If there’s one thing the NFL still gets right, it’s spectacle.
The league does that better than anyone whether it’s Super Bowl halftime wardrobe malfunctions or drops from the NRG Stadium roof or colossal messups.
The NFL has screwed up plenty of late.
The 32 teams boast, what, maybe 16 good quarterbacks these days, but highly capable Colin Kapernick still can’t find a job.
An owner will pillory the players and paint them as inmates in the most colorful and controversial fashion, but it’s the polo-crowd, wine-sniffing owners who are running the asylum the wrong way.
No one but no one in the league really knows what constitutes a catch any more.
But the NFL has sure figured out the draft and how America loves to tap into one of the growing spectacles in the entertainment field. So much that it is co-opting a bit of Hollywood and introduced some new wrinkles in its on-location format with its first ever draft conducted in an NFL stadium, complete with the stylin’ red carpet.
They’ve got this thing so wired, they even concocted a way to insulate Mr. Persona Non Grata, the commish himself, from the onslaught of booing for the six-game suspension of Dallas running back Zeke Elliott. The NFL trotted out Cowboys legends Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman and Jason Witten onto the stage when Roger Goodell made his entrance.
Of course, the ever-diplomatic Jerry Jones fired a pre-emptive strike two days earlier when he said, “I don’t know of anybody, maybe other than me, that’s had more boos than Roger has,” Jones said. “I know how that works.”
They booed him anyway. Loudly. For more than a solid minute. And then again.
But this reincarnation of the draft clearly works.
The NFL Draft combines the extravagance of the Kardashians with the suspense of, well, the Kardashians. It’s over-the-top entertainment with excess at every turn, even though the acoustics at AT&T Stadium were horrendous.
The league smartly chose to reinvent the draft and relocate it around the NFL landscape, moving the festivities to Chicago, then Philadelphia and these three days to Arlington. More than 14 cities bid to host this draft, and Denver looks to be a frontrunner for the 2019 event.
The majority of Cowboys fans booed lustily at the introductions of about two dozen fans from each team, not more loudly than those Steelers and Packers contingents. The Patriots got more than their share as well.
But the red-carpet treatment was the hit of Day One, offering stylishly outfitted players, big-name college head coaches and everything but Ryan Secrest. No one got more cheers than former Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin.
ESPN’s Darren Woodson worked the crowd. When I asked the Cowboys safety great which way Dallas would draft Thursday night, he said, “Defense. Linebacker, probably.”
Florida State safety Derwin James maybe?
“Hopefully,” Woodson said.
Those safeties stick together.
Not all the first-round prospects made it. Baker Mayfield — who was picked No. 1 overall by the Cleveland Browns — stayed home to work on recreating Brett Favre hair commercials, but many of the brightest lights were here.
The players came in all shapes and colors and styles.
Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander came with his splashy Del Toro suede, cheetah shoes, Connor Williams with his spiffy, baby blue paisley jacket. Asked if he felt like a celebrity, the former Longhorns offensive tackle said, “Yeah, you definitely get the sense of that. I’m staying calm and relaxed.”
They came as in-demand players and as coaches who helped get those players here.
Marcus Davenport, the stout defensive end from tiny Texas-San Antonio, loved all the attention. Who wouldn’t? He was lightly recruited as a 198-pound high school senior who has blossomed into a 264-pound top 20 pick. He’s loved every minute of it, even the wacky questions from NFLers like “Who would win a fight between a duck-sized horse and a horse-sized duck?” He didn’t know what to make of that one.
“This is a great exposure for our school,” said Davenport, who was recruited only by UTSA, UTEP, UNLV and New Mexico. “Hopefully we can get more students to come to our school and make our program even bigger.”
College coaches like new Nebraska coach Scott Frost and old Alabama coach Nick Saban walked the carpet after 22 players and a dozen coaches were elegantly dropped off at the beginning in shiny vehicles.
Asked if he’ll send a bunch of Cornhuskers to next year’s red carpet, Frost said, “You better give us a couple of years. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”
Even basketball coaches got in on the magic. It’s the place to be seen. Someone gifted two tickets to former Longhorns forward Chris Ogden, brand new in his job as hoops coach at Texas-Arlington. “I grew up as a Bears fan,” Oggie said, “but I’m thinking of switching over to the Cowboys.”
Thursday night was all about frontrunners and bandwagon jumpers as all 32 teams were hopeful their new picks make them the Philadelphia Eagles of 2018. Whoever ended up with Penn State running back Saquon Barkley may have the inside track on those ambitions.
“I don’t think there’s any question he’s the best player in the draft,” his coach, James Franklin, said. “Now that doesn’t mean he’ll be the first pick of the draft. I’m biased, but if I were Cleveland, I’d take him No. 1 and 4.”
Hey, it’s the NFL draft where anything can happen.