The NFL Draft Goes Virtual, Tua and Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood

(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

It’s a testimony to the NFL’s marketing bona fides that it took a relatively mundane event that was once held in a dingy ballroom with folded tables, chairs and a rickety podium and turned it into a moneymaking extravaganza. The excitement might not reach the fervency of the Super Bowl, but that it’s even in the ballpark is miraculous. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the league and its broadcasting partners resisted social distancing guidelines until it had no alternative but to adhere to them with a “virtual” draft. It managed to be entertaining with the familiar narratives and history playing a fundamental role.

Let’s look at the interesting storylines from the first round.

The Virtual NFL Draft

While it was certainly devoid of the pageantry and excess that has grown exponentially more preposterous with each passing year (the Roger Goodell boo-fest and bro hugs for top draftees; in-depth profiles with human interest stories; thumbs up and thumbs down from analysts whether they’re credible to make an assessment or not), the NFL adapted and put on its show. There was an attempt to “boo” the commissioner remotely with a Twitter hashtag #BooTheCommish. It was as engaging as it could be, given the circumstances.

The question for the critics who complained about it is obvious: What did you want them to do?

Sure, the live-feeds looked like something out of South Park while COVID-19 had people dropping dead in the streets. The president was suggesting that bleach and other household products only found under the sink and in certain sandwich chain’s “freshly baked bread” could cure the virus. From that perspective, the NFL needing to hold its draft remotely is not that big a blight on society. Of course, many were unhappy with it as it disturbed their aesthetic, but what else could they have done? What else should they have done?

No, there weren’t the flurry of trades there normally are – likely because teams were concerned that there would be too many glitches to wait until the last possible second before making them.

No, there wasn’t the same celebratory atmosphere.

Still, it was watchable enough for the casual fan and the 24/7 football obsessive alike. Given the desperate times, they managed to hold their draft and it was a sufficient diversion for a weary and hungry sports-watching public that has had nothing to look forward to for more than a month.

The Miami Dolphins and Tua Tagovailoa

This is the first example of inane comparisons from Thursday night’s first round that analysts tend to make to bolster their opinions and defend them if they turn out to be wrong.

Projections for Tua have ranged from the worst-case scenario saying he is an injury-prone college star whose professional aspirations will result in Tim Tebow-like results; to the middling saying he’ll be a competent backup or a systems quarterback who can win if he’s placed in an ideal spot; to an MVP-caliber superstar and perhaps a potential Hall of Famer.

That’s quite a disparity and is right in line with “We don’t know.”

The Dolphins are taking a calculated gamble on him because they have a wealth of draft picks and can afford to play risk/reward with one, even the fifth overall pick. They’re in a full-blown rebuild with Tua probably better off sitting out and learning without pressure on him or the club to play him immediately. There are worse things than sitting behind Ryan Fitzpatrick for a year and learning from him or looking at Josh Rosen and seeing how quickly it can all come undone.

Another silly comparison is the Dolphins’ ill-fated 2006 decision to trade for Daunte Culpepper rather than sign Drew Brees. The ifs and wouldas inherent with the second-guessing is like crawling through the Shawshank Prison sewer. Brees is heading to the Hall of Fame and would have performed the same way in Miami as he has in New Orleans; Nick Saban would’ve stayed in Miami if he had Brees; Culpepper was done.

It’s a lot of noise.

Was it ridiculous to question Brees’ health as he recovered from surgery to repair a torn labrum? That is not a minor injury and the San Diego Chargers, who knew him better than anyone, decided to move on from him with Philip Rivers.

Would he have become the same megastar in Miami that he did in New Orleans? Let’s not forget that Brees was a good quarterback for the Chargers, but not a great one. With the injury, hesitating was justifiable.

Saban was going back to college. He was not cut out for the pros. He knew it and was looking for an out any way he could get it. The quarterback situation is an excuse.

Finally, Tua scored very poorly on the Wonderlic test. In college, he scored a 13; at the NFL Combine, he scored a 19. The first is bad; the second is average.

Does this matter? It might. It might not. Teams use these testing procedures for a reason. Some have complicated offenses that warrants concern that a player who tests poorly. For others, there were personal factors that weighed on their minds as they made the pick. Fear that Tua would plummet and a team like the New England Patriots would snatch him up was viable in the context of the Dolphins getting Dan Marino with the 27th overall pick as the sixth quarterback drafted in 1983. Yet Marino had had an awful senior season at Pittsburgh and there were off-field concerns. He was considered somewhat slow in grasping complex concepts with the New York Jets front office forever justifying selecting Ken O’Brien ahead of him because O’Brien tested well and Marino did not. The Jets had a complicated offense they feared Marino would not handle.

