Draft Day: Breaking Down An NFL Cult Classic

NFL draft

Draft Day Synopsis: At the NFL Draft, General Manager Sonny Weaver (Kevin Costner) has the opportunity to rebuild his team when he trades for the number one pick. He must decide what he’s willing to sacrifice on a life-changing day for a few hundred young men with NFL dreams.

The NFL Draft is finally here! As a massive American football fan, I have made a goofy tradition of rewatching 2014’s Draft Day to celebrate the occasion. The Ivan Reitman film humorously dances away from practical NFL logistics, but in its place, the director creates a fast-flowing narrative about a life-changing day at the office. To celebrate my annual viewing, I will be scribbling down my live reactions to the film’s myriad of amusing wrinkles. Feel free to watch along!

(00:00:30): And we’re off! I’ll just say this off the top, the producers couldn’t have lucked into a better batch of NFL teams to use. The Clevland Browns are notorious early-round drafters, while the Jacksonville Jaguars hold one of the worst draft track records of recent memory (sorry Blake Bortles and Justin Blackmon). I do like how Reitman establishes the mythicism surrounding the NFL draft. More than any other professional draft, it’s an event that can forever change the fortunes of a wayward franchise. The inclusion of popular talking-heads like Mel Kiper Jr. and Jon Gruden also does a nice job of accenting the high-steak environment.

(00:03:45): The pan from one owner saying”who’s the most desperate guy you know” to the Cleveland Browns logo is almost too spot-on. Here’s where the film begins to introduce the melodrama between Kevin Costner’s spotlighted General Manager Sonny Weaver and his co-worker Ali (played by Jennifer Garner). Before we get to know either character, the screenwriters declare the odd couple is having a baby amidst their hectic work lives.

I don’t think Costner and Garner make the most convincing of romantic pairs, but they do share crackling chemistry as spirited co-workers looking to improve their fortunes. I really can’t say enough good things about Costner here. He has the raw gravitas and movie star charisma to captivate audiences even as he’s spouting NFL mumbo jumbo at them. While their relationship isn’t the most convincing, screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph make up for it with their thoughtful contextualization of Clevland’s daunting losing streak. The film does a good job balancing its NFL textures with a general enough approach for non-sports fans to tag along for the ride.

(00:09:34): Seeing Chadwick Boseman is always a reminder of his effortless talents. As passionate draft prospect Vontae Mack (oddly similar to Khalil Mack who was selected a few years later), Boseman infuses his sparring role with boundless energy and confidence. It’s a part that would feel completely expendable in different hands, but Boseman personifies the roller coaster of emotions during the draft process with exuberant naturalism. NFL Running Back Arian Foster also makes a fitting cameo role as prospect Ray Jennings.

(00:14:20): Frank Langella is deliciously sinister as a ruthless NFL owner looking to “make a splash” during the draft. The veteran star knows just the right notes to play as a mustache-twirling villain. I will say, Langella’s hard-nosed character isn’t an entirely inaccurate portrayal of eager team owners. Whether it’s his constant grief or the greek chorus of angry radio personalities, NFL GMs face insane levels of pressure from their critical surrounding enviroment.

(00:17:45): Our first trade is in, let’s break it down!

The Cleveland Browns receive The Seahawks 2014 1st round pick (Number 1 overall). Draft Grade: D

The Seattle Seahawks receive Cleveland’s 2014 1st round pick (Number 7 overall), Cleveland’s 2015 1st round pick, and Cleveland’s 2016 1st round pick. Draft Grade: A-

It’s safe to say ESPN would not react kindly to Sonny Weaver Jr’s first trade. Three firsts put an unholy amount of pressure on potential star quarterback Bo Callahan to be the face of the franchise. Can he do it? That’s a big question mark. I love when Costner reveals the trade with his smoldering charm. The room’s generally uproarious reactions change once Denis Leary’s sharp-tongued coach begins to voice his displeasure. Leary’s acidic wit as a championship coach set in his old-school ways feels like a much-needed counter to Costner’s grizzly presence. His reactions throughout Sonny’s lengthy day are often the highlight of the film.

