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Draft stories: 1968

Posted by Doug on January 13, 2011

This is a sequel to Draft stories: 1967 and possibly a precursor to Draft stories 1969 through whenever.

Let's start, as the draft would, with the Minnesota Vikings. They were not good. And, having traded away Fran Tarkenton prior to the previous draft, they didn't seem to have a long term answer at quarterback. So naturally, speculation was rampant that the Vikings would either use the top pick on a rookie quarterback --- very probably UCLA Bruin Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban --- or else trade it for a veteran passer.

This article, from a few days before the draft, dishes the dirt:

"No decision has been made one way or the other about trading the [pick]," [Vikings GM Jim] Finks said. "Right now there is no deal pending."

It was suggested to Finks that the Vikings might be interested in Bill Munson of Los Angeles or John Brodie or George Mira of San Francisco. "I've heard those stories," said Finks. "I'd say that the Vikings might be interested in one of them. I'll leave it to you to figure out which one."

But the inscrutable Finks would go a different direction. Two days later, in a deal that would be described as "the best of all possible worlds," he traded Minnesota's regularly-slotted first round pick, the seventh pick overall, to the Saints for Gary Cuozzo. Finks also had to throw in his 1969 first round pick to get the deal done.

You'll remember Cuozzo from the 1967 edition of this series. He had been Johnny Unitas's backup for four seasons before being traded to the expansion New Orleans Saints for the first overall selection and some other not-inconsequential commodities. Cuozzo must have been something like a pre-2010 Kevin Kolb at the time. The early Saints also had very little regard for high draft picks, as I'll discuss a bit later. So maybe, at least within the context of their organizational philosophy, the Saints can be forgiven. Ten very uninspiring starts later, though, Cuozzo had to have looked more like a pre-2010 Brady Quinn, so for the Vikings to give two first round picks for him seems crazy.

But like all things historical, it's not wise to criticize unless you have a firm handle on the prevailing thinking of the time. And I clearly do not, because this kind of trade --- first round pick(s) for unproven quarterback --- was extremely common in the late 60s. We saw this in the previous draft, and we'll see it several more times in this draft and the next.

Content with Cuozzo, the Vikings took Hall of Famer Ron Yary. Most of the pre-draft articles I read named Tennessee offensive lineman Bob Johnson (taken second by Cincinnati) and defensive lineman Kevin Hardy of Notre Dame (#7 to the Saints with Minnesota's pick) before Yary when discussing first pick options. So the Vikings had a nontrivial choice, and they chose wisely. Nice job, Vikings.

Now back to the piece of work known as Gary Beban.

He obviously had the pedigree and all the tools:

He stands 6'1" and weighs 195 pounds, more or less ideal for a quarterback.

But he was more particular than your average draftee:

The 21-year-old passer wants to play professional football, but not just with any team.

"I won't name the teams I'd rather not play for, but they know who they are," said Beban. "I've answered their questionnaires."

And Beban was a man who took his questionnaires seriously:

If a team is willing to waste a draft choice, especially a high one, on a young man who doesn't want to play for them, that's a poor way to run a business.

Perhaps by his own design, Beban fell all the way to the second round. He was taken 30th overall by his hometown Rams, prompting predictable conspiracy theories from columnists. Incidentally, the pick the Rams used to take Beban had originally belonged to the Saints. I'm not sure if the Saints got fair value in this deal or not; you be the judge:

The Rams were enabled to draft in New Orleans' turn because, ..., the Rams had given New Orleans access to their scouting reports when the Saints came into the league last year.

To quickly close out the Beban story, I'll note that he was traded before the season started to the Redskins for a 1969 first round pick, he threw one (1) pass in his NFL career, and apparently his attitude never improved:

When the Denver Broncos asked him to try out at free safety in '71, he declined, telling them, "If you want to be a lawyer and you don't pass the bar exam, do you become a bailiff just to get in the courtroom?"

[To be fair, the above-linked piece, written in 1998, paints Beban as a more likable character than I have here.]

Now let's take a closer look at the Saints' franchise-building plans. Remember, they were an expansion team in 1967. Here is a rundown of some of their key draft-related moves.

1. They traded the first overall pick in 1967 for Gary Cuozzo.

2. They signed Jim Taylor, who was 32 years old at the time and two years removed from his last Pro Bowl. Back in those days, the commissioner determined appropriate compensation to be paid by the signing team to the team losing the player. In this case, Green Bay was awarded the Saints' first pick in 1968. That was the fifth overall selection.

