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Aundray Bruce ‘came a long ways,’ but not far enough to avoid being an NFL bust - The Athletic


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by Bob McGinn for The Athletic

 

Unlike today, there was a time in the NFL, most commonly in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, when a goodly share of head coaches also operated as their own general managers. That was the arrangement in February 1987 when Rankin Smith, the owner of the Atlanta Falcons, hired Marion Campbell to coach and make the final decisions on the draft.

The Smith family, which included sons Rankin Jr. and Taylor, extended power to Campbell only a short while after general manager Tom Braatz left the Falcons to head the Green Bay Packers’ front office. Campbell lacked the track record to think he could run a personnel department, but conveniently, he already was on the Falcons’ staff as defensive coordinator. When Dan Henning was fired after the 1986 season, the Smiths promoted Campbell and installed him in the dual role of coach and personnel chief.

It was during Campbell’s eight-year career as a defensive lineman that he acquired the memorable nickname “Swamp Fox.” He coached defensive lines and coordinated defenses in the NFL for almost 20 years, a span interrupted by head-coaching stints in Atlanta (1974-76) and Philadelphia (1983-85) that ended with pink slips. Upon being elevated to the top spot once again in Atlanta, Campbell carried with him a coaching record of 23-48-1.

So it was that Campbell, with the first selection in the NFL Draft in 1988, decided to select Aundray Bruce, an outside linebacker from Auburn. The consummate coach-killer, wonderfully athletic but woefully unproductive, Bruce helped get Campbell out the door 12 games into the 1989 season. Bruce’s career, which lasted just four years in Atlanta, remarkably dragged on for seven more seasons with the Raiders despite minimal impact or development.

Since the start of the common draft in 1967, almost a dozen players chosen first can safely be categorized as major busts. Bruce’s name is right there alongside those of quarterback JaMarcus Russell, running back Ki-Jana Carter and quarterback Tim Couch.

Campbell, who died in 2016, later expressed regret for the selection to Ken Herock, the Falcons’ director of college player personnel at the time. Herock has regrets of his own about that pick. Jerry Glanville, the successor to Campbell in Atlanta, coached Bruce during his last two years with the Falcons and wishes he had deployed him differently.

The one central figure who appears to have no regrets is Bruce, who, according to friends, is doing well and living in his native Montgomery, Ala.

“I consider myself fortunate,” Bruce told the Montgomery Advertiser in 2018. “You feel, like, ‘OK, I’m a part of this fraternity.’ Growing up, you dreamt that type of stuff. Let’s just be honest. The majority of the people who dreamed that type of stuff, it never happened for them.”

In 1987, the Falcons finished 28th and last in total defense as well as 28th with 17 sacks. The strike-shortened season ended two days after Christmas when 13,906 fans at 59,643-seat Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium saw the Falcons complete a 3-12 season with a 30-13 loss to the Detroit Lions. As a result, the Falcons clinched the No. 1 pick in the draft.

One month later, Campbell went to Mobile, Ala., to scout the Senior Bowl and came away more than just impressed with Bruce, who was named the defensive MVP just as he had been in the Hula Bowl earlier in January. “What I saw down there excited the heck out of me,” Campbell said. “I’m looking at him coming in here and being a big player for us.”

Campbell made his remarks on March 30, one day after he phoned Bruce to inform him he would be the Falcons’ choice. Seven days later, Atlanta had Bruce’s signature on a four-year, $4.1 million contract containing a signing bonus of $1.6 million.

“At Auburn, we had a great system, but I didn’t have the opportunity to do all the things my ability allowed,” Bruce said after the relatively swift negotiations were completed. “Coach Campbell has given me the opportunity to prove to my critics, or people who don’t know me, that I can play. When I was able to play at the Hula Bowl and at the Senior Bowl, they kind of told me to do what I do best. I freelanced, and it was fun. It was fun because I didn’t have to be in a certain spot at the end of a play, or at the beginning of one. They just told me to go out and make things happen.”

Not only did the Falcons draft Bruce No. 1, they used the first pick of the second round on USC’s Marcus Cotton, another outside linebacker. On draft day, Campbell was thinking about his wretched defense the year before when he said, “You can’t think about being in a ballgame without a strong defense. That’s where you’ve got to start. That’s just history.”

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Bruce with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, left, and Falcons president Rankin Smith Jr. (Ron Frehm / Associated Press)

The Falcons also owned the worst offense in 1987 when they scored fewer than 14 points in nine of 15 games. Their leading wide receiver, tiny Floyd Dixon, caught 36 passes. The 1988 draft, one of the greatest ever for wide receivers, featured Notre Dame’s Tim Brown, South Carolina’s Sterling Sharpe, Miami’s Michael Irvin and Tennessee’s Anthony Miller. In the 27-player first round, in order, they were picked sixth, seventh, 11th and 15th.

“I told Marion, I said, ‘Coach, if I’m taking the first pick, I want Timmy,'” Herock said last week. “Heisman Trophy, great character, Pro Bowl and Hall of Fame potential. That was my best player.”

At Herock’s urging, Campbell and Jimmy Raye, the team’s wide receivers coach, paid a visit to see Brown in South Bend. “(Campbell) came back and said, ‘Ken, he’s really a good player,'” said Herock, who joined Atlanta in May 1987 after scouting for the Raiders and Buccaneers. “‘Oh, we’ve got receivers. We need defense.’

“I loved ‘Swamp Fox.’ He hired me. He wanted me to come there. We had a good relationship. It came down to this. He’s a defensive coach, and he wanted defense.”

