Two picks into Thursday night’s first round, the NFL draft felt like it was dragging. The lag between picks was interminable, just like always.
And that might be the best possible compliment the draft and its telecast can receive: In one of the most abnormal times we’ll ever experience, the draft gave us a few hours of fresh entertainment that resembled normalcy.
We had something to cheer (or boo) again. For the first time in the COVID-19 era, sports were back, albeit in an altered form.
ESPN made it clear immediately that Thursday night was not going to look or feel quite like an ordinary draft. It couldn’t.
Not physically; instead of broadcasting live in front of frenzied fans in Las Vegas, commissioner Roger Goodell announced the picks from his basement.
Not practically; the technological complexities of more than 150 different video feeds meant that competitors ESPN and the NFL Network combined for a joint broadcast with a pared-down production crew.
And not emotionally; the weight of the coronavirus pandemic is too heavy for everyone.
ESPN rightfully addressed the pandemic immediately but did so without doom and gloom. Images of proposals and dances and nurses and doctors played as legendary quarterback Peyton Manning narrated a monologue about hope that the draft would “fill a deeper need” than finding a new right tackle.
The network showed the empty Las Vegas strip and acknowledged the absence of analyst Todd McShay, who is recovering from coronavirus.
After that? It was almost all football. And given the circumstances, it worked.
The virtual draft added flavor to an event that can be stale. The celebratory live shots of players and their families looked better at home than in the green room, where there’s no couch for Tristan Wirfs’ cat to perch. Getting a peek into coaches’ homes —nice lanai, Bruce Arians — was interesting, too.
But doing everything remotely had some obvious drawbacks, too, beyond a couple technical glitches and awkward pauses.
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While the analysts were insightful and worked fine together (despite being from two different networks), there were too many talking heads. ESPN only interviewed two players — quarterbacks Joe Burrow (No. 1 overall) and Jordan Love (No. 26). General managers and coaches weren’t talking, either, so viewers were left guessing about why the Bucs felt they had to trade up one spot to snag Wirfs.
Give Goodell credit for encouraging the virtual boos, but they weren’t the same. Maybe ESPN could have addressed the problem by incorporating some social-media fan reactions.
Before the draft, the NFL Network’s Mark Quenzel said he was using two criteria to measure the broadcast’s success: Did they get the picks right by telling players’ stories adequately and analyzing how they fit on their new teams? And did they strike the right balance between providing a much-needed entertainment distraction and acknowledging the pandemic that has killed thousands and brought the country to a standstill?
“Clearly it’s about drafting players,” said Quenzel, the network’s senior vice president of programming and production. “But even more clearly, it’s about setting the tone that we understand that there’s something much larger than us going on in the world.”
The draft successfully set the tone with its opening montage and returned to it a few times throughout the evening, with shoutouts to first responders. And then it let us focus on football.
None of it eases the physical and financial suffering that’s taking place locally and across the country. But for four-plus hours Thursday, it gave us something that, while not quite normal, at least felt familiar, where it’s okay to complain about something as meaningless as the lull between draft picks.