Commentary

Twilight of the running back

Originally Published: May 13, 2014
By Gregg Easterbrook | ESPN.com

Last year's draft was the first since the AFL-NFL merger in which no running back was chosen in the first round. This year's draft nearly became the first in which no running back was chosen in the first two rounds. The initial runner selected, Bishop Sankey by Tennessee, went in the bottom of Round 2, more than 24 hours after the draft began. And in the offseason, the free-agency market for running backs was soft -- low interest, low offers.

Is it the twilight of the running back?

The fullback offers a cautionary tale. A generation ago, every offense had two backs in the backfield, sometimes three. Even the 49ers' West Coast offense under Bill Walsh, then cutting edge, usually showed a fullback. Roger Craig played fullback for several years under Walsh in San Francisco, sometimes lining up in a two-fullback set with Tom Rathman.

But it has been two decades since an NFL team used a first-round choice on a fullback; the last was William Floyd, chosen by the Niners in 1994. Since then, it has been rare for a fullback to be drafted at all. Most of the league's fullbacks are undrafted free agents who rarely get into games and almost never touch the ball. Craig averaged 51 receptions per season in a long career. Probably all the league's fullbacks combined did not make 51 catches last season.

The one-back offense that became a fad in the 1990s made the fullback nearly obsolete. The thinking was that rather than field a fullback who could block, run or catch, but was below average at all three skills, a team should field an extra receiver for passing plays, an extra offensive lineman for power rushes and, on regular runs, just give the ball to the tailback.

Now, a similar thought process is downgrading the running back. In a five-wide offense, he's not needed; in a four-wide, often a tight end lines up in the backfield to blitz-block or run a flare. A modern offense always has receivers on the field, but does not always have runners on the field, so the running back becomes less important.

The shift to pass over run accelerates this trend. In the 1970s, play calling was 50/50 run/pass. Five years ago, 55 percent of downs were passing plays; last season, 58 percent were. Considering more passing downs and a higher gain per pass attempt than per rush, receivers seem more important than runners.

[+] EnlargeBishop Sankey
AP Photo/Joe NicholsonBishop Sankey, the common draft's latest first running back taken.

Of the past five Super Bowl winners, Seattle was unusual in employing an old-fashioned feature-back offense. The other four winners -- the Ravens, Giants, Packers and Saints -- either had the running-back-by-committee approach, or in the case of Green Bay, simply didn't run, with just 11 called rushes in its Super Bowl victory.

The rising pace of offense has increased the running-back-by-committee format. In a quick-snap offense, receivers and backs constantly shuffle in and out so they can catch their breath. Once the tailback is seen as interchangeable, he becomes less important.

Many football coaches start as high school coaches. At the high school level, the smart coach figures out who his best athlete is, makes him the feature back and hands him the ball over and over again. This used to be how pro offenses were structured, and it led to an obsession with finding the kind of back who could be The Man an offense was built around. Six running backs selected in the first round in 1990, five in the first round in 1995 -- those were the glory days for running backs.

Now the feeling is that opening holes is a bigger challenge than running through them. "You can always get a running back in the later rounds" is a recent draft cliché, and it seems to be true. Only four of last season's top 10 rushers were first-round choices. If you can usually get a running back in the later rounds, running backs don't sound so important.

Then there is the simple shrinking of running lanes caused by ever-larger players. Modern offensive tactics focus on getting the ball into space, away from the huge bodies of contemporary linemen. "Spread the field" has become a mantra because there's so little space in the jam-packed area between the tackles. Inside running can still be rewarding -- Seattle's trophy is proof of that -- but spreading the field seems more promising in general.

As recently as the early 1990s, when Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas were all playing, NFL teams were judged by their running backs. Increasingly, running backs are not The Man, they are Just Another Guy. Is the sun setting on the position?

In other football news, Saturday on ESPN, Chip Kelly noted he had drafted only college graduates, saying this was because a diploma shows a person is smart and "committed to establishing goals and following through." Now that Kelly is an employer, he understands the value of diplomas. When he was a college coach who benefited from free labor, the situation was different. In his final year at the University of Oregon, only 64 percent of Kelly's players, and a dismal 49 percent of African-American players, graduated.

The 64 percent was about the same for University of Oregon students as a whole. But a Division I football player gets 10 semesters instead of eight, gets special tutoring and, most important, doesn't pay for college -- running out of money is a primary reason why kids don't finish. Division I players should graduate at a higher rate than students as a whole.

Now that he's an employer, Kelly sees why the college diploma matters so much. When he was a college coach, he didn't see this. Just another reason the institutionally corrupt NCAA system needs to be blown up.

The delayed draft this year means the offseason is halfway over -- the football artificial universe will resume before we know it. Here's a draft review:

Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons went for meat and potatoes, choosing linemen with their first two picks, after years of favoring skill players. Seven of their previous 11 top picks had been spent on or traded for wide receivers and cornerbacks. The result was a 31st-ranked rushing defense and Matt Ryan getting sacked 44 times in 2013.

In the fourth round, Atlanta chose Prince Shembo of Notre Dame, the player who was implicated in a sexual assault accusation that made national headlines because a suicide was involved -- nothing was ever proved or disproved in court. TMQ proposed in January 2013 that the player reveal his identity. Three months ago, Shembo did step forward, maintaining what happened was a consensual misunderstanding. That there's nothing one can say about a suicide that doesn't sound wrong is shown by Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff's comment, "Obviously, it's a sad situation for the young lady involved." The TMQ link in this paragraph goes into detail on what was alleged.

