Oh, Yeah, the NFL Draft

Which means it's time for the Eagles to screw things up again

As business ideas go, the NFL lockout is on a par with New Coke and “The Magic Hour.”

NFL owners have taken a wildly popular product, one which thrives even when it isn’t in season—thanks to an enthusiastic group of media partners and addicted customers—and have made it irrelevant by staging a protracted dispute among millionaires/billionaires. It’s a recipe for disaster, or at least one would think, in a time when entertainment alternatives abound.

The strategy indicates two things: First, the NFL is supremely confident its fans are sufficiently hooked that no amount of abuse will drive them away. Second, and more importantly, the owners are aware that future league revenues will be so great (some predict a doubling of TV payments in the coming decade) that it is absolutely worth a short-term hit to reap fat benefits down the road. These guys aren’t stupid—unless you count Dan Snyder’s football decisions. [SIGNUP]

So, they have gone officially gone to the mattresses, with wartime consigliere Roger Goodell in charge. Don’t expect football for a long time, as both sides are resigned to waging trench warfare for every percentage point of gross revenues, leaving fans to wait for deliverance. The next time you hear an owner talking about how much the fans mean to the team, replace the word “fans” with “paying customers” and “team” with “bottom line,” and you’ll have an accurate representation of how you are considered. Oh, and by the way, there is a half-off sale on Kevin Kolb jerseys at the Eagles’ online store.

Against this backdrop of the struggle for the almighty buck, the NFL will stage its annual draft, hoping fans’ need for anything football will foster a sense of amnesia that makes this weekend seem as if it were an oasis amidst the madness of the labor dispute. Someone with no knowledge of the current climate won’t notice any difference between the 2011 Draft and its predecessors. And even if Eagles supporters have been following the minute details of the battle between the players and owners, they probably won’t notice too much difference, either.

That’s because it’s almost guaranteed the Birds will mess things up again.

There’s a reason the Eagles entered this off-season with big problems at multiple positions: They haven’t drafted well the past five years. Their defensive line—aside from Trent Cole, a rare defensive draft success—is an amalgamation of mediocrity, from the soft middle to the lack of pass-rushing depth. The linebacking corps is worse, even when Stewart Bradley is healthy, which is rare. And the lack of an NFL-quality corner on the right side makes the pass defense particularly vulnerable. Is it any wonder the Eagles had the worst red-zone defense in the NFL last year, by 10 percentage points? The Birds were so bad inside their own 20, opposing offenses started calling that part of the field the “no-fee ATM.”

That’s just the defense. It is the ultimate irony that the Eagles have finally collected enough playmakers to scare opponents but lack a quality offensive front to protect their quarterback. Even if center Jamaal Jackson, who has now sustained two major injuries in the past two seasons, is healthy, the right side of the line is a disaster.

Were this a normal off-season, the Eagles might have been able to sign a couple free agents to fill some holes. Without that option, the team must make the draft a huge success to become a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and confidence is not high among the rank and file that it will happen.

One doesn’t need revisit the recent Eagles draft “highlights” to know why the team has so many personnel issues. Thanks to his power, tenure and financial security, Andy Reid has grown arrogant and smug in his roster decisions. (Don’t kid yourself; Reid is in complete control of player decisions, to the point of lording his football experience over Howie Roseman and Joe Banner in showdowns over personnel.) When reports surfaced last week that the Eagles may trade down to “acquire more picks,” Eagles fans still paying attention had to recoil in horror at that speculation, because it meant the team was threatening to amass another collection of second-, third- and fourth-rounders destined for mediocrity.

As the draft approaches, we hear the team will draft an offensive lineman in the first round. Makes sense, since the team needs one desperately. It could, however, look for a defensive lineman, since that need is great. The right cornerback position is a big need, too. And what about linebacker?

Here’s a suggestion for the Eagles: Do everything you can to move up in the draft and get a sure-fire starter. One. Don’t try to game the system, gather up as many middle-round selections as possible and hope a bunch of them hit. It won’t happen. It hasn’t happened. Get a starter who can really help the team and move on from there. Don’t get cute. Don’t try to show how smart you are. Get a really good player and let fans enjoy him throughout the season. If you hit on someone in the fourth round, that’s gravy. The stars come at the top of the draft, not the middle. Do the right thing and find one.

Who knows, maybe the fans might pay attention.

* Peter Laviolette made the right choice starting Brian Boucher in Tuesday’s seventh game against the Sabres, but the bigger decision belongs to GM Paul Holmgren, who must decide once and for all whether the team values the goalkeeper position. If so, he must find a quality starter during the off-season.

* Ryan Madson—or, rather, his agent, the Prince of Darkness—says he wants to be a closer. Now, he gets his chance. Madson has the stuff to shut the door, and if he can do it in Jose Contreras’ absence, there will be some big money waiting for him after the season.

* The Sixers deserve credit for staving off elimination Sunday against the Heat and forcing a fifth game. It was a great effort, but it was nothing more than that. The chasm between the franchises is no smaller, and one exciting afternoon can’t change that.