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Draft Board

by Kyle Smith

The NFL’s annual spring draft is a conference of innocence and experience. The players are spring lambs, capering with youth and anticipation. As yet they are unacquainted with their first paychecks, as they are with the unnerving sight of the quarterback-mauling Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison coming on the zone blitz. The teams that arrive to offer them new homes in sleek green pastures are hopeful but burdened with harrowing memories of wayward sheep and rams run amok. For every Super Bowl–winning quarterback like Troy Aikman or John Elway, there’s a bumbling Tim Couch or a Jeff George.

A pleasing sense of recompense for past sorrows fills the air thanks to the rule of selection in reverse order of previous standings. As in Matthew’s promise, the last shall be first. Yet the meek may inherit Joey Harrington, the ex€‘QB and No. 1 draft pick of the Detroit Lions who played like an asthmatic kitten. Because assessing new recruits to join in the 22‑man hurlyburly is notoriously difficult. “Let’s break it down!” cry the analysts, but in football, as in Hollywood, as in the Council of Economic Advisers, nobody knows anything.

The NFL draft is preceded by the “Combine,” which carries gruesome connotations of blades of empiricism ruthlessly spitting out athletic chaff. It is instead an exercise in whimsy at which frowning coaches attempt to reduce complex athletes to their constituent parts — number of bench presses, swiftness of wind sprints, alacrity of Gatorade tub–overturning, etc. Is a wideout who dashes the 40 in 4.4 seconds significantly preferable to a rival Mercury who rings up a 4.6? Does it not depend on the player’s ability to shed blocks, to run patterns, to fake out defenders, to catch — in short, to play football? Going back to bench‑pressing is like deciding whom to invite to a chess tournament by asking potential entrants to do some quick calculus, on the grounds that mathematical ability is correlated with chess prowess.

What would be even more absurd than asking chess players to take a math quiz, though, would be to ask NFL players to take a math quiz. So the league does so. Prospective draftees submit to the infamous Wonderlic test of literacy, logic, arithmetic, and other cognitive tasks. Its utter lack of rigor (sample question: “Paper sells for 21 cents per pad. What will four pads cost?”) matches its lack of prophetic usefulness.

Pace the claims of Malcolm Gladwell and others that the test has no value, Mike Florio, who for reasons unknown is employed to mull football for NBC, suggests using the test to ward off insurrection. He has written, “Scoring too high can be as much of a problem as scoring too low. Football coaches want to command the locker room. Being smarter than the individual players makes that easier. Having a guy in the locker room who may be smarter than every member of the coaching staff can be viewed as a problem.” Yes, you certainly wouldn’t want some smartypants punter to seize the chalk and lead a locker‑room mutiny. This is why no team would ever tempt fate by employing both the veteran linebacker London Fletcher and Christian Ponder, a sprightly new play‑caller for Minnesota.

This year the Wonderlic met LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. He scored a four out of 50, then hastened to acknowledge that the examination had not captured his imagination. “Wasn’t nothing on the test that came with football,” he reasoned, “so I pretty much blew the test off.” He had something more pressing to do that day than take a twelve‑minute quiz that he knew would be evaluated by his next employer? Would not a true iconoclast have left a clean form and earned a more insouciant, not to say wittier, score of zero? Apparently no player has ever done so, the reported nadir being two points.

The Dallas Cowboys made Claiborne the sixth‑overall pick anyway, their need being acute. Dallas’s man at the position was Terence Newman, who has spent the last several years mastering the reverse of the wide receiver’s touchdown jubilation: the beaten cornerback’s high‑speed retreat from the cameraman’s frame in the moment of humiliation. Furthering his quest for anonymity, Dallas unloaded him on Cincinnati.

The woeful Newman, though, was himself a former fifth‑overall pick, suggesting that, despite the Wonderlic data and the Combine score and the collegiate statistics, the Cowboys didn’t know what they were doing when they drafted him in the first place: Twenty‑six picks later, when future superstar corner Nnamdi Asomugha was still on the board, even the Oakland Raiders were wise enough to sniff opportunity. That same year, 13 quarterbacks were drafted, including the longtime Cincinnati Bengals starter Carson Palmer, who is now with Oakland, and the journeyman Byron Leftwich. None proved as successful as one who wasn’t drafted at all: Tony Romo.

This year the management of the Raiders, by eagerly sought reputation the league’s most ruthless crew, and holders of the title, in their 2011 iteration, of most penalized team ever, pondered their nine‑year absence from the postseason invitational and changed course. Detecting a correlation between talented players and those with “a strong foundation in their faith,” the team drafted a slate of the devout. Recent high draft picks by the club have too often yielded such busts as quarterback JaMarcus Russell, whose penchant for falling asleep in team meetings went unprophesied by either the Wonderlic or the Combine. The Raiders could hardly do worse than they’ve been doing. If all else fails, why not consider character?

In 1998, the Indianapolis Colts puzzled mightily over whether to choose Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf with their first‑overall pick. The pair were seen as so evenly matched that San Diego, which was due to have the third pick, traded a bundle of future draft choices to move up a single slot and be assured the rights to one of the pair.

The Colts, undecided, asked each player what would be his first action upon being drafted. Manning said, “Study the playbook.” Leaf said, “Go to Las Vegas.” Leaf was not the Colts’ pick. Today Manning is preparing for another season in his Hall of Fame career, while the player he nosed out for the title of most hotly pursued footballer in the class is an ex‑athlete awaiting trial on charges of burglary and drug possession. Where is the algorithm that can take the true measure of a man?

– Mr. Smith is a film critic for the New York Post.

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