By Steve Keating
April 23 (Reuters) – There were no glitches or cyber attacks during the first round of the “virtual” NFL Draft on Thursday, but neither was there much of the raw emotion or energy that usually lights up the league’s biggest offseason bash.
While the draft went off as scheduled, it reflected in every way a sporting world turned upside down by a global pandemic – a fact reflected in the stark image of an empty and desolate Las Vegas Strip, where the event should have taken place.
No technological magic was ever going to replace the buzz and glitz of Vegas, but the NFL and broadcast partners ESPN, ABC and NFL Network threw everything they had into the four-hour primetime online showcase, juggling feeds from nearly 200 players and team officials scattered around the United States.
“I do believe this will be the most memorable draft we have ever had,” said Goodell, adding he was certain things wouldn’t go as planned.
The commissioner was wrong on both counts: the draft went off without any major hitches and the only thing that will be remembered about the evening will be the unfortunate circumstances that forced the draft into the virtual world.
With most sports in the United States shuttered for more than a month, the NFL promoted the three-day event as a welcome distraction. But social distancing gave the entire evening a detached sterile feel that failed to generate the usual energy.
But the draft did deliver some actual suspense, as every selection came with consequences for next season and years to come.
Each pick through seven rounds will be dissected, debated and digested as fans look to the future, even as desperate television networks use big games of past years to fill thousands of hours of programming wiped out by the coronavirus.
Goodell tried to put a historic spin on the evening, opening the program by proclaiming it the “first ever NFL virtual draft” while host Trey Wingo went even further describing it as “one of the greatest spectacles in all of sports”.
Working from his “man cave” in the basement of his Bronxville, New York home, Goodell tried to inject some draft tradition into an event that had been stripped of much of it, turning to a television hanging on the wall behind him and pleading fans to boo, as they usually do whenever he appears on stage.
What Goodell got was a cringe worthy half effort that even he had to chuckle at before moving on to announce Louisiana State University’s Heisman trophy-winning quarterback, Joe Burrow, going to the Cincinnati Bengals as the top overall pick.
The signature moments of the draft are top picks hearing their names called, then appearing on stage for a hug with Goodell, who gives them a team jersey and ball cap.
When Burrow’s big moment came he seemed unaware, playing with his phone flanked by his parents on the family couch, before finally standing up, pulling on a Bengals cap and giving mom and dad a hug.
The NFL had issued a dress code before the draft, most of it directed at non-licensed NFL products. But some players pushed the boundaries, such as wide receiver Henry Ruggs III, taken 12th overall by the Las Vegas Raiders, who appeared in a bathrobe. Burrow wore a white T-shirt rather than the traditional suit.
Beyond the format very little on Thursday resembled a normal draft.
The massive war rooms crammed with team personnel were gone, replaced by staff working from home.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians decided the patio was the place to get the job done, while San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was hard at work in his den with three kids looking over his shoulder, and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones oversaw things from his yacht.
But the draft, which ESPN producer Seth Markman described as “a technological high-wire act” had only minor wobbles, and the cyber security threat that had worried teams never materialized. (Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Gerry Doyle)