Thanks to the pandemic, actual playing ability might reign supreme at the NFL Draft
No wining and dining means less a chance to fall in love with a player’s “character,’’ as the Bears did with Mitch Trubisky’s.
There’s nothing good about the coronavirus outbreak in itself, nothing about the disease that makes it readily obvious why it has been visited upon us. But we look for silver linings — an increase in human kindness, a newfound appreciation for silence, etc. — anything that will raise our spirits. And I do mean anything.
So forgive my flippancy while I glom on to a strange byproduct of COVID-19: NFL teams will not be able to interview prospects privately in person before the draft begins April 23. That means no sumptuous, get-to-know-you dinners. It means that grown men — general managers and coaches — won’t be able to find deep meaning in the way a college player holds his fork. They won’t be able to gush publicly about his amazing personality, his manners at the dinner table, his fondness for something as American as apple pie and his graciousness in response to a waitress’ confusion about what medium rare means. More important, it means they’ll have one fewer opportunity to see attributes in a 21-year-old kid that don’t matter and probably aren’t there anyway.
The coronavirus and the draft: A door closes, but a window opens.
This brings us back to the Bears and Mitch Trubisky, not just because it always does . . . OK, yeah, because of that. All roads lead to Rome. Bears general manager Ryan Pace fell even more in love with Trubisky at a dinner they had about five weeks before the 2017 draft. It lasted more than two hours. Afterward, Pace would talk about the beater of a car Trubisky had pulled up in, a 1997 Toyota Camry with 130,000 miles of wear and tear, as if all the answers to the universe could be found in its old bones. In it, Pace saw a humble, hardworking kid who would teach the world that pedigree isn’t everything. There’s a very good chance Pace looked at that car and that quarterback — both underappreciated, both underestimated — and saw a bit of himself.
He traded up to take Trubisky with the second overall pick and, well, you know.
NFL execs sometimes need to be saved from themselves, but too often there isn’t an underling bold enough to do it. It’s why this year’s draft is so delightfully different. Coaches and scouts will have to rely on video interviews and game tape of players. Perhaps preparations for the draft will turn less into a psychological analysis worthy of a CIA assessment and more into what it’s supposed to be about: Can this guy play football?
That’s what matters. Everything else is packaging. Does this wide receiver have enough speed to rid himself of a cornerback? Can this linebacker play in coverage? Why did this quarterback have only 13 starts in college?
Of course teams will find ways to get intelligence on players. They already had opportunities to interview them at the NFL combine, but they won’t get the chance to wine and dine them. If a team feels a strong need to ask a player, “If you were a fruit, what kind would you be?’’ it won’t be in a restaurant booth. Maybe it will be by text.
How a player fared in games with scouts in attendance and how he looks on tape will carry more weight in teams’ appraisals — as it should anyway. That’s how it was decades ago, before the money went through the roof and before teams wanted to make sure they knew everything about a person in whom they were about to invest millions of dollars. There’s nothing wrong with getting to know a player. There’s something wrong with thinking that character and how someone wears his hair matter more than everything else.
The qualities the Bears were most excited about with Trubisky were legitimate. He is a nice kid. He is humble. He does care about football a lot. If you ate with him at a restaurant, that’s probably what you’d take home along with your doggie bag. But those qualities shouldn’t supersede what’s on tape. They shouldn’t obscure a lack of accuracy or an inability to grasp an offense. But in Pace’s case, they did.
This isn’t just a Bears problem. Lots of teams fall more in love with the idea of a player than the reality of him. It’s actually understandable. GMs and coaches are people who need to believe in high draft picks quickly and deeply, not just for public-relations purposes but for the good of the team. Bonds need to be formed, relationships forged and trust established in a hurry.
But, geez, fellas, some perspective. The draft really is about football, about who can play and who can’t.
Something good, small as it is, has emerged from the mess we’re in right now. Actual scouting might be back in vogue.