- Seth Wickersham, ESPN Senior Writer
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This article appears in the April 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Imagine: You're a draft prospect, trying to improve your stock. You've spent months marching through the assembly-line evaluation process: sprinting and jumping through all the silly formalities; grinning in the face of endless nitpicking; fielding questions teams have lobbed at you, such as "When was the last time you failed a drug test?" It's a pain, this stuff, but you gut through it in the hope of seeing a payoff come April, when teams stack their draft boards. Only then will all the dedication, sweat and science -- the stuff NFL bigwigs claim to use to evaluate players -- validate your efforts.
Ranking the War Rooms
Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders ranks the war rooms of each of the NFL's 32 teams. Betcha can't guess who's last! OK, maybe you can. RANKINGS
Or so you think. Problem is, that's not the way the draft works. How teams settle on a prospect is one of the game's biggest mysteries. Very few executives even want to talk about the process. That's because draft boards are often built on a jumbled mess of posturing by scouts, hidden agendas of coaches, power trips by general managers, meddling from owners and mistrust all around. Turns out, a draft spot can have very little to do with factors under a player's control and far too much to do with what's not: the politics of a team's war room.
You're a scout, trying to evaluate the latest group of pro hopefuls. It's December, time for your team to address roster holes at the annual "needs meeting." You've spent much of the past year visiting colleges, where you've watched games in person and interviewed coaches, trainers, academic advisers, even landlords, to gain insight on players. Because you know these prospects best, your opinion should count above all, right?
Not exactly. Seniority has a huge impact on a scout's credibility. "If you've been with a team only two years," says one scout, "you might be right about someone, but not right, because you don't have the rank." Not that veterans hold all the power. Some are known to favor specific player types (fast, big or linked to a certain school or coach) or seen as better equipped to evaluate one position (say, receivers, but not cornerbacks). When a scout presents a report in a draft meeting, his audience considers the source as much as the information. As former Raiders personnel exec Michael Lombardi says, decision-makers feel obligated to "evaluate the evaluator."
These days, that evaluator might feel slightly underappreciated. Twenty years ago, more teams trusted coaches to lead their drafts, and guys like former Cowboys headman Jimmy Johnson met with scouts individually. But as teams become more GM-driven, decision-making falls to top execs. Now, when most clubs meet to discuss prospects, a scout is often drowned out by the director of college scouting or the pro personnel director, both of whom have read his reports and drawn their own conclusions before talking to the GM. When the GM has information that contradicts what the scout knows to be true, the scout inevitably wonders where it came from. Maybe the GM got the college coach on a good spring day, not after a tough postgame loss in the fall. Or maybe the GM is making stuff up about a player he just doesn't like. But as one scout puts it, "You have to pick your battles."
If a scout is lucky, his player rankings might actually agree with those of the GM by the time the first draft board is set in mid-February. In any case, teams rush to finish the "real board" before the combine, before coaches -- who don't follow the college scene during the NFL season -- enter the picture. "The idea," says one former personnel director, "is to remove coaches as best we can from the equation." When coaches do weigh in, a player's ranking is often readjusted. A lowly scout never asks why one of his top prospects has been downgraded. He just knows.
Truth is, even if the team does listen to a scout's recommendations, too many factors contribute to NFL success -- system, coaching, injuries, luck -- to hold one person accountable for a prospect's pro fate. So scouting is often less about projecting and more about digging up dirt. "It's not just an evaluation job," says Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff. "It's a research job." Every year, there are prospects who'd benefit from a little extra intel. This year, Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham needs GMs to know he's not a loose cannon; USC defensive end Everson Griffen is battling rumors he's inconsistent; and Michigan cornerback Donovan Warren must reverse a rep for blowing assignments. "It's hard," Warren says. "You don't know what's being said about you." Or who's saying it.
You're a head coach, trying to win now. You're handed a list of players to evaluate, ranked by the personnel department, along with a DVD of each prospect's 30 best plays. You're immediately suspicious. For one thing, the players are listed by grade, not randomly or alphabetically. That's because sneaky GMs want your evaluations to mirror theirs, a goal best achieved by giving you a starting point. The DVD can't be trusted, either. Conniving scouts don't always include highlights; if they want the player buried, they'll find the plays that do it.
Head coaches know they have to foster a decent relationship with their GMs. But with scouts? Not always. Some coaches regard scouts as inferior, base-level informants whose reports detail only what the player is now, not what he can be. After all, scouts don't analyze NFL games, know a team's playbook cold or have to work with the players they recommend. On the other hand, scouts believe coaches are arrogant, dismissive and naive to assume their influence can turn around players with questionable character. Says one GM, "Some coaches don't even bother talking to scouts."
Problem is, coaches are reticent to hit the film room just months after a long NFL season. So they "telephone scout," ringing up their campus counterparts. But that method is flawed. In recent years college coaches have become loath to disseminate negative information, lest they end up in a lawsuit. Anyway, why would a pro guy trust a college guy he doesn't even know? "You don't," says Browns coach Eric Mangini.
Instead, pro coaches rely on the opinions of those they trust the most: other pro coaches. Offensive line gurus, for example, are notoriously chatty. They've formed an unofficial group called the Mushroom Society, after the kinship they feel with organisms that, as one member puts it, "grow in the dark and are fed s--." During draft season, they gather at restaurants after pro days to compare notes. Sharing proprietary, million-dollar information in one of America's most competitive industries might seem like treason, but coaches look out for one another.
