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NFL Draft Drama Is Better from a Distance

By Bill Peterson · April 26th, 2006 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

The NFL draft is the hype machine that's really an anti-hype machine, dedicated to tearing down the statues and monuments erected by college football's hype machine.

The young gods of last autumn are in the laps of NFL talent nags. They're carefully measured and timed by now, folded, spindled and mutilated, and all are supposed to be grateful Saturday for whoever will take a chance with their flaws, which have become almost as famous as their skills.

It's fun to laugh at and with the NFL for going through these cattle calls with players, sizing them up like ranchers at a livestock show, measuring them down to percentage of body fat, then blowing off the Heisman Trophy winner because his ball doesn't rotate enough on the deep out. But you can't say the NFL isn't making a serious attempt to separate fact from fiction.

College football is all fiction. It's not the real world. The games are run by universities instead of real football companies, and most of the kids playing college football can't make the pros. But that's not college football's problem.

College football raises its own heroes for its own world, which is an older and more accessible world with deeper affections than the NFL. A pro sports fan chooses his favorites for convenience and prosperity, but the alumnus of a university is a brother bonded with its football team in good times and bad.

The college football world is all about discussion. Breathless, over-heated, fickle discussion. It's protected discussion without the usual safeguards against hype and exaggeration. Because the competition is so lopsided and we've got no playoffs to tell the truth, virtually nothing anyone says about college football can be proven wrong.

Within that world.

We watch these kids play for two or three years, and every year we spot two or three who can't be stopped on the college gridiron. Because the NFL enforces age restrictions and the international scene isn't fecund with football talent, the NFL stages the only draft in which we already know the prospects and we naively suppose Reggie Bush, Matt Lienart and Vince Young will be NFL game-breakers.

Anyone can watch college football and see how a star might succeed in the NFL. But the NFL scout's job is to figure out how the college star might fail. It's due diligence, and the NFL is damned good at it.

A year ago, Lienart decided to defend his Heisman Trophy and national championship by returning for his senior season at Southern California. He would have been the cinch top draft pick. Now that he's lost a game and NFL teams are weighing expensive investments, Lienart is too much of a soft tosser who lacks an elite NFL arm and maybe has gone too Hollywood.

In November, Bush went off for 513 total yards against Fresno State, for which he was awarded a three-month appointment as the Second Coming of Gale Sayers. But now you hear about debriefings from NFL scouts and, well, that last 40 time wasn't the best and maybe Bush isn't physically strong enough to touch the ball 30 times per game.

In January, Vince Young was going to change football after his electric, game-winning performance in the Rose Bowl, capturing the national championship for Texas. Three months later, "reports" of a low Wonderlic score raised questions about his intelligence, such as: Can it be that Young completed 65 percent of his throws last year because Texas runs a simple, shotgun passing game?

The management of expectations might even force the pro intelligentsia to construct its own myths, its own strange permutations of reality, to counter the college hype machine's excesses. Meet Jay Cutler.

The college myth machine produced Lienart and Young, who become objects of desire for NFL fans in losing cities. The pre-draft pro football hype machine, more of a fly-by-night operation, created the Myth of Cutler just to point out that Lienart and Young are myths while confirming its expertise in the profitable memory that many collegiate legends can't play pro-style football, but others can.

Cutler started for four years at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and they just heard about him in Memphis two months ago. When they start talking about paying millions to young players, questions and new names arise.

Cutler completed 59.1 percent of his passes at Vanderbilt last year for 3,073 yards, 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Young completed 65.2 percent of his passes for 3,036 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Lienart completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 3,815 yards, 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Who is better?

Maybe the Vanderbilt guy's output is more lifelike and predictive. His blockers aren't blowing open 10-foot holes for running backs or keeping Southeastern Conference pass rushers out of his grill. His receivers aren't separating from faster corners on the deep ball.

Maybe the Vanderbilt guy knows how to operate better in the NFL's tight spaces because the college talent around him and against him presented that kind of challenge. For all we know, Cutler might be a better pro prospect than Lienart or Young.

Not too many years ago, the Bengals were in the thick of these first-pick intrigues, but they got one right with Carson Palmer in 2003 and now they're all the way back to 24th in the draft. No one can begin to predict how the various NFL war rooms have separated fact from fiction and which prospects will fall to the Bengals.

The Bengals need impact in their defensive front, and they'll be down to players who haven't been paid much hype. Kind of refreshing. If the Bengals go home with an Odell Thurman or two, they'll improve their team. With their persisting defensive needs, the Bengals still are drafting to rebuild, but they're not far from drafting to reload.

As long as the Bengals keep going to the playoffs, we can suffer the pre-draft dramas at a distance from needy cities. It's much more fun that way.



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