Chiefs on the clock


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Jan 22, 2006
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Chiefs on the clock
In the war room on NFL draft day, years of study are dissected in the 15 minutes a team has to shape its future

The Kansas City Star

Back in the days before e-mails, ESPN and perfectly coiffed draft analysts, the think tank in Dallas didn’t need 15 minutes to figure out a draft pick. The Cowboys’ research started years ago.

The arguing, most times, was over a week before. So the Cowboys were swift and sure, and the results were generally good except for the year they passed on Joe Montana.

To this day, former Cowboys executive Gil Brandt can’t figure out why NFL teams take so long when they’re on the clock.

“I guess when you get ready to buy a new car, sometimes there’s a little bit of apprehension,” Brandt says. “It’s a very important decision.”

The decision-makers in Kansas City will gather Saturday in an auditorium on the ground floor of Arrowhead Stadium — their war room — and go on the clock to decide who’ll be the 20th pick in the 2006 draft. Careers will be decided, millions of dollars will hang in the balance, and the Chiefs will have 900 seconds to figure it out.

Sometimes, the clock ticks once, and the decision is done. When Derrick Johnson fell to the No. 15 pick last year, the Chiefs knew immediately that the soft-spoken Texan would be their first pick. They took the 15 minutes anyway.

Whatever the board says Saturday, one thing is certain: The Chiefs won’t rush their decision, because on draft weekend, you can’t leave anything to chance.

“We have our guy in New York,” Chiefs president/general manager Carl Peterson says, “and sometimes we’ll tell him to put three names down on the cards but don’t take them up yet. We want to get hold of the player and make sure he hasn’t been hit by a truck, make sure he’s alive. I’m serious. We want to check if there’s any other aspects, medical or mental.

“And you usually want to take almost all of it because I’m going to see if there’s any team behind us saying, ‘Hey listen, we want your pick.’ ”

Peterson has the ultimate decision in that 15 minutes, but he could turn to at least 15 people in the war room for affirmation or advice. Coach Herm Edwards and Bill Kuharich, the vice president for player personnel, will have their say. We’ll call this group The Big Three. If they have doubts, they’ll turn to scouts, assistants, coordinators and medical personnel. And in the back of the room, owner Lamar Hunt sits with veto power, though he’s never been known to exert it.

It sounds like chaos, but those involved say the research and prep work takes much of the stress out of Saturday. Later this week, Peterson and Co. will run through a series of draft exercises and play out all the what ifs and whatnots: What if Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart are still on the board? What if receiver Santonio Holmes is available but the Chiefs are screaming for a defensive end?

“There’s usually not a great deal of debate,” Peterson says. “Obviously, I’d prefer a consensus opinion, a unanimous opinion if you will, but ultimately it’s my opinion, and that’s the way it has to be.

“For the most part, going back to Marty (Schottenheimer) and Gunther (Cunningham) and even with Dick (Vermeil), there’s been very, very little disagreement because we’ve put so much time and effort into the board rating and ranking these players and discussing them. I feel very comfortable that’s how it’s going to be again this year.”

But the Big Three don’t always agree, and probably the most recent case of that was in 2003. Bill Cowher called that Saturday and wanted to trade up to get Troy Polamalu. No problem because the Chiefs needed some draft picks. But when they finally got to the 27th pick, there was some disagreement between Peterson and Vermeil on whom to pick.

Peterson wanted the best player available, which was Penn State running back Larry Johnson. Vermeil wanted defensive help.

After they picked Johnson, Hunt broke the ice in the room by telling a story. Hunt was at the Doak Walker Award banquet a few months earlier and overheard a conversation between Johnson and Earl Campbell.

Campbell was going on about how he once sneaked onto special teams and blocked a punt. Johnson politely listened and didn’t mention the two special-teams touchdowns he had at Penn State.

“We just weren’t (in agreement) on the Larry Johnson thing,” Vermeil says, “but it ends up being great. As long as there aren’t any big egos involved, you usually get it done pretty well. Sometimes you get into situations where somebody has to win just to feel good and not for all the right reasons.”

Vermeil had been the decision-maker at St. Louis and said Kansas City’s draft system is, for the most part, “an accumulation of opinions.”

“You put the consensus together and go by what everybody has spent a whole year doing and then discuss in 15 minutes what some very talented people have been doing for a year,” Vermeil said. “And then Carl makes a decision.”

Kuharich has been part of many draft-day decisions, from his time as president, CEO and general manager of the New Orleans Saints to his job as the guy manning the phones for possible trades on draft day. That’s what he did in his first five seasons with the Chiefs, in a makeshift office in the downstairs hallway near the elevator shaft.

Kuharich has learned to think on the fly. In 1993, about an hour before the draft, he found out the Saints were moving up from 26th to eighth. Kuharich’s mentality has always been to pick the best player, regardless of position.

The Saints went with Willie Roaf, an eventual 11-time Pro Bowl tackle.

“The research was valuable,” Kuharich says, “because we had done the draft board. In my mind, I was doing it as, ‘What if we were picking in the top seven?’ We were actually prepared even though we didn’t spend a lot of time with it. You do that with your own mental gymnastics. What if all of a sudden we’re picking at five? What do you do in your own mind?

“It’s .001 percent of what is happening, but when you’re the person in charge of organizing the draft, you’ve got to prepare for the most outlandish position.”

That 15 minutes is the equivalent of game day for the scouts. They’ve logged in years of film, visits and long car rides, and now they’re on the clock when Peterson has some last-minute questions.

Despite all the voices in the war room, Kuharich describes the 15 minutes on the clock as “calm and collected.” He says 15 minutes is plenty of time to choose a top draft pick. So is the 10 minutes for the second-round pick. The five minutes for the rest of the rounds is a different story.

“It gets hectic because they come off so quick,” he says. “You have to readjust.”

Kuharich knows the decisions made in those minutes will be analyzed and scrutinized for years. He was a kid growing up in Philadelphia when his dad, Joe, was coaching the Eagles in the 1960s.

“It’s hard, but you go on,” he says. “If you don’t like it, you go on to another profession.”

Or wait another 15 minutes.
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