Of the 28 teams that make up the National Football League, only one, New Orleans, has never produced a winning season. Last year, in fact, the Saints were the epitome of futility, losing a league record 15 of 16 games while earning a derisive new nickname, "Aints."
This backdrop put more than a little pressure on the franchise during this week's NFL draft, when, with its first chance ever to make the draft's opening selection, New Orleans picked South Carolina running back George Rogers.
With the Gamecocks the 6 ft. 2 in., 220-pound tailback averaged six yards a carry, led the nation in rushing, and captured the 1980 Heisman Trophy as the country's best college player.
Realistically speaking, Rogers can't turn the Saints around single-handedly, but impatient fans expect him to have a positive impact.
So does new Coach Bum Phillips, who passed up some crack defensive players to get George. Considering New Orleans already fields an adequate offense, patching up the league's worst defensive unit appeared to be the top priority.
But following a standard NFL procedure, New Orleans ignored its most pressing need to choose the proverbial "best player available."
Actually Phillips believes the presence of a yardage-eating back like Rogers aids the defense, even if indirectly.
"The best way to help your defense is to keep it off the field," he told the Sporting News before the draft. "If you've got a good running game, you use about three times the amount of time as you do passing the ball, because every time you miss a pass, you stop the clock. With a good running game, a 40-or 50 -yard drive from your own 20 will eat up five, six, maybe seven minutes and put you in a position to punt them into a hole."
No one, of course, is more sold on big, durable backs than Phillips, who, as Houston's coach, traded for the privilege of drafting Earl Campbell in 1978. Campbell has won three consecutive rushing titles while serving as the driveshaft to the Oiler offense.
Though no one questions his value to the Oilers, who some call Earlers, Campbell didn't make a tremendous difference in the team's record. In 1977 the Oilers were 8-6 without Earl, the next year, playing an expanded schedule with him, they went 10-6.
The addition of can't-miss prospects just doesn't have the impact on 11-man teams that a rookie seven-footer (or a Magic Johnson type of player) may have in basketball.
Despite this, the NFL draft has evolved into the most ogled grab bag in pro sports. Elaborate and thorough scouting reports make the existence of every thoroughbred in the country common knowledge to avid fans.
The experts generally agreed that this year's crop of college players was one of the deepest talentwise in quite a while, even if it didn't promise any instant superstars.
With every team seeking to shut down to ay's pass-oriented offenses, mobile linebackers and cat-quick defensive backs were nabbed early and often. The New York Giants wasted no time in taking North Carolina's Lawrence Taylor, a 6-3, 243-pound defensive end projected as a pro linebacker, with the second overall choice. Selecting fifth st. Louis snatched up Alabama linebacker E. J. Junior, and Tampa Bay soon followed by drafting Pittsburgh linebacker Huch Green, the Heisman runner-up, with the seventh pick.
A half a dozen defensive backs went in the first round, including UCLA's Kenny Easley to Seattle and Southern Cal's Ronnie Lott to San Francisco.
Rogers was the plum of the running backs, but several other well-known names were taken on the first go-round. UCLA's Freeman McNeil, the third player chosen overall, was plucked by the New York Jets, Oklahoma's David Overstreet by Miami, Auburn's James Brooks by San Diego, and Penn State's Booker Moore by Buffalo.
California's Rich Campbell, grabbed by Green Bay, was the only quarterback to go during the opening selections, surprising those who expected record-setting passer Neil Lomax of Portland State to go early. St. Louis wound up taking Lomax on the second round.
In another mildly surprising development, Los Angeles, having just lost starting quarterback Vince Ferragamo to the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, selected Michigan linebacke r Mel Owens when its turn came on the first round.