- Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer
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Warning: What you are about to read is mostly based on true stories. Probably. Sort of.
Charley Armey spent 26 years working in NFL personnel departments. He started as a scout, paid his dues and eventually worked his way up to become general manager of the St. Louis Rams, a position he held from 2000 to '05.
Along the way, Armey's network of league contacts became limitless. Out of that group of talented evaluators and friends, Armey trusted no one more than former Philadelphia Eagles, Rams and Kansas City Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil.
"Dick Vermeil was always the most honest human being I ever worked with," Armey said. "He would always be very honest with everyone."
Well, not always.
For eight months of every year, scouts, personnel directors and general managers around the league are friends. They discuss all things football in a relatively open manner.
Want background on a free agent? Call someone in personnel from his last stop. Curious whether a player can fit in your locker room? An answer is only a text message away.
That approach works from about May to the early parts of December.
In the NFL, there are four seasons: the preseason, the regular season, the postseason and the silly season. Silly is a term that's used for alliteration -- smoke screen, lying, misdirection and deception would fit just as easily.
Among the many state secrets NFL teams cling to throughout the year, none are as closely guarded as draft blueprints. This is the time of year when everything that matters is kept under lock and key and every word spoken must be taken with the appropriate amount of salt.
It's the time of year when even Vermeil wasn't always completely honest.
The trust tree
The NFL scouting combine serves as a de facto nerve center for the beginning of smoke-screen season. Over a 48-hour period at this year's combine, the assembled media had access to 27 head coaches and 24 general managers.
With free agency and the draft on the horizon, many questions center on a team's offseason plans. What happens from there is the type of artful dodging that would make Charles Dickens proud.
During Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider's turn on the dais, he was asked to give an honest assessment of Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack. The reporter emphasized honest, citing the unrealistic chances that Mack would still be on the board when the Seahawks pick at the end of the first round.
Schneider chuckled and disarmed the question by dropping a reference to the movie "Old School."
"Are we in the trust tree?" Schneider asked, a devilish grin creeping across his face.
Schneider promptly went on to give a short, unrevealing answer.
For the Seahawks and other teams around the league, that's all part of the plan. Be friendly, but reveal nothing.
Perhaps no team has done it better than the current world champions. When Seattle drafted guard James Carpenter at No. 25 in 2011 and followed with linebacker Bruce Irvin at No. 15 in the 2012 draft, many draft pundits screamed reach. Neither player had been on the radar in the many media mock drafts.
That's exactly how Schneider wanted it. Schneider might go as far as creating a list of prospects his team isn't interested in but then feigning interest if asked publicly. It's all an effort to keep his true intentions a secret.
It's a science Seattle seems to have mastered as well as any other team in the league, something Schneider takes pride in.
"I take that as a compliment," Schneider said. "I really do. Just our culture we try to create. It's a fun culture, and we work our tails off. It's 24/7, and we just ask that you don't take advantage of it. Loose lips sink ships. I think our people do a very good job of keeping things in house."
Putting it together
Nobody seems to be able to pinpoint the advent of the smoke screen or when misdirection associated with the draft started. Perhaps that's fitting since there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason behind each team's approach.
More often than not, it depends on the year and the targeted player.
Most general managers aren't prone to discussing the idea of smoke screens in specifics. The methods are as much a secret as the information they're designed to hide. By and large, teams would prefer not to say anything rather than something purposefully meant to mislead.
Taking it a step further, teams aren't prone to publicly put out misinformation with a name attached to it. Unnamed league or team sources are as close as it gets to putting a name to a quote or evaluation of a player.
Also more often than not, those "sources" aren't privy to what the team might do at the end of the day. To put it in Schneider's vernacular: The actual trust tree doesn't have many limbs.
"Here's what we try to do: You have got an entire staff, coaches, scouts, a lot of people and you want as much knowledge as possible," current Rams general manager Les Snead said. "You put them on certain projects so I think over time you earn a trust factor. You count on the staff to help you set a board, things like that, get them aligned right, but I think at the end of the day, there's probably three people in the building who truly know."
