Talegating: History of the NFL Draft, Part 2

Back in 2008 at about this same time of the year, with both the Combine and the draft upcoming, I found myself looking back through the history of the NFL to try and learn exactly how each of those two essential processes had begun. I quickly found that there was a vast wealth of information available on the subject, and starting collecting books that referenced them, articles that covered their past as well as the present, and I also started questioning people who I knew were familiar with those subjects. The history of the draft is interwoven into the NFL, which was the first league to hold a reverse-order draft for its teams. Last Monday, we examined the league's formative decades -the 1920s and '30s; today we'll take a look at the monumental developments that followed in the 1940s. I hope you'll enjoy it.

The 1940s: The Decade of Change

The 1940s saw a variety of evolutionary changes within the NFL, each of which would have long-term consequences. The coming of World War II was a major event in a variety of ways - on-field talent became suddenly harder to find, with the war effort taking nearly a third of the players from the league. Teams closed for a season, or simply merged together for the duration of the time it took to find replacement players. George Halas would later say wryly that he held tryouts at Chicago's Cubs Park, and anyone who could run around the field twice was hired. Yet, Americans still demanded entertainment to divert their minds from the war for at least a few hours at a time, even though actual attendance dropped in the early months of the war.

In addition to the lack of players, the league also struggled to find anyone who would take the job of league president when Scummy Storck resigned, and they ultimately decided to go with one of the Four Horseman of Notre Dame, Elmer Layden. Layden was given far more broad powers, in the same vein as Major League Baseball's commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The title of the job was also changed from president to commissioner. Layden wasn't entirely a popular choice among the owners, but he was well known to the public and he was willing, two things that the league badly needed.

The beginning of this decade also saw the purchase of the Cleveland Rams by one Daniel Reeves - a wealthy 28-year-old stockbroker who loved the game. Wealth was a necessity for ownership - teams at this time were perennially losing money, and the war just made it worse, at least at first. Attendance had risen to over 20,000 people per game in 1941, but that number plummeted to just over 16,000 in 1942, the season following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Both Reeves and his minority partner, Fred Levy, left and joined the service, so the Rams closed down operations for the duration of 1943. The Eagles and Steelers had to join together to field a team, temporarily becoming the Steagles, and the league dropped from 12 teams to 8. The following year, the Eagles were able to put a team together, but the Steelers had to merge again, this time with the Chicago Cardinals. It was listed in the standings as 'Cards-Pitt', and immediately became known as the Car-Pitts. They played down to the level of their their nickname, losing all 10 of their games that season.

Attendance would rebound in 1943, with fewer teams playing and spectators desirous of a wartime diversion besides baseball. In 1944 it was back over 1 million for only the fourth time in the league's history. That year also saw a storm cloud appearing on the NFL's horizon in the form of increased interest in the development of a second football league. While several well-financed individuals and groups had applied to open a franchise in Los Angeles during the war, including actor Don Ameche, the owners of the current teams weren't having any of it. Keeping the operating franchises in the eastern US reduced travel costs, and the owners weren't much interested in bringing in new franchises at any rate. As Halas would later say, "We liked things the way they were. We wanted to keep them that way." That lack of foresight would change the path of the league's history.

Often in life, the course that events take are as dependent upon the decisions that we choose not to make as much as by those that we do. Partly due to fury over his friend Ameche's rejection, a well-known sports editor of the Chicago Tribune named Arch Ward obtained the blessing of the Tribune's publisher and put together the beginnings of a well-heeled group of investors to start the All-American Football Conference. They opened the LA Dons as well as teams in Cleveland (the Browns), San Francisco (the 49ers), New York and Chicago. The Cleveland club wisely brought in legendary college coach Paul Brown, after whom the team was named in one of the most successful marketing ploys in league history.

Daniel Farrell Reeves, owner of the Cleveland Rams, had long been planning to move the team to Los Angeles, and the specter of sharing Cleveland’s fans with a team coached by Paul Brown was the last straw for him. He considered having a franchise west of the Mississippi, either in LA or Dallas, a necessary step in creating a truly national league. At the time, Major League Baseball had no teams west of that divider, and it was an opportunity that Reeves felt strongly that the league shouldn’t miss. Reeves at one point threatened to close down his franchise if that move wasn’t permitted. Once it did, Reeves immediately hired a man named Ernie Kotal to scout for players in a time when most teams just showed up at the draft with their copy of Street and Smith's or any other college football publication, and Kotal quickly established what would become the 'normal' lifestyle for an NFL scout.

Surprisingly little has really changed since Kotal set up his system for finding talent. A scout would spend about 200 days a year on the road, and had to develop a vast network of contacts at major universities, including coaches, trainers, assistants and athletic directors. Where that NFL talent would come from did change in the 1940s as smaller schools, African-American players and even drafting players from all-black schools came into play for the first time (two black players had been in the NFL briefly in 1933, but none had been drafted since the advent of that aspect of the sport). The advantage that properly scouting players could provide quickly became evident to the rest of the NFL - the LA Rams would reach three consecutive championships from 1949-1951, winning it in 1951 (over the Cleveland Browns, appropriately), and they held a winning record in nine of their first ten years. The Rams also began the practice of hoarding picks, particularly those in the first two rounds, an effective practice that teams still use today. Other clubs began to sit up and take notice.

