Letters To A 1950s NFL Prospect

Before the NFL Combine and NFL scouting departments, teams sent questionnaires to prospects to gather information before the draft. This continued at least through the late 1960s. 

 

In the summer of 1982, I attended a Milwaukee Brewers game against the Baltimore Orioles with my Little League teammate Chuck Hable and his dad. Three things stick out about that day: 1) Ben Oglivie hit a late double, spurring the Brewers to a 9-7 victory. 2) Retroactive research shows Cal Ripken was less than two weeks into his consecutive games streak. 3) Chuck brought along his dad’s binoculars. The case bore an emblem that said, “Rose Bowl Particpant.”

Chuck’s father, Burton Hable, played safety for the University of Wisconsin. His senior season, 1952, marked the Badgers first Rose Bowl appearance. Hable tied for the Big 10 lead in interceptions, making three in the regular season finale against Minnesota.

Several NFL teams sent Hable inquiries. I’ve always wanted to see a questionnaire after Bob Skoronski and Rocky Bleier both discussed them in The Game before the Money. Teams created their own forms, and it’s interesting to note the differences. All asked about potential military obligations.

CHICAGO CARDINALS
The Chicago Cardinals were only a few years removed from back-to-back championship game appearances when they contacted Hable. They sent a formal letter, requesting Hable’s marital status in the postscript. The letter addressed the popular notion that pro football was a step down from college by stating, “Professional football is a very fine game and the spirit on our Cardinal club is as good as there is on any college in the country.”

Chicago Cardinals letter

CLEVELAND BROWNS
The Cleveland Browns were among the league’s elite in the 1950s. Coach Paul Brown and quarterback Otto Graham led them to several championship games, three against the Detroit Lions. The Browns sent prospects like Hable postcard and a note from assistant coach Weeb Ewbank. The card, pre-addressed and stamped, asked if the player’s speed was “Fast, Average, or Slow,” and requested a 100-yard dash time. The Browns also put prospects to work as team scouts, asking for the names of outstanding teammates and opponents. We don’t see that on the other questionnaires we have here. Perhaps that was one factor in the Browns acquiring great talent in those days.

Cleveland postcard 1

Cleveland postcard 2

 

GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers letter came directly from their head coach, Gene Ronzani. Note the color of the letterhead. The team colors are still the blue and gold Curly Lambeau chose when he founded the team, copying the colors Lambeau wore for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. (Vince Lombardi would later change the colors to the current green and yellow.) Ronzani spends an entire paragraph explaining the Packers policy to not recruit players with college eligibility remaining. Perhaps this dates back to the days when Lambeau faced stern penalties for using college players illegally, nearly causing him to lose the team. The Packers left space for player comments, and what a treat it would be to read what Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg or Jim Taylor might have written on theirs.

Green Bay Packers letterPackers questionnaire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WASHINGTON REDSKINS
Washington apparently used lower quality typewriter ribbons than other teams, as this form is quite faded. Whereas the Cardinals claim to have followed Hable closely, the Redskins simply say, “You have been recommended as a prospective professional football player,” and employ a cold “Dear Sir” salutation. The letter came from Herman Ball, a former Washington head coach turned head scout. The form seems to have little to do with football, asking more about marital and military status. The club only asks for age, size, and position played as relevant athletic information. One can conclude that the questionnaires provided much more pertinent information to the winning Cleveland franchise than the perennial lackluster Washington squad. This perhaps led to better drafts for the Browns.

Redskins letter

HABLE BECAME A HALL OF FAME HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL COACH

Today’s NFL prospects envision huge dollar signs while the NFL draft approaches. Things were much different in The Game before the Money era. Prospects factored in many life circumstances when deciding on pursuing a pro football career.

Hable, like many college standouts, spurned pro football for a variety of reasons. He and his wife were expecting their first child, and Hable sought more than the unpredictable employment the NFL offered. The wages required getting a second job in the off-season, and traveling to road games would take time away from his family. Like many, he held the college game in higher stature than the pro game. Badger home games regularly attracted 50,000 fans to Camp Randall Stadium. Conversely, the Packers only drew about 20,000 to their games to City Stadium, and dressed in a high school locker room.