Of course, Don Shula was in charge in Miami and would tailor his offense to the players he had. He had that power and that right. It could easily have gone the other way, though. Dropping Marino in the middle of Miami as a handsome 23-year-old who may or may not have enjoyed the nightlife while the city was in the middle of the Tony Montana-era could have exploded in their faces. It didn’t.

Not every player has the Deion Sanders swagger in which he walked into a meeting with the New York Giants, saw the encyclopedia-thick test they wanted him to take, asked them when they were drafting and walked out of the room without taking the test saying he’d be long gone and drafted by the time their pick came up. He was right.

If Tua gets healthy, stays healthy and is the same dynamic player he was at Alabama, it was a brilliant pick. If he doesn’t, it was a gaffe. Looking back decades does not alter that objective truth.

The missing remote camera for Mr. Rodgers’ neighborhood

Aaron Rodgers was undoubtedly displeased that the Green Bay Packers selected his prospective replacement in Utah State’s Jordan Love. In an appearance on a radio show, Peter King of NBC Sports gave a less nuanced assessment:

Love has been compared to Patrick Mahomes. History shows that every first rounder is compared to some current or past superstar, so it’s irrelevant. Rodgers does not have the power in Green Bay most think a quarterback and organizational centerpiece is perceived to have. He was not consulted when Matt LaFleur was hired to replace Mike McCarthy; he does not have final say over personnel decisions; and he’s treated as a special employee, but not an employee who gets to dictate the direction of the team. The Packers have a 36-year-old quarterback and decided to grab his heir apparent. The easy comparison is Rodgers being drafted in 2005 as Brett Favre’s eventual replacement, but that’s another silly equating of two entirely different circumstances.

Favre was constantly vacillating as to whether he planned to play another year or not. His attitude was that he was bigger than the team and, in some ways, he was. His arrogance with “What are they gonna do? Cut me?” wore thin. At the time, though, there were still questions as to whether they should have grabbed the sliding and questionable Rodgers or addressed immediate needs to help Favre. The postscript of drafting Rodgers is now considered prescient and brilliant, but it was more likely that he surprisingly fell to them and they were compelled to draft him. They did not trade up to get him as they did with Love.

Few who watched that draft or saw “can you believe this?” retrospective critiques as to how dumb other teams were will forget the look of anger, embarrassment and frustration on Rodgers’ face as he sat waiting. Expecting to be picked within the first five players, he fell to 24 and the Packers…where Favre was entrenched. At the time, concerns about Rodgers were known. He was considered aloof; teams didn’t like his throwing motion; and he was in an offense at California that might have covered flaws that could not be covered in the NFL without significant adaptation and development.

Are these excuses or is it analysis? Is there a difference?

Players must be evaluated not just on their potential, but on their intelligence, their body type, their flexibility, their willingness to change and their coachability. The Rodgers situation was in the same ballpark of the Seattle Mariners passing on Tim Lincecum in favor of Brandon Morrow. Looking back, it’s a “what the hell were you thinking?” gaffe. At the time, Morrow was 6’3”, 190 lbs. and the pitching prototype with a big fastball and impressive physicality. Lincecum, seen as a perfect fit for the Mariners because he attended the University of Washington, was small, had an unusual motion and, most importantly, there were demands implemented by his father Chris that the organization drafting him could not mess with his delivery in any way. Basically, draft him, pay him, leave him alone. How many organizations will sign up for that no matter who the player is?

Many organizations, managers and coaches – especially at the college level – want players to adhere to their favored mechanics and style not solely because they believe it is the best way, but through ego and wanting to maintain some level of influence and importance with their employer. In college, high school and Little League, coaches not only want players to follow their instructions, but they do so with the implied or overt threat that if they don’t conform, they won’t play. Not many amateur players can say no and get away with it.

A huge difference is that when Rodgers was drafted, there was still an expectation that all but the exceptional talents and outright prodigies, would immediately walk in with a contending team and start at quarterback. The Packers, having gone 10-6 the previous year, were still trying to win with Favre.

This Packers team is coming off a 13-3 season and a loss in the NFC Championship Game. They need help at receiver and offensive line – two areas that directly impact Rodgers. Seeing them draft a quarterback does warrant a certain level of anger, resentment and questioning of how committed they are to him and whether he should be invested in the relationship, especially with him reaching the back end of his career.