Andy Phillips played center and guard at Central Michigan University but went undrafted in 2015, eventually signing with the Green Bay Packers. His experience as an undrafted player made him ask questions about how the NFL Draft works and so, for his first book, he decided to find out. Round Zero collects interviews with GMs, coaches and players to shed new light on what happens behind closed doors on Draft weekend.
Tell me how the book came about.
I had a unique Draft experience, which raised questions. I had started almost four years at Central Michigan University on the offensive line, All-MAC honors twice, team captain twice. I had a pretty good resume. At my pro day I hit everything and exceeded it. My agent told me I might have just got myself drafted. But there was an issue: I had short arms. I didn’t know that was a thing. I knew they measured arms, but I didn’t know it mattered that much. When you’re six-two, 300 pounds, and playing center and guard in the NFL, they want you to have 32-inch arms. Mine were 30 and 7/8. I still thought I would get signed because a few teams talked to me and were talking to my agent in later rounds.
An hour before the first round of the 2015 Draft, I received a call from the Chicago Bears offensive line coach at the time, Dave Magazu. He said ‘It’s going to be an amazing weekend for you. Can’t wait to talk, hope to be a part of it’, all this kind of stuff. I remember thinking that if this guy’s thinking about me, I at least have a shot. The Draft comes and goes. They didn’t offer me a contract. It was weird. I ended up being a try-out player at Green Bay’s rookie camp. I was the only one of the 25 players there as try-outs to get a contract afterwards.
So, every year I watched the Draft and wondered: number one, how many players are getting that call and getting their hopes up? But number two, I’m sure Coach Magazu would not have wasted his time calling me if he thought they weren’t going to sign me. So, what’s that communication like behind closed doors? I thought I could get stories from people who were drafted, plus the agents, the coaches, and I can get the general managers to put it all together. In future Drafts, when something happens that might surprise a lot of people, these stories could piece together some answers. And that was the motive behind the book.
In going through that, did you learn more about what had happened to you?
I wanted to speak with Coach Magazu but didn’t get the opportunity because he passed away in December 2021, just when I was starting to piece interviews together. But what I did learn is the communication between coaches, scouts and their general managers is crazy. I asked Bill Cowher: ‘How was communication once your season ends?’ He did a great job laying that out: we have the quick self-scout and exit meetings with players and then you’re only a couple weeks away from the NFL scouting combine. He talked about how, with the general manager, he’d get caught up with information and film on at least the guys they’d be talking to at the combine. Then he would give his assistant coaches assignments, and they’d have to report.
Then talking to Bill Polian, you get the general manager side of that equation on Draft day. He said, ‘There’s no pounding on the table. There’s no yelling’. He said any conversation that would create those moments is done before Draft weekend as you’re building the board. On Draft weekend, all you have to do is trust the board. And it’s pretty quiet. He said that, on a mid or late-round pick, maybe there would be a defensive tackle and a wide receiver on our board that would make sense and that’s when he’d ask a position coach or scout to preach for their guy.
I talked to Steve Mariucci, who was an assistant in Green Bay under Ron Wolf. That was a great organization, very organized. He then became head coach in San Francisco: everything’s first class. Then goes to Detroit. He said that draft room was almost embarrassing. Even the littlest things – the magnets for the players on their board, the pen colors, writing fonts, were all different. He said those little things drove him nuts. It’s the difference between well-run organisations and ones that need more help.
If I learned anything about my own personal situation, it’s that there was very likely just lost communication between what the general manager wanted in Chicago, relayed down through the head coach, through the scout, down to the position coach.
Did you get the sense that Draft culture is built up over years and years, rather than a thing that you can just drop in?
Yeah, 100 percent. And it depends on who it is. Bill Polian came up with a good system in Buffalo. For three of those four Super Bowl runs, he was the guy. But then his next general manager position was the expansion Panthers. I’m excited for people to read how he used free agency and the expansion draft to get a veteran defense, then used the real Draft to get younger offensive players. He also addresses when he got to Indianapolis and shares insight into the Ryan Leaf debate. He said at the first meeting, he asked everyone: ‘Raise your hand if you’re Team Leaf’. Half the room raised their hand. ‘Raise your hand if your team Manning.’ The other half raised their hand. Hearing him talk about how they got down to Peyton Manning is fantastic because everyone knows the story but not how they ended up with the right decision.
