The Kevin Costner movie had unprecedented access to capture the inner workings of the NFL draft and how front office executives go about their business. I lived that life for a decade—here’s what Hollywood got right and wrong
[Ed. Note: Our apologies if the headlines weren’t clear enough, but there are a few spoilers contained herein, as readers have pointed out in the comments section below. There isn’t any other way to compare the film to reality.]
As someone who worked in an NFL front office for 10 years, my initial thought upon being asked to review Draft Day was that it would be an entertaining movie with an enticing ensemble cast—but lacking any true depiction of how an NFL team operates leading up to and during the draft. Those suspicions were confirmed upon seeing it last weekend.
While Draft Day held my interest and at times came tantalizingly close to mirroring reality—especially the tension and emotion in the green room, where players nervously wait for their names to be called while TV cameras record every reaction—it predictably revolved around cinematic “wow” moments rather than the tedious reality of working in an NFL front office. The true minutiae of a football operation may only be fascinating to avid football fans, so I understand the need to portray it in a more sensational light for mass appeal.
As with the business football, the business of filmmaking rules decision-making. The studio executives behind Draft Day knew that a movie entirely true to NFL war room preparation and execution—with the nonstop waiting around, checking and rechecking of scouting and medical reports, and talking in code about players—would be box office suicide. But then again, I’ve seen two other movies that more accurately captured the business of sports without sacrificing broad appeal.
I thought Jerry Maguire accurately portrayed the cutthroat nature of the agent business, especially the lengths to which agents will go to retain or pilfer clients. It also captured the financial, emotional and psychological investment that goes far beyond negotiating contracts. While it veered into a love story between the characters played Tom Cruise and Rene Zellweger—“You had me at hello!”—it still largely resonated with reality. And I definitely noticed an uptick of young people becoming interested in the agent business after Jerry Maguire.
Moneyball persuasively exposed front office tension between competing scouting applications: the old school “eye-balling” of players and newer models of data-driven statistical analysis. I thought the most powerful and instructive line of the movie was spoken by Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), who proclaimed, “Adapt or die!”
As a theme, pure baseball wasn’t enough to carry Moneyball; movies require character development and subplots, and the heartfelt scenes between the divorced Beane and his endearing daughter certainly pulled on heartstrings. But I still think Moneyball—both the book and the movie—will become a time capsule for the business of sports: fifty years from now fans will chuckle at the skepticism that some scouts and coaches had about analytical player evaluation.
As for Draft Day, here are my biggest takeaways on its authenticity—or lack thereof.
Preparing for the NFL draft is a painstakingly slow and laborious process—involving millions of dollars and hundreds of hours—toward selecting anywhere from seven to 10 players who will be meaningful additions to the infrastructure of the team for years to come.
Scouts and general managers scour the country for six months before convening to carefully construct The Board, each team’s blueprint that will guide draft day decision-making. The best general managers calmly trust The Board to guide them at all times. Months of meticulous preparation have been invested; it is time for team personnel to pace themselves for the three long days of the draft.
In Draft Day, the Browns are incredibly doing due diligence on their presumptive top choice—quaterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence)—after trading three first-round picks so they can move up to select him! What’s more, general manager Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) discovers on film a sharp downturn in in Callahan’s performance after he’s sacked by linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman). And Weaver only does so after getting a call on his cellphone from Mack, who has a direct line to a GM on the day of the draft.
In the real world, that information would have been uncovered, discussed, debated and dissected months earlier. There are very few surprises about NFL prospects, who have been grilled for months.
Impulse, emotion and conflict
I thought Kevin Costner was admirably understated and realistic in his portrayal of an NFL general manager. Though spurred by a save-your-job ultimatum from Browns owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), his impulsive trading of picks is the type of irrational decision-making that seems to be more in line with his character from Tin Cup, the risk-taking Roy McAvoy.
