Kicking a few extra points on the television coverage of the NFL Draft while wondering if that animatronic “Roger Goodell” figure used to announce the picks changed its batteries when it changed outfits. Wait, being told that was the real Roger Goodell …
In normal times, the networks go to great lengths to add human interest to the draft picks’ stories, often by relating tales of tragedy and obstacles overcome, the treacly piano riff for Tom Rinaldi’s feature stories always at the ready.
It’s a wholly justifiable approach — knowing something personal about, say, the center the Saints hope to plug into the middle of their offensive line for the next 8-10 years, makes him instantly appealing to the fan base, and theoretically easier to root for. The moment a player is drafted, we want to know them beyond their stats at the combine.
ESPN, in its joint production with the NFL Network, and ABC did not deviate from that approach this year, even in its stripped-down broadcasts amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But these types of stories were more noticeable this year, and at least in this particular home office, they hit a little harder.
The most compelling of several of these stories probably came when the Saints drafted Michigan center Cesar Ruiz — yes, the player they hope to plug into the middle of their offensive line — and he burst into tears, hugging his mother. We were soon informed that Ruiz’s father had died in a hit-and-run accident when Cesar was just 8 years old, and he’d dedicated his football journey to him.
It was a sad and heartwarming story and scene, one that packed a wallop. Perhaps that’s due the isolated circumstances we find ourselves in right now. Or perhaps it’s that a lot of the over-the-top joy — fancy suits and giddy entourages and massive bear hugs for Goodell — that has been such a staple of the draft over the years was absent, and so those emotional turns in the story stick with you a little longer.
A cynic might consider some of these stories manipulative of the viewers, but I just know this. In these socially distanced times, authentic emotions and genuine human interest during the draft was a welcome companion to the business of divvying up of football players.
Circumstances took away the pomp this year, and yet I wonder if you’ll agree: Wasn’t this the most entertaining draft ever? Watching coaches and GMs do their thing in a “war room” at the stadium will never be as entertaining as watching Bill Belichick operate from a kitchen table that looked like a 3D chessboard, or Kliff Kingsbury checking in from what looked like an ad in the Robb Report, or whatever the heck was going on in the background at Mike Vrabel’s house.
It was cool to see so many GMs and coaches hanging out with their children during the process, from Sean Payton to Brian Flores to John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan, especially since they’re in a profession that doesn’t allow for much family time. Turns out we didn’t need Las Vegas and draftees taking gondolas to meet with Goodell and all of the planned bells and whistles. The individual and unique setups at the homes of the 32 GMs, 32 coaches, and 60 top prospects provided more entertaining set decorations and backdrops than even Vegas would have.
Job well done
I’d suggest it’s a minor miracle that ESPN, the NFL Network, and ABC pulled all of this off with nary a hitch. The networks used more than 200 remote camera shots in the first round alone, which would be remarkable for a normal broadcast, let alone one executed in the midst of a pandemic, when there were much greater concerns than whether an anchor and reporter could hear each other.
But what it is more than anything — including a miracle — is a tribute to the hundreds of talented people at the networks that pulled it off, starting with vice president of production Seth Markman, who oversees all of ESPN’s studio programming. I thought it was both telling and classy that Fred Gaudelli, a 23-time Emmy winner and the executive producer of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” tweeted his admiration for what ESPN pulled off on Thursday night.
“Congratulations to the production and engineering staffs of ESPN and NFLN,’’ tweeted Gaudelli, who has produced the draft 13 times in his own career. “In a normal year the draft is a monster. To do it in this environment is a tremendous achievement of the highest order.”