Herock said his top-rated player on defense was Nebraska defensive end Neil Smith, who was drafted No. 2 by Kansas City and recorded 104 1/2 sacks and made six Pro Bowls. “Marion was playing a 3-4 type defense where the ends have to be stronger and bigger versus the run,” Herock said. “Neil Smith was what they call an edger now. Bruce was a big, strong, physical outside backer.”

The draft also included future Pro Bowl defenders in Miami safety Bennie Blades, who went No. 3 to Detroit; Tennessee cornerback Terry McDaniel, who went No. 9 to the Raiders, and Cal linebacker Ken Harvey, who went No. 12 to Phoenix. It turned out to be a terrific draft led by Hall of Famers Brown, Irvin, guard Randall McDaniel of Arizona State, running back Thurman Thomas of Oklahoma State and center Dermontti Dawson of Kentucky.

Did Herock attempt to dissuade Campbell against picking Bruce?

“Listen,” Herock said. “It was my first year. I was not in control. He picked him. I gave him the information, and they went where they wanted. He wanted to go defense.

“We went down to the school (Auburn), met with the coaches, they loved him. So you piece together the potential and it’s, ‘OK, if this is what the coach wants. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a defensive coach. He was a coordinator. Been in the league. Claude Humphrey was on his staff (as defensive assistant). I can name the guys (Campbell) had that were great players.’

“I wasn’t so sure. I’ll leave it at that. I couldn’t persuade him. He was on defense.”

Bruce didn’t even attend the combine in Indianapolis. Campbell, Herock and many other coaches and scouts attended his workout at Auburn. National Football Scouting listed Bruce at 6-foot-5 and 236 pounds with a 40-yard dash time of 4.58 seconds.

“It was on AstroTurf,” Herock said, recalling Auburn’s pro day. “It was in their indoor (facility). He ran in the 4.5 range, 4.55 for us. This guy could run. He had long arms. He had everything athletically. Let me tell you what: Bruce had as much ability as anyone in that draft. He looked like (Lawrence) Taylor. That type of guy. That’s who they were trying to relate him to, the things he could do. Standup rush linebacker. He won the underwear contest. He was very average in that (intelligence) area. He wasn’t single digits (on the Wonderlic test).”

Joe Mack, one of the Falcons’ four area scouts, worked the Southeast in 1987. “I don’t think Joe liked Aundray,” Herock said. “But (Campbell) really wasn’t listening to him, I don’t think. They had their mind made up.”

Campbell made his call even though Bruce was seldom, if ever, a dominating force for the Tigers. A four-year player, he played sparingly as a freshman in 1984, split time as a sophomore and started as a junior and senior at strong outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. He made All-SEC twice but was never a finalist for the Lombardi Award, which at the time went to the nation’s top lineman or linebacker. Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman won it; one of the three other finalists hailed from Auburn, but it was defensive tackle Tracy Rocker, not Bruce.

“I don’t see this guy as being the next Lawrence Taylor but he’s going to be approaching that,” said Bill Kuharich, the New Orleans Saints’ director of player personnel. “He’s got all the things you’re looking for. I think he might be better than (Cornelius) Bennett. He’s going to rush the passer. He needs to learn to play at the point of attack, but he’ll learn that. He’s a big, strong kid. He’s going to be scary on that open-side tackle. In the Senior Bowl, they tried to block him with a back and they couldn’t. He’s too good an athlete to block singly.”

Steve Ortmayer, the director of football operations for the San Diego Chargers, predicted Bruce “would be a great player.” Dave Hanner, one of the Packers’ area scouts, said, “He’s a good one. All of it is ahead of him.” Reed Johnson, the Denver Broncos’ director of player personnel, called Bruce an “outstanding” player with the ability to play from two- and three-point stances.

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Bruce, chasing the Raiders Steve Beuerlein, failed to make an impression with the Falcons. (Owen C. Shaw / Icon Sportswire via Associated Press)

It was the view of **** Corrick, the Packers’ director of college scouting, that Bruce would become a special player as a pass rusher. “But it’s going to take him a long time to understand pass coverages and how to do all that,” Corrick said. He noted the recent history of front-seven high picks from Auburn, including Gerald Robinson in the first round in 1986, Ben Thomas in the second round in ’85 and nose tackle Donnie Humphrey in the third round in ’84, didn’t engender confidence.

“Bruce is one of those Auburn mystique kind of people,” Corrick said. “Most of those guys at Auburn are all outstanding until they get in the National Football League. Then they’re not worth a ****. Like most of them, he spends as much time on the bench as he does playing.”

More than one team also wondered just how invested Bruce was in football. Bruce called basketball his “first love.” A center, he led Carver-Montgomery to consecutive Class 4A state championships. Bruce hoped Alabama would offer him a basketball scholarship, but at his in-between height, his basketball prospects were confined to mid-to-low level Division I programs. Auburn was the only big-time school to offer in football.

“Aundray, coming out of high school, his desire was to play basketball,” said Joe Whitt, the outside linebackers coach at Auburn during Bruce’s four seasons. “He played football but his desire, his love, was basketball. Just a tremendous basketball player. When he was not getting a major-college scholarship offer in basketball it gave us the opportunity to recruit him in football.”

Because football was not Bruce’s passion, Whitt, coach Pat Dye and defensive coordinator Wayne Hall stressed patience and fundamentals with the all-world athlete who played a multitude of positions as a prep. “At first, he didn’t really like coaching,” Whitt said last week. “It took him a couple years to understand. He ended up becoming a great player but he had to really learn to play football at the highest level. He had a lot of work to do, and he came a long ways. His senior year was as good as anybody that was playing the game.”

Auburn went 36-11-2 during Bruce’s four seasons and he left with 228 tackles (25 for loss), 15 sacks, three interceptions, seven forced fumbles and 12 passes defensed.

