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Trusting the Board During the NFL Draft

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Philadelphia Eagles v New York Jets Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Around this time each year there is a great article by Andrew Brandt from Sports Illustrated that I like to read about what it is like being in an NFL war room during the Draft. Even though the article is a few years old, it is full of relevant information.

One passage in particular really speaks to me.

The best decision-makers understand the magnitude of the draft but approach it calmly. Seven months of painstaking work has been done; it’s time to trust The Board. With an increasing number of decision-makers honed in college scouting, there is an almost universal adherence to that mantra. Still, leaders will still sometimes succumb to impulse and jump The Board in the heat of the moment. Nothing is more deflating to a scouting staff’s morale.

My old SB Nation colleague Danny Kelly recently expanded on this danger over at The Ringer.

I talked to an NFL assistant coach who also has experience scouting, and he told me that it’s not uncommon for decision-makers, whether it’s the GM or head coach that’s responsible for filling out the draft card, to get swayed by the wrong people. Maybe they have a convincing or especially charismatic coach at a certain position. That coach is pounding the table for a guy he really likes, and that GM starts to think, “Maybe our scouts are wrong.” He trusts the coach, who may not have done nearly as much work on that player as the scouting department has, and that can alter the final evaluation.

I think we have all been there. You are assigned a project at work. You put hours and hours into thinking it through, gaming out all scenarios, and you finally have it just how you want it. Then at the eleventh hour, somebody new comes in and is allowed to change things based on their gut even though they have done no background work to learn the topic.

You always hear teams talking about the importance of trusting the board, but it can be a vague term without concrete examples of what can go wrong when a team makes an impulsive decision rather than trusting its board.

In recent years we have learned about what this can look like.

Browns quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains said in a radio interview Thursday that a text from Johnny Manziel during the draft helped inspire owner Jimmy Haslam to trade up for him.

"We're sitting there and they keep showing Johnny on T.V. and Johnny and I are texting and he shoots me a text and he says, 'I wish you guys would come get me. Hurry up and draft me because I want to be there. I want to wreck this league together.'

"When I got that text, I forwarded it to the owner and to the head coach (Mike Pettine),'' Loggains said Thursday on Sports Talk with Bo Mattingly on Arkansas ESPN. "I'm like 'this guy wants to be here. He wants to be part of it.' As soon as that happened, Mr. Haslam said, 'pull the trigger. We're trading up to go get this guy.'''

Imagine that. Months and months of hard work gets put into evaluating these prospects, and the driving force behind a franchise-altering move has nothing to do with that research. It came down to a player sending a text message asking the team to draft him.

The Browns incredibly had spent six figures on a study that advised them to take a different quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater went later in the first round to the Vikings.

The jury is still out on Bridgewater as a pro. We are getting into the Twilight Zone trying to project a potential career in Cleveland. He would have started on a much less talented team and been forced to carry more of the load early. He also might have avoided the freak catastrophic knee injury he suffered last year.

With all of that said, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where Bridgewater was not a vastly better pick. Manziel proved to be one of the most disastrous selections in recent NFL Draft history, only lasting two years with the Browns.

Of course, the Jets had their own recent brush with disregarding the board. It came in the final round of the 2011 Draft when head coach Rex Ryan made a pick out of concern he might damage his relationship with his quarterback if he picked somebody else.

Nicholas Dawidoff chronicled the selection of Scotty McKnight in the book Collision Low Crossers. Then Jets head coach Rex Ryan had McKnight selected only because McKnight was the a friend of quarterback Mark Sanchez.

Tannenbaum and Ryan left the room. Bradway followed. Clinkscales looked alarmed. Time passed. Bradway reappeared, his face flushed. Then Ryan returned with Tannenbaum, who seemed - well it was difficult to be sure of Tannenbaum’s disposition, but “pleased” wouldn’t describe it. Ryan wanted to use “his” pick to draft Scotty McKnight. The scouts were crestfallen. Clinkscales was furious. Under Tannenbaum, the Jets had never before drafted someone rated below a seventh-round grade. McKnight didn’t merit a draft card, hadn’t even received a Jets physical. He could have been signed as a free agent. That another team might take him was inconceivable.

.............

For months before the lockout, Ryan and (Mark) Sanchez had been joking back and forth about Ryan drafting Sanchez’s bestie. Ryan had begun to worry that Sanchez thought Ryan was serious, and said Ryan, “I would never want a player to think I lied to him. He apologized to the scouting department.

.............

The room’s occupants remained quiet and unconvinced. Why would Ryan compromise all their work just to appease one player?

The results of the situation I described above vary. I have seen it break trust between people who work together, which makes any work environment less productive in the future. I have seen people put in less effort going forward because they don’t think their work will be valued or taken seriously. I have even seen people leave a company as a result.

I couldn’t tell you whether these things happened to these teams. I wasn’t there.

What I do know is drafting well is really tough to do even when you are doing everything right. You can put extraordinary work into evaluating players and still miss.

The Draft is about playing the odds. What gives you a better chance of hitting? Is it the months of intensive collaborative effort to grade each player, or is it somebody’s gut feeling at the last minute?

The Browns paid a heavy price for their impulse. The impact on the Jets was much less in a tangible sense. They ended up signing Nick Bellore as an undrafted free agent. Bellore was the player they likely would have used the selection to draft had it been based on their evaluations. If the Jets were willing to throw out their evaluations in that case, it stands to reason that perhaps this also happened at other points. Maybe it helps to explain some of the team’s recent drafting woes.