The onlookers at last week's NFL draft weren't about to let the hometown Giants forget past mistakes. When the time came for the team to make its first-round selection, the 10th pick of the entire draft, the fans on the balcony above draft headquarters in a ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel blind-sided the Giant representatives. "Rocky Thompson," they shouted, recalling one of the many choices the Giants would sooner forget. "Ernie Wheelwright. John Hicks," continued the abuse. "Who you gonna blow it on this time?"
Undaunted, New York selected Gordon King, a tackle from Stanford. When Commissioner Pete Rozelle announced that choice into a microphone, hostility ceased. In its stead a magnificent cheer arose. To hear the uproar one might have imagined that the ghosts of Frank Gifford, Kyle Rote and Y. A. Tittle had materialized in the Giant backfield.
The draft is pro football's eternal fountain of optimism, at which, supposedly, the weak grow strong. In reality, the rich grow richer, and the poor poorer. The draft, in fact, is simply one more way of proving the lone indisputable truth of pro football life—a team is only as strong as its front office.
A survey conducted by College & Pro Football Newsweekly of first-round draft picks in the 1970s indicates that not only does the draft not promote equality, but it actually widens the gap between the NFL's best and worst teams. For instance, Kansas City, the club that tied for the worst record in football last year, is also the team that has blown the most first-round selections, four, in the 1970s. (By "blown," the paper means the draft picks are no longer playing football.) By contrast, powerful Los Angeles has all nine of its selections still on the roster, and seven of them start, a change of pace for new Coach George Allen, who was without a No. 1 pick in his seven years with the Redskins.
In addition, out of the past three drafts it is the perennially strong Cincinnati Bengals who have added the most players to their roster, 26. The Rams and Cowboys are tied for third in this category with 22 newcomers each. An upstart here is rapidly improving San Diego, second-ranked with 25. It should be noted that Charger Coach Tommy Prothro and General Manager John Sanders learned the pro personnel business with the Rams. If competitive balance is truly the objective, the NFL should hold annual drafts of front-office personnel.
Still, the draft persists, if for no other reason than that it is the lone event on the NFL calendar where the offensive linemen get cheered. Offensive linemen were actually the stars of this year's draft, leading the way in the first round. Five of them—King, Ohio State Tackle Chris Ward (Jets), Michigan Tackle Mike Kenn (Atlanta), Washington Center Blair Bush (Cincinnati) and Alabama Guard Bob Cryder (New England)—were among the first 18 choices.
King was the second offensive lineman picked. Coincidentally, the first, Ward, also ended up in New York and also was wildly cheered by the draftniks at the Roosevelt, who had earlier pleaded loudly with Jet officials to select him. Ward is a 6'3¼" 280-pounder, and Jet Coach Walt Michaels, noting that he had drafted another massive tackle, USC's Marvin Powell, in the first round the previous year, said, "Ward will be one of our two bookends—and we're thinking of a 10-year span." It is NFL dogma that offensive linemen are wise choices for weaker clubs. Their longevity means they will probably still be knocking people around several years down the road while their team has had a chance to rebuild itself.
While almost every pro personnel man rated Ward the nation's best lineman, one draft observer close to the Ohio State scene disagreed. "I know Ward and he has no fight in him," said this man, requesting anonymity. "Ward didn't play in the Senior Bowl because he was afraid of how he would look against the tougher competition. He's overweight with a lot of baby fat on him." Sure enough, a day after the draft, the Jets ordered Ward to lose 10 pounds.
Former Jet Fullback Matt Snell, who played at Ohio State and is now an agent, disagreed with the Jets' choice on different grounds. "I think they need other things," said Snell, noting that Jet runners ranked last in the AFC in total yardage in 1977 and had a long gain of just 27 yards. "A great back can make an ordinary lineman look good. I never saw an ordinary back do anything for a lineman."
No one claimed that King lacks fight. As one scout put it, "He's not like other guys from Stanford. He's mean." King indicated his nature in describing how he plays his position. "The competition in the pits is more than big bodies on a collision course," he said. "If you can break your opponent's will, you can make him give up. If you hit hard on every play, it starts to work on the opponent's mind. And if you can keep doing it, he's going to forget some defense. When you get a guy thinking survival above all else, you sense you've got him and maybe the rest of his team, too."
