Teams not buying 'Easter Bunny' excuse for moving NFL Draft to May
BOSTON -- Even if you happen to believe in the Easter Bunny theory, or that the NFL had to move next year's draft to May solely because of a scheduling conflict with a Radio City Music Hall "Spring Spectacular'' show, there's more than a reasonable doubt within the league about the wisdom of adopting such a change on a long-term basis, as is being contemplated.
That much became quickly apparent at Tuesday's one-day NFL owners meeting at a Boston airport hotel, at least in the view of the numerous general managers and club front office executives who weighed in on the latest change to the NFL's offseason calendar. Basically, it will add another two or three weeks to the draft season in 2014, and pegs the first round as falling on either May 8 or May 15, to be determined in the coming week.
Here's what also became quickly apparent Tuesday: Once the league holds the draft in May, it's almost certainly in May to stay. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in his post-meeting news conference that in order for the draft to revert to a fourth week of April schedule, it would have to leave New York for another site, due to the expectation of scheduling conflicts with the Radio City Easter-based extravaganza. Even though Easter is a holiday that moves around each year, and can fall anywhere from March 22 to April 25.
In other words, the NFL wants its draft in May going forward.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find any football-side person in the league in favor of it,'' said one AFC general manager, who requested anonymity. "Unless you consider having more time for draft preparation a benefit, more time for paralysis by analysis, there's nothing to like. I've tried to think of one (positive), but I haven't yet.''
And to the idea that the league is taking this step with the draft only because an Easter-season show booked the venue that the NFL has owned in late April for the past eight years, that rationale is being met with a healthy amount of skepticism, to say the least.
"The league coming out and saying this is because of the Easter Bunny and the show is almost embarrassing,'' one NFC club executive said. "This is the NFL. You think we couldn't get those dates or make something work if we really wanted to? This is about moving the draft into May for (TV network) sweeps month. I'd rather somebody be honest and come out and just admit that it's about ratings and TV issues. But I get it. I suppose we all should be thankful in that everybody in the league benefits financially when the league has success from a TV perspective.''
For now, the draft's move to early or mid-May is being termed a temporary one, for only 2014, NFL competition committee member Stephen Jones of the Cowboys said. No other final decisions on schedule alterations have been determined. But the Dallas team vice president, and son of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, admitted that the draft could find a permanent home earlier in May, and that the league continues to seek NFL players union approval for an adjustment to the league's offseason calendar in terms of moving up the start of the league year, before the annual scouting combine is held in Indianapolis. The effect would be to lengthen both free agency and the draft season.
"The May 15 date may wind up being just a one-year deal, with the draft moving after that to maybe the first week of May,'' said Jones, during a mid-day lunch break. "So at the end of the day, you might be talking about only a week's difference compared to this year's draft (which was held April 25-27). I understand that some football people are opposed to it and pushing back, because nobody really wants change. You don't ever want to do anything to compromise the game, but at the same time our fans are important to us and it's important to make them happy as well. My view would be obviously there's always angst in change, but I don't think we're doing anything at the end of the day to compromise our product.''
But some team officials have exactly those concerns, citing the shorter time span that teams will have to work with their incoming rookie class, and the potential loss of a rookie mini-camp if the mid-May draft window becomes permanent. Add in that football decision-makers don't seem to think a few more weeks worth of draft preparation will produce anything but more over-kill and over-analysis in the scouting process, and the ever-shortening time frame that coaches and club officials have to squeeze in down time and summer vacations, and the opposition to the calendar changes figures to be substantial.
"It's going to happen in 2014 due to the scheduling conflict, but everything after that is going to be a big battle,'' one league executive said. "The football ops people will raise hell. There are a bunch of issues in play here, so don't think that it's done. Coaches and front office executives aren't going to like not having their hands on their new players for another two or three weeks.
"They'll say, 'Hey, we need to get our hands on them and we need to coach them.' So this could wind up having an effect on some integrity of the game issues, and we need to listen to that. There's a lot of ground to cover on this and there's a long way to go. This isn't over at all.''
The thought of moving the prime-time rating bonanza that the draft has been the past three years into the lucrative May sweeps period, with its higher advertising dollars to be gained, has to be attractive to the NFL. But the league is said also to be focused on further stretching out the glamor components of its nearly seven-month offseason, with an extended draft season keeping the focus on football as long as possible.
In his session with the media, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league has not identified a venue in New York that could serve as a substitute site for the draft if Radio City is not annually available going forward in late April. The draft has been held in New York in every year of the Super Bowl era, and last wasn't in the city in 1964, when it was conducted in Chicago.
"We don't see any choice for 2014 but to select one of those two dates,'' Goodell said, of the May 8 or May 15 scenarios. "Beyond that, if we want to move the draft back into the April period, we're going to have to look at other cities, other venues, and we will begin that process also. We haven't found a location in New York that meets our requirements so we can continue to grow the event.''
Moving the draft is just part of the master plan the league envisions regarding its offseason calendar, but the meeting in Boston ended without any decision made on if the combine will now follow the start of free agency, rather than precede it by about two weeks or so, as it traditionally has. Goodell said he will be in contact with the players union in coming weeks to negotiate a new early offseason schedule for the league.
"We think there's great benefits to that,'' said Goodell, of moving the combine and the start of the league year/free agency. "We think that's a good change for the fans and for football.''
The NFL will need union approval in order to change the start of the league year, which occurred on March 12 this year, but the commissioner can alter the dates for the draft and the scouting combine without the union being involved, if the league choose to go that route. Moving the start of the league year, and the opening of free agency, ahead of the combine would be one way to do away with the widespread tampering that historically has been practiced at the combine.
"I don't think we're ready to be committed to what our ultimate goals are on the schedule, with the draft, the combine, the start of the league year, the regional combines and how that whole calendar fits together in the spring,'' Jones said. "I think that still needs work.''
But if the league office gets its way, it does seem likely that the draft is not returning to an April schedule, no matter what happens on the front end of the league calendar with free agency and the combine. And that's not going to be well-received in the front offices and coaching staffs of the NFL.
"We're all creatures of habit in this league, and we like things the way they are,'' the NFC club executive said. "Anything new is not going to be popular. We already have too much time to do draft analysis as is, and now maybe we're going to have another three weeks of it? Next week we actually start working on next year's draft, but if the draft isn't held until mid-May, that work doesn't even begin until June. And then it's only late June or early July when things finally slow down.''
One club general manager predicted it would be the coaching staffs around the league fighting against the change in offseason schedule most vehemently, but conceded the league office usually gets its way on these matters. New York Giants co-owner John Mara, without ever mentioning his highly-regimented head coach, Tom Coughlin, by name, said everyone in the NFL will eventually adjust to the changes.
"It just changes the way we've been doing things for years, but I don't think it's a (major issue),'' Mara said. "I think if we do it, we're going to do it for the long haul, but that remains to be seen. They (coaches) all adapt. Any time you change anything, you have certain coaches and other football people who think it's the end of the world. But you know what? They always manage to adapt.''