Friday April 3rd, 2009

On Halloween Day 1987, the then Los Angeles Rams traded franchise running back Eric Dickerson to the Indianapolis Colts in a three-team deal that included the Buffalo Bills.

When the football world was done shaking its head and bulging its eyes at each new detail, the Rams ultimately came away with running backs Greg Bell and Owen Gill and six draft choices over the next two years: three in the first round and three more in the second.

It was considered an incredible haul at the time, but we now know the Rams wound up with little more than fool's gold.

Might the Denver Broncos be on the cusp of repeating history after dealing quarterback Jay Cutler and a fifth-round pick to the Chicago Bears for two No. 1s, a No. 3 and QB Kyle Orton? The question is valid considering neither of the men running the Broncos' draft has ever had the final say-so in a war room.

In the case of the Rams, in 1988 they used two of the first-round picks they got in the Dickerson deal on running back Gaston Green (14th overall) and wide receiver Aaron Cox (20th) and a second-rounder on linebacker Fred Strickland (47th). They used the three other picks the next year on running back Cleveland Gary (26th), linebacker Frank Stams (45th) and defensive back Darryl Henley (53rd).

At best, the players were journeymen. At worst, they were busts.

If Denver can convert the picks they received into impact players, the Broncos will be in position to improve on their one postseason win since the 1998 season. However, if the Broncos miss as badly as the Rams did two decades ago, they will be the new poster franchise on how not to conduct business.

Though the decision-makers have changed, recent history is not on their side.

Not only are new head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Brian Xanders running a draft for the first time, but also the Broncos' drafts this decade under former coach Mike Shanahan reveal a stunningly disproportionate number of misses. They get passing marks for 2008, when they acquired offensive tackle Ryan Clady and wide receiver Eddie Royal with their first two picks; and 2006, when they selected five starters among their seven choices in Cutler, wide receiver Brandon Marshall, pass rusher Elvis Dumervil, tight end Tony Scheffler and guard Chris Kuper (although this class loses its luster when you consider Cutler is gone, Scheffler could soon follow, and Marshall recently underwent hip surgery).

My issue with Denver is that only four of the 50 selections it made from 2000 to 2005 are still on the team. That translates to eight percent. These are the draft classes that should be the core of the team; veterans who are on their second contracts and understand what the game and the league is about. The Broncos' ineptitude in the draft under Shanahan further underlines how difficult it can be for franchises to get it right in April.

Will McDaniels, 32, and Xanders, 37, do better than their predecessor, who had total control over football operations? Perhaps. But former Atlanta executive Ken Herock sounded a trumpet of caution earlier this year in an interview with Jeff Legwold, then of the Rocky Mountain News.

While with the Falcons in 1994, Herock hired Xanders primarily to work with the salary cap. When asked about Xanders in his new position, Herock praised his football background but added: "Brian's never scouted on the road. He doesn't have those experiences going on the road, being at the practices, getting in there and getting to know guys. That's his challenge. He knows the cap, he understands the cap and he knows the technology that's used now to get the job done. His big thing will be to make the call on whether a guy can play or not and that now he has to know it all.

"He has to be on target, and he's got to know everything -- free agency, the draft, the top player in Canada, what you're going to do with the developmental squad, all of it. You have to know what the hell is going on, and just being astute, just knowing the technology can't save you. You have to find players, it's that simple."

Perhaps Xanders will prove to be more than ready for the role. Again, Herock spoke highly of him. But there are no guarantees in the NFL, and the draft is the biggest crapshoot going.

The Broncos have gone out of their way to say the draft will be a collaboration between Xanders and McDaniels, but at the owners meetings last week, McDaniels intimated on multiple occasions that all personnel decisions will run through him. Part of the reason McDaniels got the job (and so much authority) was his stint in New England, where most recently he was the offensive coordinator under Bill Belichick.

Because Belichick won three Super Bowls in four years this decade, seemingly every owner in need of a new head coach has tried to pick from his tree of assistants. However, it should be noted that none of Belichick's recent protégés has succeeded as head coaches -- not Romeo Crennel with the Browns, Eric Mangini with the Jets, nor Charlie Weis with Notre Dame. And Belichick didn't get it right until his second coaching stint, after bombing in Cleveland.

The feeling among many around the league is McDaniels tried to handle the Cutler situation as if he were Belichick. The problem, at this point, is he lacks the résumé. Maybe Cutler was a pain in his backside, a player with a strong arm and stronger will for wanting things his way. But he also was a proven commodity. When I asked Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha on Thursday about Cutler, whom he calls a buddy, he told me: "He was arguably the top QB in the [AFC] West, so I'm not upset to see him leave. He should bring success to the Bears. [He's a] top eight QB."

If the Broncos don't get it right with the draft picks they acquired, the trade could rival the Rams debacle with Dickerson as one of the worst in league history.

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