After the draft, Shembo said he'd wanted to speak out at the time, but Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly instructed him to say nothing. If that's true, Kelly behaved dishonorably. Shembo was an adult when at Notre Dame -- and surely the university would say he was a student, not an employee of the football program. So why couldn't he speak? If news stories contended an unnamed history major at Notre Dame had groped a woman without consent, there is no way the chair of the history department could order the student to remain silent. A college football coach ordering a player not to speak about an issue unrelated to sports makes the coach an employer and the player an employee.

Arizona Cardinals: The Cards' first three choices seemed to come straight out of the playbook of recent NFL trends. First, a la the Seahawks, a big safety: 6-foot-1, 211-pound Deone Bucannon. Then, a la the Patriots and Saints, a tall tight end: 6-6 Troy Niklas. Then, again a la the Seahawks, a defensive end with incredible athletic measurables but a lot to learn: Kareem Martin. TMQ long has felt that second-echelon clubs simply should copy the draft tactics of successful clubs. In this context, looking at someone else's answer sheet is legal.

[+] EnlargeThe Rockettes
AP Photo/Starpix, Amanda SchwabEmploy the Rockettes at the draft!

Show some leg! Nearly a decade of the draft at Radio City Music Hall and still no Rockettes. And that's with members needing work since the show that was supposed to make leggy dancing a year-round event was canceled in pre-production.

Baltimore Ravens: In 2012, Joe Flacco led the Ravens to a Super Bowl triumph, throwing 11 touchdown passes versus zero interceptions in the postseason. But what have you done for us lately? Already the Ravens are viewed as washed up. Tuesday Morning Quarterback is not so sure. In the previous five drafts, the Nevermores selected 17 players from below the football-factory level, including one from Harvard. In this draft, Baltimore tabbed athletes from Coastal Carolina and Ball State.

Buffalo Bills: Working on this book, yours truly was on the Virginia Tech sideline in 2011 as Sammy Watkins twice destroyed a stacked Hokies secondary that boasted Kyle Fuller, also taken in Thursday's first round; Jayron Hosley, a 2012 third-round pick; and Antone Exum, a sixth-round selection last weekend. Half a dozen times Watkins did things that made me say, "Wow." Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster shook his head and said, "Wow is an understatement."

Watkins was the special talent of the 2014 draft. He has as much upside as Jadeveon Clowney, but less downside. The last time the Bills made a king's-ransom trade, for Cornelius Bennett in 1987, the arrival of "Biscuit" changed a group of talented underachievers into contenders. Watkins might do the same for the current Bills.

To flip 2014 positions with the Browns, Buffalo surrendered only 2015 draft choices. The current front office knows the team will be sold soon, and if Buffalo fails to break its playoff drought, everyone who doesn't wear cleats will be fired. So there's no point in saving for the future. Either Buffalo makes the playoffs this season and all is well, or a new management team inherits a mess with future picks already spent.

Carolina Panthers: Steve Smith was the franchise's star, with five Pro Bowl appearances and more honors to come. Yet he was shown the door. This is not unprecedented. Wide receivers of similar achievement -- Tim Brown, Cris Carter, Randy Moss, Andre Reed and Jerry Rice -- were shown the door at about the same stage of their careers. TMQ has called Rice the greatest football player ever; the 49ers told him to hit the road. Rice wandered to the Raiders, Seahawks and Broncos, hoping for just a little more of a glory that was waning.

Why does this happen to wide receivers and not fading greats at other positions? The explanation is the Randy Ratio. Wide receivers tend to be egotistical; the game is not about who wins but about how often they see the ball. As things went downhill with the Vikings, Randy Moss demanded a Randy Ratio: 40 percent of the passes had to be targeted to him. Passes should go to whoever's open. In recent seasons with the Cats, Smith has complained unless the stat sheets shows enough balls targeted to him. Fine athlete that he is, Smith had begun to harm the team. There's the door, sir.

Chicago Bears: Considering contract guarantees, the Bears essentially traded Julius Peppers and $10 million for Jared Allen. Will this keep the Chicago defense a monster? Actually, in 2013 the Bears were last versus the rush. Considering Allen's habit of giving up draws and sweeps in pursuit of sacks, Chicago's rush defensive numbers may stay low. That the Bears' first three choices were on defense shows management is aware of the team's non-Monsters of the Midway situation.

Michael Sam
AP Photo/ESPNThis really must be the 21st century.

Michael Sam is just another gay football player: There have always been gay players in NFL locker rooms. If the Williams Institute at UCLA is right about the percentage of the American population that is attracted to the same gender, that correlates to approximately 50 gay NFL players and 20 NFL cheerleaders. The cultural stereotype is that gay men spend their days watching Julie Newmar movies and baking macaroons, while lesbians wear lumberjack apparel. But gay men are as likely to be as macho as any other kind of men; gay women as likely to be as feminine as any other kind of women. There's no inherent reason why a gay man cannot be a football star or a gay woman be a beauty queen.

Antonio Coleman
Courtesy of Saskatchewan RoughridersCFL defensive end Antonio Coleman brought similar credentials to those of Michael Sam to NFL camps.

