Back yonder, the NFL Draft used to be a blip on the sports TV radar screen. What we saw this past weekend proved it’s now a certifiable megashow: part soap opera, part sporting event and part "American Idol," with winners, losers, critics, cynics, hope, despair and nearly tears.
How did we ever get to this point?
Part of the answer is the advent of the dot.com age in which fantasy leagues drive 50 percent of the national interest in sports. Then there’s the breakdown of the American family. What else to do on a spring weekend but watch to see if your team trades up for a second-round draft choice in 2008?
The draft has become a national meeting place — 18 hours over two days on ESPN and 20 simultaneous hours on the NFL Network (Channel 317 in Las Vegas for subscribers to Cox Communications’ sports tier).
I hereby award the draft crown to ESPN, which has been televising the event since 1980 and handles it more as a big-stage festival with "Idol" slap, dash and dazzle. The NFL Network, which went head to head with ESPN this year after supplementing the latter’s coverage in the past, approached the draft more as a clinic.
"American Idol" has had its Carrie Underwood. This year’s draft had its Brady Quinn, the Notre Dame quarterback whose hand-wringing perils dominated Saturday’s edition. Both "Idol" and the draft succeed because they’re human and real, and because the verdicts are ruthless with careers at stake.
If Quinn were a lout, nobody would have cared. But he seems like a nice guy, and as he slipped down the draft board with no team picking him for 4 hours and 10 minutes, viewers wanted to avert their eyes as they would with a car crash, as commentator Tony Kornheiser suggested.
Poor Brady boy! Oh, the humiliation! Did no one want him?
Not the likely Browns with the draft’s No. 3 pick; they took offensive tackle Joe Thomas, who instead of attending the draft went fishing with his dad in Wisconsin. Not the probable Dolphins at No. 9, who picked Ted Ginn Jr., a speed burner coming off a foot injury. "You’ve got to be kidding me!" ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. exclaimed over Quinn getting stiffed.
There was booing and moaning throughout Radio City Music Hall. Quinn could be seen saying to his girlfriend, "Wow, that was surprising!"
It got so bad that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell gave Quinn his backstage green room so he could pine in private. Finally, though, the Browns engineered a trade late in the first round to take Quinn with the No. 22 pick. Quinn lost an estimated $25 million, but he had been redeemed by his favorite childhood team.
Though ESPN was more watchable — in part because of superior commentators in Steve Young, Chris Mortensen, Michael Smith and Sean Salisbury — the weekend’s reporting award went to the NFL Network’s ace, Adam Schefter.
If you were watching just ESPN, you didn’t know a deal was in the works for the Browns to come back and grab Quinn. But over on the less-watched network Schefter reported that the Browns were on the phone to the Cowboys even as he spoke, arranging the deal.
"Cleveland has come away with Joe Thomas and Brady Quinn — hail Phil Savage in Cleveland!" Schefter said of the Browns’ senior vice president and general manager.
Schefter also broke the top story during Sunday’s second day of the draft: the Patriots’ surprise acquisition of pass-catching malcontent Randy Moss from the Raiders. The NFL says it does not provide inside information to reporters for the league-owned network. If that’s true, it’s time for ESPN to sign up Schefter.
Another part of the draft’s appeal is that both networks have wizards who have devoted their every waking moment to divining which team will take which player in which round out of the hundreds of candidates who are eligible.
ESPN’s mainframe is Kiper, known for his glorious mane of hair almost as much as his computerlike brain. The NFL Network’s guru is the geekish Mike Mayock, a one-time safety for the Giants who got into draft projecting long after Kiper did as a college student in Baltimore.
Remarkably, Kiper chose the first seven draft picks perfectly. He then cooled off, but still batted .313 (10-for-32) in the opening round. Mayock hit .219 (7-for-32). It’s Kiper for the Hall of Fame.
Bill Taaffe is a former award-winning TV-radio sports columnist for Sports Illustrated. His column is published Tuesdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.BILL TAAFFEMORE COLUMNS