“He would go out to practice and nobody out there could whip him,” Whitt said. “He could take on anybody in a one-on-one, whether it be a fullback, a tight end, an offensive tackle. Pass rush, run blocking, what have you, he would hold his own. If he had a bad day, he wasn’t going to stand up to it. But when he decided ‘this is what I’m going to do,’ it was on.”

As immediate starters at outside linebacker, Bruce and Cotton became the focal point of the Falcons’ slightly improved defense in 1988. A sprained knee cost Bruce 23 days of work in training camp and two exhibition games, but he recovered in time to start every game during a 5-11 season. His six sacks led the Falcons. “Year 1 was pretty good,” Herock said. “He was all-rookie team. Pretty decent player and prospect. But it never went beyond that. He just stayed as is.”

Bruce’s best game as a rookie was in early November against the Raiders when he had two sacks, two other hurries, an interception made 30 yards downfield, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. “We have been trying to settle him down and get him to learn the outside-linebacker spot,” Campbell said after the 12-6 victory. “Going from Auburn University to being a starting linebacker in the NFL is a big jump, but I’ve started him from Day 1 because he is our future. You’ve got to have patience with these young guys. You can’t make your mind up too early. He is going to be something special.”

In their 1989 media guide, the Falcons wrote of Bruce, “Aundray and Marcus Cotton have struck up a friendship and liven up any room when they’re around.” The pair also liked the nightlife.

“In ’88, there wasn’t a morning that came up where I didn’t meet the sun,” Bruce told The New York Times in March 1992. “I was hanging out in clubs. I turned to all the wrong places and people when things started going bad for me on the football field. I never did alcohol or drugs. It was women, and a lot of them. You take a guy who had nothing and all of a sudden he has millions, it takes some getting used to.”

Atlanta regressed on defense in 1989, finishing last in yards allowed. Bruce posted another six-sack season but was benched for two games and ejected from another for fighting. Campbell, then 60, retired from coaching after a 3-9 record through 12 games. In a conversation that season, Campbell told Herock that Bruce looked like a bust. “He said, ‘I don’t know if this guy’s going to make it big,'” Herock said. “‘He makes too many mistakes for me.’ In Marion’s defense, you had to be smart. For a guy with probably an average IQ, it probably was a little complex for him.”

The following offseason, one in which Glanville was named to succeed Campbell, proved damaging to Bruce’s reputation. In a pair of paternity suits filed against Bruce in February 1990, it was claimed he fathered two girls born five weeks apart the previous summer. In April, Bruce pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct for pointing a pellet gun at a pizza deliveryman who had stopped at Cotton’s apartment. He was fined and sentenced to 12 months’ probation and 32 hours of community service. He was sued for failing to make payments on two home mortgages. Early in training camp, he shoved defensive coordinator Doug Shively while walking off the field after the coach ordered him to the locker room for lack of effort.

“(Bruce) seemed to think it was pretty funny,” the pizza driver told reporters. “He was laughing pretty much the whole time. I was humiliated.”

Charley Armey joined Herock’s scouting staff one month after Bruce was drafted and stayed with the Falcons for three years. He remembered the incident with Shively and the criminal activity involving the pizza man.

“He could change direction and burst on a dime,” Armey, who later became the GM of the St. Louis Rams, said last week. “Oh, God, he had long arms. All of the athletic skills were on the high end (so) people tended to overlook the character. He was going to have problems. You can’t coach that out of a guy. That’s part of his DNA. You can make him better but you can’t get it out of him. I would always say, ‘Tell me his downside.’ That happens in every draft room. They fall in love with a guy and they don’t look at his downside.”

Chuck Clausen, the Falcons’ linebackers coach during Bruce’s first two seasons, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1991, “He’s like a perpetual 5-year-old. You tell him, ‘You’re not going to be a football player your whole life. You’ve got to make the most of your career.’ He’s the kind of guy who nods his head yes, and a few days later, it’s kind of vanished.”

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Bruce spent his last seven seasons with the Raiders. (Al Bello / Allsport)

In an interview last week, Glanville said he wasn’t high on Bruce before the draft in 1988. Despite his tempestuous offseason, Glanville started Bruce in the opener against the team he coached the previous five seasons, the Houston Oilers. With Warren Moon at quarterback, Bruce registered four knockdowns in the span of five plays. After a 47-27 shellacking, Moon said, “I don’t think you’ll find many outside linebackers in the league who are as fast as he is.”

The positivity of that moment was short-lived. Bruce, who weighed about 250 pounds for most of his career in Atlanta, started just three of the 16 games in a 5-11 season, finishing with four sacks. In 1991, Bruce fell so far beyond Darion Conner, Michael Reid and Robert Lyles on the depth chart that in 14 games, he never made a tackle. Moved to tight end, he caught one pass for 11 yards in the “red gun” offense of coordinator June Jones that seldom made use of a tight end.

“He played a great game when we played the Oilers but I blitzed him every single time,” Glanville said. “He was doing what a defensive end would do: just take off. Looking back, I wish I had moved him to defensive end and just brought him forward. When he blitzed Warren Moon, there was nobody faster. I moved him to tight end. I thought he had tight end ability. I thought that would work out. It did not.”

The Falcons, who went 10-6 and won an NFC playoff game in 1991, thought so little of Bruce that they failed to include him among their 37 protected players in 1992 Plan B free agency. It took two weeks, but Bruce finally took a one-year, $525,000 contract offer from the Raiders. In an interview with the Journal-Constitution, Bruce thanked Herock for the opportunity and said he had no regrets.

Before long, Bruce bulked up to the 260-265 range in order to play defensive end in the Raiders’ 4-3 defense, a position and scheme that were new to him. Over the next six years, he played in 88 of a possible 96 games, with just seven starts, under coaches Art Shell, Mike White and Joe Bugel. His 11th and final season came to a close with one game played in 1998 for Jon Gruden.

