The Art (and Science) of Drafting: IIa. The Policy Regime (1994-1998)

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Apologize in advance, but the team and player page tags aren't working for me right now for some reason. I'll attempt to link them shortly.

On Wednesday, in Part 1 of my review of 49er draft history, I broke down their picks since 1994 by round, position, and conference. Just to refresh everyone's memory, here's the overall Niner draft strategy I came up with based on my breakdown:

  1. When we're good, let's trade away picks. When we're bad, let's acquire more picks.
  2. Trade up into the 1st round using 2nd-round picks. Trade down into the 6th and 7th rounds using 5th-round picks.
  3. Take players from BCS conferences.
  4. Dominate the neighborhood (i.e., take Pac-10 players).
  5. Wait until Day 2 to draft QBs, RBs, and WRs.
  6. Grab TEs, LBs, and DBs in the late rounds for depth and special teams.
  7. Don't pull an Al Davis (i.e., Ks and Ps are not draft-worthy).

As I mentioned at the end of Part 1, this overall strategy actually represents a conglomeration of strategies for 4 different 49er GMs (and coach-GM duos):

  1. Carmen Policy, who ran the draft from 1994-1998
  2. Bill Walsh, who ran the draft from 1999-2001
  3. Terry Donahue, who ran the draft from 2002-2004
  4. Scot McLoughan and Mike Nolan (aka McNolan), who ran the draft from 2005-2008

Of particular interest, above and beyond the Niners' overall draft strategy, are the individual strategies (and results) for each regime. There are a few reasons why knowing the regime info is important. First, it allows us to compare the 4 regimes both in terms of the strategies themselves, as well as their effectiveness at drafting starters and Pro Bowlers. I'm sure the conventional wisdom out there among 49er fans, for example, is that Walsh and Policy were more successful than Donahue and McNolan. So 2 potential questions that arise out of a knowledge of regime results are, "Is this conventional wisdom true?" and, "If so, are differences in draft strategy an explanation for why it's true?"

The second reason why it's important to know the regime strategies is related to the first. Namely, we can compare 49er regimes with those of other teams. I'll be doing just that in Part 4 of this piece. Finally, it's important to know the regime strategy for McNolan in particular because it gives us a rough blueprint for what to expect in this year's draft.

I know I said in Part 1 that I was going to tackle all 4 regimes in today's post, but I soon realized that such a post would be the longest in the history of blogging. Therefore, I've decided to change up the schedule a little bit. Rather than detailing all 4 regimes in one post, I'm going to break Part 2 into 4 subsections (2a-2d), one for each regime. So here's the revised schedule:

  1. 4/10/09 - Policy regime drafts (1994-1998)
  2. 4/11/09 - Walsh regime drafts (1999-2001)
  3. 4/13/09 - Donahue regime drafts (2002-2004)
  4. 4/14/09 - McNolan regime drafts (2005-2008) and comparisons
  5. 4/15/09 - Comparison of SF and NE team draft strategies
  6. 4/17/09 - Comparison of SF and NE regime draft strategies

Before I begin with the regime breakdowns, a couple of "buyer beware" caveats are necessary that will apply to each of the 4 posts. First, because we're talking about 118 picks spread out over 4 regimes, the sample sizes are pretty small for each specific regime. So I'll be trying as hard as possible to focus only on strategies and strategy differences that are extremely glaring. Second, because we're talking about a 15-year time span here, I'm going to be vigilant about keeping each regime's picks in the context of where the Niners were as a team when the picks were made. For instance, the team had increasingly deteriorating DEF stats at the end of the 1990's, so it's no wonder that Walsh took DEF player after DEF player from 1999-2001. The strategy means nothing without the context, and, in fact, this phenomenon illustrates an additional aspect of draft strategy in and of itself, i.e., whether or not each team (or regime) drafted according to needs.

After the jump, I'll put the Policy drafts in context; break the results down by position, draft day, and conference; and provide the idiot's guide to Policy draft strategy...