Cautionary note on Sam's NFL chances: Five years ago, a player at Michael Sam's position, Antonio Coleman of Auburn, was an SEC star defender, leading the conference in sacks -- just as Sam starred in the same conference last fall. Coleman had poor combine numbers just like Sam, and wasn't drafted, a fate Sam barely avoided. Coleman bounced around the practice squads of NFL teams, never seeing the field. Last autumn he donned pads for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Sexuality had nothing to do with his pro career. The NFL is so competitive, even really good players may not make the grade.

Cincinnati Bengals: Andy Dalton must be looking over his shoulder now that his patron, Jay Gruden, is gone and the Bengals used a draft choice on quarterback AJ McCarron.

In the 2011 draft, Cincinnati selected Dalton. With the next choice, San Francisco took Colin Kaepernick, who has dramatically outperformed Dalton in the postseason. When Gruden skedaddled to the Rdskns a few months ago, the Cincinnati Enquirer said that Gruden had insisted on tabbing Dalton over the objections of owner Mike Brown, who preferred Kaepernick. Maybe this is Brown planting stories to make himself look good. But if the reports are true, Dalton is a lame duck. AJ McCarron to A.J. Green -- a publicist's dream!

Cleveland Browns: In 2011, the Browns traded down in the first round to stockpile picks for the next draft. In 2013, the Browns traded out of the middle rounds to stockpile picks for 2014. Then in 2014, the Browns traded down in the first round, to stockpile picks for 2015. And it didn't stop there. On Saturday, as attention to the draft faltered, with Josh Gordon's possible suspension just revealed and no wide receiver selected, the Browns traded out of the late rounds to acquire an extra sixth-rounder in 2015. Coming into the 2014 with a bundle of extra picks, the Browns for all intents and purposes delayed all the extra picks to 2015, when they are now scheduled to pick twice in the first, fourth and sixth rounds.

Maybe the team should have a helmet image of a squirrel hoarding nuts.

Endlessly postponing draft choices keeps signing bonuses low for embattled owner Jimmy Haslam. But will the Browns ever use their ammunition? For a bad team to keep stockpiling picks doesn't make sense. Of course, a reason bad teams are bad is that they make bad decisions.

Because the 2015 draft is expected to be weaker at most positions than the very strong 2014 draft, Buffalo's first- and fourth-round selections next year, obtained when Cleveland traded down to let the Bills grab gifted Sammy Watkins, likely will be worth less than choices this year. Cleveland's strategy will shine only if Buffalo has a terrible season in 2014 and its first choice is high. Though if that happens, the Browns may trade out.

The draft's oddest trade came when the Browns, holding the ninth choice, give a fifth-rounder to Minnesota, which held the eighth choice, in order to flip-flop picks, Cleveland then selecting corner Justin Gilbert. Flip-flopping with Minnesota seemed necessary only if the Vikings were planning to select Gilbert -- in which case they wouldn't have traded the pick! The second possibility is that Cleveland wanted to stop Minnesota from trading the eighth selection to some other team that sought Gilbert. But if the Browns' bid of a fifth-round choice seemed better to Minnesota, that means the rival offered no more than a sixth-round choice, and nobody moves up at the top of the draft for just a sixth-round choice. The Minnesota-Cleveland flip-flop is hard to make sense of.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/David J. PhillipHe'd best not try to run backwards in the NFL.

Dallas Cowboys: Johnny Manziel fell all the way to his dream team, then kept falling as the Cowboys passed, too. Jerry Jones has so much payroll locked up in Tony Romo, he may have passed on Johnny Football for financial reasons. But why did so many NFL teams not select the player oft-projected as the draft's first choice?

One reason is concern that Manziel's style will not translate into the pro ranks. Remember those times in college he spun out and ran backward? If he tries that in the NFL, the result will be a 20-yard loss. But there's a psychological factor as well. Manziel is open about the fact that he freelances. If a quarterback could be successful in the NFL by just showing up and winging it, that would make the head coach seem a lot less important. And NFL head coaches don't want to seem less important. Kudos to Mike Pettine of the Browns for being willing to take the ego risk involved in handing the ball to Manziel.

Detroit Lions: New Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi spent the past five years with the Saints, where he saw up close what a Jimmy Graham-style tall, fast tight end can do. Surely Lombardi was happy with Detroit's selection of Graham-style tight end Eric Ebron. Yet there was only one tight end taken in the first round, and only 10 tight ends tabbed overall, despite the recent success of Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Vernon Davis. In the past decade, there has been an average of only one first-round tight end annually.

One reason is that college offenses use the tight end mainly as a blocker, so it's anyone guess whether he can catch. When college tight ends are out in patterns, it's usually simple stuff, so it's anyone's guess whether a college tight end can make the sight adjustments needed to read a complex NFL defense. College quarterbacks are coached to throw a lot of hitches, screens and sideline fades, because such passes are not likely to be intercepted. Most college coaches don't want the quarterback throwing short over the middle, where a pick is more likely. But NFL tight ends make their livings short over the middle. So college tight ends arrive in the NFL needing to learn to do something they rarely did in the NCAA. TMQ thinks this is the main reason pro football teams don't show much enthusiasm for drafting tight ends.

Breaking hot air news: Last week, Barack Obama said on the "Today" show that global warming "is a problem affecting Americans right now." His appearance was timed to the release of the latest National Climate Assessment, a quadrennial document whose new edition states, "Climate change, once considered an issue for the distant future, has moved firmly into the present." Sunday, possible Republican presidential contender Marco Rubio lashed back on ABC's "This Week," saying "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate."

