Surviving the Off Season: Evaluating the Evaluators

NEW YORK - APRIL 28: NFL Commisioner Roger Goodell speaks during the 2007 NFL Draft on April 28, 2007 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, New York. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

by Ivan Cole

Introduction

Wisdom from the North.

Cold Old Steelers Fan offered this up as part of a recent comment:

“We have entered the land of ‘Football is done for this season’ as far as I am concerned.”

If only. Don’t get me wrong. COSF is absolutely right on one level. There is still a championship to be determined, but by the time you read this, for 30 of 32 teams football is over until training camp at the absolute earliest. But we also know that on another level football is not over. It’s never over.

This is the part of the year that I hate. Not that football is over, which it is, but that we now are entering into the period of Zombie Football. The portion of the year that exists due to greed, market forces and ill-informed zealotry. This Undead Football will dominate from now through the spring and will influence matters even when the game legitimately comes back for the 2016 season.

Mel Kiper is king. Long live Mel…aww Hell! Who are these people? And how did we get to this state of affairs?

The very existence of a site like this is a consequence of these issues. The fact that you are present reading this probably speaks to the possibility that you may share, in part, my frustration for what is currently passing as the status quo.

What this series of articles will attempt to do is one man’s highly opinionated take on the what and the why of this ugly little landscape, and how we might all get through it with at least our sense of humor intact.

The experts

As a feature writer for my college newspaper, I had the opportunity to interview Chuck Stone, who at the time was an editor and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. I didn’t have any deep journalist aspirations at the time, so that some of what transpired during that interview went right over my head.

He explained to me that the editorial strategy (the Daily News was a tabloid, much like the New York Daily News or Post) was to craft a front page headline/story that would cause those who saw it to go ‘Oh sh*t!’, and buy the paper.

Today we would call it ‘click bait.’ It is a reminder of the fact that the purpose for some is not to inform or enrich the public. If that can happen as a side effect, fine. But the main purpose is to get eyeballs in front of sponsors and advertisers. It is about the primacy of making money. An interesting sidebar is that it was just announced recently that the Philadelphia Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer have gone non-profit.

Not the epitome of idealism. But it is not all that offensive because there really are things going on every day, whether it be a snow storm, a corruption probe or a cat stuck in a tree. If a media outlet takes a sensationalistic or provocative approach to gin up interest, okay. Don’t always agree with the approach, but understand it.

The NFL which has similar, even in some sense, grander aspirations, is in a different situation. Even if you restrict the comparison to other sports entertainment entities, the National Football League should be at something of a disadvantage. Football is a physically demanding game, so much so that the schedule of games and the competitive lifespan of players are both extremely limited compared to other sports.

Major League Baseball will begin spring training in a couple of weeks and their season will extend into November. The NBA and NHL started their camps in September, their seasons in October and will continue until June. The college basketball season will only occur from November to March, but in that time teams will play more than double the games of NFL teams.

Yet the NFL aspires to year round relevance even though between January and August there is nothing going on. What to do? Develop a mini industry within the larger industry built upon and devoted to speculation. Put another way, I have called this time of year as the season of MSU (Making Stuff Up..with ‘Stuff’ being the G-rated version).

Every entertainment sports entity goes through a talent procurement process that has a certain amount of fanfare, whether it is the various drafts for the professional leagues or signing days for the colleges. But no one else has come close to elevating a personality (Kiper) whose sole utility is to advise and grade (independent of any real results!!) the acquisition of talent.

Let’s expand on this last point. This man declares individuals and the teams that would employ them as successes, mediocrities or busts before they’ve signed a contract, taken a physical, conducted a practice or played in a game. And then he goes away until next year.

With that as your criteria, we are all invited to play. It is, after all, a game that you cannot lose. Any acne, alcohol or ADD-addled individual can win at playing Junior GM following this formula. Add free agency, salary cap considerations, fantasy and video game simulations, and is there any wonder we find ourselves inundated with fans and other dilettantes who feel qualified and entitled to suggest who should be cut, fired or otherwise evaluated?