Here again is the link to my Excel spreadsheet of 49er draft picks in the Salary Cap Era, which can serve as both a permanent reference on Niners Nation and a resource for your own investigations into 49er draft picks:

49er Draft Picks 1994-2008

If you haven't taken a look at it yet, here's what's in it for those who are interested:

  1. List of 49er picks and pick details (year, round, pick, position, height, weight, school, conference, BCS?, starter?, and Pro Bowler?) from 1994-2008
  2. List of 49er picks and pick details from 1994-1998 (Policy drafts)
  3. List of 49er picks and pick details from 1999-2001 (Walsh drafts)
  4. ist of 49er picks and pick details from 2002-2004 (Donahue drafts)
  5. List of 49er picks and pick details from 2005-2008 (McNolan drafts)
  6. Number of picks in each overall and regime total broken down by round, position, and conference
  7. Percentage of picks in each overall and regime row total (with breakdowns)
  8. Percentage of picks in each overall and regime column total (with breakdowns)
  9. Percentage of picks in each overall and regime total (with breakdowns)

OK, on with the show...

IN CONTEXT

First, the context...and what a context it was! From 1994-1998, the 49ers won just over 12 games per season, made the playoffs all 5 years, and won Super Bowl XXIX. Obviously, that success was built over the course of several drafts that preceded 1994, but Carmen Policy was nevertheless the primary architect beginning in 1991 (with the help of Vinny Cerrato).

So what possible needs could there have been for the 49ers during these halcyon days? More than you think:

  • 1994 Draft - Key Losses: FB Tom Rathman (free agency), DL Ted Washington (trade), DL Kevin Fagan (retirement), and LB Mike Walter (retirement). Weak 1993 Stats: 23rd in rushing TDs allowed, K had 61.5% accuracy rate. Lingering Issues: Still hadn't found a worthy replacement for LB Charles Haley; still couldn't stop the Cowboys' running game. Needs: FB, DL, LB, K.
  • 1995 Draft - Key Losses: RB Ricky Watters (free agency) and DB Dieon Sanders (free agency). Weak 1994Stats: None. Lingering Issues: Except for William Floyd and Derrick Deese, entire starting OFF was 30 or older. Needs: RB, DB, OFF depth.
  • 1997 Draft - Key Losses: Wallace (retirement), Barton (retirement), and K Jeff Wilkins (free agency). Weak 1996 Stats: None. Lingering Issues: Still hadn't found a worthy replacement for Watters or Sanders; old-timers Young, TE Brent Jones, and LB Gary Plummer missed 15 total games due to minor injuries. Needs: RB, OL, DB, K, OFF depth, LB depth.
  • 1998 Draft - Key Losses: Floyd (free agency), Jones (retirement), OL Jesse Sapolu (retirement, DL Dana Stubblefield (free agency), Plummer (retirement), and DB Rod Woodson (free agency). Weak 1997 Stats: OFF DVOA dropped to 13th. Lingering Issues: had major injuries to DB Marquez Pope and old-timer WR Jerry Rice. Needs: FB, TE, LB, DB, OL, DL, LB, DB, WR depth.

For the most part, a vast majority of the needs were on offense, and overall, their needs had to do with youth and depth. However, rather than through the draft, the 49ers addressed most of these needs via free agency. Specifically, Jackson was signed to replace Fagan, RB Garrison Hearst was signed to replace Watters, Pope (feebly) and Woodson (fleetingly) were signed to replace Sanders, DL Chris Doleman was signed to replace Jackson, DB Darnell Walker was signed to replace Davis, K Gary Anderson was signed to replace Wilkins, OL Kevin Gogan was signed to replace Sapolu (after permanently moving OL Chris Dalman to C), and LB Winfred Tubbs was signed to replace Plummer. The point here is that the Niners' issues from 1994-1998 had more to do with age than performance, and yet they chose to address those issues by signing high-performing free agents. In NFL Dynasties 101, the Policy regime must have skipped over Chapter 10 of the required textbook, which is entitled, "Free Agency: A Faustian Bargain."

