Evan Siegle/AP
Evan Siegle/AP

Inside the War Room

At team headquarters across the NFL, the draft means waiting, working through the chaos, waiting some more and trusting The Board

By
Andrew Brandt
· More from Andrew·

With the draft fast approaching, I want to take readers inside a team’s command center: the war room. We were told to cease using that moniker in the months after 9/11 as it felt inappropriate, but as with all things that emotion faded and eventually the phrase again became common NFL parlance. Here are some insights and experiences from my time in the war room, an exercise of sustained concentration and focus.

The Setup

During my time with the Packers there were actually two war rooms. First, there was a traditional personnel-based room featuring sorted player cards with scouting measurables: height, weight, speed, vertical, hand size, Wonderlic, and so on. Then there was a financial-based room I designed, featuring sorted players cards with business measurables: salary, prorated bonus, cap number, dead money acceleration, expiring contract year, age, agent, etc. Our cap room (the physical room, not the monetary gap) drew particular interest from then-NFLPA chief Gene Upshaw, who requested his staff visit in order to model a similar room at union headquarters. (The NFL, in the middle of CBA negotiations, advised us to refuse the request.)

Many teams arrange the war room similarly; when I consulted with the Eagles, they used the same setup as the Packers. The general manager sits at either the head of a conference table or directly in front of the board, flanked by his most trusted personnel assistant and the head coach. Further down are personnel directors working the phones, each assigned a team based on relationships. Close at hand are 1) the cap/contract person (my former role), ready to advise with numbers on all players, 2) a research/statistician evaluating proposed trades through various proprietary charts and analytics, and 3) team doctors and trainers ready with physical grades. There’s an open line to a staff member in New York who fills out and hands in the card for each selection. Finally, owners and their friends—or, in the case of the Packers, members of the Executive Committee—circle in occasionally, although most exit stage right soon after the top pick is made.

Trades are proposed throughout the draft. If teams strike a deal, both sides call one of the league executives handling trades, Joel Bussert or Ken Fiore, and mutually assent to the terms. I’ve heard a story of one boisterous general manager too busy gloating about a trade to call it in; by the time he did, the pick had passed.

A look inside the Atlanta Falcons war room in 2008. (Bob Rosato/SI/The MMQB)
A look inside the Atlanta Falcons war room in 2008; the opening photo shows the Packers’ war room in 2010. (Bob Rosato/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

Trust The Board

The best decision-makers understand the magnitude of the draft but approach it calmly. Seven months of painstaking work has been done; it’s time to trust The Board. With an increasing number of decision-makers honed in college scouting, there is an almost universal adherence to that mantra. Still, leaders will still sometimes succumb to impulse and jump The Board in the heat of the moment. Nothing is more deflating to a scouting staff’s morale.

As someone detached from the scouting process, I tried to act as a voice of reason, asking core questions about potential selections. I know we have this player rated as a first-round talent, but would you take him as our first-round pick? If we take this guy high in the draft, who does he push off the roster? I found these questions focused our decision-making on the selection.

Leaders will sometimes succumb to impulse and jump The Board. Nothing is more deflating to a scouting staff’s morale.

I also spent time during draft weekend talking to agents. As a former agent I felt for them. They have been funding players for several months, and virtually every player and his family is offended at not being drafted higher. A player can become angry; the agent must keep him from lashing out. Ego and insecurity are very much on display during draft weekend.

Making the pick

Prior to every selection we made at the Packers, director of player personnel Reggie McKenzie (now the Raiders general manager) would call the player to, as former GM Ron Wolf would say, “make sure he’s still alive.” There were times when we had trouble finding a player and almost selected another before finally locating him. I would then call the agent to acknowledge the selection, to which I usually heard 1) how lucky we were to get him; 2) what a great person he was; and 3) how we should draft his other clients. Always working.

The first-round pick usually flies into town immediately after being selected to meet the media and perhaps more. In 2006, I remember top pick A.J. Hawk flying in to have a presser and, in a matter of hours, going out with a realtor and agreeing to purchase a home (down the street from me).

As noted in my Draft Day review, the weekend is largely watching and waiting, with momentary spurts of action as teams’ selections approach. Speaking of which…

A-Rod

A true trust The Board moment came in the drafting of Aaron Rodgers.

In 2005, we had approximately 20 players rated above the first-round line. When we arrived at our pick, at No. 24, the only name left above that line was Rodgers, who played the same position as one of the most durable players in NFL history: Brett Favre. (I always had a hard time signing a backup quarterback, as they wanted to have at least the possibility of playing.)