Despite the instant analysis on Ward and King, NFL executives say that the real worth of a draft is not known for three years, the grace time collegians are allowed to learn the flex defense and other mysteries of the pro game. Nevertheless, immediately following each draft those same executives hotly debate which team benefited the most. Many favored San Francisco after this year's lottery. That should come as no surprise to anyone who has studied 49er GM Joe Thomas' drafting record when he was with Minnesota, Miami and Baltimore—Fran Tarkenton, Larry Csonka, Bob Griese, Bert Jones, John Dutton, etc.
Thomas is not only a superior judge of talent, but he also utilizes his draft choices brilliantly. He gave this year's second and third picks to Buffalo as part payment in the O. J. Simpson trade, but had choices in both those rounds as a result of other deals. With these he took Guard Walt Downing of Michigan and Guard Ernie Hughes of Notre Dame to help the Juice flow. Thomas acquired an additional first-round choice by trading the 49ers' top rusher, Delvin Williams, to Miami. In that deal he also picked up a safety, Vern Roberson, and a wide receiver, Freddie Solomon, both of whom will probably start in San Francisco. With the Miami draft pick, Thomas chose a Cal State-Long Beach linebacker named Dan Bunz. With his own first-round selection, the seventh, Thomas picked Notre Dame Tight End Ken MacAfee, a superior blocker and necessary complement for Simpson's sweeps.
Houston struck it rich with Texas Running Back Earl Campbell, the Heisman Trophy winner, who was the unanimous choice of pro personnel men as the best collegian this year and perhaps in several years. The Oilers made Campbell the first pick of the draft after acquiring Tampa Bay's top drafting position by trading away Tight End Jimmy Giles, their 1978 first- and second-round picks and their 1979 third- and fifth-round picks.
Before the draft even started, Campbell had agreed to become the richest rookie in NFL history. His estimated $1.4 million contract was negotiated by Mike Trope, who for the second straight year represented four of the top six picks. Trope's other clients included Ward, Florida Wide Receiver Wes Chandler, whom New Orleans made the third player selected, and Stanford Wide Receiver James Lofton, chosen sixth by Green Bay.
With Houston's first-round pick, the 17th in the draft, Tampa Bay took Grambling's Doug Williams, the first quarterback chosen. In explaining his choice, Buc Coach John McKay hinted that racial prejudice might have kept Williams from going higher. "We are in the third year of a five-year plan, and there is no quarterback coming up next year," said McKay. "We wanted to have one going into our fifth year. All things being equal, Williams would have gone higher in the draft."
Williams' college coach, Eddie Robinson, addressed the racial issue more directly. "Williams' selection is a super step for me," he said. "I've asked myself for many years, 'When will professional football let a black quarterback develop?' Let's face it, pro football has been awfully good to Grambling. It has been a way out for some guys. But deep inside, before I am gone, I want to see a boy leave here and grow to be widely accepted as a great quarterback. One who just happens to be black. Heck, I've been around as long as Bear Bryant. I go to the same clinics, read the same material all coaches use. What is wrong with me? If I can't turn out one great pro quarterback, then I have been a failure in a way."
Annually there is great interest in the selections of the Dallas Cowboys, who seem to be able to discover All-Pros in libraries and on basketball courts. This year, however, Coach Tom Landry offered a seldom-heard discouraging word. "We went in looking for a cornerback or an offensive lineman," he said, "but the field was so depleted by the time we got around to picking that we had to draft for the best available athlete. There just wasn't anything there." The Cowboys drafted into their strong suit, using the last choice of the first round for Michigan State Defensive End Larry Bethea.
Landry's comments underscored the feeling of most pro football personnel men that as a whole this year's crop of collegians was a poor one. The Cowboys can always count on turning up a blue chip in a penny ante game, however, because they annually lead the league in the number of prospects scouted and the volume of information compiled. In 1973, picking 20th, Dallas desperately wanted Purdue Wide Receiver Darryl Stingley, but expected him to be taken very early. Stingley, however, was still available when it came time for the choice of the New England Patriots, who were selecting 19th. When the Patriots chose Stingley, the Cowboys were crushed. Dallas settled for Michigan State Tight End Billy Joe DuPree, who has since become All-NFC. After the 1973 draft, the Cowboys went scramblng for the free agents their massive scouting reports indicated were prospects. In this unlikely group Dallas found the wide receiver it wanted, free agent Drew Pearson, who turned out to be everybody's All-Pro.
That tale of diligence rewarded is proof that it takes several years to evaluate a draft. Unhappily, it is also confirmation of the sad truth about this and every other draft—the rich keep getting richer.