The smoke screen actually is more about being reactive than proactive. Draft season puts everyone on high alert. Teams are constantly keeping an eye on what everyone else is doing. Most important, however, is making sure sensitive information that's actually true is not getting out of the building.
"We're constantly evaluating what's in the papers," San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. "And we have our PR department looking for those types of things and finding out if it's a team source that's made a decision to let something out of the building. We address it. Our coaching staff, our personnel staff do a very good job of keeping things close to the vest, and we're hopeful we'll continue to do that."
Methods of misdirection
The most common fake-out is a team expressing interest in a prospect it has no interest in taking. The theory is that someone else might want that player, move up to get him and push a player the original team actually wants further down the board. Even teams with the No. 1 pick get in on the fun and games.
Just last year, Kansas City discussed West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, even setting up a workout and getting out the word that the team was "fascinated" by him. Any other talk about the No. 1 pick centered on Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel.
When draft day finally arrived, the Chiefs selected Central Michigan tackle Eric Fisher. The move might have come as a surprise to the public, but it wasn't much of a shock in draft rooms around the league.
"There will always be the smoke screens, or you may walk into a scouting room in the spring when we are out working people out and you're going to hear people mention that so-and-so had done this, that or the other thing," Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff said. "Honestly, we are trying to put a boundary around that player for a reason. It's up to us to rely on all of the information that we've gotten over the last 12, 13, 14 months. If you trust your system, and if you trust your scouting staff ... then you shouldn't be swayed by all of the other noise out there or the projections or the prognostications."
Teams also use that method in hopes of coaxing another team to trade up for a player.
In 2009, word "leaked" that the Rams had purchased a plane ticket for USC quarterback Mark Sanchez for the Sunday after the draft. The Rams sat with the second pick, and Sanchez was widely regarded as the second-best quarterback in the draft behind Matthew Stafford. Clearly, the Rams wanted a quarterback-needy team to make them an offer in order to move up and draft Sanchez. It didn't happen. The Rams drafted offensive tackle Jason Smith, and three picks later, Cleveland received a bounty of picks from the New York Jets so they could move up and select Sanchez.
Believe it or not, that type of maneuver seems less common than other types of misdirection teams pull from their offseason playbooks.
One angle teams are most willing to cop to is the concept of smoke screen by omission. Outright lying can be difficult because, as with any lie, once you start down that road, it can be hard to remember what you said. If teams are lying, they are likely to forget the original lie and could end up coughing up some important information in the process.
In 2006, the Denver Broncos never even interviewed quarterback Jay Cutler. They showed zero interest in any quarterback until it was time to make a selection. Not only did the Broncos draft Cutler, but they traded up with the Rams to get him.
That episode offered a rare example of trust. Denver coach Mike Shanahan leaned on close friend Jeff Fisher in Tennessee to handle the evaluation. Cutler played his college ball at Vanderbilt, in Fisher's backyard. Shanahan relied on Fisher for thoughts and opinions on Cutler.
Friendships like the one between Shanahan and Fisher are normally set aside when it comes to a team's draft plans, but in this case, Fisher's Titans were in the market for a quarterback but had their eyes on Vince Young, so he was willing to help Shanahan.
"Everyone is usually trying to protect their position," Armey said. "Trust is maybe not the right word for it. You're never 100 percent sure. Outside of this realm, you can normally trust them. But the higher the pick, the higher the risk."
Sifting through the smoke
Considering the over-the-top proliferation of information online and beyond, surviving the smoke without inhaling is an exercise in futility. Teams, even with the benefit of pro personnel departments and an awareness of others' needs, have to take additional steps to try to figure out what everyone else is thinking.
That's where the agents come in. Agents are the only people who are connected with both the players and the teams. They know the general managers, their tendencies and their histories.
