Football is a game of misdirection. Think play-action, counter treys and naked bootlegs.
The NFL draft is a game of misdirection, too. Think lies, damn lies and — if you can imagine — naked truth.
"The best smokescreen now is the truth," Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians says. "No one believes it."
The NFL draft begins Thursday tonight, none too soon for the league's general managers, who've spent the last several months treating conversations with their peers like the headlines of a supermarket tabloid — believed at your peril.
"I refer to this time before the draft as 'National Liars Month' in the NFL," former Dallas Cowboys personnel guru Gil Brandt tells USA TODAY Sports. "There are so many things said that are misdirection."
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And there's more smokescreens surrounding this draft than any in a long time, Brandt believes.
"They are 10 times more than what they normally are," he says. The reason: "There's nine really good players up at the top of the draft. And everybody's got a favorite. People are trying to get people off of who they really want."
Much of the extra smoke comes from the availability of Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Manziel, two of the most polarizing players in recent draft history. Some experts believe South Carolina's Clowney is a generational talent who will go No. 1, though Brandt thinks the Houston Texans might go instead with Buffalo's Khalil Mack, one of the least polarizing because he is one of the least known. Others have had Manziel going as high as No. 1 overall, or as low as the fourth round.
"I had an agent call me the other day who said, 'Have you heard about Clowney's knee?' " Brandt says. "I said, 'I haven't heard about Clowney's knee.' He said, 'I had a general manager tell me that they're really concerned about it.' It's that kind of stuff that goes on."
Last week the St. Louis Rams worked out Manziel and Texas A&M teammates Jake Matthews and Mike Evans. Did that mean they might take Johnny Football with the second overall selection, or even the 13th selection should he last that long? Or maybe the Rams don't really want him at all, but want other teams to think they do.
"When you have the second pick in the draft, and you have to go work out three guys who are going to be drafted in the first round five days before the draft, I don't know if they're necessarily doing that for workout purposes," says ESPN analyst Bill Polian, who ran drafts for the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts.
"Blowing a little smoke is fine," Polian says. "We would sometimes use part of our 30 visits to bring in players that weren't high on our list, just to create the idea that we were interested in them. We weren't above that. We didn't do it a lot because most of the visits you wanted to use for legitimate purposes."
This draft is two weeks later than usual, and Polian figures extra time means extra smoke.
"There are certainly more rumors floating around and, like most draft rumors, have no substance to them," Polian says. "But they sound good and people float them and there are more people like you and me in the media business talking about them than ever before and more time to fill. So there's more craziness out there."
That's why Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey goes into a self-imposed media blackout for roughly five weeks before each draft.
"I don't watch TV, I don't listen to the radio and I don't look at news clips," Dorsey says. "So I tune that out. And I do that for a reason — because I don't want to be swayed either way. ... (With) today's social media, information flies so quickly and it's a different era than it was five years ago. There's a lot of stuff floating out there."
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There is also a lot of cross-pollination in the front offices and coaching staffs of the 32 NFL teams. They are enemies on the field — and on draft day — but many are friends who love to talk shop and, sometimes, even trade information.
"Because look, my best friend is on the Bengals staff and your best friend is on the Ravens staff, his best friend is on the Giants staff," ESPN analyst Jon Gruden says. "Coaches talk. Scouts talk. People compare. That's just the nature of this business."
Gruden, who won a Super Bowl as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, says he knows of cases where it amounted to more than talk.
"I know a lot of organizations, they have all the quarterbacks listed from 1 to 26, all the running backs, all the tight ends, all the defensive ends," Gruden says. "They have their entire draft on a big board. And I know (assistant) coaches who have gone in and taken pictures of the draft board and texted the picture to other teams to get their picture of their draft board."
The result, Gruden says, is some teams run smokescreens to fool their own employees: "I know general managers who have walked in and said, 'We're going to take Junior Smith from Cincinnati State.' Junior Smith? And we'll sit in there and watch tape on the kid just to make everybody think that we've readjusted our board."
Dorsey guards his board like the launch-code keys on a nuclear submarine.
"That board is sealed, and there are very few people that see that board here in Kansas City," Dorsey says. "There's only one person that has a key to that thing. And it sits in my pocket. There's too much work that goes into it. And if somebody wants to be selfish enough to do something like (trade info), that's wrong."
And here Dorsey pauses. "Well, maybe that's a misinformation story by Jon Gruden," he cracks.
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LEAKS AND RUMORS
One of the many classic moments in Casablanca comes when Captain Renault asks Rick Blaine what in heaven's name brought him to Casablanca. Rick, played laconically by Humphrey Bogart, replies that he came for the waters.
"The waters? What waters? We're in the desert."
"I was misinformed."
General managers know the feeling. This time of year they do their best to convince each other the desert is wet.
"If you believe everything that people are saying and writing," Gruden says, "you're making a tragic error."
Misdirection is one thing. Leaking low Wonderlic test results and failed drug tests is another.
"Apparently, because of what's out there, it must go on," Polian says. "That behavior is despicable and unethical."
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Gruden agrees it happens. "Yeah, be careful who you ask questions of, be careful who you ask questions to," he says. "Don't assume you're getting the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
Oklahoma State cornerbacks coach Van Malone coaches Justin Gilbert, widely considered the best cornerback in this draft. Malone says he has talked to coaches and scouts who'd heard that someone in Gilbert's family is in prison.