(00:23:30): “Tell Schefter to stick his rumor up his a…”

A perfect gruff one-liner from Costner’s annoyed GM. This is where the film introduces the fresh-faced intern Rick played by Griffin Newman. In a testosterone-pumping environment full of hot-headed men, Newman’s mousey delivery makes a hilarious counter against the aggressive energy. His addition as a comedic change-of-pace gives some much-needed brevity between intense conversations.

Bo Callahan is also introduced here, sat by the side of his slick agent played by P Diddy himself. The casting team deserves ample credit for their selection of Josh Pence as the famed QB. As an amalgamation of smug NFL busts like Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Leaf, the character is a fitting representation of the type of self-obsessed star athletes that flame out of the NFL.

(00:29:23): The subplot involving Weaver Jr. operating amidst the death of his former coach father seems hackneyed at first glance, but the B-thread has more weight than some viewers may think. The NFL is a family business, with generations of players and coaches coming from a tree of sustained success (The Harbaughs, The Mannings, The Barbers). While the dynamic isn’t explored with the most depth, I do think it’s a thoughtful background piece to include about Sonny’s hardened character. Football is his life, so it makes sense that this draft seemingly possesses life-or-death steaks.

I love when the script opens up to the deeper machinations of an NFL team. Seeing the interplay between Weaver and his eager conditioning coach shows the varying perspectives that merge into one cohesive NFL team. The colorful array of NFL scouts also display some of the league’s questionable logic, often looking deeper into a prospect’s off-the-field hijinks rather than their performative nuances (it’s a joy to see Costner snapping off at these shallow executives). I also support how Reitman introduces sleight NFL montages to depict the storied greatness behind NFL lore. As always, the league is one defined by its long-running traditions

(00:38:45): Fresh off another lukewarm Costner and Garner exchange, we see journeyman quarterback Brian Drew (played by Superman himself Tom Welling) breakdown amidst revolving trade rumors. Drew is a relatively modest part of the narrative, but I am glad the writers gave this character some genuine perspective. As a rough comparison between Alex Smith and Case Keenum, Drew represents the kind of hard-working underdogs trying to exceed their meager expectations (it’s funny that the Chiefs try trading for Drew in the film considering they traded for Smith the offseason before).

The trading scene also re-introduces Reitman’s awkward inclusion of conjoined split-screen shots. I don’t know why the director thought a character’s shoulder needed to be bleeding into another frame, but this singular technique is likely to never be found again on the big screen (and for good reason).

(00:43:20): This sharp scene between Leary and Garner is one of the film’s most unappreciated frames. Both actors pitter-patter their perspectives with coy comedic touches, as both seem to be characters underestimating the other’s knowledge and abilities. It’s nice to see the usually affable Garner step into a role that employs her a more boisterous personality to work within.

The following frames focus on a Browns worker revealing dirt about Callahan’s good-boy image. It may seem foolish, but this is the kind of observant skepticism that all NFL prospects are treated with when they join the league. Team’s scout prospects like they are picking a future president, digging behind the unattainable levels of perfection these stars try to project.

(00:50:05): “You really think I’m going to give up Callahan for Taylor and Castillo? Maurice Castillo?!?!

I love this hot-headed confrontation between Leary and Costner. Both noted professionals clash over their vastly different perspectives, a concept that is certainly not uncommon in professional sports. Costner’s afflictions are particularly on point here, even bringing up a favorite cliched sports barb “looks like Tarzan plays like Jane” to accent his denouncing points. It’s a colorful moment, although not one without its shadings of authenticity.

Of course, we couldn’t have an NFL film without a shameless Roger Goodell cameo. I doubt any NFL fan is happy to see his face on the screen, yet you can’t have a draft without his robotic delivery leading off the proceedings.

(00:56:30): While digging into Bo Callahan’s draft film, the Browns team notices Bo operating with a certain skittishness in the pocket. This is a common fault for a lot of young quarterbacks, but I do have a hard time buying this being the first display of that notable weakness. With the in-depth ways that draft scouts break down film, that problem would’ve been discovered months ahead of time.

I’ve always felt that this middle patch is where the film suffers the most. The screenwriters take a break from the NFL machinations to dive head-first into Sonny’s revolving door of familial problems. None of the actors, including Ellen Burstyn as Sonny’s eager mother, can personify the simplistic melodrama with much nuance. I get wanting to have an entry point for mainstream audiences, but the film would be better off strictly focusing on the team’s complicated inner-workings.