I and many others have come down hard on some fans in this regard, but are they really doing much more than aping the behavior of many of the so-called experts who promote the culture of speculation?

Entanglement

The other somewhat unique issue with the NFL is that relationship between the league and those entities that cover it is more incestuous than is otherwise the case. It is understandable that sports leagues and the media outlets that cover them have some shared goals concerning providing a quality entertainment product. But in the case of the NFL, many, perhaps most, of the electronic media organs that cover them are also direct business partners as well.

For now let’s put aside the more serious questions surrounding how the sport is covered in such a circumstance, focusing instead upon who is employed and what they bring to the table.

The Jockocracy

The NFL Network is literally a house organ of the league. Espn/ABC, CBS and Fox are entangled to the point where any distinction between their interests and that of the league is negligible. Who do they employ? Let’s start with ex-players.

In theory, nothing wrong with that. Plenty of ex-players have gone on to fine careers as play by play announcers and analysts of various sorts. But increasingly it has the feel of a jobs program for players who want to maintain ties with the entertainment industry. The logic is flawed—ex-players, by virtue of having played in the league, who can put some coherent sentences together and are acceptably photogenic are qualified, and even gives an advantage for this type of work. Just as it would be flawed to assume that they would all make good coaches if given the opportunity.

The late Howard Cosell, with all of his bombast, was spot on about this. Hard to imagine for many who lived through the years that he was broadcasting that he would be missed for his integrity, depth and professionalism.

It’s maddening to watch these so-called professionals be unable to provide any insight or empathy beyond the boundaries of their own positions when they played the game. Could Dion Sanders provide any useful information concerning the intricacies of offensive line play? Could Kurt Warner? Michael Irvin? No—that would be Jeff Saturday’s job.

The Eye-Candyocracy

What else are we to think? With relatively few exceptions, female ‘talent’, and especially sideline reporters look like Redskinettes who were given a microphone and a trench coat. The questions and analysis come uncomfortably close to that kind of profile as well.

“You’re behind at the half, coach. What are you going to tell your team?” “We’re going to have to play better.”

“There you have it. Back to you, guys.”

Wow. Would have never figured that out on our own.

Suburban radio

This is a term that I and others I know use to describe a whole category of sports professional. Many are on radio, others on television, or on line and even in print. They have a platform. Perhaps they had a Sports Illustrated subscription when they were a kid. This qualifies them for ‘expert’ status. Extra credit if they ever actually participated in the game as a player and/or coach. Pop Warner counts here, if you were wondering.

Both they and their audience are somewhat insular, and listening to them share their wisdom of the game is akin to sitting in on a group of middle school boys, none of whom have had so much as a date, hold forth on their expert knowledge of women, all the time thinking about the conversation a decade hence when they will be lamenting their failed marriages.

And, as is the case when knowledge, logic and nuance is thin, they leaven their efforts with copious amounts of Attitude.

MSU (not that university in Michigan)

Under the most favorable of circumstances it is difficult in any field of endeavor to credibly predict the future. To do so, you have to have a lot of quality knowledge about both the past and the present and then project forward in a limited manner. And then, somewhere along the line, your work is evaluated.

The problem lies in this last point. The graders never have to concern themselves with being graded. Surely Mr. Kiper would have to explain why he didn’t grade Antonio Brown, the top wide receiver in the game, Russell Wilson, who led his team deep into the playoffs, two Super Bowl appearances and one championship every year of his career, or Kelvin Beachum, one of the higher regarded left tackles in the game, as slam dunk first round picks. To not do so amounts to issuing a license to bullsh*t, and that’s exactly what we are drowning in now.

For example, for the last several years so-called smart people have done their own analysis and projections on the salary cap and flatly declared that it is not possible for the Steelers to do X,Y,Z.

The Steelers then do X,Y,Z.