"Justin's mom, Iwanna, she still drives the prison bus in Huntsville, Texas, for the prison system," Malone says. "So what happened is because of her connection with the prison system, his mom drives the prison bus goes from, 'Yeah, somebody in his family is in prison' — and all of a sudden after that, his mom is on death row. No! Let's get this right: Nobody in his family has been in prison.
"So I cleared it up. And what I did was I started calling people to let them know that, 'Hey, this isn't the case.' So this rumor just gets bounced around and all of a sudden the rumor becomes fact. This kid has no failed drug tests. He's a great kid. But it goes from one extreme all the way to the next."
Even so, no matter how well Malone explains it, some people will still believe that where there's smoke, there's fire.
"It's perfect for some teams because (they think), 'If some other team thinks it's true, they're not going to take the kid and we get a chance to take him,' " Malone says. "People throw a little smokescreen out there. So if I'm the Cleveland Browns and I go to research it, it's still in my ear because somebody is throwing it out there to me."
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This story goes back more than three decades, but sometimes it seems like everyone in the league has heard it. Brandt calls it "the classic example" of draft subterfuge.
Philadelphia Eagles coach Dick Vermeil and Buffalo Bills coach Chuck Knox were close friends and they had a conversation before the 1982 draft.
"He said, 'What are you going to do in the first round?' " Vermeil says. "And I said, 'I'm planning to get the wide receiver out of Clemson.' "
Brandt says the way he heard it, Knox answered, " 'Oh, we're not interested. We have no interest at all.' "
Then the Bills traded up to the 19th selection, one before the Eagles, and took Perry Tuttle, who'd caught the clinching touchdown pass in the Orange Bowl, winning a national championship for Clemson. The Eagles, picking next, went with North Carolina State's Mike Quick.
"And he ended up being an All Pro," Vermeil says of the five-time Pro Bowler. "And the other kid only played a couple of years. He bombed out. We ended up being the benefactor. We had them rated (almost) equal, but we had Tuttle rated one notch ahead. The Bills jumped ahead and we ended up with the All Pro."
Vermeil coached the Eagles through the 1982 season and did not return to the NFL as a head coach until 1997, when he took over the Rams and found the culture of friendly calls and casual sharing long gone.
"As scouting departments got better, they became more secretive," Vermeil says. "And then it got to the point where it was a major sin if you even talked to anybody prior to the draft. Eventually, communication and sharing information disintegrated.
"When I came back to the league ... the atmosphere had really changed. It was like the Secret Service. It was like you were a member of the FBI. No one talked, scouts didn't talk to each other. At least they said they didn't. And if you got easy information it was from someone you didn't trust."
Polian says he put up signs around the draft rooms and in the scouts' offices: "Loose lips sink ships." He says the Colts' draft board was covered and locked from December meetings until the draft and the only people who could see it beside him were the owner, the head coach and three others, including his son Chris.
The reason? "Because if I was told once about the Perry Tuttle-Mike Quick incident, I heard it 10 times," Polian says. "It made an impression on me."
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Teams conduct mock drafts to get ready for the real thing. And even with those there's subterfuge.
"I know one particular team in this draft that is drafting somebody," says Brandt, who is a senior analyst for NFL.com and SIRIUS Radio. "I know it from a third party. But when I speak with that team, the person from that team says, 'He's all right. But we're not that high on him.' That's why I don't do the mock drafts. I just try to put the players in order, which is a harder job anyway."
Polian tells the tale of one smokescreen that came together by accident. He was general manager of the Carolina Panthers for their first draft in 1995, when they had the first overall pick, and how they were able to trade down and still get the player they wanted.
"We were really looking at (quarterbacks) Steve McNair and Kerry Collins with the first pick," Polian says. "We hadn't decided which one we liked. But we also didn't have a physical on (tailback) Ki-Jana Carter, who many people thought was going to be the first pick in the 1995 draft. And the press in Carolina, you can imagine they were foaming at the mouth to find out who it was."
The Panthers were in the midst of OTAs at Winthrop College when they brought Carter in for medical due diligence.
"We didn't have our complex yet," Polian says. Winthrop "was a very nice facility, but it was wide open. So we brought Ki-Jana in for a physical five, six, seven days before the draft. Then we brought him down to the facility from the hospital to meet with (coaches). ... We were practicing and took Ki-Jana out to watch the end of practice. And so the newspaper people photographed the heck out of it.
"The next day in the newspaper, there was a headline that said, 'It's Ki-Jana!' "
Polian chuckles at the memory. "We had no intention of drafting a running back," he says. "And lo and behold, we got some offers for the pick based on that notoriety. And we ended up trading with Cincinnati down to five and taking Kerry Collins."
Carter's career was cut short by a devastating knee injury suffered in the Bengals' first preseason game. Collins took the Panthers to the 1996 NFC Championship game before they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
That was an era when "media" meant newspapers, TV and radio. Now it also means web sites, blogs and tweets. There are so many new ways to get information — and disinformation — out instantly.
"In this modern world of technology ... you can get snippets of information," Gruden says, "but that doesn't mean you're getting all the information.
"I used to say be careful of the perception because it will paint the reality of the facts."