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The draft

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High among the tender memories of the good old days of sport are the college football drafts of that beguiling pioneering era of football that stretched from the late ’30s into the early ’60s. How sweetly simple and innocent it all was.

In their earliest days, the Patriots’ brain trust consisted of crusty Ed McKeever, unsinkable Billy Sullivan, and that estimable gentleman, Mike Holovak, who alone knew what he was doing. But Billy loved the draft and approached it as Santa Claus might gear up for Christmas fully pledged to reward only good little boys. As for McKeever, ex of both Notre Dame and Boston College, he was joined to Billy at the hip. What a hoot it was.

The three of them would sit around a card table strewn with sports magazines, newspaper clips, and a couple of yellow legal pads. There would be a speaker phone in the middle of the table and a pot of hot coffee nearby. Billy always hotly denied it but the late and matchless Willie McDonough, ultimate authority on all such matters, always claimed they did all their drafting those first few years right out of the “Street and Smith College Football Annual.” Why not? It only cost a buck.

Which does not suggest they lacked a strategy. It was both bold and clear. If a lad looked like a player and had started at Boston College he got first call. Notre Dame boys were second. And in the odd year when Holy Cross produced an apparent prospect, he too was a lock. First and foremost the firm of McKeever, Holovak and Sullivan was loyal to the colors and, above all, to Holy Mother the Church.

Fast forward a half century to the bloated and bombastic mega-event that the annual College Football Draft, like so much else in Sport, has become. It’s high tech mingled with sweet science and completely computer driven. The production has a cast of thousands with the drama unfolding for three days over national television where wretched excess vies with egregious overstatement to be stars of the show with Mel Kiper, Jr. as the ringmaster.

Without question the opus that the draft has become is a truly remarkable phenomenon. Even more remarkable is its emergence as a prime-time entertainment hit, although in a culture that so dearly embraces the concept of the “American Idol” and “Biggest Loser,” this probably ought not be all that surprising. Surely Bert Bell had no idea what he was getting his beloved game into when he invented the draft gimmick back in 1936 in a desperate effort to keep Poppa George Halas from commandeering all the best talent for his Chicago Bears.

Granted, it has never been bigger. But given all the fuss, all the cost, all the swollen verbiage, all the intensity of preparation, interest and priority how much more does it actually accomplish in serving its stated purpose, which is the business of sending the nation’s football scholars on to graduate school?

Is the talent now distributed more equitably? Are the truest prospects truly revealed? Are there fewer flops from the first round and more gems in the last? When you get right down to it, how much better do teams draft nowadays than they did back in prehistoric times when they relied mainly on Mr. Street and Mr. Smith for information and old school allegiances for guidance in a quiet little pageant that started Tuesday morning and ended before supper with few paying more than casual attention? You sometimes wonder.

The degree to which Bill Belichick is widely regarded to be a master of the draft is odd. That’s still the case hereabouts in his backyard where questioning the wizard’s wisdom has long been considered heresy, although the intensity of that curious reverence has unquestionably begun to ebb. That Belichick, in concert with his long trusted and masterful aide de camp, Scott Pioli, performed neat draft tricks early on is decidedly true. But it has not been true for some time now.

The Patriots haven’t had a great draft since, probably, 2003 and the slippage has been steady and mounting. Take for example the ’07 lottery when they plucked only one chap still in the game, the rather flawed Brandon Meriweather. The year before they got two; Stephen Gostkowski, the kicker, and consistently underachieving set back Laurence Maroney. Ugh! In the meantime, Master Pioli has moved on. Make of that what you will.

Maestro Belichick remains a master of collecting draft picks but not of using them wisely. His last two drafts (’08 and ’09) have been, by any measure, decidedly poor. Therefore he has much riding on how he did in this year’s circus maximus when, quite as usual, his wheeling and dealing was feverish, commanding many oohs and aahs. But if all of that was dramatic while exciting much comment as usual there’s considerable doubt among the alleged experts about how productive all the fancy footwork will prove to be.

But first a word about those “alleged experts.” Don’t trust them. From the high priests of that dubious dodge -- chaps like “Boomer” Berman and his professorial buddy, the supremely kooky Mr. Kiper, who together preside over ESPN’s exhaustive coverage -- down to the legion of tinhorn columnists (present company very much included) who pass judgment on the thing, this much can be said with certainty. They don’t know what they are talking about.

A week after the fact, nobody can tell you who hit a homer in the recent auction and nobody can tell you who blew it. Find me the fellow who declared immediately after the ’81 draft that the San Francisco 49ers had made an epic historical score when they stole Notre Dame QB Joe Montana in the third round and I’ll agree that’s a bloke you might pay some attention to. As I recall, no one had such prescience. But then that was a long time ago.

You have to wait at least a year, and maybe no less than three, before pronouncing a given draft “good’ or “bad” and one pays no attention to those who try to do so the next day. On the other hand, it’s emphatically a fact that out of the past five drafts, the Patriots, under alleged genius Belichick, have yielded eight starters out of 41 picks which is not a batting average capable of sustaining a championship team. All those other picks he’s so cleverly gathered have yielded assorted cannon fodder, here and there, but that’s not what makes a difference in this nasty league. If you’re looking for a major reason for your team’s slide from eminence, look no further.

It is all of this that is the basis for the skepticism the Patriots’ 2010 draft now stirs. When they snared yet another cornerback with their first pick it marked their fifth major transaction having to do with a cornerback in the last two years, three of which have involved high draft picks. Let’s assume their choice, Devin McCourty out of dear old Rutgers, is supremely worthy of being chosen where he was chosen. But it’s no less reasonable to ask, “Why are we still trying to fix this one and same problem at such a high price, once again?”

Out of the gamut of other picks -- the beefy tight ends, Gronkowski and Fernandez, the other stout-hearted Florida Gators, linebackers Cunningham and Spikes, and even far-out picks including those three gorillas landed late in round seven -- there has to be a gem, or two, or three. At some point, the law of average takes over.

But it’s no longer automatically assumed that Boss Belichick knows best. Maybe that is healthy.

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