Explanation? None forthcoming. Was there any conversation with Omar Khan or the other people in the Steelers organization, on or off the record, who are actually tasked with managing these things (not that they are in way obligated to share that information)? Certainly it would occur to these ‘experts’ that there are large areas of information that are missing from their analysis. Contract restructures, inside information on project cap levels, all manner of things that would give prudent people reason for pause.

Or how about the draft?

We are already being subjected to daily mock drafts, projecting who teams are going to pick months from now. But the key decision makers for the teams are just now getting around to all-star games, pro days, the Combine and interviews. I guess we should all just consider that so much theater.

These organizations must be really stupid to maintain these massive scouting operations when any schmo can watch some games and peruse some tape and come to quality conclusions. Yet we are asked to hang on the words of ex-jocks, to take one example, who can’t provide a cogent explanation of what the guy standing next to him was doing when he was playing the game, to understand the intricacies of scouting.

Rick ‘Doc’ Walker, a former Redskin, one of the famous ‘Hogs’, a talk show host and game analyst, contends you can’t get the whole story on a player by just watching tape. You have to actually see them in person. But that would be too much like work. And to acknowledge that such a thing would be necessary cracks the door open for the introduction of a concept that those who are fueled by Attitude simply don’t recognize: “I don’t know.”

You could be forgiven if you thought that the introduction of the 24 hour all news networks like CNN was the doorway to news junkie Nirvana. It certainly would have to be an improvement over the old network news broadcasts that were confined to 15 to 60 minutes a day. Uh, right?

And now we are in the era of Total Access, which amounts to a parlor game and a farce. News amounts to “To create and inflate controversy in order to generate clicks, no matter whether it violates the parameters of what is credible and ethical..(T)he naked propagation of lies for career advancement.”

This takes things beyond what Chuck Stone was talking about. We’re not talking about sensationalizing valid information here. This is about creating something from nothing and never being held to account.

Mr. Kiper’s latest was a regrading of the Steelers 2015 draft which resulted in a lower score. I guess because Sammie Coates, Jessie James and L.T.Walton couldn’t dislodge Martavis Bryant, Heath Miller and Cameron Heyward from the starting lineup, and Senquez Golson was languishing on IR, the class should now be viewed as mediocrities. Silly me, thinking it would take a minimum of three years to begin to grade a draft class.

And we are surprised that so many fans drink the Kool Aid and follow the example.

15 comments

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    If we have entered the Land of Zombies then I should tell my one joke about zombies.

    What did the zombie sting theory physicists mutter? Answer= We want branes!

    I never said it was a good joke.

    You are correct about the NFL wanting the season to never end. There is money to be made from fans of NFL football who, like the fans of soap operas, are not all satiated by the season that was but now want to dwell on the season that is to be, so they devour the NFL’s versions of soap opera digest till they can barely move. (I could have used cheese doodles instead of soap opera digest). Whether these offering quell the inner beast or leave the with aching guts may depend on the individual’s intellectual equivalent of intestinal flora (maybe I should have used cheese doodles for my example).

    I don’t know that we can blame the NFL for the endless off season marketing. Like the bartender who provides free salted snacks with our beer, they are just trying to make a living by offering what they perceive us to want. They are in an enviable situation. They have discover how to get consumers to pay them for the right to consume the marketing. Surely this is an advertisers dream.

    Speaking of advertising, it is important for marketers to remember who they are selling to. The marketing board where I spent most of my working days once came up with a brilliant ad campaign designed to improve sales in one of their, then, top markets. A promotional film was made, extolling the virtues of our product and it emphasized certain aspects of it. This campaign was both successful and unsuccessful. It succeeded in changing the public’s preferences in terms of the final product (white bread) but it alienated the actual buyers of our product (millers). It ended up creating more demand for white bread but reducing sales because the millers (our actual customers) who disgruntled.

    The NFL has two sets of customers. The general public and the TV networks. With the changes to how information is shared and exchanged it will be interesting to see how their marketing will continue to evolve.

