“If you are a coach, you coach; if you are a scout, you scout,” Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill once said. “We believe in a policy of separation.”
More times than not, that policy did not work for the St. Louis Football Cardinals.
After the 1973 NFL draft, the Cards promoted Kentucky native George Boone to the position of director of player personnel. From 1974 to 1987 only the Green Bay Packers had fewer collective Pro Bowl appearances among their draft picks.
And only three teams saw a higher percentage of their number one draft choices fail to develop into quality players.
Boone was able to survive four head coaching changes and numerous turnovers in the scouting department over his tenure in St. Louis. Prior to the 1987 draft, Bill Bidwill told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that he was satisfied with Boone’s work. That was just before the Cards selected quarterback Kelly Stouffer, who would never throw a pass for the team.
“I think there have been some mistakes made,” Bidwill said. “I think there have been several obvious mistakes. But I think that a lot of teams make mistakes. We’ve had some good picks, and I think overall we’re probably somewhere in the middle.”
“But nothing has caused me to lose faith in George Boone.”
George Boone played college football at the University of Kentucky and was an assistant coach there from 1960-1965. He worked two years for an NFL scouting organization which provided scouting reports to seven teams including the Cardinals.
The Big Red hired Boone as their assistant personnel director in 1968 and he was promoted to personnel director in 1973 after the retirement of Abe Stuber. Boone hit a home run with his first Big Red draft pick when he selected J.V. Cain in 1974.
“We didn’t feel that we could pass up a guy like that,” Boone told the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
However, the first ten draft picks in 1975 played in only 18 games with the Cardinals, and after a decent draft in 1976, which included mid-round picks Pat Tilley and Wayne Morris, the Cardinals bombed in 1977 and 1978.
In desperate need of defensive help in ’77, Boone selected Mizzou QB Steve Pisarkiewicz with the top pick and speedy running back George Franklin in the second round. Franklin never played a game with the Cards and Pisarkiewicz started only four games and was out of football after three seasons. The drafting of Pisarkiewicz drew the ire of head coach Don Coryell who wanted the team to draft linebacker Robin Cole, who went two picks later to the Steelers.
“In my mind there’s no question I did the right thing,” Boone told the St. Louis Post Dispatch after the draft. “It would have been easier for me to take Robin Cole than Steve Pisarkiewicz, but I don’t believe it would have been right for the organization.”
Boone went on. “If we don’t take Pisarkiewicz when he’s available we’re crazy. This is an insurance policy. You never need a quarterback until the No. 1 goes down, and then you can’t get one. Four years down the road, this will be the guy you’ll want to move in.”
Boone was just getting warmed up with his controversial picks. Again in desperate need of defensive help, the Cards selected kicker Steve Little in the first round of the 1978 draft and second and third round picks, John Barefield and Doug Greene, started just 11 games for the Big Red.
Boone claimed the Cardinals had been planning to draft Little for over a year.
“We could have taken some people then (1977 draft)—(Tom) Skladany was a name that came up—but we decided to hold for this year and take our chances getting Little,” Boone told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in May of 1978. “I think Steve Little was the best defensive player on the entire board. I believe in defense, and to have defense you have to have a kicking game.”
Little struggled to adjust in the NFL and lasted only 2+ seasons in the league.
Boone hit a home run in 1979 by netting OJ Anderson, Roy Green, and Joe Bostic. In fact the Cardinal draft picks graded as well as any team in the league from 1979-1983. This resulted in a much improved team. The Big Red had winning seasons from 1982-1984.
However the 1984 draft was a disaster. The coaching staff wanted a receiver to complement Roy Green and an aging Pat Tilley and were shocked when Southern Miss wide receiver Louis Lipps was available when it was their turn to pick at number 17. Hanifan wanted Lipps and told Bidwill so, yet Bidwill told Boone to draft the relatively unknown Clyde Duncan, a receiver from Tennessee. Duncan caught four passes and was out of football in two seasons, while Lipps scored 9 touchdowns and was named Rookie of the Year for the Steelers in 1984.
