Friday, April 27, 2007

Save Your Weekend

Tomorrow is Draft Day for the NFL, the time each year when teams divvy up the college prospects . At this time of year, hope springs eternal, and every team believes that the players they select this weekend will make them better. Unfortunately, history tells us that usually isn't the case.

In one of my football annuals, I wrote an article about how low the ratio of hits to misses was in the first round. Less than half of first round picks become impact players, and while the players taken earliest get the most hype, the success rate for the biggest college stars isn't any better. Columnist Bob Matthews opines that the flop rate for quarterbacks taken number one overall is about 50-50.

Of the 15 QBs chosen No. 1 since 1970, here’s how I categorize them:

Worthy of the No. 1 pick (7) — Terry Bradshaw by Pittsburgh in 1970; Jim Plunkett by New England in 1971 (won two Super Bowls with the Raiders); John Elway by Denver in 1983; Troy Aikman by Dallas 1989; Drew Bledsoe by New England 1993 (I’m in a pro-Drew mood today; No. 8 pick OT William Roaf and No. 10 pick RB Jerome Bettis had more productive careers, but Bledsoe gets the benefit of the doubt for being a QB); Peyton Manning by Indianapolis in 1998; Carson Palmer by Cincinnati in 2003.

Not worthy of the No. 1 pick (6):

  • Steve Bartkowski by Atlanta in 1975 (Dallas took DT Randy White No. 2; Chicago took RB Walter Payton No. 4).
  • Vinny Testaverde by Tampa Bay in 1987 (not a great first round, but Indianapolis took LB Cornelius Bennett No. 2; Pittsburgh took DB Rod Woodson No. 10).
  • Jeff George by Indianapolis in 1990 (San Diego took LB Junior Seau No. 10; Dallas took RB Emmitt Smith No. 17).
  • Tim Couch by Cleveland in 1999 (the Browns would’ve been better off taking a recliner or a waterbed; Philadelphia took QB Donovan McNabb No. 2, St. Louis took WR Torry Holt No. 6, Washington took CB Champ Bailey No. 7).
  • Michael Vick by Atlanta in 2001 (I guess Vick still could justify the selection, but San Diego took RB LaDainian Tomlinson No. 5, New England took DT Richard Seymour No. 6, Seattle took OG Steve Hutchinson No. 17).
  • David Carr by Houston in 2002 (I haven’t written him off but the Texans did; Carolina took DE Julius Peppers No. 2; Cincinnati took OT Levi Jones No. 10; Indianapolis took DE Dwight Freeney No. 11, Baltimore took safety Ed Reed No. 24).
Too early to tell (2) — Eli Manning by San Diego (traded to New York Giants) in 2004; Alex Smith by San Francisco in 2005.

Judging the success of a pick based on the players that went afterwards doesn't make any sense, because you can always find a later pick that surprised everyone. But Matthews has the quarterbacks sorted pretty well, and for every reader that wants to argue that we should consider Michael Vick a good pick, I can find someone who says that Bledsoe belongs on the list of busts.

The point is that the hype surrounding the draft far exceeds reality. All you have to do is look back at past drafts to see that. Each class yields about 8-10 impact players, guys who become starters for a long enough stretch to be considered Pro Bowl candidates. Go back ten years and you'll see what I mean. The first round of the 1997 draft class included just four stars, by my count, tackles Orlando Pace & Walter Jones, tight end Tony Gonzalez, and running back Warrick Dunn. There are another 8-10 guys who became decent starters for a while, like WR Ike Hilliard and RB Antowain Smith. But there were also some monumental busts, like QB Jim Druckenmiller, whose career consisted of six games, and WR Rae Carruth, who was serving an 18-24 year sentence for the murder of his girlfriend. Pick any year, and you'll see that it's always the same.

Yet the NFL's marketing gurus have been successful in turning the draft into a huge event. Hundreds of fans show up to watch the event in person, an experience slightly more monotonous than sitting in an airport all day. At the newsstand this year I saw eight different draft preview magazines. When the Sporting News first came out with theirs four years ago, I couldn't imagine their were enough people interested yo justify the printing cost. I'm astonished that there are now eight. I love football, I write about it for a living, but this is ridiculous.

ESPN's wall-to-wall television coverage is a perfect illustration of how the media has failed us in the information age. Hour after hour, the talking heads will yammer on and on, analyzing past picks and speculating on future picks. In the end, they have nothing to say, no insight to impart, and nothing valuable to add to the process.

Unless you think you might be one of the players selected, please don't waste your time. The recap in Monday's paper will give you all the information without consuming your entire weekend. And even if you are a player expecting to be selected, don't stress yourself. When a team picks you, they'll call.