In basketball, where once Jamal Mashburn hired a full-time employee to travel with him on the road just to stretch him, Kevin Durant now employs his own analytics expert to provide him with advanced data. Technology is getting smarter, too, so you’ll find SportVU webcams all over 10 NBA arenas, recording and measuring the movements of every basketball player on the court 25 times per second. Initially developed to track missiles, the technology now tracks muscles. LeBron James demands that he receive a scouting report on his opponents that is larger than most, letting him know by percentage whether an opponent is better shooting off one dribble or two.
Baseball is even better at isolating and measuring performance. Basketball and football metrics can be cloudier because teammates impact an individual’s performance, but a baseball player is pretty alone in the batter’s box or in the field. Baseball’s information is so accurate that the following is actually true: If so inclined, a random college kid with a computer can know about as much about his favorite team as the major-league team’s general manager. And that random college kid might make better math decisions than most on-field managers, given how many of those are like old-school Charlie Manuel, who should make his pitching changes on a tractor.
And yet …
Knowledge and information and even NBA playoff games fell into a sinkhole last week as the NFL Draft’s airheaded annual exercise in hope trafficking swallowed everything around it.
This is strange, at least in part because the draft is unscientific guesswork stacked atop weeks of gibberish analysis. Nobody has any idea where players are going (ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, after months of mock drafts, went a combined 7 for 64 on first-round accuracy) and not even the highest-paid executives have any earthly idea what a draft pick will become. In terms of science, this is something between bingo and the blindfolded throwing of darts.
In other words, sports get smarter and smarter every year, and the NFL Draft gets bigger and dumber, as if the whole thing was injecting human-oaf hormone. It is a cattle sale with booing instead of mooing. Nobody in the cattle auction — not the experts paid to prepare the meat, not the culinary critics in the media, not the fans who find all of this so tasty — knows much of anything about what we are all consuming. And yet every year we gather around the table for our football nutrients without even realizing or caring that we are at a buffet of cotton candy.
Given what presently surrounds it in sports, though, the NFL Draft is made-for-TV, empty-headed excess — all of the lights, camera and makeup making it feel like the crew of that Kardashians show crashing an MIT conference. Is it important? Of course. The draft is where you find value. It is just odd to have an annual celebration now covered by more networks than ever over more days than ever when you won’t actually know if your team is any better for months or years. Perhaps the best example ever of how unscientific this entire exercise is, any draft, any sport, any time, is Tom Brady, a sixth-round pick, chosen 199th overall that year.
Consider this: The Patriots over the past decade are 126-34. Over the same time, the Dolphins are 68-92. So, symbolically and actually, Miami is a mere 58 games back the past 10 years at least in part because the Patriots got lucky late many years ago. Mathematically, that’s close to the difference between the Marlins and Braves so far this year … for a decade. And yet we now feel hope, beyond hoping that Brady will hurry up and get old already, and we may eventually have that hope rewarded maybe/probably/please if Ryan Tannehill turns out to be great.
That might be the greatest illusion of all in the annual magic trick known as the NFL Draft.
Makes fans forget it isn’t really magic.
Makes them forget that they’ve been tricked.