Beginning in late March, coaches present their reports and argue about players' rankings, spending a few seconds to a few hours on each, depending on the prospect. Once a conclusion is reached, a "main sheet" with an assessment of each player is sent upstairs to team executives. What seems like consensus, though, often isn't. "A coach could say, 'If these guys don't work, it's our fault,'" says a personnel director. "But not every coach is willing to do that."
You're a GM, trying to think long-term. You have three draft boards on your computer, three more in your office. You like to be surrounded by draft boards for the same reason writers like to be enclosed by books: They're comforting. Dimitroff, for example, has two boards on his laptop, and one megaboard that spans his office wall, with electronic screens that drop from the ceiling to shield it. "That board is my pride and joy," he says. "It's what I've always wanted."
In the end, however, most teams focus on just two boards: a vertical one, where players are ranked by position, and a horizontal one, where prospects are listed according to other factors, such as team need. Merging them is the toughest part of the drafting process. It takes weeks to compare, say, the value of the No. 1 fullback to that of the sixth-ranked slot receiver or a kick returner with Pro Bowl potential coming off a severe injury. "We argue between the 133rd and 134th players," says Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "But the chances of a decision coming down to those two guys is miniscule."
The number of players on the final board varies. San Francisco usually posts 220 names on the wall; Atlanta typically has fewer than 100. Each prospect is assigned a magnetic card, which details his height, weight, Wonderlic score, overall grade and position within the team's system. The card also features stickers that designate intangibles, coded differently by each team. The Patriots, for example, use lowercase and capital letters: "C" stands for circumstance -- if, say, a receiver's stats are down because he played with a lousy quarterback; "c" represents a character concern. Other teams add some levity to the process. The 49ers post a picture of Bill Clinton to signify character questions, a green leaf for drug issues and a red cross for injury problems.
The scouting process is designed to strip emotion from draft day. But any war room vet knows that's not always the case.
Key decision-makers spend hours going over the board with the team's capologist, an expert who explains complicated formulas that specify the value of each pick. It helps the team know when to draft a player and when to trade down. If the GM has the final say on the roster (see: Chargers, Colts), he'll have the future in mind, picking guys who start slowly but develop over years: defensive tackles, quarterbacks, cornerbacks. Coach-driven teams (see: Redskins, Broncos) often think short-term, picking running backs and linebackers. No matter the organizational structure, conflict often arises, especially if the GM has more job security than the coach. Still, says one AFC GM whose head coach is on the hot seat, "You never take a guy the coach doesn't want."
You're an owner, trying to get the best return on your investment. You enter the draft process whenever and however you damn well want. Seattle's Paul Allen is hands-off. Minnesota's Zygi Wilf is fascinated by the exercise but leaves decisions to his staff. Dallas' Jerry Jones, Cincinnati's Mike Brown and Oakland's Al Davis actually call the shots on draft day. While Jones has chosen well and Brown has fared decently, the speed-smitten Davis has made some recent picks that were so laughable, Oakland's scouts now add a few 10ths of a second to 40 times to dissuade him from taking a player who is only fast. Some GMs and coaches welcome owner involvement; others love to complain when months of preparation are scrapped on a billionaire's whim. The stories, true or not, are well known in coaching circles. Bud Adams supposedly insisted the Titans pick Vince Young in 2006, and Bill Parcells reportedly went around and around with Jones in Dallas because the owner wanted to take Shawne Merriman over DeMarcus Ware. Ultimately, though, owners are focused most on first-rounders. The Skins' Dan Snyder has gone to pro days in the past, and Atlanta's Arthur Blank interviewed Matt Ryan before the Falcons took the QB in 2008. "You have to be involved," Wilf says, "and make sure everyone's on board in terms of how we approach the draft."
And so months of planning and politicking, ranking and grading, ranting and raving finally culminate on draft day, which is, by all accounts ... really boring. War rooms are quiet places that play host to a lot of waiting around. Those present -- usually the GM, head coach, owner and a few execs -- watch the draft on TV, taking breaks to call pals around the league. Scouts and assistant coaches might show up, but usually they're elsewhere, their input long since given. The scouting process is designed to strip emotion from draft day. But any war room vet knows that's not always the case. Sometimes, at the last minute, GMs break their own rules, drafting players with injury or character concerns, or antsy scouts call to change their opinions. It's been rumored the Raiders have reached out to college coaches for more information while they're on the clock. "You'd be surprised," says one NFC exec, "how quickly and emotionally multimillion-dollar decisions are often made."
When the draft is over, teams try to present a unified front about how it all went down. Once those decisions are final, though, a new round of politicking begins: the revisionist history. Only years after the fact did Browns scouts complain that the team was determined to draft Tim Couch in 1999, despite Donovan McNabbs' supposedly grading higher. Only after Tom Brady was deemed a future Hall of Famer did the 49ers privately contend he would have been theirs if not for an eviscerating report by one of the team's coaches. Face it: Drafts are humans picking humans. "When it's all said and done," says one GM, "we all take ownership."
And if, by chance, you produce one of the best drafts in history, like the Steelers in 1974 or the 49ers in 1986? The blame game ends, and the jockeying for credit begins.
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
2dEric D. Williams