The National Climate Assessment began in 2006, under George W. Bush, and concluded that year that climate change was real and at least in some part the result of human action. So this is not a wild-eyed left-wing notion. The idea was first stated by the government under a GOP presidency. Here is what I wrote in The New York Times in 2006 summarizing the reasons the Republican White House became convinced climate change was real.

The latest National Climate Assessment is a political document, intended to support Obama's preferred approach to greenhouse gases. There's nothing wrong with a document being political, so long as everyone knows this. The latest IPCC report from the United Nations is political, too, in its case stridently anti-American.

So ignore the political reports and check the neutral scientific positions of the American Association for the Advancement of Science or the many studies under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences. Senator Rubio, this body of red-blooded American research supports the notion that human-caused greenhouse gases are a factor in climate change.

Al Roker, Barack Obama
Courtesy of TodayBarack Obama's radical ideas about climate change originated with the George W. Bush White House.

It's strange that so many conservatives have begun to take anti-science stances on climate change, natural selection and other issues. Once, conservatism prided itself on standing for education, rationality and the scientific approach to problem-solving. But as politics has become more polarized and fundamentalism has grown (in Judaism and Islam as well as Christianity), Republican candidates discovered there is fundraising gold in shaking one's fist against science. Plus, as college has become increasingly important to income, those who couldn't or didn't attend top colleges seem to feel more resentful of those who did. Once, conservatives controlled top academia. Now that liberals control the academy, suddenly science is bad.

If you believe, as I do, that the link between human-caused greenhouse gases and climate change is proven, what should you advocate?

The president, most editorialists, Secretary of State John Kerry and the Hollywood elite call for international action. Considering the 1997 test vote on the Kyoto Protocols failed in the Senate 97-0 -- international greenhouse gas rules did not draw even one Democratic vote -- there seems no chance the United States Senate ever will ratify any treaty granting international organizations control over U.S. domestic policy-making. Obama and others who call for international treaties on greenhouse gases are wasting everyone's time. The reason the international community wants such deals is its hope that any treaty will involve billions of dollars in guilt payments from the United States, money that foreign officialdom can steal from.

Rather than continue to participate in annual international climate summits that waste public money and cause greenhouse gases as private jets from the world over converge -- for the next one the United Nations promises "bold new announcements," probably about future meaningless meetings -- the United States should pass a domestic law pricing greenhouse gas emissions. The ideal would be to tax carbon, while reducing taxes on income and capital. That would create a profit incentive for engineers and business people to make money by finding innovations. A profit incentive, not bold announcements, is what will bring the greenhouse gas issue to heel.

Smog and acid rain are declining nearly everywhere in the world, even in some parts of China, though no international treaty covers either. In both cases the leadership position was taken by the United States, which enacted domestic legislation creating a profit incentive for smog and acid rain control. The results included engineering breakthroughs (the three-stage catalytic converter) and business models (sulfur dioxide trading) that reduced these pollutants much faster, and much more cheaply, than expected.

If the United States enacted U.S.-only greenhouse gas legislation, there's a good chance breakthroughs would follow, then the rest of the world could adopt them voluntarily. Talk of treaties is a waste of everyone's time. Congress needs to act.

[+] EnlargeJennifer Lawrence
Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagicMystique, transforming herself to look like Jennifer Lawrence.

Denver Broncos: The Broncos should have drafted Mystique from the X-Men movies (the next one is about time travel, which means Bryan Singer is getting desperate for material). She could transform into Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and other Seattle defenders at Denver practices, keeping the team angry for payback.

Green Bay Packers: Alabama had two players chosen in the first round, including Ha Ha Clinton-Dix by the Packers. This was more evidence of Nick Saban's magic touch with the draft -- 16 first-round picks from the Crimson Tide in the past six years, best of any college program. And wasn't it thoughtful of Saban to come to New York City and be present to congratulate his players as they walked across the stage!

Most likely Saban's first motive was self-promotion. He recruits by marketing Alabama as a way station to the NFL. About 25 percent of Saban's recruited Alabama players have gone on to earn at least some NFL income, a very high rate. But that still leaves three-quarters never cashing a pro football paycheck. If they got an Alabama education and graduated, they received something of value in return for their labors. But about a quarter of Saban's players neither graduate nor perform in the NFL. They're exploited, then thrown away.

Saban earns about $70,000 per year per scholarship player under his care. Being present onstage at the NFL draft was fantastic advertising for the recruiting program that supports his fabulous pay. The starry-eyed teens who arrive at the University of Alabama to play for free all believe they'll become NFL stars. The majority will not, but Saban's payday depends on maintaining that illusion.

Into thy closet: Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that prayer may be used to open public meetings. The court's majority called public prayer a tradition that is "long followed," which surely is true, though tradition seems a shaky constitutional defense -- segregation was once "long followed," too. The court further said public prayer need not be nonsectarian: rather it can invoke Christian language, so long as for "universal themes" such a "spirit of cooperation."

[+] EnlargeSigning the Declaration of Independence
Culture Club/Getty Images"Of the people, by the people and ... hey, who put in this stuff about pledging allegiance?"

Many commentators have noted the Establishment Clause -- "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" -- does not require that government shun religion, only that no faith be mandated. In this interpretation, public prayer seems OK so long as those present are free to decline to participate. Christians tend to like this view because they are confident the prayers will sound Christian. How would the country's Christian majority feel about you're-free-not-to-participate opening prayers at public meetings if the prayers were Islamic? Outraged, would be my guess. If anyone's faith -- Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Zoroastrian -- is so weak that it must be reinforced by hollow public recitations of prayer by politicians, then woe onto all believers.

