It’s a bit fruitless these days to try to predict what’s going to happen—with offseason programs, with the release of the schedule, with training camps, with preseason games, with the regular season. The NFL, like all of society, is at the whim of a virus.
With Roger Goodell confirming that the draft would stay on the scheduled dates of April 23-25, that’s one mystery solved. But the form it will take—the where and the how, especially—is in a nascent state. What we do know is most people normally together for the draft will be separated. It has created one interesting perspective. If you’ve done Zoom video conferencing, or you’ve watched recent nightly newscasts, maybe you’ve seen eight or 10 people on the laptop screen or the TV all ready to be called on by a host. Imagine the same thing on draft night. The NFL will send out about 50 portable camera kits with microphones to top prospects and college coaches, with better-than-FaceTime quality, so NFL draft coverage will be able to bring in, say, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow from the family home outside Athens, Ohio, when/if he’s the first pick of the Bengals. Then Burrow will be able to do his media availability with the Cincinnati press, and whatever other one-on-ones he chooses to do.
Not perfect, but necessarily different.
The draft itself will be different. The first two or three rounds shouldn’t be upset all that much because of the scouting changes; the top 100 players were poked and prodded normally for seven months of the college preseason, regular season, bowl season and combine season before everything shut down. But it’s the later rounds, as NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said in this space last week, that could see teams trying to hit the safe singles instead of the risky triples.
“What teams will succeed?” said former Patriots and Chiefs executive Scott Pioli, now a CBS Sports analyst. “Teams that are focused and worked long and hard at the Senior Bowl and the all-star games and the scouting combine. Teams that know how to scout. Teams that have a strong system in place.”
When I pointed out how that might be a disadvantage to new coaches like Carolina’s Matt Rhule, fresh out of Baylor to the NFL, Pioli disagreed. “Not necessarily. He has a network of people he can call on in the Big 12 that not many teams will have, and he’ll have a lot of contacts back East from Temple. [Rhule is the former Temple head coach.] That could be a big advantage on some players for Carolina. In general, the good franchises rely on scouts for success in rounds five, six and seven.”
I thought it interesting that Pioli brought up the drafting of Tom Brady in 2000 in the sixth round. In that year, the Patriots scouted Brady during the season with an area scout, then at the East-West Game in California with other scouts, then at the combine. Then the late Dick Rehbein, then New England’s quarterback coach, did a private workout with Brady in Michigan. Then New England drafted him 199th overall. Pioli’s point: All of that scouting would have been the same in 2020 except for the private workout. That workout was a big deal, of course. But the Patriots had a lot of knowledge on Brady before that workout, and could well have taken him during the draft had they not been able to go to Ann Arbor for the private session.
“Too many people are complaining about what isn’t possible in the draft process this year,” Pioli said. “The rules are the same for everybody.”
One other interesting thing I picked up: At least one team is quietly using GPS data from college teams to estimate the 40 times and other movement measurables from players who didn’t work at the combine. That’s a smart way to get an edge.
Beyond the draft: I can’t imagine offseason programs existing in any sort of together way. More likely, teams could have classroom setting for playbook learning, but conditioning and training likely will have to be lonely pursuits through the spring.
As Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill said Sunday: “Our IT people have been our MVPs, setting up our coaches and scouts to work remotely.” They could do the same with players—and likely it’d be easier to set up with the more digitally fluent younger generation.
I asked Atlanta owner Arthur Blank, a forward-thinking techie in his own right, how he saw the near future.
“I think the NFL’s going to be fine,” he said. “I don’t mean it won’t be changed. It is being changed now. How it’ll impact things like training camp, sooner than that, the OTAs . . . Training camps will probably be affected in some way. And of course, your point about the stadiums, with 50,000 to 70,000 people, whatever it may be. I think it’s just too early to tell. Of course we have to be able to provide a safe environment for fans. That’s the most critical thing.”
On whether he believes there will be a 16-game regular season, Blank said: “If I had to speculate now, and I use the word speculate because that’s really all it is, I would say yes. Only because it’s so far away from where we are today. I could easily see camps being shorter, players being tested on a daily basis, things of that nature. No fan attendance. Things like that. We may have fewer preseason games, which probably wouldn’t be the end of the world. But I think by September, my hope is by the time the regular season starts, that we’ll be able to bring people together in some form or fashion in a safe manner and play.
“I do think we need football now. It’s hard to turn on any device you have today, almost any site, television, PCs, laptops, phones—without the first thing popping up being something on the virus. And that’s appropriate. However, I also think that people want a diversion. People want to be optimistic. People want to think about things that are really good times for themselves and their families and their loved ones and their communities. I think to have that kind of hope and aspiration mixed into your daily life is important.”
Blank was in Hilton Head with family when we spoke on Saturday afternoon. Even though he hasn’t been in a coronavirus hotspot, he voiced what I’ve heard mental-health experts say. It’s strange to write about this in a football column, but these, of course, are strange times.
“I usually walk and exercise a lot under any circumstances,” Blank said. “But now I know it’s important to exercise the body and calm the mind. I told our associates the other day you’ve got to find ways to calm your mind. Whether it be thinking, meditation, reading, prayer, slower breathing, whatever it may be, do something. Because it’s easy under these conditions to have your mind racing all over the place. It’s important to be able to keep your body moving, keep it functioning, keep it active and yet have a calm mind at the same time.”