SECOND FIDDLE

From 1994-1998, the 49ers made 29 selections in the NFL draft, which works out to about 6 picks per season. Given that their overall rate has been about 8 picks per season over the past 15 years, you can already tell that the Policy regime was to blame when it came to trading away picks. As I just said, part of the reason for this had to do with the fact that they chose to address most of their needs during free agency. Another likely reason for the "fold ‘em" draft strategy - and this is obviously just speculation - is that the Policy regime saw the gaudy stats and continued playoff success during his tenure, and figured the best strategy in that context was to draft for immediate help -  rather than depth or potential - by trading up for the blue chippers. Indeed, the Niners only had 4 picks in 1995, and no 1st-round pick in 1996 because they sold the farm to take WR J.J. Stokes. Similarly, they only had 3 picks in 1997 because they traded their 5th-, 6th-, and 7th-round picks to take - wait for it - FB Mark Edwards and TE Greg Clark.

So reframing the argument I made in Part 1, if we define "drafting for now" as getting younger and deeper at key positions, then the Niners did not "draft for now" when they were good during the Policy regime years; they also didn't "draft for the future" given the plethora of picks they traded away. Rather, it's more that they simply decided to basically not draft at all. That is, the draft played second fiddle to free agency.

ASSUME THE POSITION

So what did the 49ers do with the 29 picks they actually held onto from 1994-1998? Overall, the Policy regime took 16 OFF players, 12 DEF players, and 1 ST player. In terms of positions, they took 5 WRs, 5 LBs, 4 OLs, 4 DLs, 3 FBs, 3 DBs, 2 TEs, 1 QB, 1 RB, and 1 K. Relating these numbers back to team needs, they drafted Floyd to replace Rathman, DT Bryant Young to replace Washington, LB Lee Woodall to replace Haley, K Doug Brien to replace K Mike Cofer, WR Terrell Owens to replace Taylor, and DB R.W. McQuarters to replace Woodson.

Although this certainly indicates that they did address some positional needs in the draft, it's more interesting to notice (a) what positions they didn't address, and (b) the timing of their positional need picks. Specifically, Policy's 49ers drafted only 1 RB despite the obvious negative implications of losing Watters. Some people (like me) think that Watters' departure was the beginning of the end of the on-the-field dynasty, so its' mindboggling that the Policy regime chose to muddle through 1995-1997 with RBs Derek Loville and Terry Kirby. And the RB that the Policy regime did pick? That would be Stephen Pitts in the 6th round; definitely a household name. Similarly, despite losing 4 Pro Bowl OLs during his tenure (not to mention the increase in Steve Young's injury proneness), the Policy regime only took 4 OLs in 5 drafts. He also took only 3 DBs despite losing both starting CBs and much of the secondary depth beginning in 1995. Indeed, some analysts were shocked (shocked!) that the Niners chose to trade away their 1997 picks for a QB, FB, and TE; rather than addressing their glaring, perennial needs at OL and DB.

Now, the second interesting piece of the positional need puzzle: timing. During the same time that the Policy regime basically ignored RB, OL, and DB - the Niners' 3 biggest needs - he sure did choose an inordinate number of WRs and LBs. Think about that for a second. The 49ers had the G.O.A.T., and they chose WR as the position on which to focus most of their draft picks. Granted, Taylor was getting old, so drafting to replace their #2 WR was reasonable. However, trading most of your draft to move up in the 1st round is something you do to replace your #1 WR, not your #2. Now think about LB. They had - arguably - the best LB corps in the NFL from 1994-1997, yet they chose to focus most of their draft picks on that position.

You might be thinking to yourself, "but you said before that they were supposed to be using the draft for depth (and youth)!" You're right, but only if you ignore the context. My point here is that, when your major positional needs are RB, OL, and DB for 5 years running, and you have only 29 picks to work with, you don't go focusing your youth and depth solutions at WR and LB. Sure, hindsight is 20/20; and I know it's easy to look back and say Stokes, WR Corey Fleming, WR Iheanyi Uwaezouke, WR Ryan Thelwell, LB Kevin Mitchell, LB Anthony Peterson, LB Antonio Armstrong, and LB Sam Manuel were wasted picks given their performance (or lack thereof). But, to me, their (poor) performance is only relevant in the context of draft strategy: they shouldn't have been taking so many WRs and LBs in the first place, so missing on most of them only served to exacerbate their lack of attention to RB, OL, and DB. I mean, if after losing Watters, Sanders, Davis, and all those OLs, they would have drafted repeatedly for these positions, would we have b*tched as much if they didn't hit? I don't think so because at least they were giving it the ol' college try (pun intended). Alternatively, might they have hit more at these need positions if they took more bites at the apple? Probably, given their relative success overall (which I detail in the next paragraph). Instead, as fans, we were faced with a double dose of dynasty destruction: drafting busts at the "want" positions and ignoring the "need" positions. The Policy regime's drafts leave a sour taste because, in essence, he was fiddling while Rome burned.

