In this weird coronavirus reality, the sport at center stage is the one that’s not in season.
The NFL provided a distraction last week by staying the course with free agency. Although initially the decision seemed tone deaf, it actually gave millions of fans something to fixate on and discuss that didn’t have life-or-death gravitas.
But the league’s insistence to stick with the April 23-25 dates for the draft could be problematic, giving some teams an unfair advantage and leaving some lesser-known players out in the cold.
Over the weekend, speaking with multiple NFL general managers and player personnel directors from both conferences — each of whom was working from home — they commented on the condition of anonymity so they could be candid.
This is sports. These people aren’t on the front lines saving lives the way doctors and nurses are. Hardships that general managers might encounter are mere inconveniences. But they could cause the NFL to reassess the scheduling of the draft, which has become a made-for-TV event.
“If everything goes the way it’s going now, and virus could be peaking around the time of the draft, you could easily see a suspension of the draft,” one GM said. “I have no inside information, but if we have areas of the country that look like what Northern Italy’s going through, I don’t think we’ll be drafting … But we have to prepare like we’re drafting.”
Tex Schramm, legendary GM of the Dallas Cowboys, once warned that the NFL cannot become a studio game. But putting the broadcast spectacle of the draft ahead of the intended purpose — helping teams restock their talent supply — seems the epitome of a studio game.
The perspectives of the team executives varied slightly, but each said the inconvenience of working at home — without the opportunity to bring prospects into the facility for a visit, in some cases without complete medical reports, and without the ability to bring scouts together for face-to-face discussions — makes the job significantly more challenging.
As one GM put it, it’s more convincing if a scout is pounding the draft-room table on behalf of a prospect than pounding the kitchen table on a Zoom connection.
The NFL planned to hold the draft in Las Vegas for the first time. There was going to be a stage in front of the Bellagio hotel, and players would ride through the famous fountains in a boat when selected. That was scrubbed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the league won’t be going to Las Vegas at all. As it stands, the NFL is planning a scaled-down version of the draft in a studio, using technology to check in with players and the various team headquarters.
Problem is, those headquarters aren’t currently open. Virtually everyone is working from home, and certainly the executives from the three California teams — the Rams, Chargers and San Francisco 49ers.
As convincing as the NFL has been about pressing forward, there’s a feeling among many that the current dates aren’t set in stone.
The Rams and Chargers are in distinctly different positions. Whereas the Rams don’t have their first selection until No. 52, the Chargers have the sixth pick and could well be choosing a quarterback. What if Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa is available, and the Chargers don’t have the chance to have their doctors examine his surgically repaired hip? In that case, they would have to make a monumental, multimillion-dollar decision, one that could change the trajectory of the franchise for years to come, based on the recommendation of someone they don’t employ.
A lot of players who have medical exams at the combine have to come back to Indianapolis for a follow-up exam. Now, those won’t take place.
Under normal circumstances, a team can bring in 30 prospects for interviews before the draft. Those are now banned. That’s a problem.
“A lot of these players, maybe you didn’t talk to them at the combine because they went from 60 to 45 players,” a personnel director said. “Maybe your coach had a chance to meet with them in another part of the stadium. But a lot of these players, you thought, ‘OK, great, we haven’t spent enough time with this guy. So we want to fly him in to our facility and really get to know him.’
“You don’t know how the guy learns, how he interacts with people on your staff. You learn a lot about guys having them in your building. A lot of times when a coach is interviewing a guy, you’re trying to teach them. You’ll get them on the board, then you wipe it off, and you throw up another play. You see how they retain; that’s what we really want to know. It’s hard to recreate that over Skype or anything else.”
The players who could really lose out are the ones who weren’t invited to the combine. They have neither met with coaches nor have they had NFL medical exams. Among the NFL players who weren’t invited to the combine: Julian Edelman, Doug Baldwin, Antonio Gates, Tyreek Hill and Adam Thielen.
“How do you draft a guy that you have no medical on?” a personnel director said. “Even if a school allows you to access a player’s medical records, with the player’s approval, you still don’t have your doctors looking at maybe an ACL repair or a back injury, or any other general issue. It’s really unfair to those kids because a lot of teams may not take those players without a firm medical on them.”
Then again, there’s a distinct survival-of-the-fittest element to the NFL. As one GM put it, there is an upside to keeping the draft dates in place.
“Football is always challenging, and ultimately those who can adjust the best have a chance to make the most of the moment,” he said. “You’ve got to think, ‘How do we make this a competitive advantage for us?’”
One GM said he’s working at home, on his cell phone, with his kids running around and no ability to get into his team headquarters. He doesn’t have the 30-foot-long draft board that takes up an entire wall of the facility, and joked you can’t buy those on Amazon. He doesn’t have multiple land lines at home, the kind that teams require during a draft. That would make a trade particularly tricky.
“In those situations, I’ll have one of our scouts calling the player, one scout manning the phone that sends the pick in and is connected to New York the whole time,” the GM said. “One guy is on the trade phone with the league. I might be on the phone with the other team. Plus you’ve got the countdown clock.”
In short, that would be next to impossible for a homebound GM.
“If my WiFi goes out,” he said, “then I’m really in trouble.”