Hable didn’t respond to the NFL teams’ letters, and accepted a history teaching job at Madison West High School. Head football coach Fred Jacoby asked Hable to be an assistant during the first year of what would be a 40-year teaching career. Jacoby soon left for the college ranks, and later served as commissioner of the Southwest Conference. Hable assumed the head coaching duties at Madison West.

Hable commanded the team for 35 years, coaching many players to Division I scholarships and the National Football League. Stu Voigt, Jim Bakken, Tim Van Galder, and Tim Stracka all played high school ball for him. Hable also coached hockey in the 60s and 70s. His players included Olympic superstar Eric Heiden and best-selling author David Maraniss (When Pride Still Mattered). The Wisconsin Football Coaches Association inducted Coach Hable into their Hall of Fame in 1996.

SUMMARY
Hable was eligible for the 1953 NFL Draft. Four of his teammates were picked: guard Bob Kennedy by the Packers; tackle Charley Berndt by the Cardinals; halfback Harland Carl by the Bears; and guard Dave Suminski by Washington. Only Carl and Suminski saw regular season NFL action. Hable’s teammate Alan Ameche, a sophomore during the Rose Bowl season, proved to have the most successful NFL career. He scored the famous game-winning touchdown in the 1958 NFL Championship for the Baltimore Colts.

Hall of Famers drafted in the 1953 NFL Draft include Doug Atkins (1st rd, Cle), running back John Henry Johnson (2nd rd, Pitt), tackle Bob St. Clair (3rd rd, SF), two-way lineman Stan Jones (5th rd, Bears), center Jim Ringo (7th rd, GB), linebacker Joe Schmidt (7th rd, Det), and tackle Rosey Brown (27th rd, Giants).

San Francisco drafted Georgia receiver Harry Babcock with the first-overall pick. Injuries unfortunately truncated his career. Wally Butts, Georgia’s legendary football coach, called him both the best receiver and best blocker he ever coached. The Steelers drafted Babcock in the 21st round of the 1952 draft, accidentally wasting the pick on the ineligible junior.

Special thanks to Coach Hable’s son Chuck for sharing these letters.

 

BadgerTeamPhotoThe 1952 Rose Bowl Bound Badgers. Burton Hable is #21, seated 3rd row, 4th from left.

Color footage of the 1953 Rose Bowl between Wisconsin and USC.

Read stories from NFL legends in The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL.

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A Brief History of — The NFL Draft

Enormous media coverage surrounds today’s NFL draft. It wasn’t always that way. Bob Griese told us he didn’t know the draft had taken place – even though he was the fourth-overall pick. Players from The Game before the Money era often learned their pro football destinations through newspapers, college coaches, and friends. It apparently wasn’t until the 1970s that teams called players during the draft.

YEARS BEFORE THE DRAFT

Chaos often surrounded acquiring talent before the draft existed. Don Hutson signed with both the Green Bay Packers and the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers after his college career at Alabama ended. NFL President Joe Carr awarded Hutson to the Packers since the Packers mailed their contract just a few minutes before the Dodgers. Hutson helped lead the Packers to 3 NFL titles and still holds NFL receiving records 8 decades later.

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Don Hutson.

The Philadelphia Eagles and the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers both highly desired Minnesota All-American Stan Kostka in 1935. Kostka deftly fueled a bidding war, signing a sparkling $5,000 contract with Brooklyn. Philadelphia owner Bert Bell didn’t like being outbid, and scoffed at a rookie’s salary rivaling superstar Bronko Nagurski’s. Bell proposed a player draft to keep rookie salaries down, and to give lower-tier teams a better chance at top-tier talent.