Yes, it’s true that the real-life Redskins did mortgage their future by sending three top draft picks to the Rams in order to select Robert Griffin III in 2012, but that was a rare exception we may never see again. Teams know that first-round draft picks are among the most valuable currency and are loathe to trade them, especially not in time-pressured spontaneous phone conversations without consulting trusted associates.
When the powers that be—usually owners and head coaches rather than general managers—make impulsive decisions, it renders months of preparation and grunt work utterly meaningless. Nothing deflates a scouting staff more than a rogue decision-maker who strays from The Board to satiate a gut feeling.
The movie did portray a realistic view of the all-consuming nature of what it takes to be an NFL general manager, including Weaver masochistically listening to talk radio skewering him. Many NFL general managers listen, watch and read everything that gets said about them—especially the ones who say they don't. Further, I thought the interactions between the Browns’ security director and Weaver were accurate in terms of the type of information that was uncovered and shared, even if it was revealed far too late in the process.
Throughout the film, Weaver seems to be living in a constant state of conflict. He has heated exchanges with the team owner (who still hasn’t taken off his sunglasses); with his coach (the two aren’t in the same universe, let alone being on the same page); with his mother (who insists on scattering her late husband’s ashes on the team’s practice field an hour before the draft), and his incumbent quarterback (who throws a tantrum and trashes Weaver’s office upon hearing the team may select his replacement). Internal tensions exist within every NFL team, but they occur in much more subtle, muted and measured tones. Of course, subtle and measured do not play well in Hollywood.
Jennifer Garner as the Browns’ salary cap manager
I am still processing this one. The Browns’ salary cap manager, Ali Parker, is the secret girlfriend of the general manager, and pregnant with his child. Um, well, I suppose there were some late nights poring over contract language and salary cap impacts?
During my time as the Packers vice president—I did the same job that Jennifer Garner does in the film—I am sure the hundreds of agents with whom I dealt would have much preferred negotiating with her rather than me. The reality, however, is that while there are many women in administrative roles on NFL teams—legal, public relations, marketing, finance, etc.—there are very few in the gritty world of general managers, agents, scouts and coaches.
While Garner commendably depicted the calm and measured personality required of that role, her character offered little pushback against Weaver’s unpredictable professional impulses. Asked about cash and cap consequences of trading picks to move into the top spot of the draft, she rightfully informed Weaver of the increased cost but, in an effort to please, proclaimed, “We can do it!” In a more realistic portrayal, she would have been a stronger voice of caution, advising that forfeiting future top draft picks would mean that reasonably priced long-term assets would likely be replaced with more expensive and short-term (veteran) replacements.
Six final takeaways from Draft Day
- Although Sean Combs was cast in the role of a stereotypical agent, the presence of real NFL agents—such as David Dunn, agent for Vontae Mack, and veteran Eugene Parker moving through the green room—was a nice addition. I smiled at seeing Dunn carrying with his ubiquitous yellow legal pad, a fixture for Dave in our many negotiations.
- No team doctor or trainer appeared in the film, even though they are essential in the draft day decision-making process.
- Although the bumbling intern assisting Weaver is a humorous character (played by Griffin Newman), the thought of a new intern completely foreign to the GM handling critical calls from other general managers on the day of the draft is, well, it’s a movie.
- I found it interesting that the NFL general manager most duped in trade machinations worked for the Seahawks, a team that is known to have one of the more astute front offices in the league (Draft Day, of course, was filmed prior to Seattle winning the Super Bowl last season).
- The interactions between general managers, complete with split-screen phone conversations, were infused with a bit too much testosterone. Most GMs hone their skills in the same college scouting circles and have known each other for years. They realize the risk to their reputations of “getting over” on one another. Further, the “deer in the headlights” look of the Jaguars’ general manager is, while amusing, a bit hard to imagine of someone managing a billion dollar asset.
- And, of course, the movie ending with the team’s general manager and salary cap manager walking out, hand-in-hand, as if all their work was done for that year’s draft? Well, there’s a difference between the reality of The Board and the big screen.