There had been two incarnations of competing leagues in the past - both named the American Football League - but they were poorly financed and quickly faded from view. However, the All-American Football Conference was a well-funded endeavor that learned from the mistakes of the AFL incarnations. It began play with eight teams - the Buffalo Bisons, Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago Rockets, Los Angeles Dons, Miami Seahawks, New York Yankees, San Francisco 49ers, and Cleveland Browns in 1946. With every owner a multi-millionaire, it had an almost immediate impact on player salaries (owners who weren’t willing to lose money would soon drop out, however). Teams that began their inaugural year with the AAFC but would move on to the NFL included the Miami Seahawks who were replaced the next season by the Baltimore Colts, as well as the Cleveland Browns and the 49ers. The AAFC didn’t bother to hold a draft in their first season, since the sheer volume of men returning from overseas more than filled their initial rosters.

In 1947, though, the NFL held their draft in secret to keep the AAFC from learning who they had chosen and thus targeting those players for the new league. Fearing wage wars, and having controlled salaries since the invention of the reverse draft by limiting a player's options for negotiation to a single team, the NFL set about quietly negotiating with that league to bring enough of its teams into the NFL to gut the fledgling endeavor, and they became successful at doing so.

While not a huge issue by itself, it would set the stage for the process that would evolve between the American Football League and the National Football League in the early 1960s, a process that would bring the Denver Broncos into their present status as part of the NFL's American Football Conference. Once they saw the writing on the wall, the NFL negotiated with the AAFC quietly and established a series of guidelines under which teams from the new league could be assimilated into the NFL. The Browns were one of the teams that made that leap, joined by the Colts and the 49ers. With head coach Paul Brown at the controls, Cleveland changed the course of NFL history. In fact, NFL films did a series on the Top Ten Things that Changed the Game in 2009, and Brown was listed at number four.

Only in his thirties, Brown quietly told his players at their first meeting that they would be the most amateur of all the NFL teams. While that’s an insult in modern jargon, at the time he was referring to having an established and carefully scripted way of doing things. Practices in the NFL were often loose affairs on other teams, since most of the players held day jobs, but Brown told his men that they were going to handle things in the way that he had handled them at Massillon Washington High School and at the Great Lakes Naval Station, where he had served out his war obligation by coaching the football team and serving as athletic director. He had a Masters in Education, and it showed.

“One of these days,” he told them at that first meeting, “when people think of football, I want them to think of the Cleveland Browns.” That may not generally be true today, but when knowledgeable people talk football, the name ‘Paul Brown’ is frequently one that is spoken with a level of respect that borders on reverence. He started the process of sending in plays, something that many of us grew up with. He then pioneered the radio helmet of the quarterbacks. He created the idea of playbooks, perhaps of watching film, certainly of players’ classroom study, of the organization of practices, as well as a plethora of on-field concepts, plays and formations that include the draw play, although it really evolved by accident on Brown’s team (see above video). Vince Lombardi came by to study under him. Brown also refused to consider race when creating his team, years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. In short, without Brown, the game wouldn’t exist in its current form today.

Brown would move on from Cleveland after being fired by majority owner Art Modell in 1963, and five years later Brown would help start a new franchise: the Cincinnati Bengals of the AFL. Brown was the Bengals' first principal owner, general manager and coach. That’s a sixteenth of the league that in great part owes their existence to him, and many of Brown’s teachings have made their way back into the NFL in the guise of Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. Belichick has spoken often of his admiration for Brown and of the careful, thorough and systematic way that Brown taught and handled his players. Brown established a 50-question, 12-minute test to get a grasp on the players’ ability to understand the material intellectually, not unlike the Wonderlic of today, as well as instituting a written personality test.

It was his perspective on scouting players that led Ernie Kotal to time players in the 40-yard dash, a practice installed because Brown considered it the approximate distance that a player would have to run to cover a punt. Brown also held his players to the same high standards that he set for himself. They were expected to be good family men. If Brown caught any of them having an affair, he warned them, Brown himself would call their wives. Brown started the modern practice of using facemasks, established the practice squad (called a ‘taxi squad’, back then), and may have been the first coach to use film study. He moved part of the practices to a classroom setting and taught his players using classroom techniques. Each of them received a three-ring binder with all of the plays they would use within it, and Brown added to the information frequently. Any player who didn’t keep his binder up to date would be fired - whether they were third string or a star player didn’t matter.

Brown had started out as a single-wing coach, and he moved increasingly to using a T formation in the early 1940s. He had kept careful and thorough dossiers on the players who played for him as well as those his team played against who he felt were talented. When he was putting the Browns together, Brown simply sent out letters to all of them - enough returned from the war and took him up on his offer that the Browns began their endeavor with six future Hall of Fame players on the roster, including quarterback Otto Graham. Graham was the perfect player for Brown just as Tom Brady would later be the ideal quarterback for Bill Belichick. Graham went to college on a basketball scholarship in addition to playing football, and he was talented at playing multiple instruments, including the piano, violin and french horn, and was a model student in his grades and his personal comportment. He was a brilliant player, a gentleman in the best sense of the word - and he was Paul Brown’s ultimate foil. Far more importantly to Cleveland than any of the changes he brought - they had Paul Brown himself. 

We'll pick up the story of the league, the draft and the first combines when we look at the 1950s through the 1970s next time. I'll see you then.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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