When subterfuge gets in the way, experienced agents often can see through it, trusting their instincts honed during past drafts. They're also quick to connect the dots on relationships among various general managers.
In the past few years, many of the general manager openings around the league have been filled from similar personnel departments.
Green Bay's Ted Thompson has sent disciples to Seattle, Kansas City and Oakland as GMs. Atlanta's Dimitroff, himself a former member of the New England Patriots' organization, has helped tutor general managers in St. Louis, Jacksonville and Cleveland.
That doesn't mean everybody with a shared background has the exact same philosophy, but it's at least a jumping-off point.
"You don't rely at all on what they're saying," Armey said. "You rely on their needs, their history, what the roster is, put it all together. Then it's about knowing the people you deal with."
With so many places providing information and opinion, it only adds to the chore of trying to decipher what's real and what's not. That makes it more difficult to determine the truth from other teams but easier to keep your own secrets intact.
"It's interesting now. You could probably come out and tell exactly what you are going to do, and everybody would think it's a smoke screen," Snead said. "That makes it easier. ... I can honestly tell you that you try to talk less this time of year. It's never beneficial to say, 'Hey, we want this position or we want that,' because now people may take that as, 'OK, if we want that guy, we better take him.'"
The honesty approach
Snead's philosophy is popular, but it's not the only way to do business.
At his postseason news conference, Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome listed his team's needs. Granted, he didn't and won't provide any more clues, but he was comfortable enough to acknowledge what many rivals and observers already knew.
Arizona Cardinals GM Steve Keim has no problem sharing honest thoughts on most topics. He was open about his team's interest in offensive line help in 2013, and it was well known that guard Jonathan Cooper was high on the team's list of prospects.
"I may be the wrong one to ask because clarity may be one of my issues," Keim said. "I have a tendency to say what's on my mind. But I think that's my philosophy moving forward with players as well. I try to be honest with them, not always what they want to hear, but I think it's necessary to build that kind of trust, not only trust with the media but trust with the coaching staff and trust with your players. I think you should be as clear as you can."
That's a refreshing approach for the many NFL fans and media who crave some semblance of the straightforward during the silly season. History would indicate that being flexible might actually be the best approach, even if that flexibility includes honesty.
Before becoming GM of the Rams, Armey oversaw the team's college and pro personnel operations. As he and Vermeil built the Rams into contenders, they did so by being alternately transparent and covert.
In 1998, Vermeil was so forthcoming that the whole world knew he liked defensive end Grant Wistrom with the sixth pick in the draft. Vermeil and Armey talked Wistrom up every step of the way.
When draft day arrived, the Rams drafted Wistrom.
The next year, the St. Louis brain trust, again armed with the sixth pick in the draft, did a 180. In the lead-up to the draft, Vermeil and Armey spoke highly of cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Chris McAlister. As late as the day before the draft, the only question was which corner the Rams would take.
From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch right before the draft:
"And unless Vermeil and Armey were manufacturing one of the all-time smoke screens, University of Arizona cornerback Chris McAlister may be their targeted player with that first-round pick."
Based on the previous year, the smart money was indeed on McAlister. So when the Rams went on the clock, they selected ... wide receiver Torry Holt.
"We always intended to take Torry Holt," Armey said. "We stayed with the Champ Bailey and Chris McAlister story, but Torry fit our football team and made our offense much better."
The smoke-screen approach might be ever-evolving, but it doesn't appear to be going anywhere. Media and fans will continue to do their best to decipher the codes and wade through the muck. Teams will do the same.
"I don't know what advantage there would be in giving out information," Baalke said. "We try to keep as much information to ourselves as we can. It's a unique process. Obviously, there's a lot of information coming and going out, so, yeah, there are certain times there are smoke screens being made, but the No. 1 thing I've learned is the less you say, the better off you are."
The silly season lives on.
6hEric D. Williams
1dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo