The first round of the NFL draft should have been a series of fireworks, owing as much to do with the wonky set-up the league found itself in. The mock run-through had been a veritable disaster – a spouse pulling a plug on a GMs computer, the technology chopping in and out, general managers struggling to fly solo in trying to figure out the technology and trade situations.

Chuck a bunch of high-wattage, ready-to-go, star players, from high-profile schools at the most important positions in the game, and we should have been in for a broadcast that was equal parts exhilarating and weird.

And then … blah. The draft went off, more or less, without a hitch, unless you happen to share a home with Aaron Rodgers. The technology worked fine. The broadcast networks did a commendable job of patching it all together. The teams sat and waited, no one was willing to mortgage their future to jump into the top 10 or shuffle up towards the top five with so much uncertainty over what the next season might look like.

Given the downsized feel and general unease of the whole operation, there was a lack of zest running throughout the broadcast. Teams at the top of the board didn’t help; their decision-makers were altogether too sensible. The quarterback-needy teams hoovered up the best signal-callers, while Oakland grabbed the quickest available receiver. The Patriots traded down, as they do.

The first eight or so picks went off exactly as projected and had mostly been confirmed by the broadcast network’s own talent in the run-up to the first round. The only real action came when Oklahoma receiver CeeDee Lamb slipped to the Cowboys and the Packers traded up to grab Utah State quarterback Jordan Love.

Things were supposed to ignite with the third pick, if not the fourth then fifth. Teams were calling about trades, we heard. ESPN’s cacophony of voices was happy to say Joe Burrow and Chase Young would be selected first then second, then the real fun would begin. But that anticipation was met with a collective pffft when everything ran chalk. Without that initial spark, everything fell a little flat.

The virtual draft removed all of the excesses and indulgences that make the event so wacky and wonderful in the first place. ESPN leaned into the human interest side of things – understandable given current circumstances – but it left little room for talk of football or team-building or what’s next and stripped an awful lot of fun out of an event that is, objectively, ridiculous. Remove the hilarity of the thing and you’re just left with Roger Goodell delivering his best humanoid impression as he reads 32 names. It’s a little dry.

Without an obnoxiously large stage and a crowd and the analysts all sat at a desk together, there was a loss of all of the pomp and circumstance that has come to make the NFL draft such a fun and funky show. The broadcast partners did their best to inject in some of that flavor, offering an overwrought serving of all things Americana. There were shots of a flyover, a musical crossover, and the flogging of anything and everything that could leave you with a hangover. Nobody does chest-beating then beer selling like the National Football League, pandemic be damned.

The most interesting subplot of the night: evaluating the home décor choices of all of our main protagonists. Does so and so have an aquarium? I like Mike Zimmer’s fireplace. What’s on Bill Belichick’s book shelf? Is Jerry Jones making his picks from a $250 million mega yacht? Yes. Yes, of course he is. Is Jerry the only one practicing social distancing? I did not have that in the office pool.

Jeff Howe
(@jeffphowe)

Bill Belichick’s draft room, via ABC pic.twitter.com/Sw0FKOJqkS


April 24, 2020

Why the main broadcast team didn’t have someone on to ponder these questions remains a mystery. A little color, a little fun would have been most welcome.

It was left to Goodell to provide the levity. As always, he stole the show. Some standout moments:

  • Announcing next year’s draft would go to Las Vegas … when he really meant 2022

  • Tipping the Dolphins’ second pick of the night

  • Accidentally leaving his NFL-partnered Microsoft Surface Pro, available now on Microsoft dot come and Best Buy, on the table next to him right before he went on national television. Damn. Every time

  • The waves. Oh, so many waves

  • Turning the idea of booing the commissioner into an ad campaign and framing it as a “draft day tradition” rather than it being an indictment of his job performance

  • Hyping up the fans on a series of screens, who, of course, could not hear him

  • A quick costume change around pick 16: from what-do-you-think-you-could-offer-this-company Goodell, to let’s-get-this-barbeque-started-shall-we Rog

The draft, at its core, is about hoping and dreaming. Draft picks and prospects can be anything! Much of its entertainment value is in the discussion of football philosophies and economics and team building. But to work as a primetime TV event, it also needs all the bells and whistles – or to lean completely into the nerdy analyst stuff. Thursday night was a little slapdash, a little stuck in the middle, unsure what tone to take and when. And how could it not be given the circumstances?

Regardless, for many, this writer included, Thursday was the first time in over a month that things felt slightly back to normal. This year’s first round was different, a little weird, and less eventful than those in recent years. But it was nice to just feel a little bit back.

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