Jim Kensil, executive director of the National Football League, stepped up to a microphone in the Georgian Ballroom of New York's Americana Hotel and, in the uninflected tones of a station-master, recited, "The New York Giants on their second-round pick select Tom Mullen, guard, Southwest Missouri State." Two hundred people cordoned off behind velvet ropes in the back of the room booed. This was last week's NFL draft, and to the fans it seemed that the Giants had made yet another pick that the world would little note nor long remember. (Let's hear a locomotive for Louis Thompson, '67.) It was not just that Tom Mullen was unknown—even Commissioner Pete Rozelle admitted he didn't recognize the first 10 picks in the second round—it was the awful suspicion that neither this draft, nor any single year's draft, could by itself turn the hapless Giants around.
The theory behind the draft is that by selecting players in the reverse order of the teams' final standings, the weaker clubs eventually will catch up with the stronger ones. No way. As elsewhere, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
And for all the trappings in the Georgian Ballroom—an electric scoreboard clock ran down the time allotted each club for its selection—the draft had the suspense of an I Love Lucy rerun. Decisions were made elsewhere, and Draft Central was little more than a glorified switchboard. The Minnesota Vikings, for instance, were represented by their equipment manager and the Rams' phone was manned by two high school students from Massapequa, N.Y. Not that the NFL would ever let its hair down in public. In years gone by it was the practice to make facetious selections in the last round—Hiram Walker, I.W. Harper, John Wayne from Apache State. This kind of levity is now frowned upon.
The first round has always been the most serious. Last week, as expected, the No. 1 selection was Ed (Too Tall) Jones of Tennessee State, a 6'8", 265-pound defensive end chosen by Dallas on a pick acquired from Houston. Another Tennessee Stater was taken fourth and three more were selected in the second round, but UCLA led all schools with 12 players, while Penn State, Colorado and Michigan had 10 apiece. The Big Eight led the conferences with 51 selections, with the Big Ten (38) second.
Washington Coach George Allen again made the most dazzling trade, dealing off three draft choices originally held by three different clubs in three different divisions in three different rounds in three different years for Charger Guard Walt Sweeney, who will be 33 in April.
But for all the wheeling and dealing, the draft does not work. The worst team in football—this year as well as last, the Houston Oilers—drafts first in each round, which means it has the first selection, the 27th, the 53rd and so on. The best team—this year as well as last, the Miami Dolphins—drafts last, or 26th, 52nd and so on. The 26th selection is presumably better than the 27th and the 52nd better than the 53rd. Thus the real advantage gained by Houston over the stronger teams is one man, the first pick, and there is not one man on the face of the earth who could turn the Oilers around. Furthermore, strength begets strength: Miami's castoffs are better than Houston's, so they can be dealt away for high draft choices. Going into the draft Miami was tied for the most picks, 22; Houston had the fewest, 11.
With 26 teams drafting, the blue chippers are spread too thin. Thirty-five of the 80 pros originally chosen for last month's Pro Bowl were first-round choices. Only 11 players were second-round picks, while seven were free agents. Wide Receiver Harold Jackson and Tight End Bob Trumpy were 12th-round choices, Linebacker Nick Buoniconti a 13th. Miami's offensive line is composed of four free agents and a 14th-round selection. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. A team can only count on a first-round pick to fill a gap, which is why the few clubs that can really hope to improve themselves in the draft are those near the top of the pack. The Vikings, 7-7 in 1972, lacked only an explosive running back. After deliberating for all but 10 seconds of their 15-minute first-round allotment last year, they chose Chuck Foreman, and went to the Super Bowl. Had Foreman gone to Houston he would have been swallowed up the way John Matuszak was.
Even No. 1 picks don't come with any guarantee. The 1970 first round produced John Small, Bob Anderson, Sid Smith, Larry Stegent and Walker Gillette. George Allen seems to have the best grasp of the odds. "People say George Allen doesn't use the draft," says Rozelle. "The heck he doesn't. Take the draft away and he could never have built the Redskins." Allen was in peak form last week, acquiring four veterans—Sweeney, Los Angeles Wide Receiver Joe Sweet, and Linebacker Ed Mooney and Guard Cornelius Johnson of Baltimore—for six draft choices, the highest being a fourth, and a reserve running back, George Nock.
The draft needs drastic overhauling. One possible solution would be to open the first round only to teams with losing records, the second round to those that won just one game, the third to those that won two or less and so forth until the .500 level is reached. Thereafter the draft would proceed as of yore. Under this system Houston would have had the only pick in the second round this year, which would have been the 14th man selected. The Giants and the Chargers, who won two games, would have led off the third round, followed by Houston alone. Chicago, the only team to win three games, would have opened the fourth round, followed by Houston, San Diego and the Giants, the latter two alternating in successive rounds since they had identical records. In this manner Houston would have picked first, 14th, 17th, 19th and 25th. Teams with two wins would have had four choices in the top 27 and teams with three wins, three in the top 28.
Rozelle admitted he would like to see something of a similar nature instituted. Still, he doubted that any system was foolproof—that is, proof against fools—repeating what George Preston Marshall, the late owner of the Redskins, had said about another proposal to bring about more equal competition: "You can't legislate intelligence."
If anybody made real progress last week it was the World Football League, which gained a large measure of recognition the day before the NFL draft when its Southern California franchise announced the signing of three potential NFL first-round selections—UCLA Running Backs Kermit Johnson and James McAlister and USC Tackle Booker Brown. The trio's agent, 22-year-old Michael Trope, decided not to wait for competitive bidding by the NFL. "Their value was at a peak, 30% to 35% higher than it would have been later, because of the publicity the WFL could get by our signing," said Trope, who approximated the total package at close to $1 million. The three players arrived late at a press conference announcing their signing because Brown's car, in which they were riding, broke down. "I've been driving a 1967 Buick," said Brown, "but next week I'm going to be driving a 1974 some-thing-or-other."
Brown won't be the only college senior with new wheels if the WFL gets rolling. Sports Attorney Bob Woolf estimates that salaries will go up 100%—and maybe much more. "All it takes is one WFL owner to say, 'I don't care what it costs; I'm going to buy a winning team,' and that will blow the roof off as far as money is concerned," says Woolf.
That possibility seemed real enough to the NFL last week. Trope reported that Sid Gillman, general manager-coach of the Houston Oilers, who had gambled a sixth-round choice on Brown, called him on the phone and amidst yelling and screaming asked if Brown's WFL contract could be breached. Trope also said that Gillman sent a representative to Brown's house but that the rep could make no headway and ended up pleading, "At least call Gillman and tell him I was here so I can get my paycheck."
Moreover, NFL teams deliberated much longer than usual over their selections, apparently wanting assurance that each player was still available. For the first time in history no quarterbacks were drafted in the first two rounds. Could it be fear of a price war at that glamour position? The WFL had already made Kansas' David Jaynes its first selection and had chosen seven quarterbacks in its top 22 picks. NFL teams were scurrying to sign their choices and, reportedly, the bonuses were up. "They want to nip the bud in its inception," said John Lium, an attorney who will handle several players but is better known as Bruno in the Right Guard commercial. "It's like a cancerous growth. If the WFL teams get a few signed this year and get under way, they'll really be out next year."
By last weekend the NFL had forged ahead. The Giants and their No. 1 pick, Ohio State Guard John Hicks, came to terms. St. Louis tied up its first two choices, Tight End J. V. Cain of Colorado and Tackle Greg Kindle of Tennessee State, while Dallas signed the second of two first-round picks, Running Back Charley Young of North Carolina State.
The NFL also gained a temporary advantage in that it had completed all of its draft. The 12 franchises in the WFL had drafted a week earlier, but only through six rounds. Its information was limited, the best of it supplied by Henry Lee Parker, a director of player personnel recently fired by the New Orleans Saints and hired, complete with sheets of player ratings, by the WFL. The new league had to wait to complete its draft until after the NFL's so it could use the NFL draft list as a guide.
The early WFL draft, as well as the three signings, was aimed primarily at achieving credibility. Many WFL selections were realistically territorial but the league could not keep its naiveté from showing. When the Washington-Baltimore franchise announced its choice of a favorite son at New York's Marriott Essex House—"An All-American defensive tackle from Maryland, Paul Vellano"—a WFL official designated as Draftmaster asked, "How do you spell it?" Hawaii, picking ninth in the first round, claimed the WFL's first defensive player, Linebacker Fred McNeill of UCLA. The Hawaii representative prefaced that choice by remarking, "I think we need some defense in this league." The WFL has tried to guarantee more offense and pizzazz than the NFL with kickoffs from the 30-yard line, two-point conversions, only one foot in bounds on pass receptions, a fifth quarter to break ties and other moves that the hidebound NFL has dragged both feet on.
But can the WFL get off the ground? Its first president, Gary L. Davidson, a 39-year-old attorney who was founder and first president of the ABA and co-founder and first president of the WHA, says it can and will. He has already negotiated a contract with the TVS Television Network, but for less than $1 million. That will provide the league with exposure but not operating expenses and the WFL has nowhere near the financial backing the AFL did in its early days.
Last week, as the NFL scrambled to nip the WFL's bud, several clubs in the new league were still without coaches, general managers and playing fields. The Florida franchise, which had signed one NFL castoff, Defensive Back Alvin Wyatt, had not even picked a city and the team was already under attack from the state tourism department, which objected to the nickname Sharks. Mayor Wyeth Chandler of Memphis had indicated he would do everything in his power to keep a WFL franchise out of his city, which has high hopes of attracting an NFL franchise.
Last week skeptics were even suggesting that the new league might be some kind of a hustle. The five organizers—Davidson; John F. Bassett Jr., a former Davis Cupper whose father owns the CFL's Toronto Argonauts; Robert Schmertz, owner of the Boston Celtics; Nick Mileti, president of Cleveland's Indians, Cavaliers and Crusaders; and R. Steven Arnold, president of Pro Sports Inc., a business management firm for professional athletes—paid nothing to get into the WFL. Mileti has already sold his franchise, the Chicago Fire—which sounds more like a rock group than a football team—for a reported $400,000, or a $400,000 profit.
But no matter what the WFL eventually proves to be, it has given the NFL a needed kick in its complacency. And no matter what happens, this year's draft will finally produce big winners—the draftees. Before he had decided to join the WFL, Booker Brown was asked about his plans. "All things equal, I'll take the NFL," he said. In competition, of course, all things are rarely equal. Booker Brown might have been speaking for the class of '74 when he concluded, "I like the position I'm in."