Surviving the Off Season: Evaluating the Evaluators
by Ivan Cole
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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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.