Nothing about this NFL offseason is normal, nothing except the NFL Draft.
The labor dispute between the NFL and the NFL Players Association has deteriorated into a mind-numbing maze of disputed financial numbers/models, public relations pleas, backbiting he-said, he-said, and litigation strategies. For legions of NFL fans the draft, to be held April 28, 29 and 30, loomed as the one unaffected football oasis to look forward to this offseason, a brief return to normalcy.
Mel Kiper's steel-reinforced hair, the Patriots trading down, the eternal optimism of the word "upside," it all never sounded so good, at least until earlier this week, when reports surfaced that the NFL Players Association was advising the top prospects to boycott the draft and instead show up at an NFLPA-produced draft celebration.
Astute NFLPA assistant executive director for external affairs George Atallah quickly repositioned the potential protest, saying it wasn't a boycott, just a "different" draft experience. Like much of what we hear from both sides in the labor dispute that's semantics. If the top prospects don't show up at Radio City Music Hall when they otherwise would in any other year then it's a boycott, plain and simple.
It's a boycott that beats the fans over the head with the CBA unrest, and uses the NFL's newest players as pawns.
Comments about the boycott being a "suggestion" are bogus. If the NFLPA takes a stance that draftees shouldn't be at the league's draft there is very little that is voluntary about it. This is a league where veteran players get indignant when a rookie refuses to carry their shoulder pads and helmet off the field. What kind of hazing would a rookie who ignores the NFLPA's edict be subjected to when football finally resumes, and he has to answer to his veteran teammates?
How about this quote from Peter King's recent SI.com column from a prominent NFL agent: "There are a few quarterbacks who could get picked high in this draft and the NFL will invite to New York. All those quarterbacks would do by attending the draft for the NFL is giving DeMarcus Ware more incentive to knock their blocks off the first time they line up across the line of scrimmage from him.''
That doesn't sound voluntary to me. It is reminiscent of the hypocritical voluntary (but really completely mandatory) minicamps that NFL teams and coaches have lorded over the players unfairly for years.
Ironically, one major issue that the league and the NFLPA agree on is a rookie salary cap that reduces the inflated and potentially cap-crippling salaries and mega-signing bonuses for high-level first-round picks, precisely the type of players the NFLPA is asking to sacrifice their moment in the sun to join them in solidarity.
For months the NFLPA knew the draft was coming in April, and never raised this issue. They also knew that under the terms of the prior CBA both sides agreed that in the event of its expiration the draft would proceed as normal.
Locked in a rancorous dispute, it's understandable why the NFL Players Association is trying to politicize one of the NFL's marquee events, especially with the league pushing the first round of the draft, which was in primetime for the first time last year, further into prime time (from 7:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.) to reap its ratings potential on the NFL Network and ESPN.
Hit the owners, who have agitated the players with their condescension, where it hurts the most -- television content -- and take advantage of a captive football audience to advance the NFLPA's position.
Plus, why should the players shake hands and smile for photos with commissioner Roger Goodell when his league is locking them out. All sound arguments from the players' perspective.
But from a fan's perspective it seems selfish and self-serving. During the failed mediation process, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said the players association digs the fans. If that's true they'll understand why the fans wouldn't dig a draft boycott.
For the NFLPA, the risk of alienating a largely supportive public by depriving them of the one CBA-free zone they could count on this offseason is not worth any potential gain made by thumbing their noses at the owners and the league.
One of the greatest victories the NFLPA won came not when Judge David Doty ruled against the owners in the lockout war chest case in Minneapolis federal district court, but in the court of public opinion via that same ruling. It painted a clear picture that the NFL had been planning to stop the game for its CBA gains for years.
Most people out there more easily identify with being an employee than being a billionaire businessman. Public sentiment has mostly been on the players side.
Now, that support is not going to mean much if anything in the courts or at the bargaining table, the places where the NFLPA can score a victory in this labor dispute. But neither is having the top prospects skip the draft. Both are for show.
The potential boycott doesn't strengthen the NFLPA's anti-trust lawsuit, which already has draft prospect Von Miller as a party, and it doesn't give them any leverage over the league. All it can do is anger fans and turn the draft into more collateral damage from the CBA dispute.
The draft should go on as normal, leaving the CBA issue in the background. Give the fans a break for three days.
Simply put, the NFLPA is picking the wrong event to make its point.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.