Breakdowns

Former NFL Decision Makers on the Final Hours Before the NFL Draft

Hours before the NFL Draft

“The only thing accurate about the movie “Draft Day” is that you eat a lot of bad food for three days,” That was former Indianapolis Colts General Manager and President, Bill Polian‘s critique of the Kevin Costner movie that tracks a fictional General Manager of the Cleveland Browns as he works through the drama of making the first pick.

Reality, it turns out, is far more interesting than Hollywood.

On The 33rd Team’s Wednesday Huddle, we asked a group of former NFL decision makers just what the last 24-48 hours looked like before the draft. There was consensus that Costner didn’t really have things down pat and also that junk food and sleepless nights are the norm. Other than that, it was intriguing to see how multiple men who had picked everywhere from No. 1 to No. 32 over the decades had vastly different processes leading to success.

The Process

“I always felt that if the head coach and I didn’t agree on a player,” said Randy Mueller, a former NFL Executive of the Year, “we should just pick a different lane.”

“I agree completely,” responded Polian, “Here’s a story where that happened: One year, we needed a corner really bad, but Head Coach Jim Mora and I couldn’t build consensus on a specific player. So we traded down, and the player sitting there with a helmet sticker on our board was Reggie Wayne. How did that work out? It felt like pure luck.”

Those helmet stickers on Polian’s board was the result of an intense process starting months before the draft—management, scouts, coaches and doctors would help put the board together, but seven days before the draft, everyone would be kicked out of the room save for a handful of upper level decision makers. From there, the final board would be locked into place. It would also literally be locked up, so that only a few people could see it. The mantra on the walls of both the draft war room and the scouting bullpen was clear, “Loose lips sink ships.”

So, how did Reggie Wayne get a little Colts helmet sticker next to his name?

“About six days out, we let the scouts come in one at a time,” Polian said, “and each scout could make one pick—the guy they wanted on our team from their area. We got a good picture there from how they actually felt about guys. Then, we’d get on the phone with the head coaches of the guys in the first two rounds that we had targeted. It was amazing how candid they were. Les Miles told us on Joseph Addai, ‘You’ll love him. He’s everything you want in a running back, but that knee’s only going to last five or six years.’ He was 100 percent right on target.”

READ: A Sports Medicine Doctor on the Key Injuries of the 2022 NFL Draft

Polian said those last-minute decisions would lead to 14 or 15 hours days.

The word “process” was used a lot in the hour-long discussion, because regardless of what form the process took, the idea of finding the right methods and trusting that process is ubiquitous in high-level NFL circles. That’s how Wayne—a prospective Hall of Fame wideout—ends up on the Colts instead of a cornerback no one is really happy with.

Months of Work for Hours of Labor

Trusting that process is also why most of the voices on the call talked about a quiet few days before the draft, because the last few months are so hectic—especially when picking in the top handful of picks.

“We knew we wanted Calvin [Johnson] at No. 2,” said Tom Lewand, former President of the Detroit Lions. “We didn’t know who [Oakland Raiders owner] Al Davis was going to take at No. 1. We hoped he was going to take Jamarcus Russell, but we didn’t know. When we had Jamarcus in for a pre-draft interview, it was the worst interview—bar-none—I’ve ever sat in. He was looking at his watch the whole time, completely disinterested. He didn’t want to be there, and we actually kicked him out of the building. Our GM at the time, Matt Millen, actually picked up the phone and called Al Davis and told him about it—’don’t draft this guy. He’s going to kill your franchise.’ I looked at him, like, ‘what are you doing?! You’re just asking him to take Calvin!’ If the Raiders had taken Calvin, we were split. One group wanted Adrian Peterson another wanted an available pass rusher, specifically Gaines Adams. That was one of the few times, we had any kind of uncertainty like that.”

“A lot of people have amnesia now, especially in the media,” said Polian about the year the Indianapolis Colts got to choose between Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf at No. 1. “When I arrived in Indianapolis and queried the scout staff, it was 50/50 right down the middle, with 50% on Leaf and 50% on Manning. So, OK, we’re going back to square one. I went to the video guy and said, ‘I need every pass Leaf has ever thrown and every pass Manning has ever thrown.’ He said, ‘We don’t do that,’ and I said ‘well you’re going to start now.’

This new process in Indianapolis meant everyone in the building went over the film independently and some information began to rise to the surface that wasn’t quite matching up with the narratives about the two passers. Maybe Manning’s arm was stronger than people thought. Maybe Leaf’s fantastic Rose Bowl performance that year wasn’t entirely representative of what he could do.

At the NFL Scouting Combine, Leaf famously blew off his interview with the Colts. Manning, it turns out, shined.