Last week, the highest state court in Massachusetts ruled that public schools can require recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance because "under God" is patriotic, rather than religious, in nature. "Under God" is a powerful concept in religion, natural law and American civic history. It may be right or wrong in any of these contexts. But the Massachusetts high court seems to think that what makes the phrase OK is that people are just mouthing it, nobody really believes it! Many Founding Fathers were churchgoing agnostics, which was not unusual in the 18th century when "agnostic" lacked the anti-religious subtext it has today. (Your columnist is a churchgoing agnostic.) The Founders didn't like empty phrases. Why do backers of the "under God" aspect of the Pledge of Allegiance?

Beyond that is the question of what the Founders would think of a public requirement to "pledge allegiance" to civic authority. They pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to a refusal to state allegiance to British government. In the Founders' view, governments must earn the allegiance of voters, rather than demand it.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent in the Supreme Court's public prayer case. Here is another dissent, from an itinerant preacher named Jesus: "When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly." (Matthew 6:5-6, KJV.)

[+] EnlargeThe Sermon On The Mount
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images"Blessed are the rich in campaign donations, for they shall inherit the political clout."

The "corners of the streets" today would mean "at public events," while "the synagogues" in today's context is any place of worship or televised worship event. "Thy closet" means "in private" -- at the time, people were fortunate if they had a closet-sized area in which to be alone.

Jesus disliked public prayer, considering it an affectation, like thumping your chest. True prayer is between you and the divine -- being observed while you pray is antithetical to the whole concept. Because his disciples thought their rabbi's view quirky, they pressured him for an example of proper prayer. Jesus responded with the Lord's Prayer, the only public prayer he is known to have offered. The whole public-prayer issue could be resolved rather simply if the Supreme Court simply endorsed Jesus' teachings on the subject.

Houston Texans: Jadeveon Clowney has been an athletic celebrity since he was a junior in high school. This happens to basketball players, but is rare for football players. Clowney has incredible gifts. But change just one play, and would he have been the consensus first choice?

His big hit in the Outback Bowl came against an unusually small player, 175-pound Vincent Smith, whose chinstrap wasn't buckled -- and a botched line call meant Clowney was unblocked. In every game of 2013, Clowney made a highlight-reel quality stop but also took many downs off, especially when the ball was headed the other way. Successful NFL defenders are guys who really want it and are willing to pay the price. Clowney doesn't have that vibe.

Despite its advantageous draft position, Houston remains unsettled at quarterback. The Moo Cows used a fourth-round pick on Tom Savage, who went almost three full years without starting a game as he wandered from Rutgers to Arizona to the University of Pittsburgh searching for a head coach who would tell him whatever it was he wanted to hear. Successful NFL quarterbacks are almost always ones with a lot of starts in college; Savage started only one season. He comes to the Texans as a 24-year-old rookie. The last relatively old rookie quarterback was Brandon Weeden.

Indianapolis Colts: Well before the draft, the Colts traded their first pick for Trent Richardson, who played poorly, and their 2014 fourth-rounder for a 2013 fifth-rounder, used to select Montori Hughes, who rarely saw the field. Because the 2014 draft is perceived as strong, this seemed the wrong year to spend picks in advance. A fourth-round selection this year was like a third-rounder in an average draft. So not only does the Richardson trade look suspect, so does the Hughes transaction.

Jacksonville Jaguars: It was the seventh straight year the Jaguars picked in the top 10 of the draft, the league's longest run of such high picks. What does Jax have to show for it? Derrick Harvey, bust; Eugene Monroe, big disappointment in Jacksonville then an instant success in the jersey of the Baltimore Ravens; Tyson Alualu, reliable journeyman; Blaine Gabbert, bust; Justin Blackmon, suspended knucklehead; Luke Joeckel and Blake Bortles, jury out. Starting in 1999, the Browns blew back-to-back-to-back-to-back high first-round picks on Tim Couch, Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren and William Green. Jax's draft futility is approaching that level.

Radio City atmospherics: Marqise Lee of USC, expecting to be a first-day choice, wore a bright pink sports coat. It takes a real man to wear pink! Khalil Mack was introduced by the NFL to the crowd as from "the University of Buffalo." The school's odd name is the University at Buffalo. Jason Verrett was introduced to the crowd as from "Texas Christian University." The school now styles itself as TCU -- like KFC and AARP, just letters that no longer stand for anything. Maybe TCU should have gone throwback to the school's 1873 founding name, AddRan Male & Female College.

Hundreds of people waited outside Radio City hoping to get in not for Round 1, but for Round 2. This was with 3,000 spectators already inside. "I love this pick!" was the watchword on both ESPN and NFL Network. Long gone are the days when Mel Kiper Jr., or anyone, will mock a choice on-air.

A huge cheer went up when Michael Sam was drafted. Of course there was a huge cheer in the Gym Sportsbar, a gay sports bar in Los Angeles. There was also a huge cheer among the old-school draftniks at Radio City. This really must be the 21st century.

The Rams, who chose Sam, had 19 team officials in their war room. Does it really take 19 people to write a few names on index cards? And about that term "war room." Many NFL teams use the expression. On NFL Network, a feature under the rubric DRAFT WAR ROOM ran often in the week before the draft.

