A Virtual N.F.L. Draft Might Be a Back to the Future Moment

A Virtual N.F.L. Draft Might Be a Back to the Future Moment

Ernie Accorsi, the former general manager of the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and Giants, remembers attending his first N.F.L. draft in 1969. He expected to enter a grand, ornate ballroom filled with titans of the game: Vince Lombardi, Paul Brown, Don Shula.

Instead, he walked into a tiny New York hotel conference room and did not recognize anyone other than the league commissioner, Pete Rozelle, who stood against a wall.

“Rozelle didn’t even have a chalkboard,” Accorsi said. “He was writing the names of drafted players in Magic Marker on a big white sheet.”

Gil Brandt, whose 28-year career as a Dallas Cowboys draft guru began in 1960, recalled recently that early in his career some teams considered a thick roll of quarters an essential draft tool.

“If they needed a tackle, someone would go to the hotel lobby pay phone and start using the quarters to call college coaches,” Brandt said.

Conversations hinged on a question: “You got anybody good at tackle?”

On Thursday, the N.F.L. will hold its first virtual draft. Nearly every person involved in the process will be working remotely via video conference to comply with physical distancing guidelines. The usually splashy television broadcast will lack its normal pageantry. In its place, player selections will be announced, almost comically, from the basement of the current N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell.

To modern fans, the scene might seem like a throwback, the N.F.L. turning back the clock to 1970.

The truth is, the N.F.L. draft 50 years ago was much more primitive, cruder even than today’s football fans can imagine. (More on that later.) And while this year’s draft may look as if it has gone back in time, the essentials of this annual, much ballyhooed event will largely remain the same, behind the scenes, at least, as it has for decades.

Yes, there will be an unprecedented dependence on technology to get picks delivered on time, which could cause a few nerve-racking glitches. But 255 former college football players will be selected, and as in every other recent draft, teams will have relied on a deep reservoir of accumulated player data to make those choices. Along the way, there will be stupefying picks that prove to be spectacularly prescient and seemingly safe selections that end up embarrassing busts.

In the end, Goodell will turn off his basement light. Then maybe he’ll roll up the big white sheet he was writing on in the corner.

But first, to go back to the future. There was one chief reason the draft in the early 1970s was almost primeval: The event was held about 10 days to two weeks after the Super Bowl. That scheduling had a profound effect, leaving no time for a scouting combine, player workouts, medical examinations or many face-to-face interviews with prospects.

“There was little time to prepare, and in a sense that wasn’t bad,” Accorsi said. “You had no choice whatsoever but to draft by production.”

Members of the college all-American team dominated the early rounds, which was often constructive. In the 1975 draft, for example, three of the top six picks were future members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But from 1967 to 1976, the draft also had 17 rounds, so plenty of players with less decorated careers were drafted, even if general managers sometimes found those players by scanning articles in preseason college football magazines. The fundamental basics of the modern draft started to take shape in 1976 when the event was moved to late spring. It was dropped to 12 rounds the next year. By 1980, ESPN was televising the proceedings, and in the 1990s, the number of rounds was reduced to seven.

When lucrative television contracts turned the N.F.L. into a cultural and business monolith, teams had the money to hire hundreds of college scouts and personnel directors. Prepping for the draft became a year-round endeavor, an obsession within a sport rife with compulsive personalities.

That is why, even in a pandemic, N.F.L. teams will not be heading into Thursday’s draft in disarray despite the interruption of their predraft routines by the spread of the coronavirus.

“Teams have had the information they need for months and months,” said Scott Pioli, a former N.F.L. front office executive with six teams who helmed player personnel duties for eight seasons with the New England Patriots, during which time the team won three Super Bowls. “There have been regular, frequent meetings about this draft since December. At each interval, general managers have read every report on every player that matters.”

Pioli does believe, however, that the atypical circumstances of this year’s virtual draft will be somewhat unnerving to N.F.L. general managers because they are accustomed to being surrounded by advisers in one room as selections are made.

“They’re used to having to turn to their left or right to get information,” Pioli, now an N.F.L. analyst for CBS Sports HQ, said. “They won’t be in their normal comfort zone.”

Unforeseen technological lapses that might thwart communication between team staffers or between teams and league officials during the draft also continue to be a substantial concern for general managers and their staffs. Peter O’Reilly, an N.F.L. executive vice president, insisted Friday on a conference call with reporters that the league had prepared multiple layers of contingencies to prevent communication breakdowns. Team executives can also be granted a one-time clock extension if a technological issue arises.

Pioli thinks teams will adapt.

“Even if there are glitches, if you have several phones — your phone, another family member’s phone — there are ways to be ready, and I’m sure teams have thought that out,” he said.

Some usual behaviors, however, are expected to change. Draft day trades between teams may have to be negotiated earlier, and not in the final frantic, pressure-packed minutes before a draft selection must be submitted to the league office, which has been common in past years.

“Listen, we don’t have much time, we can’t fool around,” Dave Gettleman, the Giants’ general manager, said last week when asked how he would respond to a potential suitor for his first-round choice, the fourth overall pick. “I’d like to get the parameters of deals in place before we get on the clock.”

But otherwise, Gettleman, who has been an executive in the league since 1986, feels a bit at ease in the altered environment of this week’s draft. It feels familiar.

“This is like back in the late ’70s when they drafted with absolutely no contact with players,” Gettleman said. “I think at the end of the day, it is a little bit old-school.”


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