Let us marvel in open-mouthed awe at this magic trick the NFL unveils annually, waving a wand over a hypnotized audience to much applause when all this league is really doing is just selling your hope right back to you. Well, that’s not fair, actually. That’s not all the NFL is doing. It is also conspiring as a monopoly with a corrupt NCAA cartel to create a free-labor minor league for its multibillion-dollar industry, plus signing up gladiators who are dying earlier and in more pain than the rest of us. But we lap this NFL Draft up every year like thirsty hounds at a bowl because you won’t find a lot of introspection at the biggest and best parties.
And, besides, recent months have felt good, healthy and hopeful for fans of the Miami Dolphins. This is nice. It is also ignores how many of the other losing NFL cities are feeling exactly the same thing right now, and feeling it in part because of players the Dolphins just discarded in their annual reshuffling. Kansas City and Philadelphia are fueled by new leadership, and St. Louis and Tampa Bay are fueled by new players, and this is just what is going on with the bad teams. Every year, football fans hope that good hope, and one day it’ll maybe/probably/please be rewarded, but for too long around here it has just been a disguise for delusion.
And that’s the magic trick, see? Not just the legislated parity that spreads out the possibility to all the teams across the United States but the utter unknowability of the draft … and free agency … and team-building … and football in general. By and large, we know the good and bad teams in basketball before a season starts. But we have no idea right now if the two-win Kansas City Chiefs, who added a coach and quarterback to a roster with six Pro Bowlers, are about to make that last-to-first jump the Dolphins once did in one year with Chad Pennington. And, even if we don’t know it, you can rest assured that the fans in Kansas City feel like they do.
Like coal shoveled into the firebox of a steam train, the NFL feeds hope into the hungry furnace of fans with the draft, and the most desperate among us will see it and feel it and invent it even if it is not there. It is the nature of believing. This doesn’t happen the same way to, say, the Sacramento Kings or Kansas City Royals or Florida Panthers before every season. But this is what makes us scream “Great pick! Great pick!” when the Dolphins acquire a draft pick whose name we did not even know minutes before. This unknowability disguised as hope is what helps make this America’s most popular sport (well, that and the violence and gambling and fantasy leagues), but it is odd compared to what is happening elsewhere in this, The Age Of Sports Enlightenment.
There is a quiet movement gathering strength across sports. The consumer is becoming smarter and more informed than he/she has ever been. We have more access to data, measurements and technology, and that creates a greed. As British author Laurence Sterne wrote, “The desire of knowledge, like the thirst for riches, increases ever with the acquisition of it.” So intelligence is growing, the more accurate calculations of the sports brain pushing aside the assumptions of our lying eyes and guessing guts.
In football, the announcers might gasbag about the greatness of names such as DeAngelo Hall and Charles Woodson. But, because every single pass is now tracked, anyone can use math and footballoutsiders.com to realize how bad those cornerbacks actually were in recent seasons, and how often other teams picked on them. There is value in having more information, and new Eagles coach Chip Kelly, a disciple of Nike University, is trying to apply that by having all of his players wear heart monitors during practice and preparing different shakes for each of their nutrient needs.
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.