Fortunes can be made and lost in draft rooms
By Greg Garber
The real war room is a nondescript, gray aircraft hanger on a 262-acre compound known as Camp As Sayliya in the desert of Qatar.
U.S. General Tommy Franks presides over the military brain trust in the Central Command's field headquarters. The fall of Baghdad was orchestrated from this room some 700 miles to the south as officials monitored the precise movement of troops, tanks, planes and ships with the aid of computers, fiber optics and six plasma screens.
The conflict in Iraq has changed many things in America. War terminology suddenly sounds trite, heavy-handed and sometimes ironic. The concept of the war room dates back to 1914 and World War I, when generals plotted the progress of troops with pins in a map.
Football, which borrows so many terms from the military, makes its draft-day decisions in the "war room." This year, by broad consensus, the war room will be referred to as the draft room. ESPN, which will televise the draft, has already discussed this in preliminary meetings.
"The draft room," said ESPN's draft host Chris Berman, trying out the sound of it last week. "How about the brain trust? Or the think tank? I think that's appropriate. Our people over there deserve that kind of respect.
"It's 10 hours of live television, so I know I'll probably slip once or twice. But I'll give it my best effort. My God, you know that our soldiers gave us theirs."
On the clock
They will be hunkered down Saturday morning in the beige, second-floor conference room at Paul Brown Stadium. Over two days -- a total running time of roughly 17 hours -- the Cincinnati Bengals' braintrust, led by head coach Marvin Lewis and president Mike Brown, will define the team's future in the 2003 NFL Draft, beginning with the first overall pick. The impressive view of the Ohio River through the wide windows will, doubtlessly, be lost on them.
While the conflict in Iraq has rendered the term "war room" irrelevant, it is very much the command center for the NFL's 32 teams as they navigate their way through seven rounds and 262 choices. The tension in the Bengals' 1,500-square-foot draft room will be oppressive, further burdened by the weight of history.
Since 1992, Cincinnati has never chosen lower than 14th overall -- including nine top-10 and two overall No. 1 picks -- but the names do not inspire a Hall of Fame buzz: David Klingler, John Copeland, Dan Wilkinson, Ki-Jana Carter, Willie Anderson, Reinard Wilson, Takeo Spikes, Akili Smith, Peter Warrick, Justin Smith and Levi Jones.
By contrast, the Dallas Cowboys had the No. 11 overall pick in 1988, the No. 1 choice in 1989 and the No. 17 pick in 1990; the three choices were Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. That triumvirate was the nucleus of a team that won three Super Bowls. The Bengals, of course, are 0-for-XXXVII. A single poor choice can haunt a team for years, in terms of a player's contribution and the salary cap. A handful of bad decisions can prove disastrous.
It all goes back to what happens in the war room on draft day. That is where the blueprint is first drafted, so to speak.
"Even today, with the era of free agency, our attitude in Buffalo is that the draft is the lifeblood of the football team," Bills president Tom Donahoe said.
Rich McKay, the general manager for the Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said the draft is the only way to take a team from the ashes.
"You can't build a franchise," McKay said, "with guys off the street."
Like the Bengals, many teams devote a single room -- 365 days a year -- to the draft. Others commandeer a conference room or a team meeting room for a month or so. But all war rooms are essentially the same. They are dominated by the draft boards, which hang on the walls. The name, school, position and ranking of college players are listed, usually on magnets, from No. 1 to between No. 50 and No. 75. A second board organizes the players by position and rating. When a player is drafted, his magnet is moved to a third board, which displays the other 31 teams' choices and reflects their particular needs. This comes in handy when personnel men are trying to predict who will be taken and when. Some teams work off the first board until most of the names are exhausted -- usually around the fifth round -- then switch over to the position board.
The atmosphere is charged with the knowledge that thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars have been invested in the scouting process that determines the draft board. The fear of failure is palpable.
When the planets align and a team's targeted player lands in its lap, there is euphoria.
"The thrill of the war room, it's hard to describe," said Denver's director of college scouting, Jim Goodman, who is entering his fifth draft. "When something big happens, it's like you're on the goal line with fourth-and-1."
Conversely, when a team trades up and steals that player right out from under you, it can be crushing.
"It's the big fist in your birthday cake," Goodman said. "You get so hyped up for these guys, when you don't get them, it's like tearing a hole in your heart."
"A terrible feeling," Indianapolis President Bill Polian said. "So much goes into it and then, just like that, somebody goes up and gets your guy. Like in a game, you just have to shake it off and keep going."
Erasers, pens, chalk and the occasional cup have been known to fly through the air when things don't go according to plan. There are also cheers when warranted. The peaks and valleys may be dramatic, but there are long stretches of downtime when the occupants of the war room are just quietly doing their respective jobs. In terms of reality television, "Survivor" and "The Bachelor" have nothing to worry about.
"I'm not into dramatizing the war room," Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said. "It's a very business-like and unemotional operation. All the glamour, all the drama -- it's not like that. Where all that stuff comes from, I don't know. I guess it's created by people who haven't been there." Donahoe, who worked for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1984-2000, doesn't disagree.
"We'd have the boards up with all the lists and all the scouts and coaches would be in there," Donahoe said. "Tony Parisi, our long-time equipment man, would always make the statement, 'That's an awful lot of work for seven players.' "
Believe the board
As the first round of the 1998 NFL draft progressed, the Minnesota Vikings' war room was unusually quiet. All of the passionate arguments, all of the back and forth, had already occurred.
"We knew what we were going to do if the opportunity presented itself," explained former Vikings head coach Dennis Green. "And we did it."
