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Drafting is the way to long-term success

September 28, 2008|Dave Goldberg | Associated Press

The Atlanta Falcons are one of the NFL's pleasant surprises, starting 2-1 after a 2007 season that was ruined from the start by the jailing of Michael Vick and made worse by the harsh regime of Bobby Petrino and his sudden departure for Arkansas with three games left.

The New York Jets are 1-2, not a surprise considering they had a difficult opening schedule. But the way they have played has made it clear that the quick-fix approach that included the trade for Brett Favre is just that: a quick fix that is likely to damage any long-term rebuilding plan.

Yes, there are many ways to build a good team, as New England has shown by using the draft, trades and a few well-thought-out free-agent signings to dominate most of this decade.

But the method that has built champions, before and after the advent of free agency in 1993, is the one that's always worked: good drafts.

That's why the Falcons are doing it the right way, even if things don't work out perfectly. And the Jets are doing it the wrong way, even if Favre leads them to the playoffs this season. At the end of this year or next year, they will still be spinning their wheels, hoping that Kellen Clemens or Brett Ratliff or some older QB off the scrap heap (Marc Bulger anyone?) will lead them to the Super Bowl.

"Scouting and drafting is still the most basic way to build a football team and the good teams know it," says Gil Brandt, the longtime personnel director of the Cowboys and now the NFL's draft consultant. "It's funny that every time I talk to someone from a school that thinks it has a kid who can be a real sleeper in the draft they tell me, 'The Giants were here looking at him.' "

The Giants, in case anyone missed it, upset the Patriots to win the Super Bowl with eight rookies on the roster, including a tight end named Kevin Boss from Western Oregon, not exactly a spawning ground for NFL players.

Dallas, currently the consensus choice as the NFL's top team, signed receiver and return man Miles Austin two years ago as a free agent from Monmouth in New Jersey. He had two receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown Sunday night to help beat Green Bay. Monmouth just happens to be on the Jersey shore, a place well known to Bill Parcells, the coach of the Cowboys when Austin was signed.

The Falcons can only aspire to be the Giants or Cowboys in a few years.

But after the Vick/Petrino debacle, they began the right way by hiring Thomas Dimitroff, a little-known personnel man from New England, to take over the football operation. He hired the almost totally unknown Mike Smith from Jacksonville to coach the team.

Then Dimitroff used first-round draft picks, the third overall and the 21st, to draft Matt Ryan and Sam Baker. They were made immediate starters at quarterback and left tackle, two of the most important positions on offense, and two of the most difficult for any rookie to learn. They added another rookie at another key position in middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, a second-round pick.

Football people differ on whether throwing in rookies at those position helps or hinders their development. And the verdict, of course, is still out on Ryan, Baker and Atlanta -- considering that while the Falcons are 2-1, their wins are over two of the NFL's worst team, winless Detroit and winless Kansas City.

Individual results? About what they should be.

Ryan threw a 62-yard touchdown pass on his first play against the Lions, the second NFL quarterback ever to do that. He also had a TD pass against the Chiefs and didn't have an interception in either game. His passer ratings in those wins were 137 and 120.6, outstanding numbers.

But against Tampa, with a veteran defense that can be one of the most difficult in the NFL to decipher, he was 13-of-33 for 158 yards and his rating was a dismal 39.4.

Beyond that, the best thing about the Falcons' offense is they found that occasional free agent who can have an immediate impact: Michael Turner, LaDainian Tomlinson's backup in San Diego and by far the biggest prize this year in the running back crop. He currently leads the league in rushing with 366 yards and has a 6.2 average.

But again, the numbers are skewed by opponents: 324 yards and all five of his touchdowns came against the Lions and Chiefs; just 42 yards were against the Bucs.

Still for a team that won four games last season, getting halfway there in three weeks is an accomplishment.

The Jets, who also finished 4-12 in 2007, are another story.

Feeling squeezed by the success of the Patriots, who have won five straight AFC East titles, and the Giants, who have always owned the New York area and dominated it after their Super Bowl win, they set out to get their own attention.

They did, especially by trading for Favre, which got them on the back pages of the tabloids for a week and into City Hall.

But did they do it the right way?

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