Tuesday, April 30, 2013

An introduction to my lunacy

For a number of years I have been part of a loathsome subculture known as "draft geeks", "draft-niks", or simply guys "with no life".  This circle of bottom dwelling football fans takes a peculiar interest in the annual NFL Draft, trying to prognosticate the future success or failure of athletes who are making the leap from the college level to the NFL.  More often than not, our hunches prove to be wrong, but when we are right we become insufferable boors to all of our friends, happily ruining their Sunday diversions with spreadsheets and analysis that nobody asked for. 

 At some point, I suspect, the game itself became less interesting to us than the machinations that go into constructing the team.  While more stout and virile men take pleasure in watching a middle linebacker decapitate a running back, we obsess over the meaning of a player's time in the 3-cone drill.  Some little boys dream of being quarterbacks, some dream of improving on the Lewin Career Forecast. If given the opportunity to choose between hanging out with the cheerleaders, or getting to run our fingers through Mel Kiper's shellacked locks of hair, our decision would be embarrassingly simple and foolish.   

Do we care if the home teams wins on Sunday?  Or are we more interested in seeing that sixth round pick wide receiver, from North by Northeast South Dakota State, exceed all expectations and become a mediocrity rather than an outright failure, thus proving our wisdom to our uninterested friends and family?  Well, I guess we can agree to disagree on what matters more.

This sort of devoted lunacy ends up crossing over at some point to join the analytics crowd.  Frankly, I still believe the word "analytics" is made up, but I'll try to ignore this for the moment.  I suppose "soulless bastards" just doesn't have the same ring to it (and wouldn't look as nice on a business card).  This circle of sad individuals goes beyond the simple talent evaluation game that is the draft, and focuses more on predicting outcomes for games and individuals, based on the questionable belief that numbers are good for something more than counting the number of illegitimate children Antonio Cromartie has spawned.

The "analytics" crowd, an appropriately anal group, is on a quest to destroy any magic or pleasure that exists in the world.  They don't want to hear any discussion of a player's heart, determination or moxie.  Those are merely the traits you ascribe to the slow and unathletic.  That player you love, the one with the slow time in the forty yard dash, and the weak vertical jump, he's what they would call an "outlier".  Outlier is the sophisticated way of saying "improbable success", and that is only if that player becomes a success.  Until that moment of unforeseen success, outliers are treated with contempt.  Wes Welker and Anquan Boldin are the anti-Christ in the eyes of the analytics crowd, and exist only to make otherwise smart people look stupid.  This may not seem like a terribly kind attitude to take towards two of the games more productive wide receivers, but how can we be expected to be fans of guys who throw such curve balls to all of our delicately crafted projections?  Don't they understand how long it takes to put together these spreadsheets and formulas that predicted their failure? 

Still, while these two related groups, the draft geeks and the analytics guys, can somewhat suck the life out of the room, the is a reason why their numbers and influence might be growing.  The sophistication and accuracy of their projections do seem to be improving to the point where I think they could probably better the efforts of most NFL general managers.  Some of these geeks are better than others.  Some of them still deserve a wedgie.  Almost all of them should be avoided on Sunday afternoon, when you just want to enjoy the game.  But their day is coming, much like it did in the world of baseball.  Hopefully it will all take place behind the scenes, so as not to annoy the mainstream audience who would rather not have their game ruined with scatter plots and regression analysis.  If nothing else, you can take comfort in the probability that these wise but annoying individuals still probably won't be able to get a date on Saturday night (though they would be too busy with their spreadsheets then anyway), and so they will probably be bred out of our society in the long run.  Until then, I'll be posting some thoughts related to these topics and awaiting my own wedgie.

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