It was in the lunch line during the 1988 NFL Draft that General Manager John McVay of the San Francisco 49ers gave one of the more telling insights into what it takes to be successful in finding players who can make the transition from the college to pro ranks.
The first three rounds had gone by, and the Niners were doing their typical trade-down moves and understandably so. They were one of the best teams in the league and they constantly found themselves on the back end of the first round. They were bent on adding depth rather than finding one star.
After the third round the pace of the draft had slowed and Coach Bill Walsh, McVay and other team officials headed to the buffet line, where the local writers who covered the team happened to be. The team’s last pick had been in the third round and they used it on an undersized linebacker out of Boston College named Bill Romanowski.
What was the deciding factor in selecting Romanowski, who wasn’t all that high on the list of so-called “experts?”
“The fact that he can play,” McVay said succinctly, not even looking up as he scooped a sautéed chicken breast onto his plate.
Indeed. It’s one thing to be a workout king and wow the NFL fans with amazing 40 times and great shuttle moves; quite another to do it on Sunday.
Remember, there were those who didn’t like Jerry Rice coming out of college because his 40 time was a tad slow. Looking back, in his early pro years Rice never got caught from behind.
In light of McVay’s statement, we have to keep in mind that combine performance doesn’t automatically translate into big plays and Super Bowls. But here we are amidst a nearly constant stream of pre-draft info about Wonderlic scores and bench press repetitions and vertical jumps.
In that light, current General Manager Trent Baalke, the former pro personnel director, has had decent success in recent drafts. As I’ve said earlier, 2010 first-round selections Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati did struggle some on the offensive line, but they seem assured of developing into first-rate anchors for years to come.
Also, the additions of linebacker Novarro Bowman and running back Anthony Dixon added depth to those positions.
Add in selections in 2009 of Michael Crabtree (albeit, the jury is still out on him playing like the 10th player taken), Glen Coffee and Scott McKillop, and it is easy to say that Baalke has a good eye for finding talent.
Moreover, the selections of Coffee and safety Taylor Mays, last year’s second-round selection, might give 49ers reason to wonder if Baalke’s selections suffered in the hands of the old coaching staff.
Fitting Players To Needs
To understand, we return to McVay in ’88. The Niners at the time loved speed over size. In Romanowski, they found a linebacker who had hunt-and-destroy skills that proved essential in covering tight ends and running backs.
Along with DE Daniel Stubbs, DT Pierce Holt and punter Barry Helton, they all played key roles in the team’s successive Super Bowl campaigns in 1988 and ’89.
Five years later, Romanowski, who had put on weight, had shifted to middle linebacker. He found his biggest challenges against the Dallas Cowboys, and his play there was critical because these were the elite teams in the league; both knew that getting to the Super Bowl meant beating the other.
Under Coach Jimmy Johnson, the Dallas Cowboys had re-tooled their offensive scheme with huge lineman like Nate Newton in front of running back Emmitt Smith. Their favorite was a simple “zone” play where linemen hit a defender and drive any way he can.
It was up to Smith to find the lanes, and he did, cutting through the openings as the linemen kept the defenders occupied. Romanowski, at 230 pounds or so, had a hard time separating from Newton, who weighed over 300.
After losing twice in the playoffs to the Cowboys in which Smith had big games, the Niners in 1994 signed free agent Ken Norton Jr. to play in the middle and handle Newton and Smith.
In the regular-season win and the NFC Championship game against the Cowboys, he did. (And it has to be said that free agent CB Deion Sanders also handled Cowboy receiver Michael Irvin, which was just as critical.)
Romanowski was a great selection for the Niners at outside linebacker. Five years later, he was in a new position and found himself wanting. He left after the ’93 season but played 12 more years.
A month from now, the new coaching staff will depend on Baalke to list the players in the draft who can strengthen the team. History says he’s capable. Romanowski stepped in and did his job right from the start. He fit the scheme.
The question now is whether Baalke can find players that fit the schemes of new Coach Jim Harbaugh.
If so, the Draft Day lunch will taste a lot better.