There’s a there’s a book from the early 80s about the NFL Draft, called Sleepers, Busts and Franchise Makers. They talk about how players were increasingly trying to get more freedom and question how much longer the Draft will carry on. But 40 years on, it’s bigger than ever. Did you get any sense in your interviews that the players might start asking for more out of this?
There were no complaints about the Draft itself. None. They mostly talked about their experience, rather than what they didn’t like about the Draft. I asked Aaron Rodgers about the biggest misconception about the Draft. And he said there’s not nearly as many surprises as people think because the communication is just so good.
We’re under the impression that he thought he was going to San Francisco, but he dropped to Green Bay. But he talked about meeting with the Niners and said he didn’t hit it off with Mike Nolan as a head coach and Nolan wasn’t a big fan of his either. He didn’t think they would take him, but he had his best pre-draft experience with a team picking in the top five. I won’t say who because I want people to read the chapter, but their head coach told him before the Draft, ‘If you’re still there, we’re taking you’. And they didn’t. After that, he thought he would go in the top eight but once that didn’t happen, it was ‘alright, we’re going to be here for a little while’.
I think athletes generally have a strong self-belief but that’s a tough thing to go through.
And you’re coming off being the top man in college. During this entire process, it’s hype, hype, hype. Lee Steinberg, the legendary agent, explains that the last thing you want to do is put your client in a position where it’s just him and the camera in the green room. He advises his guys to rent a hotel suite and have your people around. You can celebrate with loved ones and have more people there. But if things start to fall, there’s not a camera in your face the entire time. I remember when it was big news that Joe Thomas, who’s going to be Hall of Famer this summer for the Cleveland Browns, decided not to go to the Draft and go fishing with his dad on Draft day. You’re seeing more and more of that.
How was it writing your first book? What was the experience like?
How I thought the book would look and how it looks is totally different. The biggest thing I realized was you can have all these plans, but if you’re doing it based on a lot of interviews, it’s probably not going to look how your plans look. My original plan was the four sections, and that remains same. But each section was going to have five or six topics that the interviewees would give answers for. But I realised I would be boxing in some of these unique stories, and I didn’t want to do that. If I’m really trying to give readers a grasp of what the Draft is like, we need as much information as possible.
For example, Warren Moon’s story is unique. He had to go to the CFL and he talked to me about that process. I would still be bitter, but he wasn’t. He was very humble. I think his chapter is probably the most moving and wouldn’t have fit easily into the original structure.
Was there was there someone you would have loved to interview but weren’t able to get?
Bill Belichick. In my opinion, the greatest coach of all time but he’s pretty much the general manager too. He’s such a historian of the game and talking football history is when his personality shines through. I would have loved that. I did have some communication with New England, but it didn’t work out. And I understand, these guys get a lot of requests. Getting active GMs and coaches was darn near impossible. It doesn’t make those chapters any less because the guys I spoke to are retired. I think it’s better because they weren’t afraid to open up.
What are your favorite football books?
An interesting book when I was a kid was Star Running Backs of the NFL (Bill Libby, 1971). My dad had it when he was a kid. I like Gunslinger (Jeff Pearlman, 2016). It’s the story of Brett Favre. Anything Jeff Pearlman does is usually a plus.
My favorite book of all time isn’t a football book but it’s the book that influenced me into wanting to write: The Book of Basketball (2009) by Bill Simmons. I remember reading that, it would have been, 2015. For the first time I realized how much you could throw your personality in. It was a transformation of the way I thought about books, about writing and what I could do in sports media. Anyone who asks me why I wanted to start writing, my answer will always be because I read the Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons.
Phil Jackson’s book Eleven Rings (2013) is fantastic because it gives insights on the Jordans, Kobes and Shaqs of the world. I also have Coach Bill Cowher’s new book (Heart and Steel, 2021), which is great because he’s in my book. That’s my next one I’m digging into.
About books in general, if you were on a desert island – and assume I’m throwing in Raft Building for Beginners as one of your books – what are the five books you would want to have with you?
That’s a great question. I’m on a desert island, huh? Have they made Castaway into a book yet? I’ll get some tips there. I’m throwing my book in there, Round Zero, because I think it will bring up some good memories for me. And, you know, a lot of lonely days on a desert island. I’ll throw the Bible in there. I’ll probably need a lot of faith when I’m out there. I’m going to go with Tuff Juice, Caron Butler’s story. I have it on my shelf, I can easily pack it. On the days that I think my life is tough out there on the island, I can read about his upbringing a little bit. The Book of Basketball because I love it and I’ll have a lot of time to kill, so 700 pages won’t be the worst thing.