    My last comment about zombies: Terry O’Reilly (not the Boston Bruin) has a show on CBC radio called “Under the Influence” that is about marketing and advertising. One of the recent episodes is about zombie brands. http://www.cbc.ca/radio/undertheinfluence/zombie-brands-1.3401076 I enjoy his programs (they are light, intelligent and entertaining) and I recommend them to anyone interested in how marketing and advertising work and how they have changed over the years.

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    • I agree. The NFL fought the advent of free agency tooth and nail, but the truth is that the Freeman McNeil verdict is what transformed the NFL into a 10 month season.

      Of course the NFL has long since realized that, and has moved to take advantage. That’s why the draft was in mid-May two years ago, and I got the feeling that the NFL moved it back because it realized it was just a little too much.

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  • Good article, I think that the media needs “Face Guys” like Sanders and Irvin to be able to make “informed comments” and you are correct about players making comments about positions that they didn’t play. In as far as the draft “experts” like Kyper, I think I would pay more attention to them if they had actual experience working in an NFL front office with experience evaluating talent. I envision Kyper as sitting in his mothers dark basement watching nothing but tape and eating cheese doodles.

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  • A lot of the things that go on now with regards to evaluating players exists BECAUSE of Kiper. It’s fun to bash him because he doesn’t do a draft with accuracy or because his hair hasn’t moved in decades…but he was the first person to do any kind of in-depth analysis of the hundreds of players that might get drafted. Because of Kiper, the cottage industry of player analysis was able to grow outside of the team board-rooms. And lets be honest here… plenty of GMs also get the players wrong. Now there are plenty more people that do what Kiper started – all you need is free time, but I think Kiper deserves credit for raising awareness for fans.
    The thing to remember is that any draft analysis is focused on a single point in time. What does a kid’s film, stats, and measurables tell you at that time? With further review of other film, etc., what changes? That’s all anyone can do. Kiper doesn’t work for the teams, so its all guesswork. Don’t think he has ever said otherwise.

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    • Good point about Mel Kipper.

      I mean, you’re right. This is a guy who started his own cottage industry, and he did it in age that predated the PC, let along the internet. You’ve got to give the guy credit for that.

      With that said, the guy’s pronouncements do get a little tiresome. I remember back in the early 1990’s Bob Labriola started off a training camp column saying something like, “For those of you be believe everything Mel Kipper Jr. says, consider these comments of his about the Steelers 1986 draft….” Labriola then pointed out that 5 years later only one player from the draft was still in the league, and reminded people that Kipper Jr. had compared some linebacker to Jack Ham who didn’t even make the team.

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  • Great article Ivan.

    Honestly, while I’ve thought of many of the points you’ve brought up here, I don’t know that I’ve ever really associated a “Dark Side” to the NFL’s post 1992 growth into a year long or at least 10 month long sport. The truth is that legitimate news events (free agency) filled a yearning for information about football. I’m old enough to remember a time where, January through July, one had to scower the pages of the Washington Post to get any information about football.

    And I must say, as a fan and now a writer, I’m glad those outlets exist.

    Still, you’re right.

    If in the 1990’s and the beginning of the 00’s we now had legitimate news and mediums to consume them, the truth is that the industry has evolved to the point where we’ve got content for the sake of content. The proliferation of Mock Drafts is a great example.

    As as simple exercise, Mock Drafts are fun, kinda like filling out a March Madness bracket.

    And I’m sure that if you go back to the pre-internet age, you can probably find mock drafts going back to at least the early 1970’s.

    But of course any successful idea gets overused in this copycat word of the internet. So about a year ago, someone mocked the Steelers picking Gerod Holliman in the first round. The Steelers did take him. In the 7th round, and the kid didn’t even make an NFL practice squad.

    As I said in a comment above, the NFL I think actually realized that moving the draft to mid-may was too much. I mean, there was nothing to talk about. I even remember reading seeing a headline on BTSC saying, “Steelers get Grace “C+” for latest XXXX Mock Draft….”