Aaron Rodgers and then NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue at the 2005 draft. (Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Aaron Rodgers and commissioner Paul Tagliabue at the ’05 draft. (Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

As we stared at Rodgers’ name, there were murmurs in the room from those concerned with the short-term, realizing we may well use our first-round pick on a player who would probably not get in a game that year (or perhaps the next, or even the year after that … or possibly never in a Packers uniform).

A minute or so after we were on the clock (it was 15 minutes then), Ted Thompson asked me to call Rodgers’ agent, Mike Sullivan, who had been sitting with Rodgers under the glare of TV lights for the past six hours, and keep him on the phone as we decide. I called the number I had and got a terse “Hello…

“Mike?”

“No, this is Aaron.”

I felt for him, and now I had to keep him waiting more.

“Hi Aaron, it’s Andrew Brandt with the Green Bay Packers. Can I talk to Mike?”

It was surreal as I watched Mike on television talking to me. I could not really tell him anything, as Ted wanted to see if an offer for extra picks would come while we were on the clock. The room and the phone lines were eerily silent—with all eyes on Ted and on me holding the phone—as everyone waited for the decision. Finally, after 10 minutes that seemed like 10 hours, Ted gave the go-ahead: We were taking Aaron.

GALLERY: More photos throughout the years of NFL draft war rooms

We heard the faint sound of boos from the draft party going on below us. Our room was a mixed bag. Some celebrated; others were muted knowing while they would be judged on the short-term, this was a long-term play.

Aaron won everyone over soon after arriving in Green Bay, but to this day I sometimes think about how the NFL balance of power could be different if that phone had rang with a trade offer during those excruciating 10 minutes.

The Undrafteds

After what has now become a three-day marathon, the stage is set for the busiest part of draft weekend: signing the undrafteds. Teams set out to sign a designated number of players, usually those they had rated as low-round picks. It is pandemonium, with teams juggling players and agents juggling teams. Decisions about these players’ futures are made in minutes, even seconds.

In the post-draft chaos, one of our scouts yelled out, “Anyone want to sign this quarterback Romo?” Crickets.

I always thought there could be a better way to sign undrafted free agents, once proposing the introduction of a system similar to medical residents being matched with hospitals. Players would submit their top five desired teams; teams would submit their top five undrafted free agents, and a computer could match up teams and players in a high-tech version of the dating game. It sounds novel, but it could probably work better than the current Wild West system we have now.

Here are three amusing anecdotes from the chaos of signing undrafted free agents.

What the Doctor Ordered

The most influential voice in the war room? It might the team physician. Jenny Vrentas goes behind the scenes to report on how medical grades can swing a prospects’ draft position. FULL STORY

• Once I talked directly to a player—he did not have an agent—and agreed to terms. Later I noticed his name on the list of signed players for two other teams, as well as ours. I called the player, who politely said, “Oh, I thought I could sign with all of you and then pick one.” I told him he had to pick a team. (He went to the Cardinals and lasted a week.)

• In the 2003 post-draft chaos, one of our scouts yelled out, “Anyone want to sign this quarterback Romo? He’s from Wisconsin.” Crickets.

• And my favorite story: I once told a player we would sign him for a $500 bonus. His answer was, and I quote: “Well, I only have about $100 now, but I can get you the rest in about a week.” “No,” I answered, “We pay you.”

Enjoy draft weekend, and hope your team trusts The Board.

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31 comments
Jason55
Jason55

I always laugh when the days leading up to the draft articles and tweets mention a player shooting up NFL draft boards.  Seven months of prep and suddenly new information is discovered and a team changes a grade from the 5th round to the 1st, yeah right.  Would love to hear Andrew Brandt's take.

jshawaii22
jshawaii22

Yes... another how the Packer's do it story. Always draft the "Best Player Available" vs. "Draft for Need"... John Schneider, the former packer, and now Seattle Seahawk GM followed that mantra last year.  


I know I'm not a GM and they did WIN the Super Bowl,  but they drafted Christine Michael,  a running back... who never saw the field vs drafting a Guard or Tackle, which we really needed and still need a year latter.


The Seahawks OLine was the worst.  It's truly remarkable how good the defense was and what a magician Russell was since the OLine almost by itself ruined the year.  


Tomorrow, with the 32nd pick...  not another RB...

jimaa66
jimaa66

Andrew reads are quickly becoming a favorite.

Also love him on Ross Tucker's show Wednesday's @ 635. 

beekay31
beekay31

I can't believe you Wisconsinites haven't recognized that Brandt is just rehashing an old Bob Uecker joke with that story about the $500 bonus.

ianlinross
ianlinross

"I’ve heard a story of one boisterous general manager too busy gloating about a trade to call it in; by the time he did, the pick had passed."

Would that be a certain Vikings V-P of ops?...say about 2002 and 2003?

Just curious.