The fourteen draft picks in 1984 combined for one start that season. In 1986, Boone selected another kicker early in the draft. This time it was UCLA All-American John Lee who was supposed to be a “can’t miss” kicker. But, Lee struggled with kickoffs and played just 11 NFL games.
In 1987, the Cardinals shocked everyone when they took Colorado State quarterback Kelly Stouffer with the 6th pick in the draft. Even Stouffer was surprised when his name was called as he had no personal contact with the Cardinals leading up to the draft.
“I was very surprised,” Stouffer said after the draft. “I really had no contact with the Cardinals throughout my career. I worked out for 12 teams, but not the Cardinals… I was kind of baffled.”
At best, Stouffer was considered a second round draft pick and many questioned whether he really rated the sixth choice in the draft.
“We wouldn’t have taken him if we didn’t think he was,” Boone said after the draft. “He may even be better than that. But time is going to answer that one.”
It didn’t take long for “time” to provide an answer. The Cardinals could not come to terms with Stouffer who held out the entire 1987 season. He would never play a down in St. Louis and play in only a handful of games with Seattle before calling it a career.
Stouffer’s claim of being “surprised” to have been selected by the Cardinals was a familiar refrain from many Big Red draft picks over the years.
1986 top pick Anthony Bell said that he was “stunned” to have been taken by the Cardinals. He had no interaction with Boone or Bidwill until three days after the draft.
The Cardinals were unaware of Steve Little’s personal problems which led to his downfall. Another former number one draft pick could not read the playbook and had to enroll in a reading program. And Duncan lacked motivation which partly led to his demise.
But Boone told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that, for the most part, spending time to get to know a player was a waste of time.
“I don’t believe that is a sure way,” Boone said in 1987. I think you can come away with bad vibes and be entirely wrong about a kid. It can screw you up more in evaluating a person more than it can help you. That’s the reason we don’t do it. I appreciate others wanting to meet the person and all that, but I think it’s bull.”
Another criticism of Boone was his infatuation with players who shined in college all-star games. Steve Pisarkiewicz threw touchdowns in three postseason all-star games. Freddie Joe Nunn recorded 9 tackles, 3 sacks and recovered a fumble in the Hula Bowl before the Cards took him with their top pick.
Boone felt that a big performance in an all-star game could reveal something about a player that could go unnoticed in workouts.
“Sometimes he may be showing you something you haven’t seen before,” Boone said. “And if he can do it once, he can do it again.”
Despite the criticism, Boone remained with the Cardinals until 1991 when he was fired by Vice President and General Manager Larry Wilson.
“This was a tough decision because of the relationship I have with George,” Wilson said. “We’ve made some mistakes over the years, and we’re going to continue to make some mistakes. In the case of George, I think some of the criticism was unfounded and unfair.”
Boone rarely, if ever, got credit for his good draft picks while in St. Louis, and he had few: J.V. Cain in 1974; Pat Tilley in 1976; O.J. Anderson and Roy Green in 1979; E.J. Junior and Neil Lomax in 1981; Luis Sharpe in 1982; Leonard Smith in 1983. He has been most remembered for the picks that didn’t pan out.
“All I want to know is how we can be six feet from a division championship (in 1984), and two years later not be worth a damn,” Boone told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1987. I want to know how these players got so terrible, when were six feet from winning it.”
“You can have everything there and things may not work out. The same team that missed the division by six feet won’t be the same team next year. When you start losing people to injuries it’s going to affect the whole thing. But all of a sudden the personnel department of the St. Louis Cardinals doesn’t know a damn thing. All of sudden, the coaches don’t know a thing. We’re six feet away from winning a division, and two years later nobody knows how to do their jobs. You can buy players, but you can’t buy commitment or chemistry.”
“My whole thing is to work hard enough, to be smart enough, to be close enough, to be lucky enough to pick the right one,” Boone said.
“If we knew it wasn’t going to work out, we wouldn’t do it. Sometimes I think it would be easier to make a living betting on animals at a racetrack.”