At the end of the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, after more than four hours of announcing picks in his nearly empty basement, Roger Goodell headed back upstairs and, sounding weary, was ready for a rest.
"It went well, so I’ll sleep a little better," he said.
Goodell had been in and out of his basement all day — he shot his own video tour, beginning with the descent down the stairs, at about 6:30 on Thursday morning. A few hours before the first round kicked off, someone was dispatched to find an open store near Goodell’s home in Westchester County, New York, to buy a stash of M&Ms, his preferred snack. The NFL had been working on the virtual draft for weeks, once it became clear in mid-March that the original plans for staging the event in Las Vegas had to be abandoned as the COVID-19 pandemic upended daily life. It was a herculean technical undertaking that, on Day 1, went off without any apparent hitches.
"It’s an adjustment, and it’s different," he said. "You don’t compare it to the other ones. It was really cool."
Goodell admitted, though, that in the run-up to the day, there had been moments of doubt about staging what has become the second biggest event on the NFL calendar.
"It definitely was full steam ahead," he said. "But you always have your hesitations, your concerns. I know how important this is to the clubs. If we had come out of this where they didn’t have time to make trades or if something operationally went wrong … but we heard zero of that. People were making a big deal of that, making a big deal of, is it really the right time to do this kind of event."
Goodell had been reassured at various points that it was. The opening of the draft broadcast included an appearance by Dr. Anthony Fauci, in which the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — and a key figure in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic — praised the NFL for going ahead with the draft.
During Thursday, Goodell looked out the window and saw neighbors walking up and down in front of his house waiting for the draft to start. And on Thursday afternoon, Goodell was on a call with other business leaders and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. At around 5:15 p.m., one of them asked him what he was still doing on the phone, with the draft only hours away.
"People were looking forward to it; it went way beyond interest in football," Goodell said. "It struck a chord with people. I think, I hope, it sounds like we struck the right tone of recognizing health care workers and first responders while keeping the focus on football."
Once the Cincinnati Bengals, who held the first overall pick, were on the clock, Goodell sat down on a stool only about three times. The rest of the night, he was signing jerseys that will be auctioned off to raise funds for COVID-19 relief, talking to fans whose reactions were being piped into the room, dropping in on the Draft-A-Thon virtual fundraiser, undergoing a mid-show wardrobe change, filming a TikTok with Jerry Jeudy, the wide receiver picked 15th overall by the Broncos (his twin daughters trained him for it, Goodell said, although he had not yet received a review of his performance) and FaceTiming with almost every player who was selected in the first round.
The absence of fans certainly made a difference — promotional events and Goodell himself encouraged the booing of his presence, which has become part of the soundtrack of the draft — and early in the evening, the league had to work to reduce a delay so that Goodell could talk to fans more easily on a monitor that piped in fan reaction.
The TikTok, in particular, had gone viral, and Goodell pointed to that as the kind of draft moment that the event planners had been most concerned about — how to find the moments of fun and emotional resonance against such an unusual and uncertain national backdrop.
Goodell said the league went into the evening assuming that something would probably go wrong somewhere, so to emerge with no problems was a relief.
"Absolutely, without question, 100 percent," he said. "The technology worked, so it shouldn’t be an issue, knock on wood. You never know with things. I think the mock drafts and all the work, and the clubs put a tremendous amount of work into it, too. There were elements we’ll look back at it, this may change the way we do it."
The NFL surely will not pare down future drafts to this degree, but Goodell especially liked how using FaceTime allowed him to interact with so many players. And he was delighted to see that so many head coaches and general managers, who had been the most vocal about their concerns about how a virtual draft would work, were so relaxed that they had their kids with them in their home war rooms.
Holding the draft now is part of the NFL’s effort to stay on schedule as much as possible, as uncertain as the future is. This year, with so many critical decisions looming about the season, there will be little slowdown, even as the player-acquisition portion of the year winds down. The league is looking at myriad contingencies for training camp and the regular season. The league is expected to release the schedule by May 9, but the next big item on the agenda, Goodell said, is working to get team facilities reopened. That will be complicated by the differing state and local rules about the reopening of businesses after most of the country shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
"My assumption is we will be opening them with some restrictions as far as the number of personnel," Goodell said. "We’re going to seek to open them all at the same time for equity. What ultimately made the football folks comfortable at the club level with the draft was they were all working with the same rules. We are going to have to get the protocol straight. We can’t move to open until the last team can, so we may have to make some accommodations.
"Our job is to make sure we work through the problems and try to figure out a way to stay on schedule."
But first, there are two more days of the draft. Goodell will return to the basement for the second and third rounds Friday night, a departure from his usual routine. In the past, Goodell announced the second round with the help of NFL legends, and Troy Vincent, the executive vice president of football operations, announced the third round. But given the gigantic logistical challenge of this draft, it was decided that it would be more efficient if Goodell handled the second and third rounds himself, while NFL football operations executives Dawn Aponte and Dave Gardi will announce the picks from their respective homes on Saturday.
There may be one big change on Friday night, though. After all those hours on his feet Thursday, Goodell wants to spend at least some time in the large leather chair in the basement, from which he usually watches games on Sundays.
"I told them, guys, that big chair is going to be used tomorrow," Goodell said. "I always used to think I was so physically tired because of the hugs. Clearly, that is not the case."
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @JudyBattista.
Make a difference during the 2020 NFL Draft and unite for the #DraftAThon, a three-day virtual fundraiser in support of COVID-19 relief efforts.
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