Bell’s draft proposal passed, and the NFL held its first draft in 1936. The Eagles selected Heisman winner Jay Berwanger, who opted for a higher salary in foam-rubber sales. The Boston (now Washington) Redskins selected Riley Smith.

The draft succeeded in keeping salaries down. Smith signed for $250/game, far below Kostka’s deal. The draft, however, failed to balance out talent. The Packers, Giants, and Bears won 7 out of the last 9 championships before the draft, and also won 7 out of the first 9 championships after the draft’s initiation. Curly Lambeau apparently scouted players at bowl games, as Nolan Luhn and Bob Kahler told us he approached them after the Orange Bowl and the Rose Bowl, respectively. Other teams didn’t scout as well, some drafting ineligible players who were still in college.

The first NFL draft netted 4 Hall of Famers – Wayne Millner, Tuffy Leemans, Dan Fortmann, and Joe Stydahar. Brooklyn selected coaching icon Paul “Bear” Bryant in the fourth round.

NFL DRAFTS AFRICAN AMERICAN ATHLETES

Pro football integrated in 1946, with Kenny Washington and Woody Strode playing for the Los Angeles Rams, and Hall of Famers Bill Willis and Marion Motley suiting up for the Cleveland Browns of the AAFC. They all, however, signed as undrafted free agents. The Chicago Bears made George Taliaferro the first African American to be drafted in 1949. “I thought it was the most incredible thing that could happen,” Taliaferro said when interviewing for The Game before the Money.

George_Taliaferro

George Taliaferro.

Taliaferro signed with the AAFC’s Los Angeles Dons before the NFL draft, however, and honored that contract. He earned AAFC Rookie of the Year honors. The NFL later held a dispersal draft of AAFC players after the AAFC’s demise, and Taliaferro was the second-overall pick. The Lions snatched future Hall of Famer Lou Creekmur in the dispersal draft.

 

THE BONUS PICK

The NFL instituted the “Bonus Pick” in 1947. Paul Hornung explains in The Game before the Money: “First pick of the draft in those days was a bonus pick. Each team put their name in a hat, and you drew them out. Four­teen teams; here comes the bonus pick. After that the draft starts in predetermined order: 1, 2, 3, 4. Next year, the thir­teen remaining teams were eligible for the bonus pick.”

paul-hornungND

“The Golden Boy” at Notre Dame.

Congress investigated the NFL, among other pro sports leagues, for antitrust violations in the 1950s. Congress declared the “Bonus Pick” too close to a lottery and suggested the NFL halt the practice. The NFL did so after the 1958 draft, conveniently after each team had selected one “Bonus Pick.”

The Congressional pressure demonstrates societal changes. What was unacceptable in 1958 is now celebrated as part of today’s NBA draft. Teams covet “Lottery Picks” and sports fans eagerly watch the “NBA Draft Lottery.”

AMERICAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE EFFECTS

The American Football League held their first draft in 1960. Some players were drafted by both leagues, and the two leagues warred over players.

Teams used scouts as “babysitters” to protect their draft interests. The babysitters would travel to a prospective draft pick’s college, wine and dine them, and do their best to keep the athlete from signing with the rival league. Walt Garrison said a Rams scout took him and his friends out to dinner, bought him a pair of boots, and then stayed in a hotel room with him during the NFL draft. The scout left the instant the Cowboys beat the Rams in drafting Garrison.

Tony Lorick signed with the Baltimore Colts, although the Colts hesitated in drafting him. The Colts heard a rumor that Lorick had already signed with the Oakland Raiders as their first-round pick. Unsurprisingly, Raiders owner Al Davis proved to be the source of the rumor.

Davis wouldn’t lose out on Fred Biletnikoff the next year, however. He signed Biletnikoff on the field at the Gator Bowl, national television cameras all around. Fred’s Florida State team had just defeated Oklahoma. It wasn’t the first time Davis signed a Hall of Famer on the field. He signed Arkansas standout Lance Alworth to a contract beneath the goal posts following the 1962 Sugar Bowl.

FredGatorBowl

Biletnikoff flying high in the Gator Bowl.