3. They signed receiver Dave Parks from the 49ers. Parks was a 27-year-old three-time Pro Bowler at the time, but he was coming off an injury-plagued and unproductive year. Appropriate compensation? Shockingly, it was a player and a draft pick. The draft pick was the Saints' 1969 first rounder, and the player was Kevin Hardy, a rookie who had been taken seventh overall just a few months prior, and who had been talked about as a potential first overall choice. The 1969 pick would end up being the seventh overall.

So in their first two years of existence, the Saints gave up what amounted to four top ten picks and the 30th overall, for Gary Cuozzo, Jim Taylor, Dave Parks, and some scouting reports. To be fair, some of the picks they gave were obtained by flipping Cuozzo, so I'm double-counting a bit. But the early Saints' distrust of rookies was clear.

Maybe it was this kind of thinking, also humorously elaborated by Falcons' coach Norb Hecker the previous year, that caused NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to announce that the league was considering a ban on trading of first- or perhaps first- and second-round draft picks:

Rozelle said the change would be aimed at strengthening weaker teams and beefing up future expansion teams.

Presumably he must have known that it would really be aimed at strengthening teams that were too dumb to strengthen themselves. And the Saints and Falcons were not the only guilty parties. Here is, I think, a complete list of traded first round picks from 1968, aside from those already mentioned (Saints/Packers/Taylor, Vikings/Saints/Cuozzo):

  • The Broncos obtained quarterback Steve Tensi from the Chargers for their first picks in 1968 and 1969. This trade was made just prior to the 1967 season.

    Tensi moved to stardom last season when he threw four touchdown passes against the Miami Dolphins.

    Nine out of 12 for 223 and four TDs is a pretty nice game, even if the opponent is playing its fourth game in franchise history. But the rest of Tensi's career to that point consisted of 12-for-40 for 182 yards. A huge game in relief seems to have been the way for a backup quarterback to make a name for himself. Gary Cuozzo, to take another example, had a five-TD game in his first career start.

    The 1968 pick was #4 overall and the Chargers used it to take five-time Pro Bowler Russ Washington.

  • The expansion Bengals, who had the first and last picks in every round, packaged the last picks of the first and second rounds to pry quarterback John Stofa from the Dolphins. The undrafted Stofa, who had "spent two-and-a-half years in the minors and been cut by Miami and Pittsburgh of the National League before he got the call from Miami", had played three games in his career to that point, but one of them was --- you guessed it --- a four-TD effort in his first career start.

    Humorous side note: the linked article above refers to Bob Griese as "the flashy rookie."

  • In October of 1967, the Oilers traded Ernie Ladd, Jacky Lee, and their 1968 first-rounder to the Chiefs for Len Dawson's backup Pete Beathard. At least Beathard had the pedigree some decent overall numbers.
  • Just before the 1967 season, the Rams traded their first round pick in 1968, plus two more "exceptionally high choices" for defensive lineman Roger Brown. Brown was 30 years old and coming off five consecutive Pro Bowl seasons, but was battling a knee injury.

Other random tidbits:

  • The Broncos, in a hole because of the Tensi deal, attempted to redeem themselves by taking one of the eventual best players in the draft: second-rounder Curley Culp. They undid this good work by trading Culp to the Chiefs just one game into his career. (Also check out the Bic pen ad under this article.)
  • Days before the draft, Alabama quarterback Ken Stabler was drafted by the Houston Astros as a pitcher, thereby making him the "Object of Pro Draft War." Baseball-reference confirms that this was the third time he had been taken in the baseball draft. "I'll just wait and see how things go in the football draft before deciding what to do," said Stabler.
  • The 12th overall pick was Oregon "safetyman" Jim Smith. Late in his rookie season with the Redskins, Smith broke his neck. At the time, he was expected to make a full recovery, but he never played again. The story does not end there, though. From a 2009 article:

    Two years after his retirement, Smith went before a judge and asserted that the draft constituted an unreasonable restraint of trade in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Had it not been for the draft, he argued, he would have been able to negotiate a more lucrative contract for his one year as a professional. And he demanded that the NFL make up the difference.

    The case succeeded at the district court, securing $276,000 in treble damages for Smith, and he won again when the league appealed.

    This would have killed the draft had the NFL not worked quickly to get it built into the collective bargaining agreement.