Looking back, this lack of attention to need positions in the draft really is a shame because it's not like Policy and company were bad talent evaluators. To the contrary, 41.4% of their 29 picks became regular starters for the Niners, and 20.7% made the Pro Bowl as a Niner. Breaking these down by position, they drafted 3 starters at FB, 2 at WR and DB, and 1 each at TE, OL, DL, LB, and K. In terms of Pro Bowlers, they drafted 1 each at FB, WR, OL, DL, LB, and DB. Given the overall stats I presented in Part 1 (42.4% and 9.3%, respectively), Policy's regime was by far the best of the 4 when it came to drafting Pro Bowlers; they drafted more than the other 3 regimes combined (5). Of course, as I'm sure you realize, Pro Bowlers tend to come from winning teams; so maybe that's why the Policy regime "found" more of them. You know, it's a kind of chicken-and-egg thing.  And just in case you didn't notice, that was 3 starters (30.0%) and 2 Pro Bowlers (20.0%) among the 10 total picks the Policy regime made at RB, OL, and DB. Although the lone DB Pro Bowler actually played S (Lance Schulters), that's still a good Pro Bowl rate; even more evidence in favor of my "bites at the apple" argument that more picks at these positions might have led to more need-based draft success.

Of their 5 drafts, the Policy regime's most impressive was their 1994 effort, which produced 4 players (Young, Floyd, Brien, and Woodall) who started as rookies for the Super Bowl XXIX squad, and 2 49er Pro Bowlers (Young and Woodall). Not far behind was the 1998 draft, which produced 3 starters (OL Jeremy Newberry, Shulters, and FB Fred Beasley), all of whom made the Pro Bowl as a Niner.

One last thing I'll say about positional needs, and how they were addressed. In case you were wondering, here are the Policy regime's positional picks by draft day:

Pos

Day 1

Day 2

Total

QB

1

0

1

RB

0

1

1

FB

2

1

3

WR

3

2

5

TE

1

1

2

OL

2

2

4

DL

2

2

4

LB

1

4

5

DB

2

1

3

K

1

0

1

P

0

0

0

Total

15

14

29

 

As you can see, they actually ended up with nearly an even split of picks between Day 1 and Day 2 despite trading away so many. That's because trading away Day 2 of the 1997 draft balanced out the effect of trading away Day 1 in 1995. In addition, the only position in which there seemed to be any draft day preference whatsoever was at LB (Day 2), which I suppose softens the blow of picking too many LBs. However, lack of attention to positional needs on Day 1 (0 RBs, 2 OLs, and 2 DBs) re-hardens the blow (that's what she said; sorry, had to).

Bottom line - Here's what I think are the main things to take away from this section:

  • The Policy regime mostly took WRs and LBs despite having more pressing needs at RB, OL, and DB.
  • The Policy regime traded away a lot of picks to move up in the draft for positions they didn't need.
  • The Policy regime had a Pro Bowl rate that was over twice the 49er average from 1994-2008, and the rate at need positions suggests more attention should have been focused on them.
  • Except for taking more LBs on Day 2, the Policy regime spread their positional picks out evenly between draft days. In other words, there was no Day 1 focus on glaring positional needs.

