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Niners need to get their heads checked for stance on Stafford

The Jay Cutler telenovela having played out, a consensus seems to be coalescing among NFL draftniks that the Detroit Lions will make Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford the top pick in the draft.

They like his potent arm, his intelligence, his field generalship, forged in the crucible of the SEC. (Cue NFL Films orchestra, please.)

But are they missing something? Might Stafford be concealing a flaw, some pathology of character that could give fresh life to the Bobby-Layne-leveled curse that has plagued this franchise for the last half-century?

The San Francisco 49ers have done their homework, having gone spelunking in Stafford's brain, and they've found something to give them pause. And we need to listen to the 49ers. It's not as if they're some sad-sack franchise like the Lions, who've been down so long it looks like up to them. No, the Niners have won 32 times since 2002 -- a whopping six more victories than Detroit has managed in the same period.

In a recent SI feature, Stafford revealed to Peter King that during an interview at the NFL combine, the 49ers team psychologist pressed him on the subject of the divorce of Stafford's parents when the quarterback was in high school. Stafford says he assured the shrink he'd adjusted well, only to be told he "sounded if he might have unfinished business." After wisecracking to King that he wondered, in that moment, "how much I'm being charged per hour for this," Stafford was quick to point out that he got it: with clubs forking over fortunes for first-round talent, no one wants to leave a stone unturned.

That mini-controversy was given fresh life recently, when Niners head coach Mike Singletary all but dismissed the possibility of drafting Stafford in a radio interview with KNBR in San Francisco. "If you're going to look at drafting a guy in the first round," he told host Ralph Barbieri, "and you're going to pay him millions of dollars, and asking him about a divorce about his parents, if that's going to be an issue, then you know what? Maybe he doesn't belong here."

By that point in the interview, it bears noting, Singletary was a bit testy. Hoping to talk about minicamp, he was instead peppered by Barbieri with knottier questions: Who is in charge here? What is the club's chain of command? Did the 49ers get played by Kurt Warner? What happened with Stafford?

By refusing to wilt before Singletary's clear and mounting displeasure, Barbieri served as an advocate for 49ers fans desperate for salvation from, among other things, the club's ghastly play at the quarterback position in recent seasons. Things aren't exactly looking up in '09, as the Niners get ready to roll with the hydra-headed three-and-out machine otherwise known as Shaun Hill, Jamie Martin and Alex Smith.

Of the 49ers myriad needs, none is more pressing than this position. So you can't blame Niners fans for their confusion and frustration over the fact the club has taken draft's highest-rated signal-caller off its board because some shrink divined a buried trauma from Stafford's adolescence.

Who is being unreasonable here? I asked Dr. John F. Murray, a Florida-based author and sports psychologist, to provide some perspective.

Of Stafford's reluctance to "go deep" on the divorce issue, says Murray, "I can see how Singletary might view that as possibly an example of not coping with stress; of exhibiting defensiveness. They're going to need to work closely with this guy, so if he's reluctant to open up, that could be a red flag for the future."

At the same time, he says, "It's easy to see how questions about family, about sensitive situations, during a brief interview at the combine could put [Stafford] off."

Before they tackle heavy issues, Murray explains, psychologists first spend many hours establishing a rapport and comfort zone with patients. "I'm getting to know them," he said. "I'm asking questions in a confidential way to develop a profile so I can help them over time." If Stafford was grilled by a stranger he viewed as a "tool trying determine his fitness for the NFL," says Murray, "it's easy to see why he would get his back up."

The problem, he says, is that while NFL coaches are finally realizing "how critical mental skills are to success, they're still experiencing growing pains in terms of understanding and dealing with psychology." Some teams don't get, in other words, "that it's inappropriate to kind of shove a psychologist in somebody's face at the last second for a particular test."

Stafford's awkward interview typifies the sort of heavy-handed, Orwellian overkill with which the NFL combine has become synonymous -- and for which Singletary, for one, does not apologize. Once he'd simmered down on the KNBR's air, the coach defended his team's decision to subject Stafford to the Freud treatment.

Emphasizing the need to do homework on these guys, he pointed out that "there's only about five or six [first-round picks] that really make an impact ... It's not an exact science, but you just have to work your tail off." That's why they flew in a psychologist, he went on. And even if the shrink's questions sound "silly" and "dumb" out of context, "all of that information goes into our decision-making."

This is where they run into problems. How much weight to attach to different nuggets of information? J. Edgar Hoover's FBI compiled smaller dossiers on suspected reds than NFL teams have on potential free-agent signees. They've got two or three or four years worth of game tape. They've got combine results, pro day results. They've invited guys to visit them at their headquarters. By the time the draft rolls around, they are drowning in data.

Of course it's important to work hard. Everybody in the NFL works hard. The 49ers are trying to return to the heights they first scaled under Bill Walsh, who died in 2007. While they scan the reports submitted by the team psychologist, members of the 49ers brain trust (such as it is) would do well to remember that, as much as he valued hard work, Walsh believed it was even more important to work smart.

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