A DAUNTING TASK

The statistics reveal what NFL general managers and talent evaluators long have known: that the process of drafting players is very, very hard. The reason, Colts President Bill Polian said, is a process that involves human beings, and as such, uncertainty.

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NFL Draft Remains Difficult, Daunting Process, Polian Says

INDIANAPOLIS – The numbers, Bill Polian will tell you, are daunting.

But they're real, they're revealing, and Polian – the Colts' President and a longtime NFL executive who is generally considered one of the league's best evaluators of college talent – said what they reveal is this:

The process of "beating" the NFL Draft is very, very hard.

Hard enough that few "beat" it at all.

"It's always hard to judge human beings," said Polian, who on Saturday and Sunday will conduct his 11th NFL Draft with the Colts, the first 10 having produced the core players for a franchise that has won more games than any NFL team since 1999.

"You can't. You're not going to be right any more than about 60 percent of the time. Fifty percent of players throughout the draft fail and 50 percent of first-rounders fail. If you bat .550, your odds of being in the playoffs are pretty darned good.

"If you bat .600 in the draft, you'll probably be in the Super Bowl every year. It's just difficult."

How difficult? Consider:

Each year, NFL teams spend millions scouting thousands of players at hundreds of colleges, and each year, techniques get more advanced with the highest of rewards – a Super Bowl championship – at each stake.

Top football minds with years of experience spend months preparing. They analyze tape, interview prospects and their coaches, discuss strengths and find weaknesses. Yet, each year, there are nearly as many misses as hits, as many mistakes as future stars.

The reason, as Polian and other NFL executives noted earlier this off-season at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, is simple.

There is a very human element to the draft.

In fact, it's all human element.

"Anything that involves personnel and personalities – you're trying to make an educated guess about the step from college to the National Football League," Buffalo Bills Head Coach Dick Jauron said. "It's a huge step. Some people, clearly their athletic ability is so good you don't miss on a lot of them. But some of them just don't translate to this league. It's a very different game. As any personnel area you make errors.

"You don't know until you get in the actually environment on the field, see them compete, see them compete on their feet, see them think on their feet in the actual game situations."

General managers and personnel officials interviewed at the combine talked about the draft in terms of working tirelessly to succeed, but knowing circumstances could conspire to produce failure, sometimes through no fault of their own.

"This is not an exact science," Houston Texans General Manager Rick Smith said. "If you are diligent about your preparation and your research and all that you do, it gives you a chance to get it right. That is why it is imant that you work extremely hard in this evaluation process because all we are trying to do is give ourselves a chance to get it right."

Said Pittsburgh Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert, "I think there are always going to be mistakes when you're trying to gather as much information as we can and trying to make the right decisions. Hopefully we make more right than wrong but we know we're going to make mistakes."

In a recent interview with Colts media, Polian discussed the numbers and how the Colts' recent success in the draft has led directly to the team's success on the field.

Citing a recent study, Polian said 81 of 182 first-round selections – about 45 percent – from 1996-2001 made significant impact for the teams that drafted them, while about 39 percent – 73 of 185 – of second-round selections over the same span were productive players for their original teams.

The Colts, Polian said, "hit" on nine of their 10 first-round selections over the same span, with the percentage near 65 percent – 6 of 11 – for the second round.

Polian said he conducts such detailed analysis four years after a draft class, and he has been doing so for 27 years.

"My criteria is, 'Did that player help his team, the team that drafted him?''' Polian said. "I meld it with the scouting services and their grades. We're pretty close. That tells me who has been doing well and who has been doing poorly. Sometimes, you can figure out why.''

Polian said with the exception of attending the NFL's League Meetings and Competition Committee, he spends about eight hours a day from late February through the draft studying tape and analyzing prospects. He said the Colts' scouting staff does the same.

Around April 1, he said, they began putting the draft board together, a "long process that involves discussion and film work."

The last two weeks of April, he said, are "the hard go."

"The preliminary board is set," he said. "To move a person more than a couple of spots in a round is a lengthy discussion. Once those measurables are in, we're slow to move people."

Experience, Polian said, has taught him not to move people late in the process. "You've done all of the work," he said. "Trust what got you there. If you've done all this work, why are you going to move him based on this stat or this other thing? You have disagreements among the staff that you get ironed out. We had one last year where a position coach just didn't see the player the way we did. We sat down and worked through it. At the end, we did and the player turned out to be a really good player for us. That part you work through, but to move a guy precipitously, no, I'm wary of that."

Even so, Polian called the last two weeks, "second-guessing time. That's, 'Are we doing it right? Is this too much of a move?' That's wake up and 4 o'clock in the morning and come in and say, 'Man, I had this thought.'''

After a pause, he smiled. "That's the fun part," he said.

From 1999 through last season, 65 percent of the Colts' draft picks made what Polian said was a significant contribution, the highest percentage in the NFL. Polian credits the success to a scouting system he said began during his time with the Buffalo Bills in late 1980s and early 1990s, took a "quantum leap" when he was at Carolina from 1995-1997 and "has evolved even more here."

"It keep evolving, but the genesis of it was in Buffalo," he said.

Polian said there are three key elements in the process. One is gathering the correct information. "That's critical," he said. "Unless you have the right information, you're not going to make the right choices."

Secondly, he said, "is having a system that allows you to use that information wisely, and to be able to separate players appropriately," he said.

The third, "is knowing exactly what it is you want," he said.

Polian said the system is designed to reduce as much as possible the number of unknowns in a process that is fraught with uncertainty.

"The vagaries of chance that come in – injuries, illness, those kinds of things . . . no one can predict," he said. "That's what makes it a very inexact science. What you try to do is narrow the areas where you can be wrong. You try to eliminate as many areas where you can make a mistake as possible and approach it that way. We've said many, many times, 'No big hits, no big misses.'

"If you take that approach and do that systematically, then you have a chance, but it's only a chance. If you hit a run of bad luck, it can happen. That's why no one bats .600."

Not that the process operates in a vacuum. Just seeing the right attributes in a player, and even choosing the correct player, does not guarantee success, Polian said.

"You need to have a good off-season program, a good rookie orientation program and a good approach to training camp to try and avoid the unnecessary injury," Polian said. "We've done a good job of that, too. It's all part and parcel of a complete system. We really do have a system of drafting players and identifyi

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