(01:14:05): After a slight rough patch, the draft is finally about to begin! Sonny makes one last call to Bo to confirm his lying tendencies before settling on his originally planned draft pick Vontae Mack (it’s revealed in a note he wrote the first scene). I always laughed at the way the screenwriters try to make sense of Sonny’s wide-ranging plans. He seems to be operating like a chicken with his head cut off through most of the narrative, nonsensically trading up to take a guy he could’ve gotten at Number 7.

I got to say though, the shocking moment where Mack’s pick is revealed truly comes to life. It’s the kind of gasping surprise that only a crazy draft moment can create. From a practical football perspective, selecting a better-known prospect like Mack is wiser in the long run than settling on a QB with questionable ethics. Mack has the kind of relentless motor that could make him a star in the NFL (I couldn’t cover this film without doing my best NFL scouting impersonation).

(01:22:10): The third act of this film is where Reitman truly takes the reigns as a director. The veteran stalwart implements the characters whirling emotions into a tense cat-and-mouse game for control. It’s only fitting that the decisions behind America’s Gladiators are treated with the same sort of pulse-pounding reverence onscreen.

After the Browns pass on Bo, the next three teams surprisingly ignore the quarterback despite his highly-touted resume. Acknowledging that Seattle could easily score Bo with the pick Sonny traded, Sonny makes a hail marry to trade one pick ahead of them in the draft. If a GM is going to pull off some sort of miracle trade, it has to be with the comically inept Jacksonville Jaguars!

(01:27:30): Let’s take a look at the insane trade Sonny pulls off with the Jaguars.

The Cleveland Browns receive the Jaguars 2014 first-round pick (Number 6 overall). Grade: B+

The Jacksonville Jaguars receive the Browns 2014 second-round pick, 2015 second-round pick, and 2016 second-round pick. Grade: D+

There is no fucking way this trade would happen in real life, or any life frankly. In the NFL, first-round picks are an unprecedented commodity, with that single pick giving teams their best chance at a future superstar player. No team, especially a bad one picking towards the top of the draft, would give away one of those lottery tickets for three tertiary selections.

Outside of the football fan perspective, this is an entertaining exchange between Weaver and a bumbling rookie GM. Shout out to character actor extortionate Pat Healy for the personality he injects into his one-scene role. The flurry of greek chorus comments from Weaver’s surrounding parties also elevates this scene, with Langella making an especially icey entrance as the pissed-off owner.

(01:33:40): We’ve finally arrived at the film’s signature moment, the massive trade that saves Sonny’s job and resets his previous mistakes. Before getting to the trade itself, this scene features some of the funniest, goofily machismo dialogue you can imagine. Hollywoodized exchanges like Sonny call another GM a “pancake-eating motherfucker” are rampant throughout, but the fantastical textures do play nicely with the film’s high-tension environment. As for the trade:

The Cleveland Browns receive their three first-round picks back and special teamer David Putney. Grade: A++

The Seattle Seahawks receive the Browns 2014 1st round pick acquired from Jacksonville (Number 6 overall). Grade: D

Again, the screenwriters implement another far-fetched trade for audiences to indulge in. I don’t even know if GMs can technically trade back for picks they LITERALLY traded that same day. That being said, this moment exemplifies what the movie does best. Reitman skillfully combines his deep dive into the NFL’s inside baseball perspective with the cheerful allures of crowd-pleasing entertainments. While the mix may not make the best compliment for either side, it does create a rousing enough experience for sports fans and nonsports fans alike.

I never quite liked the film’s ending, pulling away right at the start of the NFL season rather than getting any payoff for Sonny’s bold decisions. A flash-forward to a potential Super Bowl trophy would’ve left a more satisfying conclusion for audiences to enjoy, especially given the film’s penchant for overly theatrical moments.

And that wraps up my rambling breakdown of Draft Day. No one will confuse this studio project as a classic (its meager 29 million box office intact ensured little fanfare during its initial release), but I am happy to see this spirited effort revitalized every time the draft comes around. This article has been stewing around in my head since the film’s debut, so I hope you enjoyed it!

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Matt is an American who has grown up for passion for film and its empathetic powers to tell unique stories (especially in the science fiction sphere). Some of his favorites include Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, Goodfellas, Frances Ha and Moonlight.