You're on the clock and these are the choices:
Franco Harris or Robert Newhouse at running back.
Jack Lambert or Calvin Peterson at linebacker.
OK, time's up. Whom do you take?
With the 20-20 hindsight of two decades and four Super Bowl victories, those draft-day decisions are no-brainers today, of course. But in 1972 and 1974, when the Pittsburgh Steelers were confronted with them, they were anything but slam-dunks.
In fact, Art Rooney Jr., the son of the late Steelers owner Art Sr., remembers how he had to convince coach Chuck Noll in 1972 that Harris, the big back from Penn State, was a better pro prospect than Newhouse, the mighty mite from Houston.
Two years later, Rooney watched another draft deadlock get resolved at the 11th hour when assistant coach Woody Widenhofer cast the deciding vote. With the final seconds running down on the clock, Widenhofer opted for Lambert, from Kent State, over Peterson, from UCLA, because he figured Lambert would make a contribution on special teams right away.
Of such draft-day decisions are dynasties made. To a team that already had Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Jack Ham, the Steelers added Harris and Lambert, then went on to win four Super Bowls in six years.
In a curious subplot, both Newhouse and Peterson went to the Dallas Cowboys, who, as fate would have it, spent the '70s chasing the Steelers. No stiff, Newhouse went to three Super Bowls in 12 seasons with the Cowboys -- but lost two of them to Harris and the Steelers.
Peterson, on the other hand, had a journeyman's career. He lasted two years in Dallas, then played five more seasons with three other teams.
All of which serves to illustrate how precarious the NFL draft is. Without Harris and Lambert, would the Steelers have won all those championships?
"They're two Hall of Fame players," Rooney said, considering the question. "Maybe we do, maybe we don't."
What goes on behind closed doors on draft day has ramifications far beyond the scope of the two-day lottery that begins anew today.
Indeed, draft-day disagreements have given new meaning to the phrase "war room," even to the extent of drawn battle lines.
When New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft supported player personnel director Bobby Grier over coach Bill Parcells on draft day a year ago, the wounds festered for nine months before Parcells finally quit the team. Grier wanted to take wide receiver Terry Glenn in the first round; Parcells wanted a defensive pick.
Parcells reportedly was so upset that he refused to participate further in the draft. In the end, he didn't argue that Glenn was the right call -- Glenn caught a rookie-record 90 passes -- but seethed because his organizational power had been eroded.
Said Grier: "I had no idea it would have the consequences it did."
The 1996 draft was also the last as coach of the New York Giants for Dan Reeves, whose four-year tenure was marked by enmity for the front office. That bitterness resurfaced this week when Tom Boisture, the Giants' director of player personnel, ripped Reeves for bailing out on Oklahoma defensive end Cedric Jones, the fifth pick in last year's draft.
Boisture said Reeves originally agreed with the selection of Jones, but as Jones began to have problems, began distancing himself from the pick.
"I asked Dan four times before we took him," Boisture said. "I said, 'Dan, are you sure, is this the guy you want? He said, 'Yeah.' I asked him four times. Four times! Never once did he hem or haw. That never came up [in Reeves' criticisms of the Giants], did it?"
Jerry and Jimmy
Then there is the saga of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his former coach, Jimmy Johnson. The Cowboys were a few hours away from their first pick in the 1993 draft when Jones called Johnson into his office to discuss strategy. Jones was going to allow ESPN cameras into the war room, and once they were turned on, he wanted Johnson to make it appear Jones was actually making the personnel calls.
Johnson reportedly stomped out of Jones' office, slamming the door behind him. It was the beginning of the end.
"They'd watch, then butcher us for six months for making the wrong move," he said. "One case, we were ecstatic Cincinnati took a receiver we didn't think that highly of. The one we took didn't last two years, and Cincinnati took an All-Pro in Isaac Curtis."
What's your name, again?
In his 1979 draft, Modell feared the worst after the Browns drafted speedy cornerback Lawrence Johnson of Wisconsin in the second round. As is Modell's custom, he makes first contact with the draftee by phone. This time, though, he wasn't prepared for what he heard. The conversation went something like this:
Modell: "Lawrence, welcome to the Cleveland Browns. We drafted you in the second round."
Johnson: "You've got to be kidding me. Hell, I didn't expect to be drafted by anybody, let alone in the second round. I was just heading out to the barber shop."
Modell: "Oh, we knew about you. What's your 40 time?"
Johnson: "About 6 1/2 , 7 seconds."
Modell: "What's your weight?"
Johnson: "About 310 pounds."
"By now," Modell says, "I'm starting to sweat. Perspiration is running down my forehead. I'm thinking, 'Did we blow this thing?' They got me the wrong guy on the phone. This Lawrence Johnson was from Mississippi Valley."
The other Lawrence Johnson -- the one the Browns drafted -- had a solid if unspectacular career in Cleveland, with seven interceptions in six years.
Not long after, the Browns began calling a player they wanted to draft before making the pick. "Just to make sure he's alive," said Ravens vice president Kevin Byrne. "You never know."
Noll 'wasn't emperor yet'
Most draft-day operations are smooth because so much work already has gone into scouting. And most arguments have been made.
In 1972, the debate over the Steelers' first-round pick raged between Art Rooney Jr. and Noll. The coach, entering his fourth season with the team, wanted Newhouse. But Rooney rated Harris higher, as did virtually all the scouts. What swung the tide for Rooney and Harris?
"His [Noll's] record wasn't as good [12-30] as later on," Rooney said. "He wasn't emperor yet. I was a rash young guy whose
daddy owned the team. But I worked at it."
Rooney, a vice president with the team now, said he had a difficult time in those days dealing with Art Sr. and Noll.
"My father is a Hall of Famer, and so is Noll," Rooney said. "They're two great men. But at the time, I resented both of them. Looking back, I have only very positive memories of Noll, inasmuch as he is a very good man and a top NFL coach. He was just a tough guy to work with."
And of the Steelers' 1983 draft-day decision to take defensive tackle Gabe Rivera instead of Pitt quarterback Dan Marino, Rooney said, "The Chief [Art Sr.] never forgave me about Marino."
NFL first round
1. St. Louis (from New York Jets)
2. Oakland (from New Orleans)
3. Seattle (from Atlanta)
6. New York Jets (from St. Louis)
7. New York Giants
8. Tampa Bay
10. New Orleans (from Oakland)
11. Atlanta (from Seattle via Chicago)
16. Tampa Bay (from San Diego)
18. Kansas City
26. San Francisco
29. New England
30. Green Bay
Pub Date: 4/19/97