The shenanigans surrounding Chiefs legend Otis Taylor depict the lengths babysitters would go to protect draft interests. A group of NFL scouts took Taylor and several other draft prospects to a motel in Richardson, Texas, checked in under assumed names, and hoped to keep the draft picks there to keep them from signing with the AFL. A Chiefs scout close to the Taylor family learned Taylor’s whereabouts, and tried to sneak into the hotel as a journalist, using a camera as part of his disguise. An NFL scout recognized the Chiefs scout, and subsequently called police reporting the Chiefs scout as a suspicious person. Despite threats from the police, the Chiefs scout snuck Taylor out of the NFL scouts’ motel at 3:30 in the morning, promising a new Ford Thunderbird.

The battles changed the course of destiny for teams. Imagine Taylor playing alongside Hall of Famer Tommy McDonald, catching passes from Eagles quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. Picture Hall of Famer Ron Mix next to Jim Parker on the Baltimore Colts offensive line. The Bills won back-to-back AFL titles after losing Hall of Famers Carl Eller and Paul Warfield to the NFL. Would the championship run have lasted longer and into the Super Bowl era?

The two drafts provided leverage to rookies drafted in both leagues. Some players, like Joe Namath, Donny Anderson, and Jim Grabowski, negotiated huge contracts. Namath famously collected over $400,000, Anderson scored $600,000.

Namath

Namath and the Bear.

Not all players based decisions on money. Garrison said he wanted to stay close to his Texas roots, and preferred the Dallas Cowboys to the Kansas City Chiefs. Eller enjoyed Minnesota, and was happy to sign with the Vikings rather than create a bidding war between Minnesota and Buffalo.

The two leagues merged in 1966. Grappling over draft picks stood as a large contributing cause.

SUMMARY

The draft now gets dissected and diced in ways Bert Bell would have never imagined. The NFL Combine tests prospects where a mere index card asking for player stats in the 50s and 60s served the same purpose. Bob Griese learned the Dolphins drafted him when an assistant coach off-handedly mentioned it while crossing paths in the hallway. Now players sit by the phone with their agents and friends, watching the draft unfold on ESPN.

Some teams built their dynasties and legends around drafts. The Steelers 1974 draft produced Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and center Mike Webster – all Hall of Famers. The Packers scored Forrest Gregg, Bart Starr and Bob Skoronski in 1956, then Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke, and Jerry Kramer in 1958. The Bears netted Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus with back-to-back first round picks in 1965. Dallas selected Roger Staubach, Bob Hayes, and Mel Renfro in 1964.

RogerStaubach

Staubach quarterbacking the Navy Midshipmen.

Drafts remembered for being especially rich include the 1983 draft. Known for producing legendary quarterbacks John Elway, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly in the first round, Hall of Famers Bruce Matthews, Darrell Green, Eric Dickerson and Richard Dent also entered the league. The 1957 draft launched 9 Hall of Famers, including 4  of the first 8 picks. The 1964 draft contained a record 10 Hall of Famers. Many declare the 1989 draft the best modern draft. Four of the first five picks – Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas, and Deion Sanders – all found their way to Canton.

 

READ THE NFL DRAFT STORIES OF NFL LEGENDS IN THE GAME BEFORE THE MONEY

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Legendary Insights — An Evening with Doug English

An excited crowd of football fans congregated at BookPeople bookstore in Austin, Texas on November 13, 2014, celebrating the release of The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL, and relishing a chance to meet NFL All-Pro and College Football Hall of Fame inductee Doug English. English shared tremendous stories about his days at the University of Texas and his outstanding 10-year career with the Detroit Lions. Fans were given an opportunity to ask Doug questions, and a chance to purchase a copy of The Game before the Money autographed by English and author Jackson Michael (that’s me).