CONFERENCE ROOM

As was the case with the overall total from 1994-2008, the highest percentage of Policy regime draft picks came from the Pac-10 (6). Among the other conferences represented, there were 4 Big 12 picks, 3 Big 10 picks, 3 Big East picks, 3 Notre Dame picks, 2 Big West picks, 2 SEC picks, 1 ACC pick, 1 Atlantic 10 pick, 1 MSFA pick, 1 PSAC pick, 1 Southern pick, and 1 WAC pick. What stands out here is their affinity for picking players from schools that are close to home. Over half of the picks (65.5%) came from conferences that mostly play in or west of the Central time zone, which isn't so coincidental given the Niners' location, and that of Eddie Debartolo's home (Youngstown, OH) and alma mater (Notre Dame). Also, it didn't hurt that Policy himself was born, and got his undergraduate degree, in OH.

If we break it down according to the BCS, we find that 75.9% of the Policy regime's picks came from BCS schools. Going back to the 49ers' overall BCS rate from 1994-2008 (79.7%), it seems that the Policy regime was par for the course when it came to drafting big-school talent. What's interesting about this, though, is how good the Policy regime was at finding small-school diamonds in the rough: Woodall (PSAC; Division II), Owens (Southern; Division IAA), and Schulters (Atlantic 10; Division IAA) all made the Pro Bowl as a 49er after being drafted from non-Division-IA - let alone non-BCS - schools.  Indeed, although their BCS and non-BCS starter rates (40.9% and 42.9%, respectively) were as expected from Part 1, the Policy regime's Pro Bowl rate for non-BCS picks was 42.9%, which dwarfs both their Pro Bowl rate for BCS picks (13.6%) and the Niners' overall non-BCS Pro Bowl rate in the Salary Cap Era (12.5%).

When it comes to positions, the Policy regime pretty much followed the 80% rule of overall 49er draft strategy. The only exceptions were at DB (66.7%), LB (60.0%), and TE (50.0%). However, when combining positions into team units, the conclusion is different. In line with expectation, 81.3% of the OFF picks were from BCS schools. However, only 66.7% of the DEF picks came from BCS schools, which is well below the overall 49er rate of 79.3%.

Here's a table showing the number of BCS and non-BCS players that the 49ers have selected on each day of the draft:

BCS?

Day 1

Day 2

Total

Yes

14

8

22

No

1

6

7

Total

15

14

29

 

Not surprisingly, the Policy regime took 93.3% of their Day 1 picks from BCS schools, which is in line with the 89.8% overall BCS rate for the Niners. However, on Day 2, rather than the non-BCS rate tripling as it did in the overall numbers, it instead increased 6-fold to 42.9%! Clearly, the Policy regime absolutely adored those diamonds in the rough, most likely because he was actually good at finding them.

So I think I've established that the Policy regime was good at picking players from non-BCS schools, and that they picked more of these non-BCS players on Day 2. To further illustrate this point, the tables below show starters by draft day broken up into BCS and non-BCS picks:

BCS Picks

Starter?

Day 1

Day 2

Total

Yes

8

1

9

No

6

7

13

Total

14

8

22

 

Non-BCS Picks

Starter?

Day 1

Day 2

Total

Yes

1

2

4

No

0

4

3

Total

1

6

7

 

Among players taken from BCS schools, the 49ers' starter rate dropped from 57.1% on Day 1 to 12.5% on Day 2. Likewise, the non-BCS starter rate dropped from 100.0% on Day 1 to 33.3% on Day 2. However, what's interesting here is that the Policy regime's starter rate was better for non-BCS picks on both draft days. Not to beat a dead horse, but the Policy regime hit on Day 2 non-BCS players at an inordinate rate when compared to the overall 49er stats from 1994-2008. Again, this begs the question, "Why, then, did they trade away Day 2 in 1997?" For Edwards and Clark no less! Your guess is as good as mine.

Bottom line - Here's what I think are the main things to take away from this section:

  • The Policy regime took players from conferences that were close to home.
  • The Policy regime had a higher BCS rate for OFF picks than DEF picks.
  • The Policy regime took more non-BCS players on Day 2 of the draft than Day 1.
  • On both draft days, the Policy regime had better starter and Pro Bowl rates for picks from non-BCS schools.

