Grading old papers

4-23-02, 5:15 p.m.

The way the national guys called the NFL Draft, you would have thought the Bengals kidnapped the Lindbergh baby in the first round, came back to shoot JFK from the grassy knoll in the second round, and then traded the fifth-round pick for arms and hostages in the third round.

Was it that bad of a draft?

Who knows?

But it had to be as good as the draft the Rams had. They reached for a quarterback to play running back in the third round (Eric Crouch) and reached for another quarterback (Steve Belliasari) in the sixth round to play Lord knows where.

Yet CNN gave the Rams the third-best draft. They gave the Bengals the worst draft even though they played it by the book in the first four rounds and took the highest-rated players at their positions of biggest need.

But the Rams go to Super Bowls and the the Bengals don't , so how can that be?

Taking Arizona State left tackle Levi Jones at No. 10 (when he was projected 15-20) wasn't as big a reach as what the Colts did on the next pick, when they selected Syracuse defensive end Dwight Freeney even though he was deemed a late first-rounder.

But Colts coach Tony Dungy goes to the playoffs, so the Colts got four stars in the USA Today report card while the Bengals received two.

"Freeney, the 266-pound defensive end, is going to be under pressure to justify going 11th overall," wrote CNN/SI's Peter King. "But the Colts have lacked a speed-rushing threat going back to Gino Marchetti. Freeney is a perfect fit for them."

Hey, the Bengals have lacked a young, athletic left tackle since one A. Munoz. Isn't Levi Jones, the most athletic tackle in this draft, some say, a perfect fit behind 35-year-old Richmond Webb and 37-year-old John Jackson?

Nope.

Because these weren't Draft Day grades. The Bengals got these grades while they were on last year's seven-game losing streak. The teachers are grading papers from Dan Wilkinson, Ki-Jana Carter, and Akili Smith. In the information age, aged information becomes perception, and perception becomes reality.

While ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., mocked the Jones pick, it wouldn't have been good TV to run a graphic of roll out a recent stat compiled by Ourlads draft publications:

From 1995-2001, the Bengals had the highest hit/miss ratio of the 30 non-expansion team when it came to drafting. Of the 52 players they chose, 36 were active at the time of last year's study. That was a ratio of .692, ahead of No. 2 St. Louis (.684) and No. 3 San Francisco (.667). The top ten is rounded out by Buffalo, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Kansas City and Indianapolis.

While the weekend deluge soaked the Bengals with jokes,

no pundit quoted the recent survey by "The Sporting News," that covers drafts back to 1997.

Draft guru Jerry Jones figured out the percentages in each category and compared it to the rest of the NFL:

26 percent of the Bengals' picks are starters, 44 percent are backups, five percent are on other teams, and 26 percent are out of the NFL.

The average in the NFL over the last five years has 24 percent starting, 32 percent backing up, 16 percent with other teams, and 28 percent out of the league.

During that stretch, the Bengals are 24-56, which maybe says coaching and development are at least as important as drafting and probably more.

It all needs to get better. But this draft backlash shows that while the gurus think the Bengals are out there on Pluto ("The most entertaining 15 minutes of the draft is when the Bengals are on the clock,"), the numbers would suggest they are at least somewhere on the same planet.

Of course, the Bengals have done it to themselves. It is their own fault. The answer is like everything else at Paul Brown Stadium. Win and it all goes away.

Miss the playoffs every year for the last 11 years and no one is going to credit you for thinking quickly and trading up and stealing the last of the impact tight ends in the third round.

But they will rip you for not going down five spots and risk losing a 10-year left tackle that you haven't had for, well, 10 years. Even though Jones was the best left tackle (some NFL coaches thought he was the best period) on the board and a bona fide No. 1 pick.

Anybody remember if the Titans "reached," five spots to get Brad Hopkkins?, Or or if thee Eagles got Tra Thomas at the right spot? Or where any other solid NFL tackle went in the first or second round?

No, but you know who has them and who doesn't.

Remember the Kiper-Bill Tobin blowup in 1994, the NFL Draft's equivalent of the Nixon Khrushchev Kitchen Debate? Kiper ripped Tobin, then the general manager of the Colts, for not taking a "franchise quarterback," in Tennessee's Heath Shuler with the second pick and signing Bears' cast-off Jim Harbaugh as his quarterback.

As every draftnick now knows, Tobin drafted a Hall-of-Famer in Marshall Faulk, Harbaugh led the Colts to the AFC championship game the next year, and Shuler busted after Washington took with the third pick.

Shortly after this column was posted, at least one reader sent an e-mail to say that a few picks later, Tobin also passed on another projected "franchise quarterback," in Trent Dilfer and opted for linebacker Trev Alberts. Dilfer has had a nice run, but guys who get one-year contracts aren't franchise quarterbacks.

When contacted Monday in Detroit, Tobin, now a Lions executive, said the crux of the debate centered on him sticking with Harbaugh and not going for Shuler and the Alberts pick just escalated the argument.

Maybe if Tobin had made the move in 1996, Kiper would have let him off the hook because he had been to back-to-back playoffs. But he sure didn't get there with Shuler.

When the Bengals' draft room assembled Saturday for the noon start, there were four lists on a blackboard, each numbered from about one to 15. On top of each list was a name next to a circled No. 1.

For the first round, the name was Jones. For the second round, it was Washington State free safety Lamont Thompson. For the third, it was TCU tight end Matt Schobel. Purdue kicker Travis Dorsch was on top of the fourth list.

That's exactly who they got. Kiper said Thompson and Schobel were solid picks and that the sixth- and seventh-round selections were "nice."

But he still gave them a "C."

Maybe. Maybe not. But it sure seems like a lot noise for taking a guy maybe five spots early.

That's just another price of losing. If they go to the playoffs, the Jones pick won't be remembered as the first "reach," of the 2002 draft. It will be the first bold move of the 2002 draft.

Only if they win.

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