NEW YORK – A half-hour before the NFL draft began, the fans at Radio City Music Hall were chanting "we want football" and catcalling commissioner Roger Goodell with rounds and rounds of boos.
It was a fitting start to, quite possibly, the most bizarre NFL draft ever; a perfectly symbolic moment for one of the most unsettled moments in the league’s proud history. And things didn’t slow down from there.
The No. 1 pick (Cam Newton(notes)) was virtually unheard of a year ago, when he completed 3 of 8 passes in the Auburn spring game to win the starting job. The No. 2 pick (Von Miller(notes)) is a plaintiff in an anti-trust suit against the NFL. He and Goodell hugged anyway.
At No. 8, the Tennessee Titans drafted a quarterback (Jake Locker(notes)) who admits he listens to Faith Hill’s “Mississippi Girl” before every game – and he’s neither from Mississippi nor, obviously, a girl. At 19, the New York Giants selected cornerback Prince Amukamara, who is the son of a Nigerian chief and whose family took the stage in full royal garb.
Take that William and Kate.
Baltimore was too slow to get pick No. 26 in (the 10-minute clock ran out) and it was jumped by Kansas City, a fairly epic clock management error. The Ravens wound up picking 27th.
Meanwhile, all night everyone kept buzzing not about the next pick but rumors that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis would release a decision on the labor case at any moment. There was a belief that it would drop right in the middle of the proceedings, causing everyone to try to pour through legal papers on their smart phones between selections.
That it never materialized didn’t lessen the angst on all sides.
As such, the lockout remains (if not technically, then in principle), which means we had a situation where every time a player shook Goodell’s congratulatory hand, he was immediately locked out of the league. As of now, the new players have no playbook to study, no coach to sit down with, nowhere to go – like a lot of college grads, it could conceivably mean back to mom’s house for a stretch.
“I’m ready to get this show on the road right now,” Newton said.
Yeah, not so fast.
Compounding things was the fact that, due to the lockout, the NFL had yet to go through its free-agent period. That meant every team had glaring holes on the roster and no certainty they could fill it with veterans. It’s one reason there was an early run on quarterbacks, who were four of the top 12 picks.
They might as well have named the league’s lockout strategist Mr. Irrelevant.
About the only things that went according to form: a whole bunch of SEC players went high and the New England Patriots traded one of their first-round picks, No. 27, to the Saints for a second-rounder and a 2012 first-rounder. The Saints used the pick on Alabama running back Mark Ingram, the latest the first RB was taken since 1963, a sign of the devaluing of the position. He’ll likely replace Reggie Bush(notes), who five years ago went second overall but now will be cut, according to Yahoo! Sports' Jason Cole.
Goodell tried to put a brave face on the wave of anger directed at him during various points of the evening. He’s the face of the league and in the past had enjoyed great popularity among fans. It’s taken less than two months of a labor lockout to turn him into public enemy No. 1, the point man of the owners' currently stumbling labor strategy.
Other than that it was a night of celebrations for the players before the cold reality of the labor dispute set in. Understandably these guys are eager to start their careers, yet unlike past years they can’t go get a playbook or watch film with a coach until they are signed to a contract. Yet without a rookie salary scale, courtesy of a collective bargaining agreement, there is no way to sign.
It’s a situation that could hurt their development if the lockout drags on. Of course, that Eighth Circuit could come along any minute now.
For the players, the relief of finally being picked was enough for Thursday. There were the typical moments of amusement, such as watching guys from the South find out they were headed to the North.
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Said Texas A&M’s Von Miller, now a Denver Bronco, when asked if he knows how to ski, “No, but I can learn.”
Speaking of learning, Miller earned a minor in poultry science while in college, which won the award for most unexpected academic pursuit of a top five NFL draft pick. The A&M Poultry Science Department “has research emphases in poultry management, environmental stewardship, product quality and safety,” according to its website. The department also has a slogan: “We’re Crowing!”
(Texas A&M also produced 2007 NBA draftee, Acie Law who majored in agricultural leadership. What’s that entail? “It’s a wide open field,” Law said then, no pun intended.)
At the top of the draft, Newton might as well have majored in football, and he was really good at it. He went from promising junior college recruit to Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn, where they’ve already commissioned a statue of him.
After that meteoric rise, anything’s possible. He had the last laugh on an army of critics who dogged his NFL readiness and the waves of controversy that followed him in college. Still, it’s been years since a No. 1 overall pick had this many detractors, something Newton promised to use as motivation. He claimed he’d gotten over all the ripping by analysts, although he didn’t sound very convincing.
“I’ve learned that you guys have a job to do critiquing each athlete to the core," Newton said, "but at the same time I have embraced this process and understand that everyone is under a watchful eye right now, from this point on."
Cam has a lot to prove. Unfortunately, he can't start doing it.
Just like everyone else here at the NFL draft, he’s waiting and waiting and waiting on that appeals court. And growing angrier with each day.
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