Lockout confusion taints player lottery
Sean Held firstname.lastname@example.org
‘Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.’ George Washington
The first commander-in-chief could have been speaking directly to the young athletes about to enter, via the 2011 draft, the opulent world of the NFL. Did the founding father have a pigskin-clad crystal ball back in 1779? And just who would he select for his once great Washington Redskins with the 10th overall pick on Thursday night?
This year’s NFL draft rolls into New York City – at the iconic Radio City Hall – with the immediate future of America’s Game uncertain.
College football’s brightest talents are entering the great unknown. The billionaire owners of the 32 franchises and their millionaire superstar players, led by DeMaurice Smith, the latter’s union chief, are due in court to discuss a new collective bargaining agreement. Fiscal disagreements are at the heart of a plethora of issues that most armchair fans find trivial. Less trivial are the potential consequences.
If disagreements that include the players’ cut of the vast league profits, a proposed rookie salary cap and compensation payouts for injured former players are not settled in the coming months, the 2011 season will be binned. The NFL players will strike and the owners will keep the doors to their futuristic training facilities padlocked.
A resolution of some form is expected but not guaranteed. Untimely strikes are not a new phenomenon in US sport. The 1992 NHL season was cancelled and the NBA season of 1998-99 was at a standstill for almost 200 days.
As things stand, a federal judge has ordered the teams to unlock the gates, but that doesn’t mean an agreement will be reached. The owners plan to appeal, and the likelihood is the dispute will drag into the summer.
Another possibility is the judge ordering the immediate resumption of normal league business, which would see free agency – the process where out of contract players can make deals with other franchises – running alongside the draft. A nightmare for front office staff throughout the league, but potentially fascinating for fans.
What is certain is that students from as far as afield as Washington State, on the Canadian border, to “Ole Miss” in the deep South are unsure whether their pro careers will begin this year or in 2012. Where they finally end up geographically is anyone’s guess.
Players are drafted in the NFL. They don’t have the luxury of choosing a warm-weather or marquee franchise. Players can head to the draft, with their flip-flops and Hawaiian Tropic neatly packed, dreaming of a stellar career in San Francisco or Miami. Most aspire to play for a Super Bowl-winning dynasty like Pittsburgh or New England. But if the woeful Cincinnati Bengals come a calling, like it or lump it, you’re off to Ohio.
The country that embraced capitalism like no other has a sports league that a certain Communist regime, 222 miles south of Dolphins Stadium, would be proud to call its own. The NFL franchises share all television and merchandise revenues equally. The worst team in football the previous season gets the first chance to select the most promising College player the following April. It keeps competition healthy; no Manchester United or Real Madrid-style talent snaffling in the land of the free.
The unspectacular Carolina Panthers have the honour this year. The current Super Bowl champions Green Bay Packers have to watch 31 players go before they can add to their star-studded roster. Despite the lockout, the show goes on. Sifting through the hundreds of college ball-players and making your pick is considered a science by some draft veterans and a lottery by others.
Fans and pundits alike spend months watching game footage and creating mock draft boards as soon as the Super Bowl has played out. Make no mistake, the draft matters. Reputations and careers are at stake. If Roger Goodell, the Commissioner, has not called your name by the end of the seventh and final round on Saturday it’s time to fine-tune that resume or go back to school.
College football’s biggest hope and most pro-ready Quarterback, Andrew Luck, has decided to stay on at Stanford and continue his architecture degree. The current uncertainty and a lack of enthusiasm for the Carolina project have shaped the 21-year-old’s decision.
With Luck absent, new head coach Ron Rivera’s options are far from straightforward. Days of painstaking video research and conjecture will have taken place at the Panthers’ draft HQ in Charlotte. I doubt the current US administration spent as much time deciding what offensive formation to hit Colonel Gaddafi and Libya with.
Quarterback Cam Newton, most experts’ banker to be the No 1 overall pick, is by no means a shoo-in to succeed in the NFL. Standing 6ft 5 inch tall, he led unbeaten Auburn to the National Championship in January but his high-risk, run first, improvised style has many predicting a career in the infirmary as opposed to the Hall of Fame. Several non-football issues have also arisen, making the Heisman Trophy winner a speculative option.
The best player in the draft, the supremely gifted Patrick Peterson of Louisiana State, isn’t expected to go in the top five. The cornerback position just isn’t glamorous enough and does not warrant the huge guaranteed salary a top-three pick player receives.
Quarterbacks, not corners, fills stadiums and corporate boxes. No corner has ever gone No 1 and last year the St Louis Rams agreed to pay quarterback Sam Bradford $86m over six years before he had even thrown a ball in anger in the pros.
Some organisations have had enough of the day one lunacy that is the first of the draft. Instead of paying over the odds for untested rookies, they trade away the early picks. The plan is to garner a rough diamond or two in the later rounds and spread the financial burden.
For every Peyton Manning – a four-time league MVP and Super Bowl winner with the Indianapolis Colts who was picked first in 1998 – there is a Tim Couch. The unfortunately named quarterback was a hugely popular choice in 1999 when he was chosen by the Cleveland Browns. Couch, burdened by feverish expectation and injury, was a massive under-achiever and was permanently exiled to his own couch in Kentucky after five miserable seasons.
If I was an NFL head honcho I’d be honing in on the all-action Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller. Another to look out for is Missouri gunslinger Blaine Gabbert, who has the arm, coolness in the pocket and tactical acumen needed to make the huge jump from college stud to franchise saviour. Denver Broncos, who own the second overall pick, are tipped to beef up their talent-shy defence with man-mountain 319-pound Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus.
Viewers will witness a sporting event that fascinates a nation and divides opinion. You’ll see lots of team operatives manning telephones and a gathering of bemused-looking collegiate leviathans in expensive suits. No actual sporting endeavour. In fact, that may have to wait another year. Only in America.