Friday, May 7, 2021

The Strangest Thing About the 2021 NFL Draft Was the Prominence of Northwestern Football Players

Last year’s NFL draft appeared at an odd stage of the pandemic, just about a month after states had issued stay-home orders and while people were eyeing toilet paper stockpiles with the look of a Max Max warlord, and the Virtual Draft was highlighted by then-novel video conferencing and Roger Goodell’s jaw-jutted paeans to American Strength as reflected by the Official Truck of the National Football League.  The 2021 draft, done in front of a crowd of people who were masked, vaccinated, and wearing silly football-themed costumes, at least seemed like more of a return to normal where we can all revel in the entire exercise’s glorious stupidity without worrying whether a guy dressed as The Macho Man Randy Savage is going to instigate a superspreader event by screaming OOOH YEAH after the Browns draft a punter in the seventh round.

While the NFL did scale back on some of the tedious pageantry, they did manage a gimmick that was so profoundly odd and goofy that I am still unable to process what was going on.  They decided to take the chair from Goodell’s rumpus room and let a single fan sit in it while waiting for the commissioner to announce the pick.  This is an incredible peek into NFL thinking, that a team of marketing people thought that viewers would remember the famous chair that Goodell sat in and then replicate that moment by inviting a fan to sit in it on stage and do nothing while presumably the audience on TV would start nudging the people they are watching the draft with saying “See that chair? That’s the very chair that Roger Goodell sat in.”  They should have at least let the honorary Chair Fan announce the pick; ideally the chair would be situated high over the stage on a large platform or suspended on a series of wires and the fan, clad in sort of home made Miami Dolphins tunic, would have unilateral veto power over the pick while the writhing pit of fans fling down their cheese hats in disgust and angrily shake their LA Chargers lightning bolt staffs at the stage.  
Goodell takes 25 minutes to every fan sitting in the chair that
no they won't be able to do anything else, just sit there like a prop ficus
through gritted teeth as he holds a dead-eyed smile

Goodell’s prominence at the draft remains a mystery because he is a void of recognizable charisma.  He at all times seems like an executive trying to goad his employees into enthusiasm for a new unsanctioned team-building exercise he has designed that will result in at least two apology e-mails from human resources.  Every time he went to read an announcement referencing the NFL’s salute to the Coke Zero Healthcare Heroes he stumbled through like Tim Heidecker trying to read the cast list of Chappie in On Cinema.  

The draft, held outside on a cold, rainy day, seemed to ensure that only the most dedicated maniacs and Draft Sickos would be in attendance, giving the whole proceeding an undulating feeling of madness.  An endless amount of classic rock boomed menacingly over the broadbast.  The draft ended with Mike from Mike and Mike hoarsely screaming a summary of Draft Storylines over a deafening chorus of Fat Bottomed Girls. 

And yet the enjoyable grotesquerie of the NFL draft was overshadowed by three odd things that happened that had me less interested in the ludicrous sideshow aspects of it (I will never forget, for example, that Northwestern’s Anthony Walker was selected by an iPad-wielding orangutan, and that former NFL Network personality and current Raiders GM Mike Mayock was so disgusted by the literal monkey business  that he nearly walked off the set) and actually got me caught up in the process of the draft itself.

This draft featured an unprecedented two high-ranking Northwestern prospects that were supposed to get drafted on the first day.  No Northwestern player has been drafted in the first round since the Chargers picked Luis Castillo in 2005.  This year, tackle Rashawn Slater and cornerback Greg Newsome II were widely expected to get selected; Slater had been listed as one of the top tackles in the draft, and mock drafters marked him as a possible top-ten pick.  Usually my draft experience involves watching the Bears take up to one player I have heard of and then watching hours of third-day draft coverage to see if someone deigns to pick up a player I would probably consider one of the best I have ever seen at Northwestern in the sixth round or something, at a time where instead of announcing the pick the broadcast is deep into a prerecorded package saluting how the army is using the official air-to-surface missile of the National Football League while a pit crew is sent to hose and towel off Mel Kiper Jr.
The selection of two Northwestern players was further validation for a program that thrived in the ill-advised pandemic season with another Big Ten West title.  Slater went thirteenth to the Chargers, where he'll reunite with Justin Jackson and is already starring in team-produced twitter videos about his pet lizard.  Newsome went twenty-eighth to the Browns, generating an ovation from the Cleveland crowd of people wearing dog masks.  Ernest Brown IV joined in on the fun on day three, when he was selected by the Rams.  Pat Fitzgerald got to make swaggering appearances on any NFL draft show that would have him, doing his signature verbal guitar solos about "our young men" and hitting the whammy bar for "high-character guys."  Whatever heights Northwestern had hit as an overachieving team full of the dreaded "Rece Davises," they have transformed into a place where, at least for a night, they featured more first-round picks than any Big Ten school other than Ohio State and Penn State, which also had two players picked in the first round.