A sports draft isn't anything remotely like war. No one's taking any personal risk or engaged in any act of conscience. Yes, it's a figure of speech, but one that suggests what's happening is far more important and significant than it is.

NFL Draft military
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsEveryone supports the troops -- but the NFL has absolutely nothing to do with national defense.

A nod to the reality of actual war was the presence on the Radio City stage of representatives of the five U.S. military services. Since many service members overseas watch the draft on American Forces Network, it's nice that they see themselves recognized. But like warplane flyovers of stadiums, having service members at the draft -- uniformed service members often are introduced at games, too -- suggests that football has something to do with national security.

Football has absolutely nothing to do with national security. When bombers appear before NFL games -- it was attack helicopters doing the flyover above the most recent Super Bowl -- or service members are at the draft to shake hands with Roger Goodell, this lets a professional sport piggyback a highly profitable entertainment venture onto the awful suffering and moral ambiguities of combat.

Or if the purpose of having soldiers at the draft is to recognize contributions to society, shouldn't there be artists and inventors on the Radio City stage, too? But it's only soldiers.The profit-obsessed NFL is basking in the reflected glory of military sacrifice. The conjunction of NFL and Pentagon also suggests that football should be above question. Everyone always supports the troops, so everyone must support football! Use of service members as a for-profit NFL promotional tool is tasteless at best; arguably, deeply cynical.

Literary note: If you haven't, read the 2011 novel "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain, which has a subplot about the Dallas Cowboys using soldiers to promote ticket sales. The book reserves all its ire for big-money conservative Texas culture -- there's plenty to dislike in big-money liberal Manhattan culture, too. But the novel is well written and rich with insights.

Jersey/A: First-round selection Odell Beckham didn't do well on the Suzy Kolber test. Standing next to her for an interview immediately after his selection, Beckham appeared only slightly taller than Kolber. Even adjusting for high heels and a riser, this cannot be encouraging to Giants fans. ESPN has Beckham at 5-11¼, and I'm not so sure about that quarter-inch. Given the G-Persons already field a fast but small wide receiver in Victor Cruz, why they wanted a Cruz body double isn't clear.

[+] EnlargeDavey Concepcion, Barry Larkin
AP Photo/Al BehrmanHow long until Opening Day conflicts with Valentine's Day?

Unified field theory of creep (first-pitch edition): Major League Baseball's Opening Day was on March 22 -- the earliest ever, and barely beating the vernal equinox, which fell on March 20. Baseball creep is an ongoing trend. There have been 11 Opening Days before April, and all have occurred since 1996.

Jersey/B: The Jets have spent their past six first-round picks and eight of their past 12, which covers the past 10 years, on either a defensive lineman or defensive back. Yet their defensive performance has gradually declined since their No. 1 finish in 2009. Then, Rex Ryan's all-out exotic blitz philosophy was distinctive. Now most NFL teams show what were once viewed as Ryan-style crazy blitzes, while what was distinctive in 2013 was Seattle's conventional defense with a straight four-man rush. In a globalized economy, clever ideas get replicated fast. Ryan's way of playing football, which once seemed potent, increasingly looks tired.

Tajh Boyd, who threw to Sammy Watkins at Clemson, was tabbed late by the Jets. He enters what is, for the Nth season, the most dysfunctional quarterback situation in the NFL. The names on the jerseys change, the players come and go, the Jets' quarterback situation stays a confusing muddle. Tajh, just keep your head low.

Kansas City Chiefs: Coaches in a panic over news that first pick Dee Ford tested positive for Ovaltine.

Miami Dolphins: In a series of deals, the Dolphins turned picks 50, 81 and 116 into picks 63, 67, 125 and 171. Does this kind of trading produce net benefit? Bill Belichick has been doing multiple minor trade-downs for years, following the theory that since draft choices are guesswork anyway, might as well obtain as many guesses as possible. Whether relatively minor draft-choice transactions are good for the team or not, they do justify front-office salaries.

Raylan Givens
Courtesy of Prashant Gupta/FXRaylan Givens stares off into a future in which his series ends.

"Justified" scriptwriters meeting -- endless search for tough-guy lines: "Justified," once a hip show, ran out of gas this season. Because "Justified" is marketed as gritty realism, your columnist continues to be entertained by the show's plot holes. They don't have to be gaping, as in a big-budget movie; spotting the subtle plot hole is as much fun.

Hero lawman Raylan Givens boards a plane from Lexington, Ky., where he lives, to Memphis, Tenn., to join forces with a DEA agent. The two use the DEA agent's car to drive to Harlan County, Ky., about 150 miles from Lexington. A gunfight ensues, and of course the good guys prevail. The DEA agent gets into his car to return to Memphis. Givens gets into his car to return to Lexington. Where did Raylan's car come from?

Minnesota Vikings: Not wearing gloves when working out for pro scouts may have cost Teddy Bridgewater maybe $10 million in rookie bonus money, as he fell from top to bottom of the first round in no small part on a poor pro day in which he had trouble holding the ball. Early mocks had Bridgewater and Anthony Barr, whom the Vikings also obtained, both going in the draft's top five.

Minnesota has had an amazing seven first-round choices in the past three drafts. That ties the most first-round choices a team has had in a three-year span since the AFL-NFL merger; the previous team to do this was the Bengals from 1984 to 1986. So are the Vikes primed with talent and about to bust out? Performance on the field does not suggest that. Last season, Minnesota finished 31st in defense, 23rd in passing offense. Only the running game looked decent, and even then, Minnesota rushing stats trailed those of the low-voltage Bills and Jets. Now the Vikings have a rookie quarterback and a rookie coach, Mike Zimmer, who has never been a head coach at any level, even high school. Uff da, as they say in Minnesota.

