Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Proceed With Caution

Maybe this is a personal rant.
Maybe it’s a thought-provoking look at our culture. 
Maybe I’m just too much of a cynic.

The NFL Draft is approaching.  This is a time full of excitement, anticipation, and hope for every NFL team even when no game is available to ‘win’.   Each year, players' ratings will ebb and flow mysteriously after the end of the last NCAA game without a single snap being played.  Unfortunately, in the culture we live in, media presence (and presentation) is a fact of life. 

In the age of 24-7 information streams the sports networks are compelled to deliver some type of information, anything to fill the vacuum of air time or unused picas.  “Analysts” have to put together some type of cogent thought together on players or teams, otherwise they aren’t providing anything for you to pay attention to.  They will use empty, overused clichés that come off like one-size-fits-all-horoscope readings.  Baffling you with enough bullshit to fill their segment because when you get down to it, life isn’t really about simple dichotomies or good/bad decisions, but who has time for details or nuance?

I get that.  It is what it is.  They are all selling you something and most often it is just advertising space for their media outlet.  Now, I’m not critiquing sportswriters and the like, for the content they have to deliver. The economics of it all dictate that they appeal to the lowest common denominator of their consumer demographics.   As long as you understand the motivations behind what is being delivered, you can keep a solid perspective.  The problem arises when the surge of ‘presentation’ overwhelms substance.  To illicit the next viewer/reader share, you have to rapidly produce more quantity and become boisterous to keep the consumer's attention.  The more an idea is repeated, no matter how retarded or thoughtless, the more likely that idea will be accepted as normal. 

With this prologue complete and all my caveats offered, I’d like to address a recent comment made by the rising ‘authority’ on NFL prospects, Mike Mayock.  I’m not Mayock’s biggest fan because he can really drown people in clichés and bullshit over-inflected jargon without providing much information leaving with you the impression you’re listening to an insurance salesman.  That said, he’s good for the NFL, good for broadcasting, good for the draft experience and he’s not Theisman, Kornheiser, or the joke that has become Jaworski & Hoge.

While appearing on the BooYah Bloviation Radio Network, Mayock offered up “gut feelings” on Cam Newton…
 "It's just this gut feeling I have that I don't know how great he wants to be. "
"What it really comes down to .. is football IQ and work ethic. And if he wants to be the best quarterback in the game, I'm all in. I love it.”
"But something tells me that he'll be content to be a multi-millionaire who's pretty good. And that doesn't get it done for me."
Now, bear in mind, I’m not advocating for Cam Newton as the top pick, or even top quarterback prospect.  There is a world of difference between being a dominating playmaker in college and becoming a multi-million dollar investment for an NFL franchise.  Newton may very well fit Mayock’s perception entirely, however, without being able to cite any quantifiable evidence, this comes off as something short of product tampering.  Pointing out flaws in technique, physical ability, other metrics, or pointing to specific game situations to prove your point would be great.  Shooting from the hip with intuition of “I think this player is a douche bag” or "I can't prove it, but this guy will quit on you" hypotheticals , isn’t really an evaluation worthy of the title, “analyst”.

Again, I’m not an advocate for Newton, but when other writers participate in the same kind of shenanigans and pettiness such as PFT
“Very disingenuous – has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup. Always knows where the cameras are and plays to them. Has an enormous ego with a sense of entitlement that continually invites trouble and makes him believe he is above the law – does not command respect from teammates and will always struggle to win a locker room…Lacks accountability, focus and trustworthiness – is not punctual, seeks shortcuts and sets a bad example. Immature and has had issues with authority. Not dependable.”

Or sports journalism’s equivalent to a blow up doll, Peter King, offering these non-contextual comments with a pointed assertion in mind…

Newton: "I see myself not only as a football player, but an entertainer and icon.'' Ron Rivera, Chan Gailey, John Harbaugh blanch.
If any of those comments could be quantified in performance metrics – cool. Otherwise, it comes off like junior high pettiness.