The NFL draft was a triumph for Northwestern athletics before things took a sour turn this week as the university moved to promote deputy Athletic Director Mike Polisky to Athletic Director after Jim Phillips left to become the ACC Commissioner.  Polisky's selection prompted outrage; he has ties to most of the athletic department's most notorious scandals during the Phillips era.  Most prominently, Polisky is named in a lawsuit by a cheerleader suing the university after saying she and other cheerleaders were sexually harassed by slimy boosters.  The lawsuit alleges that Polisky ignored and dismissed the complaints when they were brought to him.  Some faculty have planned to protest the hire.  I admit that I had never heard of Polisky before this week, so I can't pretend I have any particular insight into the situation other than what I have read, but if Northwestern wanted to hire an athletic director who did not appear to have spent the past several years as a henchman doing the department's dirty work in the sleazy business of college athletics, they could have hired virtually anyone else.  
I usually watch the draft for things to blog about because the NFL draft is the league's most prominent event that is not bailed out by having a football game and therefore exists as what the NFL's idea of spectacle without having the luxury of having 290 pound men try to tackle each other into a the consistency of an impossible burger to paper over the league's lunacy.  Without football, the NFL is left to its barest essence, which takes the form of a pageant of deranged tedium.  But then the NFL draft did something unexpected and actually created compelling drama that left me with something more insane than the idea of thrilling America by showing a person wearing a jack-o'-lantern on their head sitting in Roger Goodell's Executive Drafting Chair and that is the hope that the Bears might have a functioning NFL quarterback.
In the last post on this website, I spent a paragraph excoriating the Bears and Ryan Pace for extending fans' endless crawl through quarterback hell by signing Andy Dalton, a type of sentient tapioca.  But then, bizarre circumstances and an admittedly dashing amount of derring-do by Ryan Pace by making some high stakes phone calls got the Bears in position to draft inexplicably plummeting star Ohio State  quarterback Justin Fields and they did it.  There was a brief time, after the Bears traded up, when it wasn't clear whether they would take Fields or Roger Goodell-esque quarterback Mac Jones from Alabama, so it was a relief when, after an interminable series of unrelated announcements that heightened the suspense, the Bears took Fields, and Jones was left to wait four more picks before briskly stomping out to the stage to chop it up with the commissioner like they were on the 19th hole of a country club.
The Bears have never had a quarterback like Fields.  For most of my life, Bears fans have been forced to talk ourselves into some game-managing pud.  I can only think of three times in recent memory when the Bears actually had hope for a talented quarterback: two were Rex Grossman and Jay Cutler, who had just enough flashes of talent to make their ability to melt down at the exact worst moment maddening; the other is Mitchell Trubisky.  Fields is not a Trubisky situation.  He did virtually everything a college quarterback can do except win a championship and can do everything better than Trubisky except possibly deal with becoming a national joke and mascot and ironically-voted-upon Nickelodeon MVP with an admirable amount of grace.  I feel the way about Fields the same way I would have felt if the Bears had just drafted similarly talented big-name college quarterback DeShaun Watson in 2017, although given what we have learned about Watson over the past several months, I am relieved that they didn't.

