Revisiting Hollywood’s Portrayal Of The Cleveland Browns In ‘Draft Day’ 

Written By Mike Breen on September 1, 2023
Revisiting Cleveland Browns portrayal in Draft Day, from

Draft Day, the Kevin Costner-starring movie about the Cleveland Browns’ fictionalized 2014 NFL Draft, didn’t win any awards when it was released in the spring of 2014. 

It didn’t receive many positive reviews or make much money at the box office, either. 

But the movie stands as a mildly entertaining example of what happens when Hollywood attempts to put a heavy emotional, sentimental spin on a sports event in which stats and numbers are the primary guiding force. 

Before going too much farther, we must inform you that what follows is basically all spoilers. If you haven’t gotten around to seeing Draft Day in the past nine years, it’s currently available to stream on Max. It is a, well, decent way (?) to get prepared for the NFL season — the first one where Ohioans will actually be able to bet on the Browns.

And for those who bet on NFL Draft props using Ohio online sportsbooks in the spring, rest assured that a real-life NFL front office does not typically operate like the fictionalized version. (It also helped that the Browns had few early-round picks to risk in trades.)

Movie tries to balance realistic football portrayal with high-emotion storylines

Dramatizing the behind-the-scenes happenings in the sports world can work, as Moneyball and, to an extent, Jerry Maguire, proved. Moneyball benefited from being based on a real (and actually interesting) story, while Jerry Maguire succeeded by somewhat playing down the nuts-and-bolts of the industry and amplifying the interpersonal storylines. 

Draft Day tries to position itself somewhere in between.

It recreates the excitement of the draft and tries to show the intricacies of actual NFL wheeling and dealing. And it also has, in less than a day, Costner’s character — Cleveland Browns GM Sonny Weaver Jr. — maneuvering around more personal emotional landmines than most people deal with in a lifetime. 

Besides being responsible for crucial draft moves that will help determine the direction of a multi-million dollar franchise, Weaver Jr. is also dealing with the death of his father (the beloved Browns head coach who Sonny fired the previous year) just a week prior, a fraught relationship with his mother and, oh yeah, he finds out his unhappily-secret girlfriend (Ali, a Browns accountant and salary cap expert) is pregnant.

‘Draft Day’ hit and miss with its portrayal of Cleveland

On the plus side, Draft Day has a pretty remarkable cast. They’re none of the actors’ best roles, but they are still enjoyable to watch throughout. 

Costner is steady as ever, doing his trademark salt-of-the-earth stoicism bit, while Jennifer Garner (Ali), Frank Langella (Browns owner Anthony Molina), Denis Leary (Browns current head coach Vince Penn), Ellen Burstyn (Sonny’s mom) and Chadwick Boseman (Vonae Mack, a former Ohio State linebacker in the draft) also give solid performances. 

There are also a lot of cameos that give the viewer little dopamine bursts, including from Sean “Puffy” Combs, Sam Elliott and Rosanna Arquette, as well as athletes like Bernie Kosar, Jim Brown and Ray Lewis

The film also shows Cleveland in a fairly accurate light, with some great cinematic shots of the city peppered throughout. Early on, a local sports talk radio announcer provides a monologue about why football is so important to the people of Cleveland. 

“Folks,” the announcer says on draft day, “I believe the word ‘Clevelander’ comes from the Latin word that means ‘to have idiotic hope at all times.’ And don’t we ever.”

But, while playing up perfectly just how much the team means to the city, that’s about the extent of the acknowledgement that the Browns have been an often miserably unsuccessful franchise. And, interestingly, there’s no recognition of the Browns’ many historically bad draft picks. 

Yes, this is a fictionalized Browns team in 2014. But outside of the current players and personnel, much of the NFL’s history remains intact in the Draft Day-universe. There’s even a reference to Washington trading up in the 2012 draft, giving the Rams three first-round picks and a second-round pick to get the No. 2 pick and take QB Robert Griffin III.