DougPhoto1

About 75 people turned out for the signing at BookPeople in Austin, TX

COLLEGE CAREER

English arrived at Texas in 1971, immediately after the Longhorns were voted national champions in back-to-back seasons. When asked what he learned from legendary Texas head coach Darrell Royal, English recalled a time that Royal pulled him aside to discuss Doug’s on-field personality.

“Doug, you’re a nice guy,” Royal said. “You know what happens to nice guys? Not a damn thing.”

 DougPaintingPainting by Robert Hurst

English played meaner and earned All-American honors. His senior year, the Longhorns welcomed a freshman from Tyler, Texas, named Earl Campbell. “Coach Royal was looking for a way to get Earl on the field, and put him on the punt block team. He basically told Earl to line up over the ball and follow it.”

Campbell was so quick, “he nearly beat the ball to the punter” in a game against Arkansas. The ball squirted loose, and English scooped it up. “I then took it all the way – about three steps,” Doug amusingly stated about his only career touchdown. I pointed out that very few people could claim Earl Campbell helped get them into the end zone.

Texas Longhorn tradition dictated that English provide his teammates with a keg of beer on the day of the 1975 NFL Draft, for a “draft” party on Draft Day. English remembered waiting and waiting, disappointed that he’d been passed up for the first several rounds. A few friends prank called him, claiming to be Tom Landry or Gil Brandt of the Dallas Cowboys. After several hours, Doug’s attorney finally got a hold of him to relay the news that the Detroit Lions selected Doug in the second round.

PRO CAREER WITH THE DETROIT LIONS “SILVER RUSH”

The audience asked several questions about Doug’s NFL experience. When asked who the toughest running back to tackle was, Doug noted how Walter Payton kept pushing his legs until after you pinned him all the way to the ground. Conversely, John Riggins fought hard for the first five yards, but often eased up afterward.

Doug also addressed the touchy subject of steroids when asked. He stated that certain teams promoted a steroid culture. He recalled a friend being traded from the Lions, and later telling Doug about a knock on his door during training camp. The rest of the offensive line brought in vials of liquid, instructing their new teammate to take four on Monday, three on Tuesday, etc. Doug said steroid users could be easily identified by “big muscles and pimples.” He also doubted their necessity in today’s era of advanced training knowledge and athletes starting to train at a young age.

DougandBubba

 

Al Baker (aka Bubba Baker) and Doug being honored in Detroit

Doug then told the story of his final NFL game – a contest against the Bears at Soldier Field. He suffered a spinal injury that doctors said probably would have paralyzed him had he stayed in the game like he wished. Doug lauded the Ford family, owners of the Lions, for providing him with a breakthrough surgery for the time which allows him to live pain-free from the incident. The fact the surgery wasn’t available to most patients until many years later encouraged English to head the Lone Star Paralysis Foundation.

Doug concluded by expressing his feeling that America perhaps places too high of an importance on football and its athletes. He sees the only important part of football as making a difference off the field. He remembered being exhausted after a game, and after signing dozens of autographs, he finally made his way toward the locker room. A child asked him for one more autograph. While signing, Doug asked the child if he made good grades.  Doug later received a letter from the child’s mother stating the boy’s school performance greatly improved after meeting Doug. “It took me 15 seconds to make a difference,” English said.

DougTommyandMe

Doug English, Tommy Richard and me

 

SUMMARY

The family members of two other players who interviewed for The Game before the Money were on hand, making the night extra special. The daughter of Tony Lorick and the granddaughter of Nolan Luhn both took part in the evening. Tony and Nolan have sadly both passed away and are noted in our “In Memoriam” section. Tony played fullback for the Baltimore Colts, sharing the huddle with Hall of Famers John Mackey, Johnny Unitas, Jim Parker, and Raymond Berry. Nolan played end opposite Don Hutson in Hutson’s final season. Packers founder Curly Lambeau coached Nolan in Green Bay.

Two other The Game before the Money events are scheduled – one with Baylor star quarterback and 1961 AFL All-Star Game MVP Cotton Davidson in Waco, Texas, and another with Hall of Famer Elvin Bethea and Houston Oiler and Grambling legend Garland Boyette in Houston. More information can be found on our “Events” page. We hope to see you.

