Obsessions are strange. For 40 years I’ve struggled with an odd fascination with the college football draft. Friends and family have been appalled at the price it exacts; the total surrender of an entire weekend, usually the first nice one of the spring. And for what? The tracking of anonymous, faceless, NFL cannon fodder?
What remotely could be interesting about watching kids you neither know nor care about being divvied up like so much meat on the hoof? It might make some small sense if this 19th century lottery were held for the slotting of aspirants to law school, offering -- theoretically -- an early glimpse of some cat who might one day sit on the Supreme Court or occupy the White House.
But all this fuss and folderol over the unveiling of a new crop of cornerbacks? Give me a break, says any normal person. As if any of the supplications we extend to the subject of sport were the stuff of normality.
Sneer at it as you please but you may be missing something, mate. Granted that the yahoos who roam the balcony of Radio City Music Hall hooting and hollering over every pick are off their collective rocker. Yet the draft and its remarkable machinations still offer something much more serious and rare; shrewd glimpses at the inner-workings and governing mindset of the most privileged and closed sub-society in the kingdom of sport, the oligarchs of the National Football League.
Once a year they do their business right out front, fully in the glare of the klieg lights for all to see. The rest of the year, forget it.
This year’s draft was thin in terms of talent but rich in drama and glutted with sub-plots. The dent on the league’s balance of power was probably minimal. That is unless pulling on the red, white and blue colors of the team from Foxborough transforms the long much feared and loathed Randy Moss into another Jerry-Rice-type model citizen, both on and off the field.
The yahoos who serve as experts on ESPN’s endless, gavel to gavel, coverage of the draft were unanimous in the opinion that’s what’s sure to happen. With the announcement of the deal bringing Moss to the Patriots they all but declared next season over. One of them -- a former beat-man at the Globe -- pronounced the Patriots runaway favorites to win it all. Another squealed, ‘‘Mail it in.’’
And maybe they are right, although one suspects that even if Moss is at his best and doesn’t pollute the Patriots with the malingering he featured in Minnesota or the poisonous attitudes he raised to an art form in Oakland he will be just so much frosting on the cake. The bedrock of this team was established by the time Bill Belichick whimsically engaged the task of trying to rehabilitate one of the game’s more celebrated malcontents.
What could possibly have gotten into the normally staid boss-man? Or was it simply a matter -- as one wag suggested -- of Terrell Owens’ cell phone having been busy at the moment the normally prudish Patriots decided to wig out and go “nuts.”
An even better question might be, ‘‘What is Clan Kraft possibly thinking?’’ For it was owner Bob Kraft who is said to have taken the lead in demanding that the game clean up its act. Last season the rash of embarrassing incidents growing over the years approached epidemic proportions. Jerks, sociopaths, even felons were getting much more ink than the Galahads of the Gridiron. Ever mindful of the league’s image and its concomitant drawing power in the market place, the owners vowed to get tough. The new commissioner cracked his whip, grounding the more nefarious rogues while sending tremors throughout the league. Teams would think twice before taking on bad actors, it was widely agreed.
Enter the Patriots, the team that has preached manners and morals throughout the Belichick era and has delighted in the conventional wisdom that they won three Super Bowls mainly because they led the league in class, character and citizenship.
Included in a stunning off-season flurry also featuring smart moves, the Patriots have:
1. Added Moss even though they had seemingly corrected their pass-catching problem that ruined last season with several worthy acquisitions. And make no mistake about it. Any chap who becomes too much of a nuisance for the Raiders to handle has to be in a class by himself.
2. Courted a potential problem in one of those prized freeagent, wide-receiver, signings. It’s been belatedly reported that Donte Stallworth is in the league’s substance-abuse program with at least one violation against him, which means another violation could incur a suspension. The fact that the Patriots have been tight-lipped about this matter is considered revealing. Stallworth has had other character issues over the years. He’s the sort of “potential problem” they’ve scrupulously avoided in the past.
3. Made as their number one draft pick -- and indeed their only major selection in the draft -- a young man with a bad record at the University of Miami, a place where bad raps grow on trees. Lots of excuses have been made for Brandon Meriweather but the facts are indisputable. He was involved in a bizarre shooting incident last summer. And he was the major offender in a disgraceful melee that brought the Miami-Florida International game to the brink of a riot, ultimately costing Coach Larry Coker his job. Highly talented, Meriweather will either be a huge upgrade in the Pats’ secondary or a huge headache. And maybe, both.
Belichick, a persuasive man, has been in high gear defending these moves. He’s preaching tolerance and forgiveness while espousing the necessity of giving people ‘‘a second chance’’ and a “break”; all of it very charitable in a pragmatic sort of way. Having lately been dragged through the gossip columns himself, along with his formerly peerless quarterback, our notably iron-willed resident football czar may have mellowed just a tad.
Few doubt Belichick’s ability to impose discipline, even on the likes of Moss and Meriweather. And fewer still would question that his team will be significantly strengthened if all of these characters excel, both on and off the field. But in the past Belichick seemed anxious to prove he could win while hewing to a higher standard; could win without resorting to the use of questionable characters, no matter how talented. That was refreshing. If a little adversity has weakened such resolve, that is too bad.
Otherwise the draft, at least from a local perspective, was a monumental bore. Highlights included the antics of the Raiders and the travails of Brady Quinn.
Still a scene-stealer limping about on his walker at the age of 76, the Raiders’ Al Davis made a grand production out of the inevitable selection of JaMarcus Russell as the top pick. There is some doubt that a fellow who is 6'6" and 275 pounds can be a fluid, graceful, and nimble quarterback. But not among those who caught the ESPN film clip showing Russell firing a football 64 yards ... from his knees!
As for Quinn, too much was made of the poor lad’s agony in having to wait almost three hours before being picked by the Browns later in the first round than most expected. Lest he develop an inferiority complex, we’ll remind that another notable Notre Dame quarterback got chosen two rounds and 50 picks later; fellow by the name of Joe Montana.
So much for this year’s circus. The wizards of the Patriots’ front-office, captained by the matchless Scott Pioli, had long ago gauged that the weak draft-pool was unworthy of their attentions. Months ahead of the rest of the pack -- as usual -- they concentrated instead on the free-agent field. They emerge from the off-season having outwitted the rest of the AFC. Once again!
Makes you wonder why Belichick talked himself into such a roll of the dice as Moss. Does he really need him? One suspects vanity was a factor. Perhaps he sees himself as a Professor Higgins of sorts. Such are the prerogatives of genius, don’t you know.