Sunday, April 26, 2009

Resumes Count, But So Do References

Bill Belichick give the lie to his reputation for reticence last night. He actually revealed more about the NFL draft and himself than any other participant. It was an unprompted admission, too. Nobody exactly breaks down and confesses under the relentless interrogation techniques of Chris Berman.

Belichick went on ESPN2 after the first two rounds of the draft were over to explain the Pats' draft strategy in dropping out of the first round. This was no strain on his powers of bland obfuscation. There are plenty of inoffensive and universally understood euphemisms for "you know, we didn't really think there was much difference between players 20-80 on this year's board." But then Berman asked about New England's second-round pick of offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer of Houston -- a player so little known that ESPN had no tape on him!! (Berman made this sound as if Belichick had found Vollmer playing for some team in the jungles of Sumatra).

For whatever reason, be it fatigue or his very real desire to communicate how football works, Belichick let his guard down, and answered the question not only fully, but revealingly. What follows is a paraphrase, but it's pretty close.

"Well, so-and-so is on our staff, and his dad is the trainer down there in Houston, and in fact I worked with him when I had my first job in the NFL in 1975," Belichick said.

How unscientific. How delightful. Someone Belichick knew and trusted through the endless series of personal connections football people build up in their working lives told him to check out a player. He did, and liked what he saw. One of the shrewdest evaluators of football talent extant, if not the shrewdest, made an important personnel decision in much the same way regular folks make important purchases -- on word of mouth recommendations from trusted friends and acquaintances.

I'm sure the Pats made Vollmer jump through all the hoops of modern player evaluation before they picked him. Those are basic training-their point is to see if a player can accept the 24/7 control essential to being a well-paid cog in the machine. But when it came to FINDING Vollmer, Belichick's explanation was the essence of homey mom and pop simplicity. It had a lot more in common with the drafts from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, when a Street and Smith's yearbook and Christmas cards to college coaches were a franchise's scouting department, than it did with the modern draft, overanalyzed by observers and participants alike.

Maybe it took a coach secure enough in his job and reputation to allow the world to see that seat-of-your-pants experimentation plays a larger role in the draft than the NFL would like us to believe. Or maybe, because everything old is new again in football, NFL historian Belichick made the Vollmer pick as the scouting equivalent of the Wildcat formation. It's thought to be impossible to find overlooked players in the draft these days. Belichick managed to do it.

ESPN had no videotape on Vollmer. That alone should make any football fan with a soul root hard for the guy when training camp starts.


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