“Peyton came in the next night with his briefcase,” Polian said. “Can I ask you a few questions?’ We went back and forth and when the horn blew, Peyton stood up and said, ‘I hope you guys draft me and if you do, I’ll be there the next day.’ Coach Mora replied, ‘you can’t come in the next day you have to wait a week,’ and Peyton said, ‘I don’t care about the rule. You guys figure that out. I’ll be there the next day.’

Weeks later, after Leaf’s workout, the Colts had a similar conversation and Leaf told them he’d be a little late to rookie minicamp because his buddies had planned a trip for after the draft.

“When we got on the plane,” Polian said, “I said to everybody, ‘It’s pretty clear there’s a vast difference,’ and there were just a lot of nodding heads. From that moment, it was just cleaning up odds and ends.”

Important Conversations and Important Silence

Across the board, those “odds and ends” of draft week included those aforementioned talks with college coaches about various prospects. Former Boise State and Washington Head Coach Chris Petersen talked about how many calls he got from NFL coaches over the years and how he grew from that experience—simply in understanding the power of asking the right questions—the master of which was New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick. Polian said that numerous coaches weighed in on the Manning/Leaf discussion and told him to take Manning.

The other people who get to weigh in on the character of a guy are the area scouts who have had those discussions over weeks, months and years, and know these players and their stories better than anyone.

In Miami, former Dolphins Executive Vice President and The 33rd Team Co-Founder Mike Tannenbaum had one of the wildest Draft Day situations in memory, as offensive Laremy Tunsil tumbled down draft boards thanks to a leaked photo moments before the start of the draft showing Tunsil in a gas mask, smoking from a bong.

WATCH: Mike Tannenbaum on the Selection of Laremy Tunsil

“We had a great area scout,” Tannenbaum said, “Matt Winston had written a great report about Laremy’s work ethic and his character. We had a good left tackle already and never thought we’d be in a position to take him, but he was the top player on our board. As we got to the ninth…tenth…eleventh picks, it got real. We thought for sure New Orleans was going to take him at No. 12, and when they didn’t, we had a decision to make. We always say that we fall back on our process and trust our scouts, so we did. We looked at the issue as a lapse of judgement…which we all have. Laremy’s gone on to have a great career.”

Trust, But Verify

Mueller’s process the last few days of the draft involved trying to never be in a situation like that.

“We’d spend a few days just doing mock drafts,” Mueller said. “It was almost like doing a walkthrough before a game. I wanted to do a million walkthroughs, but we might do 100. I felt like it prepared us for any circumstance. One example of that being very effective: In one of our scenarios, we got to our pick at No. 17. and [Running Back] Deuce McAllister was there. Jim Haslett looked over to me and said, ‘now what?”

WATCH: Randy Mueller on his Rise through the NFL

You see, the Saints had a running back in Ricky Williams. Not only was Williams a star running back, but the previous regime had given up a lot to get him. Taking another running back so soon would seem like a luxury on a team looking to build from the ground up—even in a silly mock draft a few days before the actual picks took place.

“He’s the 10th best player on our board” Mueller told Haslett. “We’re going to pick him.”

On Draft day, that crazy mock draft—one of dozens of scenarios the Saints had gone over—came true. By going through the process, and trusting their board, the organization didn’t have to have that conversation on the clock. They had already done so and come to a consensus. Williams was traded for a number of first round picks the following year, and McAllister is now considered one of the finest players to ever wear a Saints uniform.

READ: The 33rd Team’s Mock Draft

For Polian–first in Buffalo and then in Indianapolis—that process involved what he called a “Guru Board.”

“It was something a computer spit out,” Polian said, “using a mathematical formula along with the media guys—like Mel Kiper—who had tried to figure out what was going to happen. The board told us, basically within three or four picks, where most people would go. It was amazingly correct.”

The final piece of the draft preparation puzzle across the board seemed to be getting any and all proverbial hiccups out of the way for the day of the draft. Polian talked about rehearsing ad nauseum to make sure they had any trades or phone calls well-choreographed so no mistakes were made in the heat of the moment. Former Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns executive Joe Banner said that his final hours were reaching out to all of the teams around them to have preliminary talks on trade ups and trade downs. Mueller would talk to a few well-connected people around the league to try to read the tea leaves of how the night might go.

Then, rest…

“We took the scouts out to dinner the night before,” said Lewand.

“I would get out of there at noon the day before,” said Mueller. “I would go and play nine holes. We had been in a cave for nine months, and I felt like I needed to clear my mind. Since nobody sleeps the night before, I felt like if we got out of there and did something else, we could come in refreshed.”

In that way, it seems the final hours of the draft are remarkably similar for the people actually making the picks as the media who cover them and the fans who breathlessly await the actual picks. At some point, what will happen will happen, and there’s not much anyone can do in Miami, Indianapolis, Bristol or from their Twitter accounts to make things move any faster.

The day before and the day of the draft, the months-long process is over. All that’s left is trusting that process…and probably another donut while we wait.