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From left to right: Me, my wife Lisa Jackson, Doug and his wife, Claire

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Good friends, Robyn and Karl, in line for the signing!

 

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Joann Knox was first in line.

Earlier that day, I interviewed on Good Day Austin on KTBC Fox 7.

 

MyFoxAustin.com | KTBC Fox 7 | News, Weather, Sports

We’d like to thank Saint Arnold Brewing Company for providing amazing craft beer, and Z Tejas for providing delicious appetizers.

 

This Might Surprise You: Steve Largent

Several players held the NFL’s all-time reception after 1970. Don Maynard, Charley Taylor, Charlie Joiner and Art Monk are among the names who claimed the title before Jerry Rice. Steve Largent is another receiver who held that distinction.

OLD SCHOOL THINKING

Largent played his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks. He told Seahawks.com he appreciated his accomplishments on the gridiron, “But the thing I’m most proud of from my career in Seattle was that I played my entire career in Seattle….It gave me a special connection with the city and the people and the team that you just don’t find very often with professional athletes today.”

IT ALMOST NEVER HAPPENED

Largent made his way to the Seahawks by happenstance. The Houston Oilers drafted Largent in the fourth round of the 1976 NFL Draft. He didn’t impress the Oilers, and found himself on a bus headed home to Oklahoma after four preseason games. He thought his football career was over.

Jerry Rhome, a Seahawk assistant coach, had coached Largent in college at Tulsa. Rhome convinced the team to give Largent a second chance. The expansion Seahawks traded an eighth-round pick in the 1977 draft for Largent’s rights. Largent made the Seahawks front office look like geniuses.

WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

Don’t be too quick to praise the brilliance of Seattle’s front office. They followed up the Largent heist by trading their 1977 first-round pick to the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys drafted Tony Dorsett with the second-overall selection. The Seahawks scored multiple draft picks in the deal, but drafted no one of NFL significance. The thought of Tony Dorsett and Steve Largent on the same offense is enticing. Might they have challenged for the AFC title with the Hall of Fame duo on offense?

A second double threat would have paired Earl Campbell with Largent, if the Oilers had held on to Steve. The Oilers had several playoff opportunities, and faced the Steelers in two straight AFC Championships. Perhaps Largent would have put the Oilers over the top, especially in the much closer second matchup.

Whether Largent would have pushed the Oilers further in those years or not, he certainly would have finished his Oiler career with Warren Moon. Although the Oilers didn’t become top contenders until after Largent’s retirement, Moon-to-Largent would have shaken a few AFC secondaries.

SUMMARY

Had the NFL expanded by adding the Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1977 rather than 1976, the world outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma might never have heard of Steve Largent.

Largent retired the NFL’s all-time leader in receptions, yardage, and touchdowns. Interestingly, he never once led the NFL in receptions or touchdowns in a single season. In fact, he never placed higher than third in receptions, a feat he accomplished only once. His next highest finish was sixth. Still, both fans and opponents highly respected Largent’s talents, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame made an inarguable decision to enshrine him. The Houston Oilers, however, weren’t nearly as wise.

Here are some amazing Steve Largent highlights via YouTube:

This Might Surprise You: Joe Theismann

Memories of Joe Theismann, with his thick eye black and bright single-bar facemask, are often synonymous with the Washington Redskins. But what if he hadn’t worn number 7 for the red and gold?

That almost was the case as Theismann, a collegiate star for Notre Dame, was actually drafted by the Miami Dolphins in 1971. Theismann, however, declined Miami’s offer of $55,000 over three years. That’s right, $55,000 over three years. Theismann asked for that amount, but the stickler was a $35,000 bonus Theismann would owe back if he missed any of the three seasons. Joe opted for the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts.

In 1974, the Redskins traded for Theismann’s rights and he jumped straight into the lineup – as a punt returner. He didn’t start at quarterback until 1976.

WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN?

At the time Theisman was drafted, Bob Griese had been the Dolphins’ starter since 1967. He led them to the playoffs in 1970 before three consecutive Super Bowls in the following years. It’s possible that Theismann might have toiled in obscurity until 1980, when Griese suffered a career ending shoulder injury. It’s also possible Griese would have lost his job to Theismann in 1972, after Griese went down in Week 5 with a dislocated ankle and broken leg. Also, a potential quarterback controversy might have threatened the Dolphins back-to-back championships with a divided locker room.

SUMMARY

For the two quarterbacks, things turned out as well as they could have. Griese went on to the Hall of Fame, and Theismann went on to win Super Bowl 17 with Washington. Ironically, the Super Bowl win came against the Dolphins, after Griese’s career had ended. Theismann didn’t produce the game’s most memorable moments, however, throwing two interceptions in the second half while Miami clung to a slim lead. John Riggins proved to be the game’s hero, with a 43-yard rumble on 4th and 1 that proved to be the winning touchdown. Theismann also quarterbacked Washington to Super Bowl 18, a 38-9 thumping at the hands of the Los Angeles Raiders. It wasn’t the first time Raiders quarterback Jim Plunkett took the spotlight from Theismann: Theismann finished second to Plunkett in the voting for the 1970 Heisman Trophy.

The Story of the NFL Draft and Recent Super Bowls

Last week we looked at the starting lineups of last year’s Super Bowl teams, wondering how much the draft led to the Seahawks’ and Broncos’ success. We found that while the draft was important, it appears to be equally important to find talent from other sources, likely because the draft is only seven rounds.

Now we take a look at Super Bowl teams (including the Seahawks and Broncos) from the past 5 Super Bowls, plus the first Giants/Patriots game after the 2008 season. Turns out last year’s teams were below the average number of starters to be drafted for the period, although the Seahawks were only slightly under (54.2%). Of the Broncos 22 starters only 10 were originally drafted by the franchise, a figure equaled by the 2011 Giants as the lowest in our survey. The 2010 Packers led all teams with 17 of their draftees in their Super Bowl lineup. Only the Seahawks and Packers won the Super Bowl with more of their draftees in their starting lineup than their opponent.

HOW TEAMS WERE BUILT

About 60% of Super Bowl starters from these 6 Super Bowls were starting for the team that originally drafted them (a total of 157 over 7 years). Although this era is commonly called the “Free Agency Era,” the number of veteran free agents bested the number of undrafted players only by a slim total of 7 players in those 6 games. The 2013 Broncos started 9 free agents, the highest total. No other team started more than 6. The 2011 Patriots started the most undrafted players (8), followed closely by the 2009 Colts with 7. The Colts were the only team we surveyed that didn’t start a veteran free agent on Super Bowl Sunday.  Here is a composite of how these 12 Super Bowl teams were built. Note that some players included in the “Veteran FA Signings” category are also in the “Total Undrafted Starters” category.

FIRST TWO ROUNDS AND THE REST OF THE NFL DRAFT

The first and second rounds dominated the makeup of Super Bowl starters playing for their original team. Those two rounds outscore all other rounds combined, 92-65. The 2008 Patriots and 2012 49ers tied for the most number of their first-round picks starting, with 7. The 2008 Giants had the lowest number, as only 2007 first-round pick Aaron Ross started for them in the Super Bowl. The 2011 Giants, however, started four of their first-round draft choices, as Kenny Phillips (2008), Jason Pierre-Paul (2010), and Hakeem Nicks (2009) joined Ross. All teams started at least one of their first- and second- round choices, but three teams (the 2011 Patriots, the 2009 Saints and the 2008 Giants) lacked a third. The fourth round surprising outscored the third overall, 16-15.

SUMMARY

I found these totals to be fairly consistent with last week’s percentages. The draft remains vital to championship-level NFL teams, but not as much as the hype surrounding the 2014 NFL Draft might lead one to believe. A strong dose of veteran free agents and undrafted players, possibly mixed with a trade and/or waiver pickup, work together as the recipe for success in today’s National Football League.

