Inside the War Room
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.
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.
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 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.)
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...”
“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.
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.
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.
• 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.