New England Patriots: Nick Saban was not the only NCAA coach in evidence at the draft. Stanford's David Shaw held forth as a guest analyst for NFL Network. Shaw wants recruiting clout, too. But Stanford graduates nearly all its football players, so is not engaged in a cynical exercise of obtaining free labor while not conferring the education that rewards athletic effort. When New England chose the Cardinal's Cameron Fleming, Shaw talked about his size and athletic ability -- then said, "He's a really good student" and discussed his major, aeronautics and astronautics. Does Saban even know the majors of his players?

Fun fact: Shaw is not the Stanford football coach, he is the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football.

New Orleans Saints: One thing you can count on the Saints to do in the first round: not draft a quarterback. New Orleans has not chosen a quarterback in the first round since Archie Manning in 1971, the league's longest streak without a high-drafted signal-caller.

[+] EnlargeKhalil Mack
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsKhalil Mack playing to a smaller crowd than at many high school games.

Oakland Raiders: Clowney, the first defensive player taken, received dozens of college recruiting offers. Khalil Mack, the second defensive player taken, received just one scholarship offer, from the University at Buffalo (which perhaps should style itself as UATB). Clowney has been an athletic celebrity since high school; Mack was an athletic nobody till last fall. Celebrities tend to want to lie on the beach sipping mai tais, while nobodies tend to be driven. Don't be surprised if over the next five years, Mack significantly outworks Clowney.

Last fall, Mack played a home game before only 2,622 people. UATB's average gate was just 22,276, and that was enough to lead the MAC.

Three years of three cheers for Michigan: Reader John Senger of Doha, Qatar, notes the University of Michigan has graduated all senior football players for three consecutive years. Paul Johnson's first recruiting class at Georgia Tech just achieved a perfect graduation rate for those players who stayed in school. If this kind of thing could be said for most football-factory programs, college football would cease to be controversial.

Philadelphia Eagles: First selection Marcus Smith, a defensive end, was a quarterback in high school. He's likely to be used only on passing downs, as was the Dolphins' Dion Jordan, whom Chip Kelly had in college

The Nesharim gave a fifth-round choice for Darren Sproles, who was expected to get the carries that last season went to Bryce Brown. Then Philadelphia got at least a fourth-round pick from Buffalo for Brown. Since Sproles is a better player than Brown, the series of transactions raises the question, Why didn't Buffalo just trade for Sproles? The Bills may have wanted Brown's rookie contract, which is a league-minimum agreement with two years remaining. Regardless, the deals show Kelly and his staff are catching on to how to get the best of other teams in trades.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Another year, another Steelers highly drafted linebacker. Pittsburgh has used five first- or second-round picks on linebackers in the past eight drafts.

In praise of Who-Dats: As draft hoopla fades, bear in mind about a third of NFL players were undrafted. A few years from now, many players drafted last week will be forgotten, while hardworking who-dats will become well-known names.

San Diego Chargers: The Bolts used their first selection on TCU's Verrett, who becomes the latest NFL cornerback to sport very long dreadlocks. Speed is so essential to corners -- aren't long dreadlocks bad for your coefficient of drag?

St. Louis Rams: Simplifying to eliminate the effects of subsequent trades, here is what Les Mouflons received in lieu of Robert Griffin III: Greg Robinson, Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins and Alec Ogletree. Robinson's performance (and Griffin's knee) will determine whether conventional wisdom becomes that St. Louis picked Washington's pocket. Robinson has a decent chance of being the next Orlando Pace. If that happens and the other players obtained continue to perform pretty well, the trade will be seen as a huge win for St. Louis.

But will that matter? Since 2008, the Rams have gone first overall once, second overall thrice and also had the draft's eighth, 13th, 14th and 14th choices. Doesn't seem to matter to the standings -- no winning season for St. Louis that period.

If Michael Sam makes the Rams' roster, he will be coached by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. The MSM will fall all over itself praising the Rams for any good news about Sam. Thus the football gods have sent Williams a chance to generate good press and rebuild his tarnished reputation.

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers have become a halfway house for high-profile wide receivers who are struggling: Randy Moss, Stevie Johnson, A.J. Jenkins, Jon Baldwin, Mario Manningham. Having Michael Crabtree and Johnson on the field together in 2014 -- two me-first guys who refuse to block and pull up their patterns whenever the throw is to someone else -- hey, what could go wrong?

The 49ers used a third-round choice on guard Brandon Thomas, who just tore an ACL and will not play in 2014. He'll be redshirted. If he takes the field in 2015, will the NFL call him a true rookie? Jacksonville used a fourth-rounder on Aaron Colvin, an injured player who will redshirt in 2014; New England used its first on Dominique Easley, an injured player who may or may not be able to tape his ankles this season.

Frequent flier pick of the draft: Choice 83, Houston from Pittsburgh through Cleveland and Philadelphia. Best reaching for a comment after hour upon hour of comments, from ESPN's Scouts Inc. of Texans' seventh-round choice Dre Hal: "Hal has adequate feet."

[+] EnlargeTricia Helfer
Joe Kohen/Getty ImagesActress Tricia Helfer. At least she wasn't typecast as an evil robot.

