NEW ORLEANS — The most significant player in the Super Bowl, Kurt Warner, sits at a podium surrounded by reporters. Warner is a star, as big as they get.

He is also a mistake.

Across the room sits Jeff Zgonina, the Rams’ starting nose tackle. He is rugged and unyielding, highly regarded, in his second Super Bowl. He is also a mistake.

Az-Zahir Hakim, the Rams’ speedy receiver, is not far away, talking into microphones. He, too, is a mistake. So is his speedy counterpart on New England, Troy Brown, the receiver and kick returner who may be the Patriots’ most important player.

Oh, and Brown’s quarterback? Tom Brady?

Another mistake.

If there is a theme to Super Bowl XXXVI, it is this: Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don’t. We are looking at a game that features Warner, an arena league alumnus, against Brady, a sixth-round draft pick.

We are looking at a game that features Hakim, who fell to the fourth round, and Brown, who was an eighth-round pick, and Zgonina, who was a seventh-round pick and was cut by a gaggle of teams.

The finest minds in football are doing the scouting, coaching, drafting and cutting. Yet many great players fall through the cracks. Even Marshall Faulk
— just named the NFL’s player of the year — was traded a few years ago for second- and fifth-round draft picks.

So, like, what’s the problem?

No test for mental toughness

Gil Brandt is a man who should know. He walks around here in a hot red sweatsuit and a shock of white hair — he might be mistaken for an elderly jogger. But make no mistake — he knows mistakes. For decades, he was the mastermind of the Dallas Cowboys, their player-personnel ace, the yin to Tom Landry’s yang. He found the Cowboys’ talent. He kept them on top. He took advantage of other teams’ castoffs, and always seemed to snag a diamond in the draft, even when the Cowboys, due to their success, had low picks.

“Well,” Brandt says, when asked about the miscalculations, “let’s start with the way they test players. They run drills. They run 40-yard dashes. That gives you numbers but not information.

“One day they’re gonna come up with a test that shows how players respond to money. That’s important. When we drafted Calvin Hill, we also drafted this other player named Thomas. We gave Hill a $25,000 bonus, and from that point, all he wanted to do was to figure out how to get some more.

“Meanwhile, we gave Thomas $25,000 and he acted like he’d reached utopia. That was it for him. That was enough.

“You can’t measure that until you see it. That’s one thing.”

He shakes his head.

“Another thing you can’t measure is mental toughness. Not until you get out there. One day they’ll come up with a test for that. Until then, it’s a guess.

“And another problem is the system. We had certain players that were going to be stars for us that wouldn’t have been stars for Green Bay. It was that simple. And vice versa.”

He pauses to rock back and forth on his heels.

“The thing is, most teams can figure out who’s in the top 10, and who’s in the bottom 10. The best teams are the ones that find more guys who are 11, 12 and 13 than guys who are 87, 88 and 89.”

Low expectations can be great

Makes sense, right? Still, you wonder how teams can be so wrong about quarterback, the most important position. Brandt suggests that quarterbacks mature at different rates, an unpredictable trait. Warner says it also depends on your image coming in.

“In the NFL, they can make their mind up about you before you get there,” says the 2000 Super Bowl MVP. “When you come in as an arena player, like me, they don’t look at you the way they do a first-round, multimillion-dollar draft pick. That guy’s a big investment.”

On the other hand, sometimes, the best thing that can happen is low expectations.

“When I came in, I was a bench player, so I got to learn the ropes, learn the league,” Zgonina says. “Some other rookies got thrown right in there, didn’t know what they were doing, and they got hurt.”

Most players I spoke to think the combines are silly. “The 40-yard dash,” says Hakim, “is absurd. There are guys in this league who are slow as a turtle, but they get to the ball when they have to.

“And then there’s stigma. When I was drafted, there was some question about my character. Teams didn’t even give me a chance. They skipped right over me. They made up their minds” — he snaps his fingers — “like that.”

Sunday is the Super Bowl, and across the country, millions of fans will be wondering, “Why can’t we get players like that?”

The answer, in many cases, is you could have. And you still might.

“Every game in the NFL,” says Zgonina, “is an audition for another team.”

And sometimes, a team’s best move is the mistake another team makes.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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