PHILADELPHIA — It wasn’t just teams who helped themselves Thursday night in the 2017 NFL Draft.
The league itself received a much-needed boost, too.
Blame who or what you want for last season’s eight-percent decline in television ratings. Colin Kaepernick, the presidential elections, millennials with shorter attention spans, concussion-scandal fallout, choppy sequencing of commercials, product oversaturation — it all played a part.
But the underlying reality is that the NFL itself was missing core elements that had helped it become America’s top sport. Quite frankly, the league wasn’t as fun to watch as in previous years.
Raw emotion from players was being sanitized through measures like crackdowns on end-zone celebrations. The NFL’s ability to connect with its fans organically also began to wane. All the money spent on hype and commercialization failed to create a product that seemed fresh and hip.
The 2017 draft could be the start of a turnaround — and not just because the television ratings increased slightly from last year.
Mind you, the event itself has limited appeal. It’s really a bunch of highlights and speculative analysis sandwiched around the selection of college players who may or may not become pro stars.
Yet what unfolded Thursday night was compelling enough to thrill rabid NFL fans and make the casual ones stop channel-surfing.
The first reason to stick around for at least a few minutes came about as an accident. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell never would have moved the draft from Radio City Music Hall if the venue were willing to annually assure the league access to the dates it demanded. When that didn’t happen, the NFL began holding the draft outside of New York City for the first time since 1965.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to us,” Goodell admitted Thursday on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
After two years in another beautiful-but-sterile theater setting in Chicago, the NFL took its show on the road again to Philadelphia albeit with a twist — the first outdoor draft in league history.
It worked out better than the NFL had any right to expect.
More than 70,000 fans on an unseasonably warm April evening turned the area outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art into a giant cocktail party that looked like a blast to attend.
The aerial and wide-angle views captured the excitement as well.
It wasn’t just the camera shots and cool lighting that gave the draft a raucous feel either. Goodell set the tone by channeling his inner Vince McMahon and encouraging the crowd to boo him even louder as he stepped to the podium for the first time.
“Come on, Philly! Come on!” Goodell said with a wide grin on his face.
Goodell would soon have even more reason to smile based upon how the draft unfolded.
After Cleveland’s expected selection of Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett with the top overall pick, a trade occurred that provided the kind of shock missing in previous drafts.
Chicago’s move to No. 2 and subsequent selection of North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky was the first of several bold moves that kept fans on the edge of their seats wondering what might happen next.
After other eye-opening deals involving new quarterbacks for Kansas City (Pat Mahomes) and Houston (Deshaun Watson) came the draft’s two most poignant player moments.
Raised by foster parents during his teenage years as an at-risk youth, Garett Bolles overcame long odds to become a top tackle at the University of Utah. The magnitude of his journey combined with being chosen at No. 20 by Denver had Bolles weeping long before the congratulatory phone call from the Broncos had ended.
Bolles then generated another memorable moment when the 6-foot-5, 297-pound behemoth carried his tiny four-month-old son Kingston on the stage with him for Goodell’s jersey presentation.
UCLA edge-rusher Takkarist McKinley went one step further after being picked by Atlanta at No. 26. Wanting to honor the late grandmother who helped raise him, McKinley took the stage sporting a framed photo of Myrtle Collins.
Following his interaction with Goodell, McKinley turned his back to the crowd and began screaming about how he fulfilled a promise to Collins by making it out of a tough Oakland neighborhood onto college and now the NFL.
McKinley remained amped as Deion Sanders approached, telling the NFL Network analyst, “That means every f—ing thing to me! Excuse my language. Fine me later, man! Fine me later!”
If anything, Goodell himself should pay the fine if the FCC comes a calling. It’s money well spent for the exclamation point McKinley provided to a draft that hopefully serves as a harbinger to an equally entertaining 2017 season.
Alex Marvez can be heard from 6 to 7 p.m. ET on SiriusXM NFL Radio.