The National Football League conjures events like no other American institution. How else to explain 648 media members flocking to Indianapolis in February for the annual scouting combine, an event that is, in fact, closed to the working press? Or last Thursday's boffo ratings for the NFL's first prime-time draft? The first round of the annual player lottery (on ESPN and the NFL Network) pulled in an average of 8.3 million viewers, three times the Nielsens of a LeBron James playoff game and a bigger audience than most of the shows on broadcast TV that night. All to watch players in new suits walk across the stage at Radio City Music Hall at an average of one every seven minutes. Crazy? Not for the NFL.
The reason for this interest played out in draft rooms and at draft parties in places such as Cleveland, Detroit, Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, Seattle, Tampa and Washington, whose eight teams won an average of four games last year. The recently moribund clubs have this in common: They've torn asunder their franchises in the last 16 months, each adding new coaches, front-office architects and quarterbacks of the future. That's a quarter of the league, pinning hopes on such millionaire revivalists as Pete Carroll, Mike Holmgren, Scott Pioli, Mike Shanahan, Sam Bradford and Tim Tebow, who have been entrusted to fix a mess and to fix it fast.
Will it work? Last year the Jets, coming off a 9--7 season, hired a feisty new coach and drafted a charismatic quarterback, and made it to the AFC title game. Baltimore did the same the year before. But no matter how many of the struggling franchises turn the corner, this we know: The fans are buying the spring fling—literally, in the form of the league's $24.99 official draft hats.
"The one thing the NFL gives its fans is hope," Denver coach Josh McDaniels said last Saturday, after the Broncos cast their lot with a quarterback you may have heard of, Florida's Tebow, whom they made the 25th overall pick. "All the teams in this league give their fans a reason to believe every year. It's easy to see why. We were just sitting around the draft room talking about how new our team is—67 of the 86 players we have right now weren't on the team [in] January . The fans are excited to see what all that is going to mean."
That was especially true this year, when the draft was rated a very strong one, maybe the best since 1983. "This is the kind of draft," said Tampa Bay G.M. Mark Dominik, "where if you're going to make changes and have a lot of draft picks, you can get those picks playing right away." Dominik estimated that as many as five of the Bucs' nine selections could be in the opening-day lineup on Sept. 12.
Some of the pitches are snake oil; for every Peyton Manning at the top of the draft, there's a Ryan Leaf. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Cade Massey, a professor at the Yale School of Management, who tracked the top five picks in the 14 drafts from 1991 to 2004 and found that about 51% never made a Pro Bowl. But something happens to a franchise when new energy gets pumped in. Pete Carroll may be Professor Harold Hill, but for now he's a smash in Seattle. By Labor Day the frenetic Carroll could be starting several recent acquisitions: a quarterback (Charlie Whitehurst), a running-back tandem (Leon Washington, LenDale White), a deep-threat receiver (Golden Tate), a left tackle (Russell Okung) and a defensive signal-caller (Earl Thomas).
As a coach and a Twitter user, Carroll already has the natives fired up. In the days before the draft, Carroll tweeted 26 clues that he claimed held the secrets to Seattle's two first-round picks, from songs such as Back Door Man by The Doors to this: "you might want to watch the taser scene in hangover... if that doesn't give it away." He taunted tweeters who couldn't guess right: "this should be as clear as rosebud from citizen kane!!" (Whatever that means.) His Twitter feed was bombarded with guesses, and two Seahawks fans figured out Okung and Thomas—though Carroll refused to explain what the song Jeremy by Pearl Jam had to do with either. (Later he said the whole Twitter exercise was a comic ruse.)
There wasn't the same kind of buzz in other draft rooms last week, but teams such as Washington don't want buzz. They want competence. Shanahan won two Super Bowls in Denver; now in Washington he and new G.M. Bruce Allen (who had success in Oakland and Tampa Bay) have taken the keys from owner Daniel Snyder and told him to relax and let them handle things. The old Skins would have thrown a jillion dollars at some hotshot free agent and drafted a glamour guy; the new Skins signed a backup tackle from Minnesota, Artis Hicks, in free agency and drafted a left tackle of the future, Oklahoma's Trent Williams, with the fourth overall pick.
This euphoria could all blow up in the NFL's face if the league chooses to lock out the players next year. But for now, in the middle of what's supposed to be a dead period for the league, the draft proved that even nongames in football are bigger than games in any other sport.
Now on SI.com
Check out Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback every week at SI.com/king
The draft proved that even NONGAMES IN FOOTBALL ARE BIGGER than games in any other sport.
2015:APRIL FOOTBALL FOOLS
From the release of its schedule to its never-ending player-selection process, no sports entity hijacks the headlines in its off-season like the NFL. But there's more to come. Here's SI's projection of what draft month will look like in five years.
1 Battle of the Bands: Play-in to the Opening Kickoff Concert
2 Lambeau Thawing Day
3 PBS Expansion Debate Hosted by Jim Lehrer: LA vs. LON vs. OKC
4 Pro Day: The Ivies
5 Hitler's Secret Plan to Land an NFL Franchise, History Channel
6 American Idle: Peter King's 24-Hour Off-season, NBC
7 Childress-Favre Off-season Chat, Live on Skype
8 Off-season Quarterly State of the League Address (next on May 8)
9 Marriage Ref Guest Host Ed Hochuli, NBC
10 DWTS: All-NFL Reunion, ABC
11 Schedule Release Kickoff Concert: Justin Bieber at FedEx Field
DAILY DIVISIONAL SCHEDULE RELEASE
12 NFC NORTH
"National Pancake Block" Day at IHOP
13 NFC SOUTH
Roger Goodell on Leno
14 NFC EAST
DeMaurice Smith on Letterman
15 NFC WEST
Officiating Veep Carl Johnson on Conan
16 AFC NORTH
Giants P.A. Announcer Jim Hall on Kimmel
17 AFC SOUTH
Intervention Off-season Suspension Show, A&E
18 AFC EAST
Ty & Chad Pennington: Build Your Own War Room, TLC
19 AFC EAST
WWE Retirement Match: McShay vs. Kiper
20 DEBUT: HBO 24/7 with Rams G.M. Billy Devaney
21 President Obama's Mock Draft, ESPN
22 Bucs: You're on the Clock ... For 24 Hours ... In Times Square
23 DRAFT: Rd. 1
Jon Gruden's Midnight Mock Redraft, ESPN2
24 DRAFT: Rd. 2-3
DirecTV rolls out split screen for, like, NBA/NHL playoffs and stuff
25 DRAFT: Rd. 4-5
4 p.m. ET: Moment of silence for victims of disappointing '95 draft
26 DRAFT: Rd. 6-7
27 Today on Oprah: Dealing with Your Mr. Irrelevant
28 DEBUT: HBO's Hard Knocks, OTAs Edition
29 Never Too Early: Preview of 2016 Draft, all channels
30 DEBUT: Jersey Shore, OTA No-Shows Edition, VH1
CALENDAR DESIGNED BY DWAYNE BERNARD: MATT LUDTKE/BLOOMBERG NEWS/GETTY IMAGES (LAMBEAU); AL TIELEMANS (FAVRE AND CHILDRESS); BOB D'AMICO/ABC (DWTS); MICHAEL GRAY/FOTOLIA.COM (PANCAKES); MITCHELL HAASETH/¬©NBC/EVERETT COLLECTION (LENO, O'BRIEN); SIPA USA/SIPA (BURRESS); ESPN (MCSHAY AND KIPER); PETE SOUZA/THE WHITE HOUSE (OBAMA); MTV/AP (JERSEY SHORE)