For weeks before last year's National Football League draft, General Manager George Young of the New York Giants had been trying to read the mind of Bum Phillips, his counterpart in New Orleans.
Would Phillips trade away the first selection in the draft? Would he use it to take George Rogers, the Heisman Trophy winner from South Carolina? Would he instead take Lawrence Taylor, North Carolina's all-America linebacker? And what about all the trade talk surrounding the Saints? Was Phillips bluffing or was he seriously considering dealing his coveted draft choice?
"When I went home the night before the draft, after trying for so long to decide what would happen, I still didn't know," Young said. "All I knew was that Bum had Lawrence Taylor in New Orleans for three days just before the draft. I figured if Lawrence was around anyone that long, they'd have to draft him. And we really wanted Lawrence."
Despite all the sophisticated scouting systems used by NFL teams, all the private, mock drafts usually conducted and all the off-the-record telephone calls between clubs--all of which precede the actual event--Young walked into the Giants' draft central knowing little more about Phillips' thinking than he had the day the regular season ended.
So Young did what any careful general manager would do under similar circumstances.
"I told our man at the NFL draft room to put Rogers' name on one sheet of paper and Taylor's name on the other," he said. "When New Orleans took one of them (it was Rogers), I told him to rush up and hand in the name of the other, so it wouldn't look like we were hesitating one bit."
Probably no other event in American sports functions with quite the freedom and unpredictability of the NFL draft. It is a two-day extravaganza that has so fascinated the public that many clubs are forced to rent hotel ballrooms to cope with fan interest.
Each year, the 28 teams try to bring this monster under control through behind-the-scenes maneuvers and well-devised strategies. And each year they fail.
For many of the general managers and scouts, the draft can be one of the most exhausting, exhilarating events of the season. They take months to plan their approach, spending thousands of dollars to grade players and pick the blue chippers. And then, when the draft starts, all that careful work can explode in the face of whim and emotion.
"The draft is a game, really," said Young. "And like a game, you can't predict what is going to happen. Most of the time, it comes down to luck."
At 10 a.m. Tuesday, the door to the Redskins' draft central will be closed. Until the draft ends around 6 p.m. Wednesday, admittance to the room is by invitation only.
"We let a lot of people in there, but we don't want it open to the public," General Manager Bobby Beathard said. "It's busy and we have to be able to think and make decisions."
Dominating the room is what Beathard calls "the stack board." It lists, in order, the 250 or so best players available, as determined by Beathard and his scouts during meetings throughout the last month. That board is the team's draft map. As each selection is made, the name is removed from the board. In theory, when the Redskins' turn comes every round, the highest-rated player still left on the board is the one the team drafts.
But theory and reality sometimes clash.
"You have to be disciplined," Beathard said. "You have to go by your ratings and not suddenly change your mind or start having doubts. But it's difficult. You start wondering if maybe some other guy isn't better. Yet, if you don't follow what is on the board, you are saying that all that scouting and rating and careful preparation are meaningless. And to draft right, you have to have faith in that predraft system."
Emotions, however, sometimes prevail. When Beathard was a scout for the Atlanta Falcons, the personnel department was sold on Kenny Anderson, a little-known quarterback from Augustana. Coach Norm Van Brocklin, however, decided in the draft room that Duke's Leo Hart was better. No real reason, he admitted, but he couldn't be talked out of his decision. The Falcons took Hart, Cincinnati took Anderson and the Falcons lived with their mistake for years.
Occasionally, luck is more kind. Paul Brown, when he was Cleveland's mastermind, once agonized about whether to select Jim Brown or Len Dawson. He decided on Dawson, only to lose him to a prior selection. So he had to settle, he thought then, for Brown.
"At least this is better than the old days of the draft," Beathard said. "They didn't have scouts back then and people would make selections based on what they read in magazines or what a coaching buddy recommended."
The Redskins, like most teams, wait until their turn is about six selections away before seriously studying the stack board and discussing who is left and who might go in the last few picks.
"If the guys on the board are really close in ability, then we look at their positions and weigh what we might be able to get later in the draft," Beathard said. "I welcome all input, from the coaches and from the scouts. But I make the final decision."
When the Redskins are up, Beathard calls in his choice to the league draft headquarters in New York, where each team has a representative and its own telephone. The representative tells league officials the player picked by his team.
There are two other telephones in the Redskins' draft room. One has a private number known to other teams. The other is connected to the main club switchboard. Beathard is on one of the telephones almost constantly, talking to other clubs in an attempt either to work out trades or to determine what players will be drafted prior to the Redskins' next turn.
Last year, Beathard concluded four deals in that room, including the one that sent his 1983 No. 1 selection to Los Angeles in return for four draft picks. But other general managers, such as the Giants' Young, prefer not to wheel and deal during the draft, figuring emotions might interfere with clear judgments.
"My feeling is that a lot of teams don't loosen up until the actual draft begins," Beathard said. "Then, they listen more to possible deals. They may think a veteran player is better than anyone left on their board, so they may be willing to swap a choice for that veteran. Before, they will tell you that they'll never part with a pick no matter what."
Trade talks usually are initiated at the league meetings a month before the draft. That's when the general managers begin their maneuvering designed to ascertain as much as possible about opponents' draft thinking while revealing as little as possible about their own.
Teams guard their stack board ratings as if they were state secrets. Beathard, for example, never reveals his rankings of players to anyone in the business, even his closest associates with other teams. As a result, there is plenty of anxiety and guesswork in the days before the draft.
Two years ago Beathard decided that Mat Mendenhall, a defensive end from Brigham Young, was good enough to be taken on the first round. He knew Mendenhall wasn't that highly rated on scouting combine charts and that his name rarely came up in talks with other general managers. So Beathard thought he could wait until the second round to draft Mendenhall. Was that going to be a costly risk? Did another club think just as highly of Mendenhall?
Beathard hardly slept for two nights. He started making telephone calls, trying desperately to read the pulse of his peers. Finally, he decided to wait until the second round to select Mendenhall, who still was available when the Redskins' turn came.
"You have to remember, general managers are only human, too," Young said. "I don't really think people have strategies about the draft. It's difficult to map out anything that involves so much human error and guesswork.
"How do you evaluate a player? How will he hold up under pressure? How will he react to competition? How will he function in a new environment? How well do you really know someone you have hardly met? You have to make judgments, tough judgments, based really on inadequate information. That's why I say that scouts all should have the same religion. We should be Buddhists, because we all believe in reincarnation. When we see a player, we always say he reminds us of another player. But that is really wrong. Each player is different from everyone else. And that makes it easy to make a mistake."
A classic example of draft strategy backfiring:
In 1973, the Houston Oilers had the first pick in the draft. The club made detailed studies of the best players and checked and rechecked information. But no one in the organization would reveal the choice it would make.
On draft day, the Oilers had 15 minutes to announce their decision. Most teams take, oh, 15 seconds. Houston waited 12 minutes, then chose John Matuszak of the University of Tampa; he lasted two seasons before they traded him.
The Baltimore Colts recovered quickly enough from the shock of the Oilers' selection to take the player who proved to be the best available that year, Bert Jones.
So much for careful planning.