“Was he there that long?” asked Jon Kingdon, an executive in personnel for the Raiders from 1978-2012. “Once a guy had great workout numbers, (Al Davis) stayed with him. It’s called pride of ownership. He just seemed like a goofy guy. He flashed. He had the tools. I’m not comparing him to Jeff George, but they were both guys that had the talent but there was just something missing. That something that separated the really good players from guys with ability. (Bruce) wasn’t a bad guy. He just was a guy with enough ability to be more than just a guy, that classic expression. But he never was one that you really were excited about putting out there.”

In seven seasons for the Raiders, Bruce accumulated 16 sacks, with a high of 5.5 in 1995. He backed up Greg Townsend, Anthony Smith, Patrick Swilling and James Harris, among others. Raiders defensive tackle Howie Long, in a January 1994 interview with the Journal-Constitution, said, “Aundray is a very interesting guy. He isn’t really a linebacker, and he isn’t really a defensive lineman, but he’s extremely talented. What he needs more than anything else is a good, strong coach who will stay on his tail.”

The final accounting showed Bruce started 40 of 151 games with 32 sacks, 275 tackles, nine forced fumbles and three fumbles recovered.

“There’s no question in my mind he’s an all-time bust,” Armey said. “That’s too bad. My biggest hang-up on him was mental. He’d make a great play but could never finish it. His instincts would take him some place but he wouldn’t know what to do once he got there.”

Bruce and Glanville clashed, according to Herock, and led to the Falcons’ repeated but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to trade him. Much like Armey, Herock cited mental and motivational shortcomings as the underlying causes of Bruce’s failure.

“In college, you can make a mistake and make a play,” Herock said. “That was Aundray Bruce. In the pros, you make a mistake and you can’t recover, and he was making mistakes. He never really learned to play the position. He never really put the time in. He was such a great athlete (that) he didn’t have to. Aundray was a very likeable guy. As far as I know, he was never into drugs or anything like that. But he was just always on the edge with something.

“Maybe under a different regime, different this, different that, somebody might have got him into that weight room, got him to do certain things, maybe it would have been different. But it wasn’t.”

Glanville, who at 79 is coaching the Conquerors in The Spring League, was emphatic that Bruce’s principal flaw stemmed more from deficiencies in toughness than mistakes on assignments.

“I’ve had people with the same level of his mentally and play well,” Glanville said. “He needed to grow up. He was immature, but there’s a bunch of them like that. I don’t know that he wanted the physicality of the game. You don’t play this game in your underwear. If we did, Aundray Bruce, they’d say, ‘He’s the greatest one that ever played.’ But the game’s not for those that are faint of heart, you know?”

Cackling in mid-sentence, Glanville continued. “Here’s a thought,” he said. “Today, he’d probably be a star because, ****, nobody hits anybody, anyway. If he was a rookie in 2020, he’d be all-pro. Shake hands with the guy across from you, game’s over, kiss the babies and go home.”

Whitt was informed of Herock’s closing assessment and Glanville’s final judgment. His career at Auburn spanned 25 seasons of coaching football and another decade working in athletic administration. He has come to believe that the greatest determinant of a player’s success is simply what’s inside of him.

“I think the football thing turned out well for him,” Whitt said. “No. 1, he got drafted. He had the opportunity to make a lot of money. His opportunity was there to be whatever, and he got a lot out of it. If truth be known, he probably got as much as he wanted out of it.”

 

 

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Bruce was pushed as the next LT(Lawrence Taylor) as a college prospect. I think that helped doom him along with his extreme lack of maturity.

 

Still remember Jamie Dukes talking about how stupid and immature Aundray Bruce was once he got into the NFL. Especially the story about how he tried to rob a pizza guy who was delivering to his place with a pellet gun that looked real just because he thought it would be funny.

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Bruce was a specimen. There were games when he really wanted to go all out he was unstoppable. He had a great game against Bo Jackson if I recall where he was in pass protection 30 yards down the field running almost stride for stride with Bo. 

Unfortunately his typical game was 1 or 2 tackles and few QB pressures. 

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1 hour ago, grandcanyonaz said:

That draft had a lot of pro-bowlers in the first and second rounds and in true Falcon form they pick a dud.

Duds. Cotton wasn't any better. This is also the same draft we picked Charles Dimry. Our third round pick blew his knee so bad in his third game he never played again.

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9 hours ago, Goober Pyle said:

by Bob McGinn for The Athletic

 

Unlike today, there was a time in the NFL, most commonly in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, when a goodly share of head coaches also operated as their own general managers. That was the arrangement in February 1987 when Rankin Smith, the owner of the Atlanta Falcons, hired Marion Campbell to coach and make the final decisions on the draft.

The Smith family, which included sons Rankin Jr. and Taylor, extended power to Campbell only a short while after general manager Tom Braatz left the Falcons to head the Green Bay Packers’ front office. Campbell lacked the track record to think he could run a personnel department, but conveniently, he already was on the Falcons’ staff as defensive coordinator. When Dan Henning was fired after the 1986 season, the Smiths promoted Campbell and installed him in the dual role of coach and personnel chief.

It was during Campbell’s eight-year career as a defensive lineman that he acquired the memorable nickname “Swamp Fox.” He coached defensive lines and coordinated defenses in the NFL for almost 20 years, a span interrupted by head-coaching stints in Atlanta (1974-76) and Philadelphia (1983-85) that ended with pink slips. Upon being elevated to the top spot once again in Atlanta, Campbell carried with him a coaching record of 23-48-1.