Many Bears fans see similarities in the situation with Andy Dalton
and Justin Fields with the 2017 draft when the Bears drafted Trubisky
after signing Mike Glennon to be the starter, but the Bears apparently
warned Dalton that they would take a quarterback instead of surprising
Glennon at the official Bears Draft Party. The visual of Glennon
bobbleheading his way out of the draft party after getting blind-sided
by the Trubisky pick while a chorus of stunned Bears fans booed
the shit out of Mitch is one of my favorite bits of Bears Quarterback Lore

Will Fields be the answer?  Will the Bears' front office and coaching staff that many Bears fans wanted to see not only run out of town but pummeled with those American Gladiators Pummeling Rods on the way out be able to not fuck this up?  Are the Bears actually a Vortex of Quarterback Ineptitude that is destined to suck in every passer the Bears throw at it and somehow through mystical forces that we cannot even comprehend turn all of them into an eternal camp battle between Shane Matthews and Jim Miller?  That remains to be seen.  But the Bears have never had a chance to ruin a quarterback prospect this good, and if this means that I have to weather several games or even a whole season of Dalton demi-competence while braying for the vaudeville hook, I'll take it.  
The final reason why the NFL Draft became one of the greatest nights in the history of Chicago football had nothing to do with the draft itself but had everything to do with this tweet sent by Adam Schefter on Thursday afternoon:

For nearly 30 years, the Green Bay Packers have had a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback starting while the Bears started dozens of bums, oafs, jabronis, and boxcar hobos, and it has been extremely frustrating if not downright miserable.  Rodgers, in particular, has tortured Bears fans for the better part of two decades, beating them in blowouts, comebacks, and the occasional game where he gets destroyed for a half and goes down in a heap writhing in pain, surely dead, and then somehow comes back out in the second half to march the Packers down the field while dramatically hobbling.  And now, according to reports, he wants out. 

I want to note that there are many adjectives Schefter could have used to say that Rodgers was upset with the Packers, but the fact that he chose "disgruntled" has really elevated this whole thing and I have been delightedly muttering the word "disgruntled" to myself for the past week.  

As the week went on, more reports emerged: Rodgers was still angry that the Packers drafted quarterback Jordan Love in 2020 instead of a wide receiver.  Rodgers was steamed that the Packers released his buddy, a fungible sixth-string wide receiver.  Rodgers reportedly hates the general manger who is a person somehow named Brian Gutekunst, demands that the Packers fire him, and has mocked him in group texts by referring to him as "Jerry Krause."  Rodgers presumably will soon issue a Michael Jordan-style press release by fax that says "I'm Disgruntled."  

I have devoured all of these reports and soaked in the stupid drama because I never dreamed the Bears would ever have a good quarterback and the only joy I could imagine from professional football would be Green Bay contending for the first time in many Packers fans' lives without a superstar quarterback, forced to toil in the Andy Dalton mines like the rest of us, and I have been spitefully cackling over this for days.  Yes, please let me hear more about how Rodgers has told free agents he will never play for the Packers again.  Yes, please let me read reports about how Rodgers would spitefully retire and then woodenly host Jeopardy rather than throw another perfect pass for Green Bay.  Yes, let me see pictures of Rodgers surfacing two days after the Great Disgruntled Tweet at the Kentucky Derby dressed inexplicably like Tom Petty in the music video for You Got Lucky while desperately sidestepping reporters asking him how het got so disgruntled.

Will Rodgers actually force his way off the Packers, who remain adamant that they will not trade him?  Or will he come back to continue torturing the NFC North for another several years, using his own disgruntled attitude as fuel becoming more disgruntled in the process and somehow creating a perpetual motion machine made of resentment that will make him even more unstoppable?  As an expert in Bears football suffering, that is all par for the course, but the feeling that the Bears may finally have a quarterback at the precise moment Green Bay contends without a Hall of Famer is the type of dream that has transformed the NFL Draft from a drab meeting between combed-over executives in a dour hotel ballrooms to a television event watched by millions.  

Of course as a Bears fan, I am also preparing myself for the most psychologically devastating outcome, which is is for Rodgers to leave, and for Jordan Love to be better than Justin Fields.  

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