measure, you have about 5 seconds to get all of this done and you have to be able to do this 20 some times game in and game out, year in and year out.

That neither Leaf, Russell or Smith made it hardly qualifies as tragedy. Indeed, that there’s anyone that can get all this done and done well is by far the exception and not the rule. It’s the reason teams like the Browns go through quarterbacks like toddlers go through Pampers.

This is all a way of saying that the next time you get it in your head that the Browns screwed up by not mortgaging the future for RGIII or buying into the hype surrounding Tannehill it’s worth remembering that when you take anything other than the sure path in the NFL, you end up hitting more pot holes then smooth surfaces.

For a team like the Browns that have broken down in every season for nearly a generation, it’s time to ignore the hype and find the sure paths. That means more Joe Thomases and less pretty much everything else they’ve tried.

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