So it was that Campbell, with the first selection in the NFL Draft in 1988, decided to select Aundray Bruce, an outside linebacker from Auburn. The consummate coach-killer, wonderfully athletic but woefully unproductive, Bruce helped get Campbell out the door 12 games into the 1989 season. Bruce’s career, which lasted just four years in Atlanta, remarkably dragged on for seven more seasons with the Raiders despite minimal impact or development.

Since the start of the common draft in 1967, almost a dozen players chosen first can safely be categorized as major busts. Bruce’s name is right there alongside those of quarterback JaMarcus Russell, running back Ki-Jana Carter and quarterback Tim Couch.

Campbell, who died in 2016, later expressed regret for the selection to Ken Herock, the Falcons’ director of college player personnel at the time. Herock has regrets of his own about that pick. Jerry Glanville, the successor to Campbell in Atlanta, coached Bruce during his last two years with the Falcons and wishes he had deployed him differently.

The one central figure who appears to have no regrets is Bruce, who, according to friends, is doing well and living in his native Montgomery, Ala.

“I consider myself fortunate,” Bruce told the Montgomery Advertiser in 2018. “You feel, like, ‘OK, I’m a part of this fraternity.’ Growing up, you dreamt that type of stuff. Let’s just be honest. The majority of the people who dreamed that type of stuff, it never happened for them.”

In 1987, the Falcons finished 28th and last in total defense as well as 28th with 17 sacks. The strike-shortened season ended two days after Christmas when 13,906 fans at 59,643-seat Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium saw the Falcons complete a 3-12 season with a 30-13 loss to the Detroit Lions. As a result, the Falcons clinched the No. 1 pick in the draft.

One month later, Campbell went to Mobile, Ala., to scout the Senior Bowl and came away more than just impressed with Bruce, who was named the defensive MVP just as he had been in the Hula Bowl earlier in January. “What I saw down there excited the heck out of me,” Campbell said. “I’m looking at him coming in here and being a big player for us.”

Campbell made his remarks on March 30, one day after he phoned Bruce to inform him he would be the Falcons’ choice. Seven days later, Atlanta had Bruce’s signature on a four-year, $4.1 million contract containing a signing bonus of $1.6 million.

“At Auburn, we had a great system, but I didn’t have the opportunity to do all the things my ability allowed,” Bruce said after the relatively swift negotiations were completed. “Coach Campbell has given me the opportunity to prove to my critics, or people who don’t know me, that I can play. When I was able to play at the Hula Bowl and at the Senior Bowl, they kind of told me to do what I do best. I freelanced, and it was fun. It was fun because I didn’t have to be in a certain spot at the end of a play, or at the beginning of one. They just told me to go out and make things happen.”

Not only did the Falcons draft Bruce No. 1, they used the first pick of the second round on USC’s Marcus Cotton, another outside linebacker. On draft day, Campbell was thinking about his wretched defense the year before when he said, “You can’t think about being in a ballgame without a strong defense. That’s where you’ve got to start. That’s just history.”

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Bruce with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, left, and Falcons president Rankin Smith Jr. (Ron Frehm / Associated Press)

The Falcons also owned the worst offense in 1987 when they scored fewer than 14 points in nine of 15 games. Their leading wide receiver, tiny Floyd Dixon, caught 36 passes. The 1988 draft, one of the greatest ever for wide receivers, featured Notre Dame’s Tim Brown, South Carolina’s Sterling Sharpe, Miami’s Michael Irvin and Tennessee’s Anthony Miller. In the 27-player first round, in order, they were picked sixth, seventh, 11th and 15th.

“I told Marion, I said, ‘Coach, if I’m taking the first pick, I want Timmy,'” Herock said last week. “Heisman Trophy, great character, Pro Bowl and Hall of Fame potential. That was my best player.”

At Herock’s urging, Campbell and Jimmy Raye, the team’s wide receivers coach, paid a visit to see Brown in South Bend. “(Campbell) came back and said, ‘Ken, he’s really a good player,'” said Herock, who joined Atlanta in May 1987 after scouting for the Raiders and Buccaneers. “‘Oh, we’ve got receivers. We need defense.’

“I loved ‘Swamp Fox.’ He hired me. He wanted me to come there. We had a good relationship. It came down to this. He’s a defensive coach, and he wanted defense.”

Herock said his top-rated player on defense was Nebraska defensive end Neil Smith, who was drafted No. 2 by Kansas City and recorded 104 1/2 sacks and made six Pro Bowls. “Marion was playing a 3-4 type defense where the ends have to be stronger and bigger versus the run,” Herock said. “Neil Smith was what they call an edger now. Bruce was a big, strong, physical outside backer.”

The draft also included future Pro Bowl defenders in Miami safety Bennie Blades, who went No. 3 to Detroit; Tennessee cornerback Terry McDaniel, who went No. 9 to the Raiders, and Cal linebacker Ken Harvey, who went No. 12 to Phoenix. It turned out to be a terrific draft led by Hall of Famers Brown, Irvin, guard Randall McDaniel of Arizona State, running back Thurman Thomas of Oklahoma State and center Dermontti Dawson of Kentucky.

Did Herock attempt to dissuade Campbell against picking Bruce?

“Listen,” Herock said. “It was my first year. I was not in control. He picked him. I gave him the information, and they went where they wanted. He wanted to go defense.

“We went down to the school (Auburn), met with the coaches, they loved him. So you piece together the potential and it’s, ‘OK, if this is what the coach wants. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a defensive coach. He was a coordinator. Been in the league. Claude Humphrey was on his staff (as defensive assistant). I can name the guys (Campbell) had that were great players.’

“I wasn’t so sure. I’ll leave it at that. I couldn’t persuade him. He was on defense.”

