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Can't draft it, coach it or design it, but everyone needs it -- luck


THE FRONT-OFFICE decision-makers for the 31 NFL franchises would have you believe their science is the sporting equivalent of, say, genetic engineering. You know, challenging intellectual stuff.

Ask about the eternal attempt to put together the puzzle pieces of a championship team, and you get so much techno-babble you almost start thinking the topic is too complex for anyone else.

What a bunch of hooey.

Not that the task of finding and blending the right pieces isn't a challenge. It's that and more. A tough, unpredictable game. Hard on the health-care provider.

But there's a little secret underlying the whole endeavor, an element the yakking heads on television never mention and those in the business would prefer to forget.

What everyone really wants, and needs, is luck.

A stroke of blind, dumb, hit-me-square-in-the-face good fortune.

Maybe two strokes, come to think of it.

When the elite professional football personnel scientists wake up and say their prayers in the morning, they aren't asking for a prototype tight end to insert in their puzzle, and they aren't giving thanks for Mel Kiper, even though, like the rest of us, they should.

They're asking for luck.

The kind the St. Louis Rams experienced last season, enabling them to come out of nowhere and win a Super Bowl.

Sure, that triumph supposedly was due to quarterback Kurt Warner's grit, coach Dick Vermeil's wisdom and, yes, the astute assembling of a speedy supporting cast perfectly suited to playing in the Trans World Dome, where the Rams went 8-0 in the regular season an 2-0 in the playoffs.

But has anyone thought about the amazing luck that was involved?

If you recall, the Rams built their blueprint for the season around free-agent quarterback Trent Green, signed in the off-season to a $16 million contract. Then Green blew out his knee in an exhibition game, leaving Vermeil in tears, thinking his season was over before it started.

Lacking alternatives, he reluctantly handed the quarterback job to Warner, an obscurity who had played in the indoor league and stacked toilet paper for a living at one point, unable to keep a job playing football. It would have qualified as a big stroke of luck for the guy just to survive a couple of games without embarrassing himself before handing over the job, but instead, he went out and gave one of the greatest single-season performances in the NFL history, throwing for a million yards, exhibiting stunning guts and touch, winning every available award and saving the Super Bowl with a late touchdown pass.

Talk about luck.

Yes, there were other, more laudatory factors in the Rams' championship equation, and, yes, they did put together a nice team. But face it, they never would have gone all the way if they hadn't gotten blindingly lucky with Warner, the Nowhere Man who happened to turn into Joe Montana.

By comparison, the Ravens also lost the quarterback they had built their season around, Scott Mitchell, the ol' Water Buffalo himself, who didn't get hurt, but just stunk his way out of a job. And like the Rams, the Ravens also handed the starting job to a backup - two, in fact, with Stoney Case and then Tony Banks.

Same story, basically. But did either Case or Banks magically turn into Joe Montana?

Right. OK. Case closed.

The luck factor is one of the great, underappreciated aspects of NFL life - or any sport, for that matter. Cal Ripken was lucky not to take one on the wrist for 2,632 straight games. The Chicago Bulls were lucky that the Portland Trail Blazers chose to draft San Bowie instead of Michael Jordan.

Jordan, who led the Bulls to six NBA titles, is one guy who didn't need any luck. Tiger Woods doesn't seem to need much, either.

But it's at the top of the secret wish list of every elite professional football personnel scientist.

The kind of luck that allows 20 teams to pass on Randy Moss, the next Jerry Rice, before the Minnesota Vikings draft him.

The kind of luck that sends a game-ending pass incompletion caroming to Franco Harris, changing the balance of power in the NFL for a decade or so.

The kind of luck that turns a dumb call - a quarterback sneak on third down at the goal line with 16 seconds left, no timeouts and his team down four points - into Vince Lombardi's defining moment of greatness, the winning touchdown in the Ice Bowl.

If you look hard enough, you can see it: the great, invisible element coursing through the chronicle of NFL history, determining far more than anyone imagines.


Those benefiting and suffering from the unpredictable winds of whim.

Sure, striving to put the pieces of a championship puzzle together is important and scientific all that, and we're not trying to diminish the skills of those who do it well. Some do it far better than others, certainly.

But as the 2000 season opens with no dominant team in evidence and every player on all 31 teams set to experience an injury of some kind, the NFL's corridors are alive with those chanting the mantra made famous in a Clint Eastwood movie a long time ago:

Am I feeling lucky?

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