Thursday night, after 30 years of watching and writing about it, I went to my first NFL Draft. It was more dramatic than I expected, to tell you the truth. I had expected it to be tedious and awful on numerous levels, but you know, there was a lof of energy in Radio City Music Hall, a lot of buzz. Every time an NFL team passed on Johnny Football, for instance, the tension rose a little bit higher. Whenever a trade was announced, there was this crackling crackling bit of life in the room. Almost everybody wore an NFL jersey, almost everybody seemed to know who were the exciting players in the draft, and I actually caught some pretty interesting conversations -- certainly didn’t see that coming. No, I’m not saying that it is something you should put on your bucket list. It was still a mostly boring wait for Roger Goodell to say a name that might or might not mean anything and then watch him embrace players he would like to play 18-game regular seasons. But I now feel about the draft the way author Joe Queenan felt when he found himself uncomfortably enjoying himself while watching Barry Manilow (from “Red Lobster, White Trash, Blue Lagoon”).
“When I saw Barry Manilow, I had exactly the same experience. Here was a guy who knew how to put on a show. Not a show I necessarily wanted to see, but a show all the same.”
If you are a huge NFL Draft fan -- I know such people exist -- I would definitely say that if you can get the time off from work and and can get the tickets and can get to a New York to see it live, I suspect you will have a good time. I probably would not have said that before Thursday.
Unfortunately, though, being at the NFL Draft meant missing out my favorite part of the Draft ... watching how ESPN covers it. There are usually dozens of great moments watching ESPN try to corral this decidedly non-television experience; I missed watching Jon Gruden go Bruce Banner loco over Johnny Manziel’s slide. I could see him gyrating wildly on a giant screen near the Goodell stage but there was no sound, and sound is at least half the fun with Grudenfreude.
But the big thing I even more missed Thursday night was Sal Paolantonio’s amazing report that Cleveland Browns’ owner Jimmy Haslam wanted the Browns to draft Manziel, at least in part, because a homeless man told him so.
There is almost nothing to like about Jimmy Haslam. His company -- Flying J -- was raided by the FBI and remains under investigation for allegedly swindling customers out of millions of dollars in gasoline rebates. The company has already worked out huge settlements and seven employees pleaded guilty to fraud, so despite Haslam’s occasional declaration of “innocence,” it’s pretty clear that he’s using the wrong word there. There remains a chance he will be indicted. And in more sporting news, he has shown early signs of being a terrible owner who makes terrible hires, fires those terrible hires cavalierly, makes new terrible hires and has an overpowering meddling gene. In the last, I can sympathize ... if I owned a sports team I’d meddle too. Fortunately for everyone, I will never own a sports team.
Thursday evening, the Cleveland Browns made bold moves to change the landscape, and for this I give them a lot of credit. The Browns landscape has been dreary and kind of hopeless. They moved from Cleveland almost 20 years ago, and ever since then the team has been doomed by selfishness and incompetence and bad luck and terrible ownership and a revolving door of similarly flawed coaches and decision makers and quarterbacks. The Browns came back to Cleveland in 1999 and have made the playoffs just one time in Cleveland Browns version 2.0.
So, yes, the Browns needed more than a draft on Thursday. They needed, in Sprinsteenese, to change their clothes, their look, their face, And, to a large degree, thats exactly what they did. They traded down and got Buffalo’s first-round pick next year, which could a pretty valuable chip. They traded up to get cornerback Justin Gilbert, who is obviously someone they feel strongly about.
And then, they took the big risk, the one other teams seemed unwilling to take. They traded up to take Johnny Football, the Heisman Trophy winner, the breathtaking quarterback who seems too small and too weak-armed to do the extraordinary things he does. It was, by any measure, a brassy move, full of doubts and possibilities. Already there’s a different kind of buzz about the Cleveland Browns. Tickets are selling. Hope is ringing. And while that buzz might fade and reality might set in, hey, the Browns tried something big. As a fan, you want your team to try big things.
So that was my takeaway of the night ... until I heard about Sal’s report. It doesn’t exactly CHANGE my view of the Manziel pick. It does, however, temper it.
“Tell you this really quick story. Jimmy Haslam, the owner of the team, I spent about 30 minutes in his office today and we talked a lot about football. And he said: ‘You know what? I can go out to dinner anywhere in Tennessee and nobody bothers me.’ That’s his home state. But he said, ‘Here in Cleveland, everywhere I go people know me, and I was out to dinner recently, and a homeless person was out on the street, looked up at me, and said, “Draft Manziel.” Just like that. And that convinced him that the Cleveland Browns fans wanted Manziel.”
This might have just been a funny little story Haslam told. On the other hand, he was with an ESPN report on the day of the draft so he obviously intended for other people to know that:
1. They know him! They really know him! 2. This homeless person was a good representation of Cleveland fans. 3. This homeless person was not high on Teddy Bridgewater.
Seriously, what kind of lunacy are we talking about here? Why would Haslam tell anyone that even though he has a highly paid staff of professionals who spent countless hours studying and scouting and getting a sense of what the fan base wants, he put some stock into what someone told him on the street one night when he went to dinner. What if the person had said, “Draft my brother-in-law?”
The Browns did something interesting when they drafted Manziel on Thursday and that was news ... this team hasn’t really done much interesting in two decades. Haslam deserves credit for that. The whole team does. But that’s a very temporary thing. If the Browns management really wanted to draft Bridgewater -- rumors along these lines persist -- and Haslam pushed them to take Manziel in any way because of the weird homeless guy story or his skewed perception of what Browns fans want, well, the Browns are as dysfunctional as ever. And dysfunctional teams, almost without exception, lose. Even with a quarterback people call Johnny Football.
* * *
Update from Brilliant Reader Ben: You might also want to note that the Browns spent $100,000 on the biggest, most expensive and in-depth analysis of the right QB to pick ever undertake in NFL history. The result was Teddy Bridgewater. A homeless guy told Haslem to pick Manziel. So, naturally, he went with the homeless guy.