I ran across an interesting statement in one of the innumerable draft articles I’ve viewed in the past few months. I can’t for the life of me remember where I saw it, nor the exact wording. But the essence of it was this: the writer indicated his preference for the draft and all the activity surrounding it to actual football.
It’s easy to make the assumption the speaker must have been a "fan" of one of the teams generally considered to win their Super Bowl in March and April. In other words, if, despite generally having high draft picks and the money to sign exciting free agents, one’s team doesn’t actually perform particularly well as a rule, one might just as well get excited about free agency and the draft and not worry too much about the season.
But I don’t think this was the case. I think the writer was writing for a Steelers blog, and would therefore be presumed to be interested in Steeler football.
The irony to me is how often the highly touted players everyone gets so worked up about don’t pan out. In the first round, they generally do, to one extent or another. But I suspect the folks who prefer the draft to actual football are more interested in finding the "gems" in later rounds. They are also presumably the people who write rapturous articles two days after the draft is over, praising how well their team did, or bemoaning the fabulous players they left on the board for the not-terribly-impressive list of who they actually picked.
You would think we would learn. The Cold Hard Football Facts article assessing the past decade of drafting began with this statement:
We've come far enough along as a collective group of football observers to know that hasty post-draft grades are about as useful as a $5 coupon toward a new BMW. Yes, even our own.
The final sentence was linked to this article. In it, Sports Illustrated writer Kerry Byrne explains the following:
You know how most analysts do it: They pretend they watched every college football game of the past three seasons, toss out clichés about various schemes, or which players "set the edge" and have "good motors" and then try to guess which will succeed or fail at the next level.
Good luck with that.
The truth is that nobody knows who's going to succeed or fail -- not us, not the draft "experts" on TV and certainly not the GMs making the decisions on draft day.
As an example, he went on to say "History proves that first-round wideouts have a huge rate of failure in the NFL and that the position is incredibly overvalued by teams, fans and analysts."
No matter how well a player played in college, no matter how ready their game seems to be to translate smoothly to the NFL, focusing on individual players is more or less of a risky proposition. Any number of things can interfere with any given player succeeding in the NFL—injuries, unforeseen "character issues," for lack of a better term, psychological issues, and so on.
On the other hand, signing proven veterans isn’t a panacea, either. Just ask the teams who signed Albert Haynesworth. For every vet who goes to a new system and excels there is one who goes to a new team and doesn’t impress.
These failures can be traced to multiple possible causes. A new system may not be optimal for the playing style in which a given player excels. This is probably as good an explanation as any for why Nnadami Asomugha seemed rather ordinary on the Philadelphia defense. A player may have already peaked by the time he leaves a team and moves to another. This was probably the case with a number of former Steelers who never seemed to play as well again after leaving the team.
A player may just be lazy enough to figure he has nothing left to prove when the money is guaranteed, like Haynesworth, apparently. Or it may be more random—the amazing season which jacks up the free agency price may be the result of a combination of fortuitous factors which will never be repeated.
So why is it the draft and free agency so exciting to so many of us? I think it is for reasons having less to do with football than one would think.
When I was in elementary school I found the first week or two of each school year to be a time filled with promise. I had not yet besmirched my clean new notebooks with messy writing or ill-conceived and hasty calculations. I had not yet fallen behind in a class through not properly assimilating the foundational material. In short, there was still the chance I would excel in that grade and get straight A’s, something I almost never actually managed.
A fan of a team with a losing record in 2011 has the chance to see the team turn around in 2012. Although some of the greedier owners would like to change it, parity still holds sway in the NFL. As a result, every team, at least in theory, begins the season with the chance to win the Super Bowl that year. And maybe, just maybe, this is the year the ownership and management gets it right. They pick the right players, sign the right free agents, shake up the coaching staff, and the combination spits out a championship team. Or at least one who ends the season at better than .500.
And then there is the bargain hunting factor. Who among us would not prefer a genuine Ming vase we found in a thrift store for $2 over one for which we paid $20 million? After all, anyone with enough money and a trustworthy dealer can buy the latter. It takes persistence and knowledge as well as a lot of luck to happen upon the former.
In the same way, we assume our first-round draft picks will excel, and moan when they don’t produce as much or as quickly as we expect. But to find a Brett Keisel or Antonio Brown in the last rounds of the draft, or to pick up a Defensive Player of the Year in the undrafted players like James Harrison—that REALLY feels good.
Isaac Redman is another example of this phenomenon. He may actually turn out to be as good as people thought all along (although possibly no one could be that good,) but had the coaching staff listened to the moaning fans and started him a few years ago it would likely not have ended well. If he does well this season in Mendenhall’s absence, though, it will be even more exciting, because we "discovered" him and believed in him. In the same way, it was all the sweeter to go 3-1 for the four games Ben was suspended, because no one expected it.
And let’s not forget veteran free agency. If you can pick up a bargain, all the better. James Farrior had not produced like a #5 overall pick for the Jets when the Steelers signed him in 2002. For him to rapidly improve, develop into the leader of the defense, and just miss being made Defensive Player of the Year a few years later was great. It was especially great because the Steelers took someone the Jets didn’t value and turned him into a great player for the next 10 years.
Anybody can pick up the year’s hottest free agent if they are willing to spend enough money. For some teams, that’s their Super Bowl. For the Steelers, slow and patient generally wins the race. The team may not boast the "best" player at any given position, although a reasonable argument can be made for a few, but they compete, year after year, with solid but unglamorous draft picks and small, careful forays into free agency.
But the real proof of the pudding is in the football games. So, to those of you who might find yourself agreeing with whoever said he preferred the draft to the games, I say "chacun à son gout." I appreciate all of the great information you put out there, but as much as I enjoy the draft, I only enjoy it because love football. Come next fall I’ll be jumping up and down and twirling my Terrible Towel. You should consider joining me.