That move likely inspired some of the fictional trade action in the movie, but it doesn’t get into the consequences of the 2012 draft because it was made in 2013 and the RG3 trade had yet to reveal itself to be a bust. (Funnily enough, Cleveland was also looking to trade up for Griffin, which would have been a fitting bad-luck Browns move.)

GM considering drafting star QB, solid linebacker or legacy RB

Sonny’s day begins about 12 hours before the start of the draft, when he gets a call from the GM of the Seahawks.

Seattle has the top pick and is widely expected to choose flashy Wisconsin QB Bo Callahan (the film also does a good job of giving the players very accurate-sounding names). 

For reasons that are never completely clear, the Seahawks want to trade the No. 1 pick. Seattle’s team president instructs the GM to find someone “desperate” enough to trade away their first-rounder this year, first-rounder next year and a third-rounder the year after. 

Cut to … Cleveland. 

Sonny is set on drafting defensive ace Vontae Mack with the Browns’ seventh pick in the first round. But he’s facing big pressure from the team’s owner, who tells Weaver Jr. to make a “huge splash,” something he’s told while visiting Molina at a waterpark he owns. (Get it? That’s where people make huge splashes sometimes!)

It’s here where Molina also shows his football acumen by shaking his head in awe and muttering, “The Cowboys have great helmets.” It’s one of the few intentionally funny moments of Draft Day that might actually make you laugh. Molina’s reasoning for making a big splash is to sell more tickets which, no matter the record or performance, the Browns have never had a real issue with.

Mack calls Sonny to see where he stands, stressing about the pay he’d lose falling any later in the first round. He also gets a call from Ray Jennings, a highly touted Florida State running back who is also the son of a hugely popular former Browns player (played by Terry Crews).

Coach Penn — who has confidence in current Browns QB Brian Drew — really wants Jennings, and Jennings really wants to be a Brown. Molina is also on board with Jennings and definitely not Mack, because “defense doesn’t make a splash.” 

After the conversation with Molina, Sonny calls to accept Seattle’s offer to trade up for the first pick. But the Seahawks changed their offer and now want the Browns’ first-round picks for the next three years. 

Sonny is more a ‘vibes check’ scouting kind of guy

Sonny begrudgingly agrees to the deal and tells Coach Penn and the scouting department they’re taking Callahan, but he wants them to take another look at him. 

Sonny decides to do his own digging, but he’s more of a vibes guy. He calls Callahan and asks him how important winning is to him.

“Winning is everything, sir,” Callahan says. “Winning is the only thing that matters to me.” 

We see in Sonny’s eyes (and hear in the down-turned mood of the soundtrack) that wasn’t the answer he was looking for. “Everyone says that,” he tells Callahan. 

It’s the first of a few “a-ha” moments for Sonny that don’t make a ton of sense. There are a lot of vague “gut feelings” from Sonny that don’t seem to have anything to do with the on-field Xs and Os. “Character” emerges as Sonny’s primary concern in terms of whom he drafts. 

Mack finds out that the Browns have traded up, tweets about it and calls Sonny to chew him out. After Sonny tells Mack “don’t Twitter,” Mack tells Sonny to rewatch tape from the game in which Mack sacked Callahan four times. 

“Don’t watch me,” Mack says. “Watch him.”  

Bo Callahan is a dishonest, unlikable monster who will never make it in the NFL?

In the game, Callahan *gasp* looks tentative and off of his game after being sacked. This is troubling, despite Callahan later throwing a miraculous, game-winning pass in the final seconds of the game. 

But, you see, Mack was out of the game by that point. Why? Because he lost his cool and bumped a referee after, following a strip sack for a TD, he gave the ball to a woman in the stands. But that woman turns out to be *gasp* his sister, who died weeks after the game and is with her sons, who Mack is now taking care of (and why he’s so concerned about dropping in the draft). 