Seattle: For dropping only eight slots, from the 32nd to 40th picks, the Seahawks added a fourth-round choice -- and avoided paying a first-round bonus, since Super Bowl winners always have salary-cap problems the following two seasons. The defending champions outscored opponents by 59 points in the postseason, the seventh-best performance all time. The 1989 49ers were tops, outscoring opponents by 100 points in the postseason.

TMQ continues to wonder if NFL teams in the 2014 season will try to emulate the Seahawks, playing pressure defense but with conventional four-man-rush tactics. Perhaps other teams will start calling their wide-aligned defensive end Leo, Seattle terminology that takes off on Mike, Sam and Will of nearly all defenses.

The show failed to hypnotize viewers: In the early years of television, every episode was a standalone. Recent decades have made it standard for shows to end each season with a cliffhanger, then for the series to conclude with a finale that ties up the story. ABC's prime-time crime series "Killer Women" managed to violate both norms. Ordered as a midwinter run that would introduce the characters for a full series in the fall, "Killer Women" was a ratings bust -- not helped by the worst promo of all time -- and canceled after six episodes. Filmed as the cliffhanger that sets up the second season, the finale ended on a shocking twist. Since there will be no second season, viewers will never find out what happened. The writers will never find out, either.

"Killer Women" starred Tricia Helfer, who was the evil megababe robot of "Battlestar Galactica." On a crime-procedural landscape that has featured television detectives who have psychic powers, can reanimate the dead or are immortal, the show's premise nonetheless managed to be preposterous: Helfer played a Texas Ranger assigned to catch murderers who are gorgeous, sexy women. In each episode she would cross paths early with a looker; in the last reel, the beauty queen would be revealed as a homicidal maniac. However titillating this premise might have seemed to the suits who green-lighted the series, the results were absurd plots, even by the low standards of action fare.

"Killer Women" typical nonsense: A woman in a tight red minidress commits a murder in full view of 100 people, then gets away using an elaborately choreographed escape plan. Helfer catches the stylish murderer by chasing down a tip about a hot woman in a tight red minidress acting nervously as she registered at a hotel. So a master criminal staged an elaborate escape, but forgot to change clothes.

[+] EnlargeWild West Stage Coach Robbery
Buyenlarge/Getty Images"Clem, you're getting sleepy. Very, very sleepy."

Helfer's character declared she is "trained to know when someone is lying" and to hypnotize suspects. Interrogation training is hardly foolproof -- but actual Texas Rangers have indeed gone from guarding the stagecoach to performing hypnosis. See the bottom of this page.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: In March, the Bucs waived Darrelle Revis in order to avoid sending Jersey/B a third-round draft choice to complete their 2013 trade, which stipulated that if Revis were not on the Tampa roster when 2014 free agency began, the Jets would receive only a fourth-round choice. So in effect, the Bucs traded Revis and a fourth-round draft choice for a third-round choice.

For having Revis on the team for 16 games, the Buccaneers paid $16 million and first- and fourth-round draft selections. This is on a par with the Oakland Raiders' 2008 decision to trade second- and fifth-round selections for DeAngelo Hall, pay him $8 million, then waive him after eight games. Apparently $1 million per game is the going rate for high-profile corners a team will immediately want to get rid of.

The Buccaneers have a new head coach and new general manager. Trashing the Revis deal shifts blame toward the previous front office. New general manager Jason Licht can imply that predecessor Mark Dominick screwed things up so badly, Licht took over a sinking pirate ship. For many NFL teams, setting expectations low is essential. That the new guy is lining up excuses is not a great sign.

Tennessee Titans: The greatest of draft clichés: "We were surprised he was still there." Ken Whisenhunt on first choice Taylor Lewan: "None of us thought he would be available." NFL franchises are entertainment organizations. Creating a sense that something unexpectedly good happened -- star surprisingly available, we got a steal! -- might sell tickets. Whisenhunt added that Lewan is "a physical player." What other kind of football player is there?

Washington Rdskns: DeSean Jackson takes a quick ride from Philly to the nation's capital. Jackson doesn't have to pronounce "Schuylkill" any longer! The last time the Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons overpaid for someone the Eagles wanted to unload, Donovan McNabb, Washington soon regretted its actions. Chainsaw Dan Snyder gave a huge check to the Eagles' Jeremiah Trotter, and almost immediately wished he hadn't. Chainsaw Dan gave hefty checks to Albert Haynesworth, Bruce Smith and Deion Sanders when these players were past their primes.

This winter the Rdskns also handed a sack of doubloons to free agent Jason Hatcher, a 32-year-old defensive end for Dallas -- which had the league's lowest-ranked defense and fewest sacks per pass attempt in the league. Of course all professional sports organizations make player-personnel errors. But there's something about the combination of Dan Snyder and large amounts of money that leads to woe. On big-deal signings, Chainsaw Dan has been wrong more often than he has been right.

Philadelphia waived Jackson rather than trade him because the Eagles couldn't find a trade partner. Other teams were interested in acquiring Jackson, but not in acquiring his contract. Trading for Jackson would have put his new employer on the hook for the $10 million his deal guaranteed. After Jackson was waived, Chainsaw Dan gave him $16 million in guarantees. That means the Rdskns owner was bidding against himself. The market already said no team was willing to promise Jackson $10 million; Snyder promised even more. What a canny businessman! Once again TMQ wonders, how did this guy become rich?

Next Week: Next week comes in August, when the NFL artificial universe resumes.

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