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The Origin of the NFL Draft

Paul Tagliabue

When the four teams for the 2015 college football playoff were announced, every sports writer and blog site had their opinion on the matchups. With the Clemson Tigers – Oklahoma Sooners game, print was declared for Clemson’s stout defense vs. Oklahoma’s pro-style offensive attack. For the Alabama Crimson Tide – Michigan State Spartans contest, the content of coverage was somewhat altered. A lot of attention was dedicated to the amount of Five Star recruits the Crimson Tide had on its roster whereas Michigan State was ladled with mostly Three Star athletes.

Much talk circled around the blue collar, lunch pail attitude of Sparty as opposed to how elite the Alabama squad was. Of course, after Bama won the contest 38-0 everyone realized that a full house always beats a straight.

College football teams are built by a simple resolution: if a blue-chip high school athlete decides to attend a particular school, then he accepts their scholarship offer and becomes enrolled and then starts playing football. Each university makes a decision on which athletes they wish to pursue, but in the end, it is the athlete who makes the definitive decision.

Quite the opposite with professional football. Some players are traded, some sign as free-agents while others sign to a futures contract. But the majority of players are drafted, then signed for an exact amount of years and thus compete for a roster spot each and every season.

Each NFL team decides who plays for them - not the other way around. Of course, every General Manager (GM) and head coach wishes it was a recruitment type of system similar to the college game.

At one time - it was.

The NFL was formed in 1920 for three reasons: 1) to have a consistent scheduling system, 2) to have rosters where players could not jump from team-to-team every week, and 3) rosters devoid of college players playing under assumed names. However, there was no system in place of how to craft rosters for its teams.

For about 40 years before the formation of the NFL, most pro football teams were merely community squads of meat cutters, policemen, wrestlers, firemen and such. This meant a team formed in Duluth, Minnesota was comprised of locals. But when the NFL became an official league with standings and a consistent schedule, more and more college players found that they could make better money upon graduation playing pro ball than entering the workforce.

And there were several teams that went after the best players. Curly Lambeau of the Green Bay Packers, the New York Giants’ Tim Mara, Potsy Clark of the Portsmouth Spartans, George Halas of the Chicago Bears and to some degree the Boston Redskins’ George Preston Marshall all had big stadiums to fill, and needed big college names to bring in the crowds. Throughout the late 1920’s and into the 1930’s, those teams were consistently in the hunt for the NFL title each and every season. And because of the on-field success, these clubs were also some of the few clubs that made a profit – which meant larger player salaries for the new crop of college stars.

Teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Eagles, Brooklyn Dodgers, Staten Island Stapletons, Cleveland Rams and Chicago Cardinals would take a backseat to those other clubs on the field and at the box office. In those days, ticket and program sales were the majority of each team’s revenue stream; and in fact most of these clubs would only play road games with the franchises who were drawing huge crowds in order to get a percentage of a higher gate.

Breaking even in the NFL sometimes was the goal each year. After the Cincinnati Reds went 3-6-1 and 0-8-0 in consecutive seasons, they could not pay their team dues and simply folded. The Eagles lost $80,000 during one season and went bankrupt, then was sold for $4,500 to Bert Bell.

After a few seasons, Bell became frustrated that all the great college players would only sign with a handful of teams and squads like his own could only hire the marginal athletes. Another issue was that teams would get into bidding wars against each other for the same player. And of course, franchises like his were bottom-dwellers each year and were almost always outbid.

Every year the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Bell felt that the current system was broke.

Not having an amateur draft to distribute the talent evenly would destroy another pro football league in later years. From 1946 – 1949, the All-America Football Conference went head-to-head with the NFL via eight franchises. However, the Cleveland Browns led by the legendary Paul Brown, gathered an All-Star team of talent and won the league every year. It got so bad, that in the Browns’ fourth season their own fans quite coming to games because of the lopsidedness of the rosters.

At the upcoming owner’s meeting in 1935, Bell decided to make a suggestion to change how teams accumulated their rosters. His idea was that at the end of each season, a list would be compiled of all eligible college seniors and that a selection process would take place in reverse order of the previous year’s standings.

In Bell’s biography, “On Any Given Sunday: A Life of Bert Bell,” he informed the other owners, “I’ve always had a theory that pro football is like a chain. The league is no stronger than its weakest link and I’ve been a weak link for so long that I should know,” as his book states. “Few teams control the championships. Because they are successful, they keep attracting the best college players in the open market, which makes them more successful.”

Of course, the prosperous franchises had the most to lose if such an arrangement would be instigated and take place every year. But both Halas and Mara were for the idea right off with the thinking that folks came out to see a competition and should get what they pay for.

The owners approved the proposal, which oddly the word “draft” was never mentioned in Bell’s proposal. The first-ever NFL draft would take place after the 1935 season.

After the Eagles went 2-9-0, the very thing Bell had envisioned enabled himself to make the very first selection. On February 8, 1936 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, Bell selected halfback Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago. Berwanger was the first Heisman Trophy winner (then called the “Downtown Athletic Club Trophy”) and was known as “the one man football team.” He was a very gifted and versatile athlete.

That first draft lasted nine rounds with 81 players selected. Some interesting notes: Bear Bryant was selected in the fourth round (31st overall) by the Dodgers while the Giants took future Hall of Fame fullback Tuffy Leemans in the second round. Four Hall of Famers would be selected in this maiden draft.

The draft jumped to 12 rounds in 1937 then to 22 rounds the following year. From 1943 to 1948 a whopping 32 rounds transpired each season. Every year in the 1950’s the draft settled on 30 rounds. From 1960-1966 it dropped again to 20 rounds. When the NFL and the American Football League agreed to a merger, they embarked on a 17-round common draft beginning after the conclusion of the 1967 season. Later, the rounds dropped again to 12, then eight and to the present system of seven rounds.

Several of today’s players are known as “eighth round draft picks.” This was made famous by Houston Texans’ RB Arian Foster after he went undrafted and ultimately became one of the league’s premier running backs. Other well-known eighth rounders include QB Tony Romo (Cowboys), WR Victor Cruz (Giants), LB James Harrison (Steelers), TE Antonio Gates and WR Wes Welker (Chargers), LB Bart Scott and C Jeff Saturday (Ravens), QB Kurt Warner (Packers) and K Adam Vinitieri (Colts).

Throughout the years the location, dates and city would alter. Back in Bell’s day the NFL offices were located in Philadelphia and accommodated many a draft day. When the NFL moved their offices to New York City, the draft settled into that city and has hosted the most amateur drafts.

And Berwanger? He never played a down in the NFL. In fact, none of the Eagles’ nine draft picks signed with the team following that inaugural 1935 college football draft. Without any new blood, Philadelphia went 1-11-0 the following season.

The establishment of the NFL draft was the first in professional sports as all other pro leagues would develop their own form of selection process. The motive was simple: to provide parity within the league. Without this one act, teams would become stacked and public interest would certainly wane.

The ability for any team to improve year-after-year is critical to the league’s very survival. And the catalyst has been the NFL college draft.