During these most abnormal of times, there were small comforts to be found in the relative normalcy of the television coverage of the first round of the NFL Draft Thursday night.
No, of course the draft, which runs through Saturday with collaboration between ESPN and the NFL Network as well as a separate network broadcast on ABC, didn’t resemble the massive public event that it has become in recent years.
This year, it was booked to take place in Las Vegas, with 750,000 fans projected to be in attendance over its three days. Instead, as everyone with a hint of common sense socially distances in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first round came to us from more personal venues this year: the basements and living rooms of 60 top prospects and the 32 general managers and owners charged with selecting them virtually.
Trey Wingo hosted solo from the ESPN set, while on the ABC broadcast, Rece Davis, Maria Taylor, and Jesse Palmer were on set together. They might have been sitting the recommended six feet apart. Maybe.
I mostly watched the ESPN/NFL Network collaboration. Assorted analysts and experts — there were usually three from ESPN and three from the NFL Network appearing on screens in the ESPN studio — checked in virtually from their makeshift home studios.
(Earlier in the day, news came that Todd McShay, the Swampscott High grad and longtime ESPN draft analyst, is recovering from COVID-19 and would not be part of the ABC broadcast. His enthusiastic expertise was missed.)
The setup was impressive, and perhaps familiar to anyone who has participated in a Zoom call with work colleagues over the past several weeks.
Wingo joked with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell during the pre-draft show about the concern regarding technical difficulties, asking him, “I’m about to ask you something I never thought I would ask you. How’s your bandwidth?”
But there were no issues with significant delays, no one caught swearing on a hot microphone off camera, no 16-year-old hackers hijacking a team’s feed to play Fortnite. The most awkward moment probably came when Wingo abruptly cut off Adam Schefter, who was elaborating on the Patriots’ trade of the No. 23 pick to the Chargers. And that sort of thing happens in any live broadcast when there are a lot of moving parts.
Instead, once a viewer got used to the setup — and for me, that was right after the Bengals took LSU quarterback Joe Burrow No. 1 overall while he sat on a couch at home with his parents — it felt familiar, and mostly for the better. It was actually amusing to virtually snoop on the various setups. Special kudos go to ESPN’s Louis Riddick, who featured the classic ‘80s handheld electronic football game on the top shelf of his backdrop bookcase.
— Holly Rowe (@sportsiren) April 24, 2020
When the Giants selected Georgia tackle Andrew Thomas with the No. 4 overall pick, there was something reassuring in seeing ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. rattled, since he had three other tackles rated higher. It’s an annual tradition: When Kiper’s draft board is officially thrown out of whack, that’s when the draft really begins.
There was no Vegas glamour and schmaltz, but this is the NFL’s show, and the safely distanced pomp-and-circumstance was such that one almost expected a military flyover over ESPN’s Bristol studios. Harry Connick Jr., a Saints fan we were told, sang the National Anthem from his New Orleans home. Goodell, who was slightly less wooden than the paneling in his basement — he made awkward if good-natured light of fans’ annual habit of booing him at the draft — called for a moment of silence.
Before the picks began, proper tribute was paid to healthcare workers on the front-line of the pandemic, with Peyton Manning narrating an essay that in typical NFL fashion also paid not-so-subtle homage to the sport’s role in American culture. “This may look like separation,’’ said Manning, the legendary quarterback and second-born son in the NFL’s anointed first family, “but it’s really solidarity.”
Then, the most NFL thing of all: blunt commercialism. ESPN threw in five commercials between the introductory comments and the Bengals’ selection of Burrow.
The most poignant scenes typically come when a player is selected, his dream officially come true, and he shares the moment with his happy family. Those scenes were familiar this year too — the family of Eagles pick Jalen Reagor set the bar for the loudest cheers — but there was poignancy to be found even before the draft began.
At the top of ESPN’s “Countdown to the 2020 NFL Draft” program, which began an hour before the 8 p.m. draft, ESPN showed a live shot of The Strip in Vegas outside of Caesars Palace. Signs for Rod Stewart and Wayne Newton concerts that won’t happen anytime soon blinked, and there was not a single soul to be seen on the streets.
The scene was another stark reminder — as if we require any more of those — that these are the opposite of normal times. But the first-round, even done virtually, didn’t feel all that different than it usually does once the picks started rolling in.
ESPN, ABC and the NFL Network deserve credit for pulling this off the extraordinary logistical calculus of these broadcasts and doing it well enough to provide a few hours of something resembling normalcy for sports fans.
A little more virtual booing of Goodell wouldn’t have hurt, though. There’s nothing about the draft more normal than that. Well, other than the Patriots trading out of the first round.