As we leave behind the long days between football-in-shorts and football at Saint Vincent, with all eyes fixed on football in the fall, the biggest question before Steelers Nation is the same as it is every year — how will the rookies pan out? The truth is that the draft remains, for all the time, money and brainpower poured into it, a crapshoot. For every sixth-round stud like Tom Brady or our own Antonio Brown, there are countless Trent Richardsons, Ryan Leafs and Breshad Perrimans. In fact, there are far more busts in draftdom than there are in Canton.
Every scouting department these days sees the same measurables and watches the same tape. Gone are the days when the Steelers’ scouting team had the sidelines to themselves at traditionally black colleges. Why then do some teams see greater success in the draft than others? Because of the one thing that can’t be easily measured — integrity. Some teams, successful over the long term, tend to find men of character, while others end up choosing characters.
There’s a simple reason why character matters. It’s not that the football gods impart their blessings on choir boys. It’s more that, as a team sport, football requires of men the ability to set aside their own desires and pursue the goals of the team. That, in turn, requires two things — selflessness and patience.
Compare, if you will, two Hall of Fame receivers, neither of which will be in Canton in a few weeks. Terrell Owens certainly had the goods. He was athletic and self-confident. But he was also selfish. For TO, the game was always about TO. Both his own team and the opposing team were, to him, merely 21 cardboard characters serving as backdrops to the TO show. He loved him some him. Is it any wonder that, despite his talent, he bounced from team to team?
AB, on the other hand, is a team player. When he was briefly on the outside looking in, watching Hines Ward, Mike “One Trick Pony” Wallace and draft-mate Emmanuel Sanders, rake in the pigskin, did we ever hear him complain? Did he view Hines Ward — another team player par excellence as exemplified in his smile and his brutal blocking — as a roadblock, or a mentor? To this day, AB risks life and limb not just going across the middle — but returning punts — because it helps the team.
Next, consider patience. This time compare AB with his former teammate, Martavis Bryant. Which one of these two was drafted earlier? Which one of these two had the physical skills that every other receiver this side of Larry Fitzgerald covets? Not the one headed for Canton. Bryant simply couldn’t wait until his playing days were over to breathe in the aroma of success. As a result, for part of one season and all of another, his playing days were over. While Bryant was coughing his way to the airport with the aptly-named LeGarrette Blount, AB was probably still running routes with the jugs machine, honing his craft and moving from good to great.
I’m not suggesting the Steelers ought to field an all-Tim Tebow team. I am suggesting that the smart teams understand the true sticker cost of those selections found on the “Talented but Troubled” rack on draft day. They don’t dump a Jerome Bettis in favor of a Lawrence Phillips. Instead they dump a Martavis Bryant for a Mason Rudolph. They look for quality people because quality people are far more potent than talent alone in putting together a championship team. In fact, quality people bring out the best in their teammates even when they aren’t able to be on the field. As Exhibit-A, I give you one Ryan Shazier.
We have reason to hope this year’s draft class was built on character. Undoubtedly, these young men have prodigious athletic talents. But I suspect, having been drafted onto a team of winners, they’ll bring along a winning attitude of their own — a willingness to leave it all on the field — not for the sake of personal fame, but for the sake of the team. I suspect these young men won’t be content to rest on their laurels until they’ve hoisted the Lombardi trophy. Time will tell, of course, as it always does with issues of character.