Mr.MurderMurphy
Mr.MurderMurphy

Maybe call it the Raw room, because some teams have it backwards. It can get a lot like the WWF on draft day, anyways.

mugzbo
mugzbo

Glad you wrote this column to offer such excellent insight. With all the mock drafts, overrating and underrated prospects nonsense, an actual article that goes beyond the typical madness surrounding draft day and weekend.

Also, great way to close the column with those nuggets! Good thing he didn't have an agent there hounding for a portion of that $500 bonus!

MarkTate
MarkTate

"I’ve heard a story of one boisterous general manager too busy gloating about a trade to call it in; by the time he  did, the pick had passed."  Had to be Jerry Jones, just has to be. :)


Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan
Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan

Did the Packers “trust The Board” when they made first-round selections like Justin Harrell, Jamal Reynolds, and Rich Campbell?In the art of NFL drafting, for every Aaron Rodgers, there’s a Tony Mandarich.Also, is the “scouting staff’s morale” really paramount here?Shouldn’t NFL war room decision makers be less focused on whether scouts deem a draft prospect to be a first or fourth-round talent, and more focused on whether that prospect is, in fact, a starter, backup, or just another camp body?During the 2000 Draft, I’d be less interested about whether Tom Brady (minus the Mohawk hairdo, of course) is a legitimate sixth-rounder, and more interested about whether he’s a viable backup— or, better yet, perhaps even a starter.I want to know if “Mr. Irrelevant” can indeed be relevant.

only1H1
only1H1

that pick that was passed...was that the viking picking kevin williams that year?

olansuddeth
olansuddeth

One of the best articles I've read on si.com in some time, and head and shoulders above most of the MMQB fluf.

BlondeRaven
BlondeRaven

The look on poor Aaron Rodgers in that photo is priceless.  Never has anyone smiled a smile more forced.  No doubt, the Packers were not the team he had in mind, but it all worked out.  I doubt that he would change a thing now.

Wisconsin Death Trip
Wisconsin Death Trip

Interesting info about the last moments of Mr. Rodgers....before he came to my neighborhood.

Bucky182
Bucky182

Amusing. Heard the Romo story before but it would have been nice to get a little more in-depth look into the war room during the Rodgers pick. Granted there may not be much more substance than what Brandt gave, it was still one of the more famous, and now beneficial, free falls.

pack fan
pack fan

great article, thank GOD nobody called the packers during those 10mins with a trade offer!!!

MrTemecula
MrTemecula

Thanks, very illuminating. It's all too clear why some teams will never be anything but mediocre. Jerry Jones, I hope you read this.

fedefox8
fedefox8

Awesome article! Definitely worth the read

pirate
pirate

Great story at the end about the kid who thought he had to *pay* the $500 bonus! Good piece throughout, Thanks for sharing some history amd not mentioning Johnny Manziel once.

SteveRowFla
SteveRowFla

Now that was worth reading.  Well done.

atwood.t
atwood.t

Great column!  The anecdotes about Romo and the $500 bonus are priceless.  I am sure that there are dozens of such stories so a followup article would probably get a lot of views.

PhilipBenincasa
PhilipBenincasa

That last story made me spit out my coffee!!! that is hilarious.  Great article with a lot of information you just don't get from other 'draft' articles by sportswriters. Thanks for the insight and a much appreciated laugh!

tonybr2c
tonybr2c

I was at the draft party and the crowd was very somber.  I cheered loudly!

Brian114
Brian114

It would be even greater if the $500 bonus player went on to great things. Great column as always.

ghills
ghills

Andrew, your columns rock!


First thing I look for on MMQB.

eddie767
eddie767

I was thinking of Angelos, when the Bears supposedly had a trade done with the Ravens. You might be right though.

djsancak
djsancak

@Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan  That is a bit of a Captain Obvious question, don't you think? I guess the answer is Yes, they did "trust the board", and Yes, that didn't work out very well in these cases. I suspect that part of the parameters that go into creating the board are such things as "whether that prospect is, in fact, a starter, backup, or just another camp body". Other factors might be whether you think that prospect has significant character issues that could manifest themselves someday in a series of murders. If not, that might be something teams should consider.

NeoSmith
NeoSmith

@Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan Bro, are you serious?!  You're going to compare the drafting regime of the 1980's when the Packers organization in its own Dark Age to the current Modern Age of drafting?!  The current Packers drafting team has hit more than missed over the Ted Thompson/Ron Wolf regime.  That is the reason why the Packers have been a to team for the past two decades.

Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan
Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan

@NeoSmith



Harrell was drafted in 2007, and Reynolds was drafted in 2001.Doesn’t that qualify as the “Modern Age” of Packers drafting?Also, Jim Lofton, one of the best draft picks in Packers history, was drafted in 1978.Is that year part of the “Dark Age” to which you are referring?


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