    …Yes, that’s right. Someone took the time to give grades to a team’s performance in a mock draft, and then someone else sought fit to take time to write about that….

    Anyway, you raise a very valid point. The nature of where we are today is that we now have beasts that need to be fed 24/7. And that leads to quality scarified to quantity.

    Fortunately, there are sites like this one that focus on the quality.

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  • Like a great many things, like college admissions, the draft is science, art and unknowns, with luck being one of the bigger unknowns. The variables, those that can be known are always shifting. I don’t have any particular problems with Kiper the man, and it may be true that he doesn’t explicitly claim to be infallible, his brand is, nonetheless, that of an expert, an oracle on this subject. And he does not go out of his way to deny or modify the characterization. So the bashing when it comes is understandable, and to a degree earned.

    Nor is it true that the actions of some within the league (Steelers excluded, thank goodness) are in no way influenced by public perception. Many fans and media figures clearly think so and campaign passionately in response to ‘guesswork’ being presented without disclaimers as if gospel. Maybe it would make no difference whatsoever in the popularity of this if it was absolutely clear that this is just a guy making a guess, but somehow I get the impression that someone is perfectly happy that the lines might be blurred.

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    • More on Mel —

      Living out side the United States as I do means I don’t get to see much of Mel Kipper Jr.

      And I agree — the way he runs down a particular pick, in his manner that brokers no doubt, is hard to take at times.Your point about him regrading the Steelers 2016 draft is a perfect case in point — my Lord, that’s insane to down grade a draft where all of the players but one are still with the team.

      As I’ve mentioned, at this point in 1990, the Steelers 1989 draft looked pretty damm good. I know I remember hearing one commentator compare it to 1974 (this was before I really realized what that comparison implied.) The draft did bring the Steelers some quality players (Carnell Lake, Jerry O chief among them) but there was a lot of fools gold there.

      With that said, I think the “content monster” also works as a double edged sword. I’ve seen bloggers go back and look at some of those instant post draft grades, and expose them for what they are (you and I both did something similar like that on Mark Madden and the Steelers 2003 Draft.)

      More of this is needed…..

      And quite frankly, I’d like to see the Mel Kippers and Mike Maycok’s do some of it to themselves. I’d have a lot more respect for them. (One thing I always liked about David Broder of the Washington Post. Ever year in between Christmas and New Years, he’d write his annual “Goofs” column where he’d call himself out for things he was wrong on.)

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  • Simply terrific observations, Ivan. Of course, the NFL’s transformation into a ten-to-twelve month operation made possible the NFL Network on cable, which not only sells commercials, but cable operators pay to sell it to you. Hence, that crime against nature known as Thursday Night Football. It is as ugly as those uniforms they wore this past year on TNF, but it’s Must Watch Television for the NFL Junkies out there. Gotta feed the giant maw, so the NFL can monetize the Zombie Season.

    The thing that’s so great about the zombie season is we all play “what-if,” like “what if LeVeon and D-Will hadn’t been injured,” and then we match wits with the Second Sage of Baltimore (Mel Jr), and we all guess whether some cornerback from the Sam Houston Institute of Technology has the smarts to play in the NFL. Our guess is as good as his.

    Of course, there are four words that quicken the heartbeat of any snowbound lout during a twenty-inch snowfall. Those words, of course are, “pitchers and catchers report,” which they do in a little over a week. So there is hope, no matter what Punxsutawney Phil – or Potomac Phil – have to say tomorrow.

    The combine, free agency, and the draft are enough to keep us hooked. They’re sorta like the methadone that maintains us during the off-season, until camp opens and we can get back to the real stuff.

    Homer, by the way, will be at Potomac Phil’s appearance tomorrow at Dupont Circle. Several years ago, he created a minor political scandal by wearing a baseball cap with hypocycloids while all the other “dignitaries” wore top hats. It made the Washington Post. So this year, instead of a burberry scarf, he will wear a Terrible Towel. It is the miracle textile, with a thousand uses.

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