Niyo: Unique NFL Draft promises virtual relief – and real suspense

John Niyo
The Detroit News

The boos will be sponsored, so Roger Goodell should feel right at home when he announces first-round selections for the NFL Draft Thursday night from the basement of his home in Bronxville, N.Y.

And given the circumstances, we probably will, too, as the league’s annual swap meet plays out over the next few days and provides fans an outlet that’ll feel oddly reassuring.

The suspense and the second-guessing. The cheers and the complaints. It’ll all be a welcome respite for many amid a health crisis that already has postponed or canceled spring sports rituals like March Madness, Major League Baseball’s opening day, the Masters, the Kentucky Derby and the NBA and NHL playoffs.

Bob Quinn

Back in mid-March, the NFL abandoned its plans for a lavish outdoor event in Las Vegas, complete with a stage set in the Fountains at Bellagio and players ferried across in a gondola for their draft moment with Goodell. Instead, they’ll hold the draft remotely, with GMs and coaches working out of makeshift war rooms in their own homes and a skeleton crew at ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Conn., broadcasting it to millions. For most sports fans, it’ll be the first live event they’ve watched in six weeks, a fact that certainly is not lost on the folks tasked with producing the show.

“Obviously, these are very challenging circumstances in the midst of COVID-19,” said Seth Markman, ESPN’s vice president of production. “Yet we have a great opportunity here to bring fans across the country a little bit of hope, a little bit of joy, and maybe a bit of an escape from what we’re all experiencing day-to-day right now.”

That’s the idea, at least, even if it’s one that wasn’t fully endorsed by the league’s rank-and-file members.

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Football coaches are creatures of habit, and most executives aren’t much different, which only partly explains why there was so much grumbling – most of it privately, thanks to Goodell’s threats of disciplinary action – about the $17-billion behemoth moving forward with free agency and the draft in the middle of a pandemic. (They’re also human beings with families and real concerns like the rest of us.)

Regardless, the league pressed on, and now decision-makers for NFL teams have been forced to relocate – and redecorate – their lairs, which presents some challenges on the home front, as trivial as it might sound. Kids chewing up bandwidth playing video games or streaming Netflix. Barking dogs interrupting conference calls. And so on.

“The other day, I’ve got this amazing setup with all these screens, and (my wife) is vacuuming and hits the cord and every screen goes black,” Bears GM Ryan Pace told reporters Tuesday. “So you’re dealing with the at-home conditions.”

'Mute your stuff'

There's all the usual drama heading into the draft, from Tua Tagovailoa's health to countless trade scenarios. But there's also an abbreviated scouting calendar that wreaked havoc on teams’ plans and now another layer of intrigue hard-wired into the process.

Some may be better equipped than others to deal with this new virtual reality. (The Browns’ new GM, Andrew Berry, has a master’s degree in computer science, for instance.) But they all should be pros by now, given the technology coaches use on a daily basis and from having spent the last month or more operating almost exclusively this way.

Tua Tagovailoa

Lions general manager Bob Quinn said he and his personnel team, along with head coach Matt Patricia and his staff, spent 6-7 hours a day holding Zoom calls with prospects in lieu of the usual 30 pre-draft visits teams are allowed.

“You have to condense it, work through the technology of watching film with a guy and talk to him about scheme,” Quinn explained, “but I think we did a good job of organizing that.”

He’s confident that’ll hold true this week as well. But just in case there’s a snafu, all the league’s GMs will have a safety net during the three-day draft. In Quinn’s case, it’ll be Steve Lancaster, the team’s IT director, parked in a Winnebago in his driveway, abiding by local social-distancing guidelines while monitoring the home network.

The league held a virtual mock draft Monday to work out some of the kinks with what’ll transpire on live television tonight, and not surprisingly there were some issues. The problems started with GMs and coaches failing to hit the mute button, which led to the kind of chaos we’ve all heard on various telework meetings in recent weeks.