Bruce didn’t even attend the combine in Indianapolis. Campbell, Herock and many other coaches and scouts attended his workout at Auburn. National Football Scouting listed Bruce at 6-foot-5 and 236 pounds with a 40-yard dash time of 4.58 seconds.

“It was on AstroTurf,” Herock said, recalling Auburn’s pro day. “It was in their indoor (facility). He ran in the 4.5 range, 4.55 for us. This guy could run. He had long arms. He had everything athletically. Let me tell you what: Bruce had as much ability as anyone in that draft. He looked like (Lawrence) Taylor. That type of guy. That’s who they were trying to relate him to, the things he could do. Standup rush linebacker. He won the underwear contest. He was very average in that (intelligence) area. He wasn’t single digits (on the Wonderlic test).”

Joe Mack, one of the Falcons’ four area scouts, worked the Southeast in 1987. “I don’t think Joe liked Aundray,” Herock said. “But (Campbell) really wasn’t listening to him, I don’t think. They had their mind made up.”

Campbell made his call even though Bruce was seldom, if ever, a dominating force for the Tigers. A four-year player, he played sparingly as a freshman in 1984, split time as a sophomore and started as a junior and senior at strong outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. He made All-SEC twice but was never a finalist for the Lombardi Award, which at the time went to the nation’s top lineman or linebacker. Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman won it; one of the three other finalists hailed from Auburn, but it was defensive tackle Tracy Rocker, not Bruce.

“I don’t see this guy as being the next Lawrence Taylor but he’s going to be approaching that,” said Bill Kuharich, the New Orleans Saints’ director of player personnel. “He’s got all the things you’re looking for. I think he might be better than (Cornelius) Bennett. He’s going to rush the passer. He needs to learn to play at the point of attack, but he’ll learn that. He’s a big, strong kid. He’s going to be scary on that open-side tackle. In the Senior Bowl, they tried to block him with a back and they couldn’t. He’s too good an athlete to block singly.”

Steve Ortmayer, the director of football operations for the San Diego Chargers, predicted Bruce “would be a great player.” Dave Hanner, one of the Packers’ area scouts, said, “He’s a good one. All of it is ahead of him.” Reed Johnson, the Denver Broncos’ director of player personnel, called Bruce an “outstanding” player with the ability to play from two- and three-point stances.

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Bruce, chasing the Raiders Steve Beuerlein, failed to make an impression with the Falcons. (Owen C. Shaw / Icon Sportswire via Associated Press)

It was the view of **** Corrick, the Packers’ director of college scouting, that Bruce would become a special player as a pass rusher. “But it’s going to take him a long time to understand pass coverages and how to do all that,” Corrick said. He noted the recent history of front-seven high picks from Auburn, including Gerald Robinson in the first round in 1986, Ben Thomas in the second round in ’85 and nose tackle Donnie Humphrey in the third round in ’84, didn’t engender confidence.

“Bruce is one of those Auburn mystique kind of people,” Corrick said. “Most of those guys at Auburn are all outstanding until they get in the National Football League. Then they’re not worth a ****. Like most of them, he spends as much time on the bench as he does playing.”

More than one team also wondered just how invested Bruce was in football. Bruce called basketball his “first love.” A center, he led Carver-Montgomery to consecutive Class 4A state championships. Bruce hoped Alabama would offer him a basketball scholarship, but at his in-between height, his basketball prospects were confined to mid-to-low level Division I programs. Auburn was the only big-time school to offer in football.

“Aundray, coming out of high school, his desire was to play basketball,” said Joe Whitt, the outside linebackers coach at Auburn during Bruce’s four seasons. “He played football but his desire, his love, was basketball. Just a tremendous basketball player. When he was not getting a major-college scholarship offer in basketball it gave us the opportunity to recruit him in football.”

Because football was not Bruce’s passion, Whitt, coach Pat Dye and defensive coordinator Wayne Hall stressed patience and fundamentals with the all-world athlete who played a multitude of positions as a prep. “At first, he didn’t really like coaching,” Whitt said last week. “It took him a couple years to understand. He ended up becoming a great player but he had to really learn to play football at the highest level. He had a lot of work to do, and he came a long ways. His senior year was as good as anybody that was playing the game.”

Auburn went 36-11-2 during Bruce’s four seasons and he left with 228 tackles (25 for loss), 15 sacks, three interceptions, seven forced fumbles and 12 passes defensed.

“He would go out to practice and nobody out there could whip him,” Whitt said. “He could take on anybody in a one-on-one, whether it be a fullback, a tight end, an offensive tackle. Pass rush, run blocking, what have you, he would hold his own. If he had a bad day, he wasn’t going to stand up to it. But when he decided ‘this is what I’m going to do,’ it was on.”

As immediate starters at outside linebacker, Bruce and Cotton became the focal point of the Falcons’ slightly improved defense in 1988. A sprained knee cost Bruce 23 days of work in training camp and two exhibition games, but he recovered in time to start every game during a 5-11 season. His six sacks led the Falcons. “Year 1 was pretty good,” Herock said. “He was all-rookie team. Pretty decent player and prospect. But it never went beyond that. He just stayed as is.”

Bruce’s best game as a rookie was in early November against the Raiders when he had two sacks, two other hurries, an interception made 30 yards downfield, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. “We have been trying to settle him down and get him to learn the outside-linebacker spot,” Campbell said after the 12-6 victory. “Going from Auburn University to being a starting linebacker in the NFL is a big jump, but I’ve started him from Day 1 because he is our future. You’ve got to have patience with these young guys. You can’t make your mind up too early. He is going to be something special.”

In their 1989 media guide, the Falcons wrote of Bruce, “Aundray and Marcus Cotton have struck up a friendship and liven up any room when they’re around.” The pair also liked the nightlife.

