Sunday, May 14, 2006

Drafts, Like Trades, Can’t Be Judged Immediately -- Unless The Jury Is Made Up Of Fans

The Lions had a pretty good draft in 1967. Not bad in 1968, either. Perhaps even better in 1989, even if luck played a part. Not so good in 1973, or 1975. And I can tell you that 1990 wasn’t much to write home about, either.

When did I know these statements to be true? Well, as far as ’67 and ’68 goes, probably sometime in the early 1970’s. I knew that 1989 was good after one carry by its #1 choice in the season’s opening game. And I didn’t know how bad the ’73, ’75, and ’90 drafts were until a few seasons later.

Yet the jury already seems to have rendered its decision on the Lions’ 2006 draft – if you consider wailing voices calling in to sports talk radio, and its equally-as-screeching hosts, to be a proper jury. In the court of public opinion, verdicts are reached within seconds when it comes to pro football drafts.

Lions President Matt Millen selected, with his #1 choice – ninth off the board – Florida State linebacker Ernie Sims.

I think some folks are still booing.

But why? Sims is, by all accounts, a good, solid football player. “He loves football,” new head coach Rod Marinelli says. Well, good. Better than to select someone who’s only in it for, say, the money. Not that that ever happens.

Sims, we are told by the people whose lives consist of hunkering themselves up in football’s equivalent of Saddam Hussein’s spider holes, is a crunching hitter who “seeks collisions.” So much so, that Sims has endured at least five concussions as a result of his collision-seeking. No matter, the Lions say. He was checked out by some medical professionals, and all the wires in his brain are still connected.

That may be more than we can say for those who vilify the selection.

I have no idea if Ernie Sims was a steal at #9, a bust, a mistake, or a smart choice. But then again, I’m just now realizing that OT Jeff Backus might not have been all that terrific of a first round choice. And the Lions picked him five years ago.

"BOOOO!" "YESSSS!!!" Which will it be? (FSU LB Ernie Sims)

But when Sims’ name was spoken into NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s microphone April 29 and broadcast for all the Lions draft party attendees to hear, you’d have thought the commish had announced that beer sales were being cut off.


“Why HIM?”

“Who’s HE?”

“Why not Matt Leinart?”

That last one is the key question.

The Lions had a shot at USC quarterback Leinart, about as sexy a pick as you’re going to get in the ninth spot. They passed – no pun intended – and I’m sure they had their reasons. Like, they had already signed three quarterbacks since last season ended? Or maybe this reason: Joey Harrington. Or this: Andre Ware. Or this: Rodney Peete. And Peete went to USC.

“Fire Millen!”

“Millen Sucks!”

All this, within 10 seconds of Sims’ name being read into Tags’ mike.

The truth of the matter is, there is no such thing as a sure bet in sports, truly.

When the Chicago Cubs, during the 1964 season, traded a young outfielder named Louis Brock to the St. Louis Cardinals for a pitcher named Ernie Broglio, do you think the overwhelming consensus within moments of that announcement was that they had a made a great deal? Or a lousy one? Or something in between? Doubtful. Yet that trade – Brock for Broglio – is regarded as one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history. But that ignominious distinction wasn’t solidified until several years later, when Brock was helping the Cardinals win two World Series and appear in a third.

Look, I know that asking the sports fan to bite his or her tongue and not make a knee-jerk reaction to a trade, or a draft pick, or a free agent signing is akin to asking a hungry shark to check the Nutritional Information of a wayward swimmer before he chomps. But what amuses me is the surety with which those reactions are declared.

The truth of the matter is, there is no such thing as a sure bet in sports, truly. Not in draft choices. Not in trades. Not in signings. Although, I could probably have played the “Told you so” card a few times when it comes to free agents. Basically, here’s my rule: If it’s a pitcher that you’ve signed, may God have mercy on your soul. With VERY few exceptions.

But what else is there to do on Draft Day, and the 48 hours that follow? Exercise cautious optimism? Take a “wait and see” approach? There has to be SOME reaction, after all, when Commissioner Tagliabue reads those names in the first round. And the reactions are segmented thusly:



“BOOOOO!!!! What the #$!@!?”

No in-between. That would be so un-American.

Maybe, in 2011, we’ll proclaim the year the Lions selected Ernie Sims as a turning point in franchise history. Maybe we’ll still be kicking Matt Millen’s dead horse for making such a first round blunder. Maybe Sims will just be a good, solid player that invokes neither of these reactions.

Or maybe not. Maybe there’s a fourth reaction.

See what I’m saying?

In 1967, the Lions drafted Lem Barney and Mel Farr. Good stuff, though Farr’s career was cut short by injuries. In ’68, it was Greg Landry and Charlie Sanders. Again, productive. But in 1973 it was defensive tackle Ernie Price, and in ’75 it was guard Lynn Boden. Yuck. 1989 brought the Lions Barry Sanders, but only because the Green Bay Packers, picking in front of them, went for MSU offensive tackle Tony Mandarich. Obviously, the Lions aren’t the only team that’s suffered brain lock on draft day. In 1990, the Lions selected QB Andre Ware, a gunslinger from Houston whose arm fired nothing but blanks in the NFL.

But in each of these instances, and in countless others, involving every single team in the league every single year, the final verdict wasn’t made with any certainty until at least a season later – and it usually took several campaigns to pass fair judgement.

The Lions drafted LB Ernie Sims from Florida State?

Let me get back to you on that.

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