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DALY: Hoopla wouldn’t impress scouts of old
They weigh them, time them, test them, give them chest X-rays, knee exams, electrocardiograms. They work them out and wear them out, do background checks that are more like body cavity searches. Heck, for all we know, NFL teams delve into the DNA of draft prospects - on the off-chance one of them might be secretly related to Jim Thorpe.
Then they gather up all this information, feed it into a computer and… draft Tom Brady in the sixth round - or James Harrison not at all.
Does anyone else feel this NFL Draft business has gotten to be a bit much? Sure, you want to be thorough, especially with so much money at stake, but as we’ve seen time and again, overanalysis can lead to paralysis - or worse, to Tim Couch.
Or to put it another way, what’s so wonderful about the Wonderlic test? Couldn’t you learn just as much about a guy by playing a quick game of rock-paper-scissors with him?
In olden times, the league did just fine without this microscopic evaluation of talent. Back then - I’m talking before World War II - clubs scouted the old-fashioned way, working their contacts in the college game and counting on recommendations from former players. Oh, they might get to see a prospect in action a time or two, but beyond that…
Poring over game films, such a big part of the process today, didn’t come into fashion into later. (In the late ‘30s, most teams were just beginning to pore over their own game films.) No, a club was much more likely to learn about a player by perusing the sports section of the newspaper. Some clubs even enlisted sports writers to do the bird-dogging for them.
One of them, a columnist for the Odgen (Utah) Standard-Examiner named Al Warden, informed his readers in 1940 that he was “one of the far western football scouts for the Lions.” In fact, he went on, he’d just received a letter from Detroit coach Potsy Clark that said: “Let us have a list of prospective players from your section of the country as soon as possible. We are on the lookout for new finds.”
In those days, the NFL Draft went something like this: Every year, the league compiled a master list of eligible players with the help of submissions by each team. The 300-odd names were then put on three large blackboards in the hotel meeting room where the draft was held.
Sometimes, if a club felt it had stumbled across a hidden gem, it would “forget” to put him on the master list. The Giants did this in 1939 with Walt Nielsen, a back from the hinterlands of Arizona - and then surprised everybody by drafting him in the first round.
Wellington Mara, the 20-something son of owner Tim Mara, served as New York’s player personnel director during the leather helmet era. It’s astounding where the kid found players - and without, I’ll just point out, having any idea what their vertical jump was. Take the Giants’ 1938 championship team, for instance. Among the alma maters listed on the roster were Central Oklahoma, West Virginia Wesleyan, Emporia State (Kansas), Trinity University (Texas), Santa Clara, St. Bonaventure, George Washington, Simpson College (Iowa) and Oklahoma City.
Of course, the Giants took scouting more seriously than many other teams. At the other end of the spectrum were the Steelers of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Their player personnel man, NFL Hall of Famer Jim Finks once recalled, “was a full-time mortician named Ray Byrne. So, on the side, he subscribed to all the college football magazines and put himself on the mailing lists of all the different colleges… [and] collected their press releases. That was the information the Steelers had when they went into the draft every year.”
By the time the American Football League came along in 1960, though, moonlighting morticians had been replaced by full-time scouts who crisscrossed the country in search of the next Bronko Nagurski. Eddie Kotal, Jack Lavelle, Pappy Lewis, Peahead Walker, Fido Murphy - nobody remembers them now, but they helped turn the NFL Draft into the extravaganza it is today.
Kotal liked to joke about his “14-month-year” cataloguing prospects for the Los Angeles Rams, right down to the little-known defensive end from Arnold College in Connecticut (the great Andy Robustelli, L.A.’s 19th-round pick in 1951). Let’s face it, you have to be a little nutty to spend all that time on the road - just you and your binoculars - and Eddie certainly qualified. As a back with the Packers in the ‘20s, he was one of the handful of players in the league who played without a helmet.
For a while, the Rams had an edge on other teams because they budgeted more for scouting, but that soon changed. So much so that Kotal griped in 1957, “even five years ago I could stumble across a sleeper at some small college that no other club knew about. But nowadays, everybody’s scouting system is so exhaustive, there’s no such thing as one.
“I don’t care if the kid is a third-string halfback at Tiddle-de-Wink Tech. By the time I get there to see him, he’ll tell me:
About the Author
Dan Daly has been writing about sports for the Washington Times since 1982. He has won numerous national and local awards, appears regularly in NFL Films’ historical features and is the co-author of “The Pro Football Chronicle,” a decade-by-decade history of the game. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dandalyonsports –- or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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