“In ’88, there wasn’t a morning that came up where I didn’t meet the sun,” Bruce told The New York Times in March 1992. “I was hanging out in clubs. I turned to all the wrong places and people when things started going bad for me on the football field. I never did alcohol or drugs. It was women, and a lot of them. You take a guy who had nothing and all of a sudden he has millions, it takes some getting used to.”

Atlanta regressed on defense in 1989, finishing last in yards allowed. Bruce posted another six-sack season but was benched for two games and ejected from another for fighting. Campbell, then 60, retired from coaching after a 3-9 record through 12 games. In a conversation that season, Campbell told Herock that Bruce looked like a bust. “He said, ‘I don’t know if this guy’s going to make it big,'” Herock said. “‘He makes too many mistakes for me.’ In Marion’s defense, you had to be smart. For a guy with probably an average IQ, it probably was a little complex for him.”

The following offseason, one in which Glanville was named to succeed Campbell, proved damaging to Bruce’s reputation. In a pair of paternity suits filed against Bruce in February 1990, it was claimed he fathered two girls born five weeks apart the previous summer. In April, Bruce pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct for pointing a pellet gun at a pizza deliveryman who had stopped at Cotton’s apartment. He was fined and sentenced to 12 months’ probation and 32 hours of community service. He was sued for failing to make payments on two home mortgages. Early in training camp, he shoved defensive coordinator Doug Shively while walking off the field after the coach ordered him to the locker room for lack of effort.

“(Bruce) seemed to think it was pretty funny,” the pizza driver told reporters. “He was laughing pretty much the whole time. I was humiliated.”

Charley Armey joined Herock’s scouting staff one month after Bruce was drafted and stayed with the Falcons for three years. He remembered the incident with Shively and the criminal activity involving the pizza man.

“He could change direction and burst on a dime,” Armey, who later became the GM of the St. Louis Rams, said last week. “Oh, God, he had long arms. All of the athletic skills were on the high end (so) people tended to overlook the character. He was going to have problems. You can’t coach that out of a guy. That’s part of his DNA. You can make him better but you can’t get it out of him. I would always say, ‘Tell me his downside.’ That happens in every draft room. They fall in love with a guy and they don’t look at his downside.”

Chuck Clausen, the Falcons’ linebackers coach during Bruce’s first two seasons, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1991, “He’s like a perpetual 5-year-old. You tell him, ‘You’re not going to be a football player your whole life. You’ve got to make the most of your career.’ He’s the kind of guy who nods his head yes, and a few days later, it’s kind of vanished.”

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Bruce spent his last seven seasons with the Raiders. (Al Bello / Allsport)

In an interview last week, Glanville said he wasn’t high on Bruce before the draft in 1988. Despite his tempestuous offseason, Glanville started Bruce in the opener against the team he coached the previous five seasons, the Houston Oilers. With Warren Moon at quarterback, Bruce registered four knockdowns in the span of five plays. After a 47-27 shellacking, Moon said, “I don’t think you’ll find many outside linebackers in the league who are as fast as he is.”

The positivity of that moment was short-lived. Bruce, who weighed about 250 pounds for most of his career in Atlanta, started just three of the 16 games in a 5-11 season, finishing with four sacks. In 1991, Bruce fell so far beyond Darion Conner, Michael Reid and Robert Lyles on the depth chart that in 14 games, he never made a tackle. Moved to tight end, he caught one pass for 11 yards in the “red gun” offense of coordinator June Jones that seldom made use of a tight end.

“He played a great game when we played the Oilers but I blitzed him every single time,” Glanville said. “He was doing what a defensive end would do: just take off. Looking back, I wish I had moved him to defensive end and just brought him forward. When he blitzed Warren Moon, there was nobody faster. I moved him to tight end. I thought he had tight end ability. I thought that would work out. It did not.”

The Falcons, who went 10-6 and won an NFC playoff game in 1991, thought so little of Bruce that they failed to include him among their 37 protected players in 1992 Plan B free agency. It took two weeks, but Bruce finally took a one-year, $525,000 contract offer from the Raiders. In an interview with the Journal-Constitution, Bruce thanked Herock for the opportunity and said he had no regrets.

Before long, Bruce bulked up to the 260-265 range in order to play defensive end in the Raiders’ 4-3 defense, a position and scheme that were new to him. Over the next six years, he played in 88 of a possible 96 games, with just seven starts, under coaches Art Shell, Mike White and Joe Bugel. His 11th and final season came to a close with one game played in 1998 for Jon Gruden.

“Was he there that long?” asked Jon Kingdon, an executive in personnel for the Raiders from 1978-2012. “Once a guy had great workout numbers, (Al Davis) stayed with him. It’s called pride of ownership. He just seemed like a goofy guy. He flashed. He had the tools. I’m not comparing him to Jeff George, but they were both guys that had the talent but there was just something missing. That something that separated the really good players from guys with ability. (Bruce) wasn’t a bad guy. He just was a guy with enough ability to be more than just a guy, that classic expression. But he never was one that you really were excited about putting out there.”

In seven seasons for the Raiders, Bruce accumulated 16 sacks, with a high of 5.5 in 1995. He backed up Greg Townsend, Anthony Smith, Patrick Swilling and James Harris, among others. Raiders defensive tackle Howie Long, in a January 1994 interview with the Journal-Constitution, said, “Aundray is a very interesting guy. He isn’t really a linebacker, and he isn’t really a defensive lineman, but he’s extremely talented. What he needs more than anything else is a good, strong coach who will stay on his tail.”

The final accounting showed Bruce started 40 of 151 games with 32 sacks, 275 tackles, nine forced fumbles and three fumbles recovered.

