NFL teams play-fake before draft Rumors, deception precede selection

April 21, 1991|By Vito Stellino

There are lies, damn lies and draft tales.

It may be difficult to tell one from another today when the National Football League begins its annual two-day college draft because rumors are coin of the realm, haggling is a way of life and the truth is purely optional.

Jimmy Johnson, the wheeler-dealer coach of the Dallas Cowboys, kicked things off Thursday when he said "everything is off" in the trade talks for Raghib "Rocket" Ismail.

The next day, the Cowboys traded for the first pick in the draft to take Ismail.

In this draft, you believe half of what you see and even less of what you hear.

That's why all the scouts are reading tea leaves and wondering who's sending out the right signals or just trying to mislead their rivals.

Al Davis, managing general partner of the Los Angeles Raiders, made a rare personal scouting mission to check out troubled Southern Cal quarterback Todd Marinovich. Does that mean the Raiders will take him despite his drug and attitude problems?

Phoenix Cardinals coach Joe Bugel was in Lynn, Mass., last week visiting Eric Swann, a defensive lineman who never went to college. Would the Cardinals gamble the sixth pick in the draft on such an unproven player?

Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said he hopes to get a defensive player when the team picks on the first round for the first time since 1983. Yet that didn't stop rumors from sweeping the league that he really wants a running back.

The Cleveland Browns, with the second pick, are expected to take Notre Dame cornerback Todd Lyght, unless they trade the pick to the Atlanta Falcons, who also covet Lyght. But the Browns need a safety, and there's a blue-chipper on the board, UCLA's Eric Turner. Would they be tempted to take him over Lyght?

Will the Miami Dolphins make the much-rumored trade of cornerback Tim McKyer to the Falcons?

These and many other questions will be answered starting at noon today, when commissioner Paul Tagliabue steps in front of the ESPN cameras and begins the draft with the expected announcement that Ismail is the first pick.

As the teams try to outguess each other, there's always the chance that there's less here than meets the eye.

New York Giants general manager George Young said, "A lot of times we sound secretive when we're really confused."

Confusing is about the right word to describe this draft. Another description might be to call it the handkerchief draft.

The scouts can barely discuss it without weeping because it's missing the eight juniors who were drafted on the first round last year, and this year's crop of underclassmen doesn't match last year's.

When the Houston Oilers dropped from the 17th to the 28th spot Friday by trading their first-round pick to New England for second- and fourth-round picks, they justified it by arguing that the 28th player taken will be as good as the 17th player. The players are generally rated very closely.

"It's a sparse draft," said Bill Kuharich, player personnel director of the New Orleans Saints.

"It's very thin," said general manager Carl Peterson of the Kansas City Chiefs.

"It doesn't have a lot of glitter other than the Rocket," said Ernie Accorsi, who runs football operations for the Cleveland Browns. "It's not a glamour draft."

There are even questions about how effective Ismail is going to be in pro football. He was injury-prone at Notre Dame, and he'll be pounded more in the NFL.

When Young was asked last week whether he agreed with the assessment that this draft featured Ismail and then 10 players who were rated about even, he said, "Maybe it's 10 guys and then the Rocket."

Unless Ismail can play wide receiver, he wouldn't rate being a first-round pick simply as a kick returner.

Noting the $3 million a year Ismail supposedly was offered to play in Canada, Peterson said, "If he's being offered $3 million, he should jump at it."

Sam Jankovich, the New England Patriots president who traded the top pick, said he'll get "every bit as good a player" with the 11th pick as he would have gotten with the first pick.

Despite the doubts about Ismail, it still was astounding that he commanded such a low price on the trading market. The Cowboys simply gave a second-round draft choice and future considerations and then flopped first-round picks with the Patriots to get the top pick.

Some skeptics even suggested that Jankovich did a favor for his old friend, Johnson. Jankovich hired Johnson as the University of Miami's head coach when he was the Miami athletic director.

If Ismail turns out to be a star, it would look as if Johnson pulled a fast one on his old friend.

Despite the lack of glamour players, the draft still is one of the biggest events of the year in pro football, and the ESPN coverage and all the speculating by the draftniks has made it bigger than ever before.

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