Saturday, April 26, 2008

Tomorrow's NFL draft is an excellent exercise in prediction and decision-making. Thirty-two teams will choose players, on a number of criteria, who will then either turn out to be superstars, spectacular busts, or land somewhere in between. The first overall pick is particularly intriguing, if for no other reason than the fact that this is supposed to be the best collegiate player in the United States. Going back to the start of the modern era, we see that OJ Simpson, Terry Bradshaw and Jim Plunkett were the first picks from 1969-71, a stellar string that might never be equaled. For every John Elway or Peyton Manning, however, there is a Ki-Jana Carter or Steve Emtman, players who were unquestionable busts, even if through no fault of their own.

Carter's case is especially sad, verging on tragedy. The Penn State graduate was co-MVP of the Rose Bowl and finished second in Heisman voting, but tore the ACL in his left knee on the third play of the Bengals' first pre-season game, and never recovered. He played parts of seven seasons over ten years, totaling just over 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns, a staggering turn of events.

Perhaps a more spectacular failure was Ryan Leaf, who was considered more or less interchangeable with Peyton Manning ten years ago around this time. The Colts picked Manning first and the Chargers picked Leaf second. Leaf said that "I'm looking forward to a 15 year career, a couple of trips to the Super Bowl, and a parade through downtown San Diego." In the third game of his career, Leaf was eaten alive by a ferocious Kansas City defense, turning in the first performance I have ever seen by a quarterback: 1 of 15 for 4 yards, three fumbles and blamed his teammates. Leaf was not mature enough for the demands of playing quarterback in the NFL at a high level and not only came across as an unmitigated jerk, but finished his career with 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. Leaf just might have been the single most disappointing athlete in history.

Manning is the contrast to Leaf in just about every way. He threw for more yards in his first season than Leaf did in his five-year career, and will probably hold every significant quarterbacking record by the time he retires. Manning is an extremely rare example of a person who can realize the tremendous expectations of the future in the present, as expressed by the ads in New York for tomorrow's draft: Believe in Now.

The transition from collegiate to superstar in time for Now is one that only a handful of the tens of thousands of professional football players have ever made. Teams prod, poke, test, quiz, interview, practice and scout these men for years in hopes of finding one such player. Life, of course, is so fickle and variable that the process is not unlike looking for a gold mine. It's not the case that anyone ever guesses right so much as they don't guess wrong.

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