How could you not take the linebacker after that?

But there’s more.

Sonny’s vibe check and his scouts’ investigation also reveals that Callahan has a website featuring all of the women he sleeps with. 

And Callahan had a run-in with police after his 21st birthday party got out of hand. But it wasn’t the police run-in that set off warning bells for Sonny — it was the fact that none of his teammates were listed in the police report, which means *gasp* none of Callahan’s teammates were at the party

But wait, there’s even more.

Sonny also hears tale of a trick a different team pulls on their potential draft picks. They send their top picks a playbook with a $100 bill taped to the last page. Then they ask them if they read the whole playbook and if they say yes without mentioning the $100, then the team knows they’re lying and therefore, apparently, don’t have what it takes to be a successful professional football player. 

As you may have guessed, Callahan didn’t mention the $100. But, making him a true monster, he double-lied! When informed of the $100, Callahan played it off and said, “Ha, yeah I saw it, good one guys.” 

Clearly, a man who would double-lie in the face of such a sophisticated trap would collapse from dishonesty on his first NFL play and have to be carried off the field. 

Sonny Weaver Jr., a true draft genius actually

About a half hour before the draft is to begin at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, Sonny calls Callahan as he’s being seated and asks if his teammates were at his 21st birthday party. Callahan says he was drunk and doesn’t remember anything about the party

This, for reasons never made clear, is the final straw for Sonny. Don’t tell the Green Bay Packers, but apparently weird, shifty jerks will never be successful NFL quarterbacks. 

Sonny unilaterally makes the decision to take Mack with the first pick, as opposed to something logical like finding another trade to get rid of the first pick. 

This shocks the NFL world, infuriates most everyone in the Browns organization and thoroughly throws the draft into disarray. Molina is so angry, he defies the laws of physics and flies out of New York after the first pick and is back at Cleveland’s practice facility to chew Sonny out before the sixth pick is in. (Perhaps he had a Concorde jet?)

But Sonny’s just getting started. He decides to take advantage of the nervousness and newness of the rookie GM of the Jacksonville Jaguars (not great vibes, Sonny) and finagles a deal for the sixth overall pick, for which he gives up three second-round picks over the next three years. 

But then he goes back to the Seahawks, who have the Browns’ seventh pick, and offers the sixth pick so they can take Callahan, who has not been picked yet because everyone thinks there’s something wrong with him because the Browns passed.

Why do the Seahawks suddenly, desperately want Callahan?

Fans in Seattle are angry they didn’t just take him with their original first-round pick. 

Sonny gets all of the team’s first-round picks back from the Seahawks in the deal, as well as Seattle’s top-notch punt returner

Sonny takes fan favorite running back Jennings with the seventh pick and is now universally hailed as a draft genius. Fans gather at a post-draft celebration, where Molina tells them, “We had a great day,” causing fans to erupt in chants of “Super Bowl! Super Bowl!”  

And that’s the happy ending Draft Day closes on, fading to black after showing a packed stadium (and Sonny’s visibly pregnant and no-longer-secret girlfriend) on the season’s opening day. 

There isn’t even a quick summary of future events to cap things off, something like, “Sonny and Ali welcomed a baby girl after the last game of the season, which ended with the Browns 4-12. Vontae Mack made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season, but never returned to form and retired eight years later after playing for four other teams. Ray Jennings rushed for 628 yards in his rookie season, then broke his leg in the third game of the next season and ended up retiring a year later, going on to work at his father’s automobile dealership in Cleveland.” 

But maybe everything worked out and the Browns did make it to the Super Bowl, just as they did after the actual 2014 draft … oh wait, a minute

Photo by AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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Mike Breen

Mike Breen covers Ohio’s budding sports betting industry for PlayOhio, focusing on online sportsbooks and the state’s responsible gambling initiatives. He has over two decades of experience covering sports, news, music, arts and culture in Ohio.

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