GENERAL ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSION

During the course of doing my research and stats for this article, it became apparent to me that the period in 49er history from 1994-1998 should be named, "Auto Pilot." I think both the Policy regime and 49er fans entered into a mindset that the dynasty would never end; that there was some supernatural force bestowing Hall of Famer after Hall of Famer on SF; that the mere presence of a West Coast offense, a Walshian approach to football, and a benevolent owner was enough to bring wins in perpetuity. The fact of the matter is that what kept the dynasty going for so long was a constant replenishment of superior talent through the draft. It was saying, "We're great, but we want to be perfect, and the way to be perfect is to get younger and deeper." If that meant letting an old-timer go or "gently" forcing him into retirement so that his younger understudy could get a chance to shine, that's what was done (See Young, Steve vis-à-vis Montana, Joe; Romanowski, Bill vis-à-vis Turner, Keena, etc.). Rather than by nibbling away at the edges of the envelope, the dynasty sustained itself by replacing the old envelope with a new one throughout its lifespan. To put it as poignantly as possible, Walsh saw a dynasty and tried to perfect it through the draft, whereas Policy and company saw a dynasty and wanted to put it on auto pilot.

I realize that there was no free agency before1993, but focusing on it after 1993 -at the expense of the draft - was the epic fail of the Policy regime. Rather than getting rid of the old guys and replacing them through the draft, they sat on their laurels, watching the old guys get older, and tradied away the valuable draft picks that could be used to replace them. What's worse is that, when it eventually came time to replace the free agent losses and retirees, the Policy regime chose free agency - rather than the draft - as its primary means.

In case you didn't know, I'm a Yankee fan. Don't fret, though. I'm not one of those obnoxious "the Yanks can do no wrong" or "Hey, there's no salary cap, so we're just playing by the rules when we spend $200M a year on payroll" types. On the contrary, I'm hypercritical of what the Yankees (esp. Brian Cashman) have done for the past 8 years; to the point now that I have a hard time watching their games or getting emotionally involved in their seasons. The reason I'm hypercritical is because it's a déjà vu experience; the same thing that I saw with the Niners in 1995.

The Yanks' success from 1996-2000 was achieved on the backs of homegrown talent (Jeter, Posada, Rivera, Pettitte, Bernie, etc.). When they used free agency, it was to sign the second-tier guys like Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez. Since Cashman became GM, however, they watched the old guys get older, traded away their prospects, and signed high-priced replacements via free agency. What have they gotten out of it? Over the past 8 years, they've gotten a lot of deceptively good seasons, but no championships.

And you know what? That's exactly how I look at the Policy years in SF. Rather than going with what got them there (i.e., the draft), the Niners chose the high-priced free agent route. They watched their stars get old, and did almost nothing. And what did it get them from 1995-1998? A lot of deceptively good seasons, but no championships. As is the case with the Yankees today in MLB, the Policy regime's strategy was no way to sustain an NFL dynasty in the mid-90s. Furthermore, as is the case with the Yankees today, what was needed in 1999 was for someone to blow up the Niners' franchise and go back to its drafting origins. Indeed, it wasn't until Bill Walsh himself retook the reins of the organization that the Policy regime's free agency attachment and draft neglect were stopped once and for all.

But that's the subject of Part 2b, which I'll discuss in detail tomorrow. So, with my diatribe complete, here's how I would describe the Policy regime's draft strategy, a strategy to which we'll be comparing subsequent regimes:

  1. Draft picks are commodities best used for moving up in the draft.
  2. Once you've addressed positional needs in free agency, there's no need to focus on them in the draft.
  3. Dominate the neighborhood (i.e., take Pac-10 players and those near Youngstown, OH).
  4. There's plenty of talent outside the BCS conferences, but wait until Day 2 to acquire it.

That's it for now. On Saturday, I'll break down the Walsh drafts (1999-2001). TO BE CONTINUED...

1 DVOA statistics used to produce this article were obtained from Football Outsiders.

X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join Niners Nation

You must be a member of Niners Nation to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Niners Nation. You should read them.

Join Niners Nation

You must be a member of Niners Nation to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Niners Nation. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.

tracking_pixel_9341_tracker