It is an NFL Draft the likes of which we have never seen before, a virtual extravaganza that will be the most unusual and unconventional in the century-old league.
Here’s hoping – and praying – we never, ever witness this again. Because if we do, it means only one thing: that we haven’t gotten past the scourge of the biggest health emergency since just before the NFL came into existence in 1920.
In the meantime, the NFL is at least providing a respite from the relentless stream of heartbreak and horror brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Free agency started as scheduled last month, giving fans a chance to discuss the merits of Tom Brady going to the Buccaneers and now Rob Gronkowski joining him after Tuesday’s trade. And now the sports world, which has been bereft of games for five weeks, can turn its lonely eyes to the draft, where blue chip players like quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa; defensive stars, including Chase Young, and Isaiah Simmons, and hulking offensive linemen like Jedrick Wills and Mekhi Becton will learn of their professional football homes.
While the NFL could have been excused for wanting to delay the start of the league year out of respect to the real-life consequences of the COVID-19 emergency, it turned out to be a welcome diversion. No one has been placed in harm’s way by free agency and draft preparations, with the entire league shutting down normal operations and working remotely. And the ability to imagine what things will be like in the coming season with all the player movement and draft acquisitions – even if we don’t yet know if there actually will be a season – can take us away from the constant reminders of the nightmare that surrounds us.
“That’s what this is all about, and I think we need those diversions,” commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday morning on ESPN. “I think we need that focus on the future and that way to bring communities together. I think we’ll be able to do that for the next three days.”
Goodell had hoped to stand on a stage in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip to announce the picks, as crowds approaching 500,000 were expected to attend the event. Instead, he’ll be reading off the selections from the basement of his Westchester County home, unable to hug the prospects as they realize their lifelong dreams of hearing their names read aloud for the world to hear. The draftees will be at home like the rest of us, watching the telecast on ESPN, the NFL Network or ABC and instead of embracing Goodell, they can only deliver virtual hugs through the lens of their video cameras placed in their living rooms.
Just like everyone else living through this difficult time, it will be an unforgettable experience, even if the celebration is muted by the unfortunate circumstances in which we now live. Players still will feel the exuberance of hearing Goodell read aloud their names and teams. Families still will scream their approval, even while paying heed to social distance requirements. And fans will shout their approval – or displeasure – just not in the same places where they would normally react to draft selections.
“It’s going to be a fascinating experience,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “We’ve had tons of drafts over our lifetime that will never be remembered like this one will be, so we’ll hopefully pull it off in great fashion and we’ve worked really hard to do that.”
It will be fascinating, no doubt. Surreal, too.
“Everybody’s done a great job of recreating my dining room,” Seahawks general manager John Schneider said. “When you walk in the door, it’s the draft room. I’m a very visual person, so everything’s there in case things fall apart from a technology standpoint. I think there’s like, I don’t know, it feels like 25 [computer and television] screens.”
It will be a technological miracle of sorts for the NFL to pull this thing off. Even though we live in an interconnected world, finding a way to bring together NFL officials, owners, general managers, coaches, scouts and everyone else associated with the draft in a virtual format has stretched the bounds of the information technology world. But somehow, some way, the NFL will get through the 255 picks. Players and coaches and GMs will be interviewed, Mel Kiper, Daniel Jeremiah, Todd McShay and other draft experts will weigh in, and the TV networks will try to provide some sense of normalcy to a process that is anything by normal.
Maybe the most lasting impact of this year’s draft won’t be the unusual visuals, but the real-life good that can be done through a telethon fundraiser that will be conducted as part of the event. The league hopes to raise millions of dollars to donate to six non-profit organizations who are fighting the fight against the deadly illness. Good on the NFL for stepping up when all hands on deck are required.
It will be an event unlike any other, for so many reasons. At a time when we are all hurting, let the 2020 format be remembered as the most unique in history.
And may it never, ever, happen again.