Societal restrictions during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic have forced many of us to find new ways to do our jobs.
That is certainly true for NFL general managers, personnel directors, scouts and coaches. Because the league will conduct its draft as scheduled in late April, they’ve had to alter their preparation methods dramatically since early March.
With travel nixed by the NFL, scouts haven’t been able to meet face-to-face with potential draftees since the NFL combine or gather information at on-campus timing days. They haven’t been able to bring in prospects for medical updates with team doctors. They haven’t been able to convene in person for their usual pre-draft meetings to discuss prospects and construct their draft boards.
Although public complaints thankfully have been kept to a minimum, those things have had an impact on how scouts are doing their jobs. That is especially problematic in this era of draft information overload, where teams have extensive scouting staffs, vast computer databases and accurate measurements of every player’s height, weight, speed, strength, agility, explosiveness, intelligence and medical history.
Scouts have had to figure out new ways to get the information they need and, in many cases, they are. Still, it stands to reason general managers won’t be as prepared for this year’s draft as they usually are.
If they need inspiration prior to the draft, however, all they have to do is look at the Green Bay Packers in the 1950s. College scouting was in its infancy then, but the Packers still drafted brilliantly thanks mostly to the work of Jack Vainisi, the most unsung great figure in franchise history.
Despite their dismal record and string of coaches in the 1950s, the Packers were light years ahead of their time in terms of the draft. Although he never held the title of general manager, Vainisi, operating as a one-man personnel department, was primarily responsible for drafting the heart of the roster that won five NFL titles in seven seasons under coach Vince Lombardi in the 1960s. Vainisi also was influential in the Packers’ hiring Lombardi in 1959 and became a close confidant of the coach.
Sadly, Vainisi never got to witness the fruits of his labor because he died of a heart condition at age 33 on Nov. 27, 1960, one month before Green Bay lost to Philadelphia in the NFL title game. When Lombardi’s Packers won their first NFL title the following season, 16 of the 22 starters had been drafted or signed as rookies by Vainisi. He was also instrumental in drafting a 17th starter — future Hall of Famer Herb Adderley — in the 1961 draft, though it happened about a month after his death.
Vainisi got all that done despite working under conditions that modern scouts would consider primitive. At the time, many teams had their owner or coach conduct the draft using college media guides, preview magazines and All-American teams. Often, they made decisions based on a player’s reputation and perhaps a recommendation from his college coach.
The Los Angeles Rams got the scouting ball rolling in 1946 when they hired Eddie Kotal, a former Packers player and assistant coach, and made him the first person to criss-cross the land looking at players full-time. That led to a Rams roster that was widely considered the best in the NFL in the early 1950s.
The Packers got into the game when coach Gene Ronzani hired the 23-year-old Vainisi to start the personnel department in 1950. A Chicago native who went to Notre Dame, Vainisi’s playing career had been derailed by a service commitment and rheumatic fever, but he proved to be an innovative pioneer in the scouting of players.
Vainisi developed an extensive network of contacts in college coaching, paying them to send him scouting reports on their own players and opposing players. He also traveled to college games and campuses, though not full-time. By the time of his death in 1960, Vainisi had 18 binders filled with detailed reports that ranked, coded and cross-referenced more than 4,000 players.
The result? Although Vainisi never had final say in the draft, the general managers and coaches almost always heeded his advice. More than half a century later, his drafting record stands up against anyone’s in NFL history.
In the seven drafts from 1952 to 1958, Vainisi drafted eight future Hall of Fame players — Bobby Dillon, Jim Ringo, Forrest Gregg, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke and Jerry Kramer. He also signed Hall of Famer Willie Wood as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1960.
It didn’t end there, though. Vainisi also drafted Lombardi-era stalwarts Dave Hanner, Bill Forrester, Max McGee, Tom Bettis, Bob Skoronski, Hank Gremminger, Ron Kramer, Dan Currie, Boyd Dowler and Bob Jeter. Plus, he facilitated trades for Hall of Famers Willie Davis and Henry Jordan.
Vainisi did his best work when he was collaborating with Lisle Blackbourn, who coached the Packers from 1954 to ‘57. Blackbourn was fired shortly after the 1958 draft, which produced three Hall of Famers — Taylor, Nitschke and Jerry Kramer — and remains one of the two or three greatest drafts in NFL history. Currie, a longtime starter who was later traded for Carroll Dale, was the team’s first-round pick that year, followed by Taylor in the second round, Nitschke in the third and Jerry Kramer in the fourth.
Clearly, the Packers’ Glory Years would never have happened without Vainisi’s draft expertise. And to think, he stocked the roster without any of the modern methods teams now use in preparing for the draft.