One of my greatest memories (and learning experiences) from my days as an NFL executive was being around Bill Walsh during draft preparation.
The legendary San Francisco 49ers head coach had a unique perspective on the NFL draft -- one rooted in time spent with another coaching icon, Paul Brown, while Walsh worked for as an assistant for the Cincinnati Bengals. Walsh always thought differently in so many areas of the game, on and off the field. Many of Walsh's disciples have been able to take his West Coast offense and duplicate his success. However, few were able to leave the 49ers with his skills as an executive. Walsh knew exactly what his team needed before each draft to challenge every season for a Super Bowl.
Since we are just 10 days from the 2012 NFL Draft, I thought it'd be fun to go over six of Walsh's biggest hot-button issues with the drafting process. Some come in the form of the statements you might hear or read and others highlight Walsh's unique view on scouting.
1) Describing the player by the round he should be taken. Walsh hated hearing a scout tell him a player was, for example, not a good second-rounder, but a great third-rounder. He always said the only time people talk about rounds is in draft preparation and on draft day. Never during any player's career, Walsh would vent, does anyone say a player was picked in the right round. The day after the draft, every player is graded on his playing performance, not his selection round. Walsh only cared about what a player would be able to do for his team. He thought "round talk" was the wrong way for a scout to measure his own abilities. It was not talent evaluation, but rather round prediction. When I was in Cleveland, we had a scout who would rarely say much before the draft. When asked a question before draft day, he was vague, unwilling to commit to an opinion, almost sheepish. He refused to extend himself, always playing it safe. However, once the draft was over, he instantly become a new man. He'd sit in the draft room, review every team's pick and grade his work based on his round predictions, as if that was the true litmus test. I can still see him sitting there, looking like he just aced the exam. Walsh always told everyone: It never matters where we pick them, it only matters how they play. If Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill goes eighth overall to the Dolphins and plays great, no one is going to remember where he was taken, just that he produces on the field. If he stinks, it will be a blown pick, regardless of where it occurred.
2) "This is a bad draft." This statement drove Walsh nuts, as he felt it was a huge copout by scouts. I talk to certain people every year before the draft, and every year they lament the weakness of that year's draft class, as if I don't remember those exact words the year before. Walsh would remind everyone in the room that the draft only needed enough depth for his team to acquire 12 good players. Satisfying every team was not his concern. All he cared about was finding talent for his own team. Therefore, the depth of talent in each draft was not irrelevant.
Casserly: Two-round mock draft
3) "We should trade down -- there is no one worth picking at our spot." Even though Walsh loved to move up or down, he felt that scouts always wanted to trade down to avoid putting their reputations on the line. He didn't like scouts shying away from making the tough call when he had to make tough calls all the time. He would ask scouts/personnel directors: "What do you want us to do: Pass on the pick?" When the cost of draft picks soared in prior years, moving down was a great option. But with the new collective bargaining agreement's reduced rookie pay scale, it is not as financially dangerous to just make the pick. Walsh believed there was always someone worth picking, because three years from any draft, people will look back at the great players in the league who were passed over by a number of teams. Once again, Walsh was all about the talent, not the spot.
4) Watch out for players from downtrodden programs -- particularly programs that have just fired a coach -- being unfairly downgraded. In Walsh's mind, players from a program that has just fired its coach pay a price in draft evaluation. Coaches rarely admit the real reason for their termination -- bad coaching -- instead placing the blame on bad players. These side effects of a losing culture can taint a scout's visit to a particular school. Walsh insisted that all the college prospects in this situation had to be examined closely.
5) "Never take the one-year wonder and look forward; take the one-year wonder and look back." After Walsh was burned by a one-year wonder in the 1987 draft -- Clemson running back Terrence Flagler -- he became skeptical of limited track records. If a good coach was unable to get a player to produce before his final season with the program, how could he expect to get consistent effort at the NFL level? In a similar vein, former Georgetown coach John Thompson has explained a scenario on the recruiting trail that I love to reference. When the parents of a prospective recruit would ask Thompson to make sure their son attended classes, despite his spotty attendance in high school, Thompson always responded with a simple question: "If you can't get him to go, what makes you think I can?"
6) "The first year we will teach the players the system, the second year we will develop their skills within the system." Walsh thought overloading a rookie with the entire playbook was a bad mistake. He wanted to have a defined role for each first-year player, and then expand that role in Year 2. His biggest concern was making sure his guys played fast, which required them to react, not think first. With the lockout eliminating minicamps and OTAs this past offseason, teams were forced to cut down on overloading rookies with too much information. And many rookies went on to make significant contributions to their teams in the 2011-12 campaign, further proving Walsh's theory.
In the next 10 days, as you're bombarded with pre-draft analysis, try and think like Coach Walsh. As he would often remind me, "If we are all thinking alike, then no one is thinking."