A Stripped-Down N.F.L. Draft Turns Out to Be Pretty Special

Cut off from its usual pomp, the draft gave viewers some memorable snapshots: a general manager’s children, a coach’s sublime landscape and some curious decorations, like a team-branded surfboard.

Andrew Thomas, center, was selected fourth over all by the Giants on Thursday. The N.F.L. arranged for video feeds from the homes of top draft prospects.
Credit...NFL, via Associated Press

At the start of a most unusual N.F.L. draft on Thursday, Commissioner Roger Goodell looked like an amateur actor trying to pull off a “Saturday Night Live” monologue on a wood-paneled set from “Kiner’s Korner.” Gone were the joyous players and jeering fans who usually surround him at the draft.

“My body won’t miss those great big bear hugs, but I sure will,” Goodell said, before engaging — remotely — with some revved-up fans arrayed in squares on his flat-screen TV. “Wow, even the virtual boos are good. Yes, I can hear you from my basement, so keep it coming.”

Of course, this was not a comedy show on NBC or a postgame interview from a long-ago Mets telecast. This was supposed to be the N.F.L. at its most lavish and self-important, with a Las Vegas spectacle featuring the fountains of the Bellagio Hotel and draftees taking boats to meet Goodell on a red carpet. The coronavirus pandemic changed all that.

Goodell announced at one point that Las Vegas, the league’s newest market, would get another shot in “2020,” a confusing revelation, considering the calendar. Goodell meant that Vegas would host the draft in 2022, after Cleveland’s turn next year. But for a production with so much potential for glitches — requiring extraordinary coordination of uplinks to players, families, executives, coaches and analysts — there were relatively few missteps.

Naturally, ESPN improvised quite a bit, using its campus in Bristol, Conn., as a backdrop for oversize logo graphics and colorful lights. The elevated breezeway connecting the network’s radio and TV wings never looked so enchanting.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the presidential adviser on infectious diseases, gave a short, taped speech before the drafting began, assuring fans that this stripped-down event was a medical necessity. Goodell said at the end that millions had been raised during the show for Covid-19 relief. In that way and others, this version of the draft was a lot more interesting than the traditional pomp.

The players, of course, would love to have been feted on their way into the league. But hanging out at home with their loved ones, as cameras beamed their reactions to the world, still seemed pretty special.

For the viewers, it would have been fun to see a live audience’s reactions to the picks — loyalists of the Philadelphia Eagles would have howled when the hated Dallas Cowboys took a coveted wide receiver, CeeDee Lamb — but obviously that is impossible now. Just watching the show in our homes was a welcome distraction, one of the few live sporting events in the United States since mid-March.

ESPN was ready with human-interest sidebars — a childhood photograph of Chase Young in the uniform of the Washington Redskins, who picked him second over all; a remarkable clip of Tristan Wirfs, taken 13th by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as he jumped out of a pool in a single motion, without help from his arms, and landed on his feet; and footage of Austin Jackson, who went 18th to the Miami Dolphins, at a hospital on his way to donate bone marrow to his sister, Autumn.

But the best part for viewers, by far, was having a window into the homes of not just Goodell, but many other well-known figures throughout football. They have been working from home, like so many of us, and there were plenty of children who got screen time with Dad.

Jason Licht, the Tampa Bay general manager, was surrounded by three children with a homemade “Go Bucs!” sign as a backdrop. Children also watched with Dolphins Coach Brian Flores, San Francisco 49ers General Manager John Lynch and the team’s coach, Kyle Shanahan, among others.

And the décor! Kliff Kingsbury, the coach of the Arizona Cardinals, sat alone on a white couch, with three monitors and three cellphones on a coffee table and a grand view outside his floor-to-ceiling windows: a firepit embedded in a manicured outdoor courtyard beside a swimming pool, with palm trees and mountains nearby.

The Cardinals called it “War Room 2.0” on Twitter, and the Super Bowl’s most valuable player, Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs, approved. “I’m trying to have a crib like Kliff!” Mahomes, who played for Kingsbury at Texas Tech, said in a tweet.

And how about the contrast between the Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, on an immaculate white couch aboard his yacht, and Mike McCarthy, his team’s new coach? McCarthy sat too close to the camera in his home office, kept his highlighters in a paper Gatorade cup in the background and had a sliver of black tape strategically placed on the edge of his computer screen, apparently to obscure an Apple logo.

There were so many other questions. Like, how often does the analyst Louis Riddick play with the vintage hand-held electronic football game on his bookshelf?

Which of the helmets on his desk does Jets General Manager Joe Douglas like better: the team’s 1980s style or its current version?

Will the Atlanta Falcons owner, Arthur Blank, wear his team’s hideous new “ATL” jersey in public when the quarantine ends, as he did on Thursday? Does Tom Telesco, the Los Angeles Chargers general manager, ever use that team-branded surfboard in his living room?

And this is the one I can’t shake: How did Goodell host the show for four hours and not dip into that candy jar behind him?