At a time when we all are desperate for some sense of normalcy, the NFL has become a welcome source of diversion in a world turned upside down by uncertainty, fear and heartbreak.
There are no baseball, basketball, hockey or any other games to be played right now, and no one knows quite when they will resume. But the NFL has decided to take as much of a business-as-usual approach amid the coronavirus pandemic, and the result has been this little sliver of entertainment that has provided a respite from the sobering reality of our times.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision to go ahead with the draft as scheduled April 23-25 will add another means of escape.
It would have been entirely understandable if Goodell and league owners had opted to delay the start of free agency earlier this month and put off the draft. After all, we are living through something rarely seen before in history, and the ramifications are both sobering and saddening.
But any criticism the league may have invited by beginning the league year on time has largely melted away now that fans have had a chance to discuss the merits of the various moves teams have made since early last week. Tom Brady to Tampa Bay – good or bad for the 42-year-old legend? Philip Rivers to the Colts – will it work for the 38-year-old quarterback? Mitchell Trubisky now on a short leash with the Bears’ trade for Nick Foles? Will Dak Prescott sign a long-term deal with the Cowboys or not? Does the Calais Campbell trade to the Ravens get them closer to Super Bowl contention?
Yes, in the larger context of world events, these are trivial issues. But then, so are games and seasons and trades and signings and wins and losses. Sports itself are a diversion, and we all know it. Yet we all love to watch, we all love to discuss, and we all love to root for our teams and form the kind of lifelong attachments that go along with it.
Right now, football transactions are about all we’ve got in terms of real-time impact in the sports world. Opening Day in baseball has come and gone, no one knows when – or even if – there will be more basketball and hockey games to be played this season. And sports around the world are on hold, including the Olympics, which have been put off until next year.
Goodell struck the right balance when he explained the challenge of proceeding with the draft. In a memo he sent to team owners, executives, general managers and coaches on Thursday night, he acknowledged the difficulty of what lies ahead.
“Everyone recognizes that public health conditions are highly uncertain and there is no assurance that we can select a different date and be confident that conditions will be significantly more favorable than they are today,” he said. “I also believe that the draft can serve a very positive purpose for our clubs, our fans, and the country at large, and many of you have agreed.”
That part about the positive impact for the country at large is what actually happened when the league went ahead with free agency as scheduled. The sports media’s voracious appetite for content has been challenged like never before, and while it’s appropriate for your favorite radio, television or newspaper personalities to discuss world events in small doses, that’s not why you watch, listen or read. You want sports commentary.
Right now, the NFL is the only league providing it on a daily basis. And that will continue in the run-up to the draft, as we break down teams’ various needs, draft-eligible players’ various strengths and weaknesses and the outlook for the 2020 season – which we assume will take place at some point.
It may not be an ideal scenario for the teams themselves, especially the executives and coaches who will make their choices in next month’s draft. There won’t be any player visits, which often shed light on a prospect’s mindset. There won’t be any medical checks, which is probably the biggest drawback of staging a virtual draft.
It’s also good for the players, who will most likely not have an offseason to get acclimated but will at least know which teams they’ll be joining. The sooner they can get into their new playbooks, the better.
But here’s something that won’t happen, which might be a good thing: There won’t be the kind of paralysis-by-analysis dynamic that often gets teams into trouble when they select players. While teams crave every morsel of information they can get their hands on to prepare for the draft, that information can cloud the issue and prompt teams to make decisions they come to regret.
This year, they’ll have to rely on what they see on game tape, what they’ve seen at the NFL Combine and what they learned until the NFL closed up shop at team facilities in a league-wide social distancing effort. This year, they’ll have to go more with gut instinct than other years, and that may not be such a bad thing. In fact, for teams that do end up making wise decisions on players this year, rest assured they will take that sort of thing into consideration in future seasons. Especially if they take players they might otherwise have steered clear of had they been impacted by factors they might otherwise have taken under advisement.
While Goodell can be applauded for proceeding with the draft, his threat to league employees who might otherwise disagree with the decision was off-base. In his memo, Goodell wrote, “public discussion of issues relating to the draft serves no useful purpose and is grounds for disciplinary action.”
C’mon. It’s OK for people to disagree, and muzzling that sentiment isn’t called for, especially in these difficult times that are emotional for everyone. It felt heavy-handed for Goodell to even bring it up.
The NFL’s show will go on, and it won’t be long before we find out where college football’s best players will end up playing in the pros.
The Bengals will be on the clock shortly in an unprecedented draft in an unprecedented time.
At least there’s something else to talk about. And there’s nothing wrong with that.