“There’s no question in my mind he’s an all-time bust,” Armey said. “That’s too bad. My biggest hang-up on him was mental. He’d make a great play but could never finish it. His instincts would take him some place but he wouldn’t know what to do once he got there.”

Bruce and Glanville clashed, according to Herock, and led to the Falcons’ repeated but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to trade him. Much like Armey, Herock cited mental and motivational shortcomings as the underlying causes of Bruce’s failure.

“In college, you can make a mistake and make a play,” Herock said. “That was Aundray Bruce. In the pros, you make a mistake and you can’t recover, and he was making mistakes. He never really learned to play the position. He never really put the time in. He was such a great athlete (that) he didn’t have to. Aundray was a very likeable guy. As far as I know, he was never into drugs or anything like that. But he was just always on the edge with something.

“Maybe under a different regime, different this, different that, somebody might have got him into that weight room, got him to do certain things, maybe it would have been different. But it wasn’t.”

Glanville, who at 79 is coaching the Conquerors in The Spring League, was emphatic that Bruce’s principal flaw stemmed more from deficiencies in toughness than mistakes on assignments.

“I’ve had people with the same level of his mentally and play well,” Glanville said. “He needed to grow up. He was immature, but there’s a bunch of them like that. I don’t know that he wanted the physicality of the game. You don’t play this game in your underwear. If we did, Aundray Bruce, they’d say, ‘He’s the greatest one that ever played.’ But the game’s not for those that are faint of heart, you know?”

Cackling in mid-sentence, Glanville continued. “Here’s a thought,” he said. “Today, he’d probably be a star because, ****, nobody hits anybody, anyway. If he was a rookie in 2020, he’d be all-pro. Shake hands with the guy across from you, game’s over, kiss the babies and go home.”

Whitt was informed of Herock’s closing assessment and Glanville’s final judgment. His career at Auburn spanned 25 seasons of coaching football and another decade working in athletic administration. He has come to believe that the greatest determinant of a player’s success is simply what’s inside of him.

“I think the football thing turned out well for him,” Whitt said. “No. 1, he got drafted. He had the opportunity to make a lot of money. His opportunity was there to be whatever, and he got a lot out of it. If truth be known, he probably got as much as he wanted out of it.”

 

 

Just an awesome article. Would love to see something as in depth as this on some of Dimi’s busts with Smitty and Quinn.

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8 hours ago, Jesus said:

A player that can get 6-7 sacks a year?

The current team would drop 4 years $50 million on him.

Yes Lord. Bruce was a bust as the first overall pick in 88 but he’d probably beast in 2020. Dude stayed in the league a decade despite all of his shenanigans. Our $15M edge guy has 2.0 sacks after nine games. Bruce was more productive. Jesus.

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On 11/13/2020 at 9:54 AM, vafalconfan said:

This was such a painful time to be a Falcon fan.. many of today's younger fans have no idea how clueless this franchise was run under the Smith's.. Seriously it was a joke!

Agree. I'm wondering who decided Bruce needed a write up this long. I stopped reading. My dad to this day will tell you Tim Brown should have been the pick. 

Remindes me of another "Bruce" screw up. Going with Bruce Pickens over Todd Lyght. 😔

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On 11/13/2020 at 1:09 PM, grandcanyonaz said:

That draft had a lot of pro-bowlers in the first and second rounds and in true Falcon form they pick a dud.

Two duds.... the 2nd pick used on Marcus Cotton ended up being wasted, too.   He was cut during Glanville's first season as HC.

LB Chris Spielman was a 2nd round pick of the Lions, went on to a Pro Bowl career.

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On 11/13/2020 at 7:23 PM, FalconFanSince1970 said:

Yes Lord. Bruce was a bust as the first overall pick in 88 but he’d probably beast in 2020. Dude stayed in the league a decade despite all of his shenanigans. Our $15M edge guy has 2.0 sacks after nine games. Bruce was more productive. Jesus.

The more things change, the more they stay the same......

At least Fowler shows some game out there.... I think he is being misused as a 4-3 DE.  He needs to line up further outside as an OLB.  Just like Bruce used to be.   Fowler is a lot tougher though.

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On 11/13/2020 at 9:53 AM, DonOfThemBirds said:

 

Bruce was pushed as the next LT(Lawrence Taylor) as a college prospect. I think that helped doom him along with his extreme lack of maturity.

 

Still remember Jamie Dukes talking about how stupid and immature Aundray Bruce was once he got into the NFL. Especially the story about how he tried to rob a pizza guy who was delivering to his place with a pellet gun that looked real just because he thought it would be funny.

 

On 11/13/2020 at 9:54 AM, vafalconfan said:

This was such a painful time to be a Falcon fan.. many of today's younger fans have no idea how clueless this franchise was run under the Smith's.. Seriously it was a joke!

 

On 11/13/2020 at 11:00 AM, Jesus said:

A player that can get 6-7 sacks a year?

The current team would drop 4 years $50 million on him.

 

On 11/13/2020 at 7:15 PM, FalconFanSince1970 said:

Just an awesome article. Would love to see something as in depth as this on some of Dimi’s busts with Smitty and Quinn.

Yeah I remember all of this stuff in the article, saw most the games Bruce played.    What struck me about Bruce was his skinny arms.    Long, but almost spindly.    All tendons, not much muscle.  Big legs.   Out of position a lot, similar to Duke Riley.    Got yelled at by John Rade after some plays.

Then Glanville came along and, in his first game as HC,  had Bruce blitz like heck against Warren Moon.   Bruce -looked- like a superstar LB that day.   Then it was the same old Aundray from then on....

In fact that first Glanville-as-HC game against the Oilers is one of my all-time favorite games.   If you newer guys get the chance, you should watch it.... its terrific.   1990 was the year.

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