I use those terms because I am increasingly finding it hard to believe that these sports writers (much like movie critics and production house junkets) aren’t becoming lobbied puppets of sports agents.  It would be the next logical, Machiavellian step for the big business of sports representation efforts.  All it takes is one guy to be influenced and now that narrative is what has become the leading story (that other reporters will repeat).

The only reason I bring this up is because I almost posted this last year when Mayock, unsolicited, repeatedly gushed over and again about how Jimmy Clausen was the one and only quarterback prospect in 2010 (even before Notre Dame’s pro day, despite what Clausen’s college career had contradicted Mayock’s narrative).  If you were an agent garnering a small percentage of those first year contracts, why wouldn’t you attempt to grease the wheels of the market in your favor?  
One might suggest that the ‘best players will always play’ and the NFL will expose the frauds.  The problem with this is that the NFL, by in large, is a kabuki theatre representation of the sport.  So much of what takes place on Sunday afternoons is the product of hype and bluster.  Are the players elite athletes and phenomenal at their roles? no question about it.  The issue is that the pro game is about selling PSLs, popcorn, and super bowl ads, not necessarily about providing the very best in sport performances.  The sports media conglomerates and the NFL work in concert to sell the entertainment. It becomes an economy of mass media. After all, compare how much you have heard representatives from the NFL front office weigh in on the lockout compared to how many times you’ve actually heard the player’s side of the labor dispute.
The athletes are men, not iconic legends.  The drama that climaxes through a 3 hour game (much like another form of entertainment, a movie), while broadcast teams force a script of personalities (“Favre vs Sapp”, ”Manning vs Manning”, etc) is meant to be something visceral every viewer can identify with in some way. 

Meaning, if you can sell people on the product (of personalities), the marquee players can remain viable in the market (sell jerseys, Fatheads, and Gatorade).   Practice time in the NFL is extremely limited.  If you're not a starter (on the limited roster), you're probably not getting any reps.  The days of developing a player on your roster have been long gone and with each rep in these team activities gives little hope for a small school player from making a roster.  If you’re a coach, do you risk your job on that ACC quarterback that really is a piece of shit or that promising guy from William & Mary? What are you going to tell your GM? What is that GM going to have to sell to the media?  Which if you lived in any of those brutal sports markets like Chicago, New York, or Philly….well….then you understand just how fast things can go from sour to rotten.

To better illustrate this point, I’ll paraphrase a fellow coach, who still has many friends coaching in the NFL when he articulated his thoughts a few years ago on what the “pro game” and the draft has become.
“… in so many words, basically acknowledged that NFL personnel departments are leery about taking on ESPN, especially on draft day.  The belief is that the media creates stars and pretty much forces teams into drafting them regardless of whether they are a good match for the NFL game.
One of the things that both [former NFL coordinator] and my other friend [NFL coach] mentioned was that they pretty much know who can play, regardless of level. Case in point: he worked Graham Harrell out and walked away very impressed. Basically said that he had an average NFL arm, but one that because of his anticipation and understanding of when and where receivers are going into their breaks was more than sufficient. The front office would not hear of drafting him, however, especially ahead of Freeman even though he thought that Freeman had the potential to be another JaMarcus Russell.  The front office, however, simply did not want to risk the nightmare that would descend on [franchise headquarters] when Mel Kiper, Todd McShay and all the other hacks began to call Harrell another system QB. In short there just is no stomach.

You might find this interesting, but both [coaches] knew that Vince Young was going to be a bust.  [coach ] is really close with Norm and basically said that he dreaded showing up to work with the Titans, because coaching the kid (VY) is an impossible task. Not only was he poorly coached at Texas (and neither has much regard for Greg Davis), but he simply does not have the intellectual hardware needed to play the position. When he was at UT he was basically making A-B reads off of one defender.

I’m excited for the players who get to realize a dream this weekend.  I’m happy that NFL franchises will get to acquire new talent and improve the product they put out on the field this Fall.  With that in mind, take it all in stride (especially what's offered by Kiper, McShay, Mayock, and the rest), because its all bullshit. 

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