Minnesota drafted volatile Marshall receiver Randy Moss after he slid all the way down to the No. 21 spot. Teams steered clear of Moss, who had made a number of headlines off the field during his college days. All he has done in five seasons is catch 414 passes for 6,743 yards and 60 touchdowns.
"My point was that Randy loved the game and that was the most important thing to him," said Green, who will work on ESPN's draft coverage. "It's called preparation. You do your homework and make sure you have all those discussions before Saturday. If you're making decisions on Saturday it's too late."
Green used the same modus operandi a year later in drafting Daunte Culpepper, a quarterback from obscure Central Florida with the No. 11 pick.
"Even though we had Jeff George, we felt Daunte was a top quarterback," Green said. "And just like with Randy, we were right."
The Vikings, like the league's other 31 teams, do an exhaustive study of their prospects. It begins in the fall when scouts visit the college campuses and check in with the coaches. Then come the regular-season games, bowl games, all-star games and the scouting combine after the Super Bowl. Tape is viewed and reviewed. The medical history is scrutinized and doctors are asked for second, third and sometimes fourth opinions. Background checks and psychological testing follow. People close to the top prospects are interviewed. Private workouts are arranged.
When the process is over, according to Ozzie Newsome, Baltimore's senior vice president of football operations, a typical first-round pick has been seen in person by eight to 10 people in the organization. Most draft choices will get between four and five in-person looks.
Then comes the fun.
"We're doing it right now," Charley Casserly, Houston's general manager, said last week. "There are some lively discussions."
Occasionally a forceful discussion breaks out in the war room -- a personnel chief will sometimes ask a scout or an assistant coach to speak on a prospect's behalf leading to lobbying that would be effective in Washington, D.C. -- but success in the draft usually comes down to this: Believing in the board.
All teams draft for need. If you desperately need a quarterback, it doesn't make much sense to spend the top pick on a cornerback. The key is value. Can you get the players you want in the appropriate spots without overpaying? Personnel men say that sticking with the board, not "reaching" for a player based on need, defines success in the war room.
"Stick with the plan," said Marty Hurney, the Carolina Panthers' general manager. "You go to such great lengths to develop that board, why not follow it? The answer to whatever question you might have is sitting right there."
When it's your turn and your guy is available, don't hesitate.
"Turn the card in," said James Harris, director of player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars. "You don't care if the phone rings, you don't want hear it -- this is your guy."
McKay of the Buccaneers admitted it is sometimes hard to resist the temptation to deviate from the board.
"I've been talked into it," he said. "It's like, 'We need a cornerback to play now. And then after the pick, you think, 'Hey, he's a rookie. He's not going to make a big impact.' That's when you make a bad long-term decision."
"If you do your homework, you shouldn't make any decisions on Draft Day."
In 2001, the Saints faced a dilemma. Mississippi running back Deuce McAllister, who New Orleans projected to go among the top-10 picks, was sliding toward their No. 23 spot. It wasn't a problem, really -- except that they already had Ricky Williams.
"Yes, we were surprised," New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis said. "But you go with the board. Nobody in the room argued at all."
After drafting McAllister, the Saints traded Williams last year to the Miami Dolphins for two first-round draft choices. All McAllister did last year was run 325 times for 1,388 yards -- best in the NFC -- and score 13 touchdowns.
"How do you force yourself to trust the board?" Casserly asked. "Years of experience getting burnt."
Casserly said the bulk of the discussion in the war room is restricted to potential trades. If a team believes it can draft the player it wants in a particular round lower than their present position, they will try to trade down. Similarly, teams trying to nab a favored player will try to trade up to beat a team ahead of them with that specific need. Teams can have one or two teams on hold while speed-dialing a third to talk trade details. This can lead to moments of gamesmanship.
"People offer you bogus trades just to distract you," said the Colts' Polian. "They're just trying to mess with your concentration. After awhile, you get to know who they are."
The other familiar topic is the discussion of scenarios. While most teams run through several mock drafts before the real deal, when a team's turn is coming up, the personnel people debate the two or three possibilities. When two players with similar ratings are available, the discussion turns to whether one will be available in the next round.
As the draft progresses, time seems to speed up. This is because, in fact, it does. Teams have 15 minutes to make decisions in the first-round and 10 minutes in the second. After that, however, it's five minutes and out.
"It really picks up," Polian said. "It's like playing dice. The croupier's rolling and is it 6 or is it 8?
And when a player starts sliding down the board -- Dan Marino, the most prolific quarterback in NFL history, was the subject of various rumors in 1983 and fell all the way to No. 27 where the Dolphins took him -- teams begin to question their rating. Paranoia often visits NFL teams, but in the war room it is a state of mind.
Before the salary cap, the second day of the draft was an exercise in pick-by-the-numbers. The best available athlete usually won out.
"In this day and age," Polian said, "you must hit on second-day players. The salary cap leaves you no other choice. Almost every draft choice has to make the team. That's not a wide margin for error."
As Bobby Beathard, the former personnel chief for the Redskins and Chargers, pointed out, "You don't have the luxury of waiting for three years for a lineman to mature. There really is no tomorrow."
And when it's all over, there is exhaustion rather than exhilaration. The fact is, no one knows for sure how the draft choices will shake out.
"Marv Levy always used to say draft day was great because everybody's undefeated," said Polian, who teamed with Levy to guide the Buffalo Bills to four straight Super Bowls. "In the end, it's not epic or catastrophic. It's not Secretary (Donald) Rumsfeld and the chiefs waiting for reports from the field. It's football."
Which means unpredictability.
"Scouting staffs have grown and the involvement of coaches is greater today," Buffalo's Donahoe said. "The amount of information is more significant. My feeling is that people are better prepared than they've ever been. Still, for all the work that goes into it, you have no idea what's going to happen. You just don't know."
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