In this case, it was “kind of important stuff where two teams were talking and the whole league was hearing it,” said 49ers GM John Lynch, who admits his team’s own internal mock draft over the weekend was a “you-know-what show.” But the issue was quickly corrected on the league-wide exercise, and presumably, a lesson was learned as well.

“When they tell you to mute your stuff,” Lynch said, “you should probably listen.”

'Different but fun'

There are other fears, of course. What about hackers? (“They assure me that we are doing everything humanly possible, and I remind them that that's what Wells Fargo and all those other places said about our private information,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh joked.) Or thunderstorms? (“There's backup on backup,” promised NFL executive VP Peter O’Reilly.) Or bedtime meltdowns? (“I can’t imagine if I had a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old running around my house right now,” Quinn laughed.)

Contingencies are in place in case things go haywire on the clock. Teams can designate three different people in the organization to submit a draft pick, and if there are tech problems, the NFL has said it’ll step in and hit the pause button if needed. (That said, the league also has encouraged teams not to wait until the final seconds to make their pick, so this draft actually might move a bit quicker than others.)

Still, in the end, it’s not the draft that’ll be different. It’s just the backdrop.

“Clearly, it is about drafting players,” said NFL Network senior vice president Mark Quenzel said. “But even more clearly, it’s about setting the tone that we understand there’s something much larger than us going on in the world. So how do we set that tone first thing on Thursday night and how do we continue to maintain it through the three days of the draft?”

They’ll start by letting Peyton Manning introduce the show Thursday night, with a pre-produced video saluting healthcare workers, first responders and others on the front lines. Beyond that, it’ll be a balancing act, as ESPN and the NFL Network combine forces to produce one draft simulcast instead of two competing shows. (Actually, it’s two instead of three, as there’ll still be an ABC show for casual fans focused more on story-telling and the player’ journeys with interviews done in January and February.)

Trey Wingo will host the draft with Suzy Kolber from Bristol, along with a small staff of producers wearing face masks. The rest of the on-air talent – Mel Kiper Jr., Adam Schefter, Chris Mortensen and others – will join from their homes, part of what Quenzel estimates will be 180 or so real-time video feeds streaming in from around the country through call centers to be added to the ESPN broadcast. That includes cameras in the homes of every coach and GM in the league, as well as the draft-cam kits that were sent – along with 32 team-logo ballcaps – to 58 top prospects to create a virtual green room.

Markman says it’s like nothing he’s ever attempted in 27 years of broadcasting, and while he’s confident they’ll pull it off, he adds, “I will say, it is damn complicated.”

More: Detroit Lions scout tirelessly mines NFL Draft talent amid heavy heart

Last year’s draft posted record TV ratings, with the three-day event averaging 6.1 million viewers at any given moment. But with a captive audience and a sports-starved public sitting at home, this year’s telecast could blow past those numbers.

“I’m not even going to offer a guess on the ratings," Markman said. “We were set up for a big ratings this year, anyway. But because of the circumstances we’re all in and everything else canceled, there’s more eyeballs and more anticipation."

And more money, of course, though a sizeable chunk of it will go to a good cause as the NFL uses its platform to hold a “Draft-A-Thon” fundraiser for COVID-19 relief efforts. The league, which touts $50 million raised already through its clubs and various partners, will have its own network talent – Rich Eisen, Deion Sanders and others – hosting a livestream with celebrity guests, soliciting donations to support a half-dozen charities.

As for the boos that typically greet Goodell when he takes the stage at the draft, those will be part of the show, too. Bud Light asked fans to record videos on Twitter – with the hashtag #BooTheCommish – while offering to donate up to $500,000 to the fundraiser. And you can expect those will be worked into the broadcast as well.

"This is an opportunity for everyone to enjoy an NFL event, but also to be sure that it’s going to a really great cause and participate in a unique way," Goodell said in an interview with Eisen on his radio show last week. “It’ll be different, but it’ll be fun.”