How Much Will the NFL Draft Help Your Team?

Like children going to bed at night on Christmas Eve are NFL fans in the weeks leading up to the NFL draft. Wishes of draftees dance in their heads. Mock drafts are read with excitement or worry depending on the prediction. Calendars get marked with plans days before the big event at Radio City Music Hall.

And like Christmas, some fans go to bed afterward elated about receiving the main object of their desire while others lay down disappointed, unable to have telepathically communicated to their team’s general manager whom they should have drafted to ensure divisional championships for years to come.

How important is draft day? Surely it’s quite important, but is it truly the watershed moment it’s built up to be? I started to ponder this question through fantasy football. I found that in seasons I reached the championship, several of my starters weren’t drafted. This year was no exception as Zac Stacy and Julian Edleman were two of my highest scorers late in the season. While there are historic NFL draft success stories – John Elway, Peyton Manning, the 1974 Steelers draft – I wondered how often the draft was the reason behind championship teams’ success. I decided to take a look at last year’s Super Bowl teams and how they were constructed.

The Seahawks

The Seahawks drafted many of their biggest stars of 2013, including Russell Wilson, Earl Thomas, and Richard Sherman. Only Thomas was drafted in the first round, however, and he was the team’s second first round pick in 2010 after Russell Okung. Toss in draftees Kam Chancellor, Golden Tate and Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith, and first impressions point toward Seattle being built from the draft. Closer inspection shows that their Super Bowl starting lineup contained only 13 players (59%) drafted by the Seahawks, 6 on offense and 7 on defense. Four players (18%) of Seattle’s starting 22 weren’t drafted at all, including defensive line anchors Michael Bennett and Chris Clemons. In total, only 25 players of the 63 listed on the Seahawk roster found on http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sea/2013_roster.htm were drafted by the Seahawks, while 24 were undrafted free agents (38%), men overlooked on draft day by all 32 teams. Of the 46 players Seattle drafted from 2009-2013, only 25 were on the Super Bowl roster (47%). Of those 25, 15 were from the 2013 or 2012 drafts.

*NOTE: “Total Undrafted Starters” includes 2 players who were also “Veteran Free Agent Signings.”

 

The Broncos

The Broncos grabbed their biggest star, quarterback Peyton Manning, in free agency. Manning’s agent wasn’t alone in doing business with the Broncos. Nine of Denver’s Super Bowl starters were acquired as veteran free agent signings (41%). Only 10 of their 22 starters were drafted by the franchise. Of the 58 players listed on their roster at http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/den/2013_roster.htm , only 23 (about 40%) were players originally drafted by the Broncos. Nearly as many players (20) were originally drafted by another team and acquired via free agency, waivers or by trade. Contrasting with the Seahawks, that same roster included only 15 players who were undrafted, although three of them started on Super Bowl Sunday. The Broncos did draft some of their key players, including Knowshon Moreno and Demaryius Thomas. Von Miller, the Broncos’ first-round pick in 2011, has been a tremendous force when active, but has missed significant time with both a league suspension and knee injury.

*NOTE: “Total Undrafted Starters” includes 2 players who were also “Veteran Free Agent Signings.”

Summary

While both teams picked up impactful players in the draft, it was necessary to supplement much of the starting lineup from other sources. The Seahawks trading for Marshawn Lynch and Denver’s free agent pickups of Manning and Wes Welker were essential moves on the road to the Super Bowl.

The seven-round draft stands as a crucial element to this fact. When the Steelers drafted their 1974 class which included Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster, the draft lasted seventeen rounds. When the Packers drafted players who would later dominate through the Lombardi-era dynasty in the mid-1950s, there were 30 rounds.

Today’s NFL requires a combination of drafting, smart free-agent signings, and finding overlooked undrafted players. The draft remains an important component to winning in the NFL, but the seven-round system limits its influence.