Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Grading the NFL Draft grades

Looks like somebody just talked to an expert!

Oh, where to begin! I give ESPN a B+ for their overall broadcast, mostly because Jon Gruden looks pissed whenever he's on TV and for some reason I enjoy that. And NFL Commish/Radio City Music Hall MC Roger Goodell will be given an A- for his quiet comfort in hugging large, weeping men during the first round. And I give that lady who stood with a bank of lights on a stick in the background of every shot a D for her red, ill-fitting polo shirt. And I give Mel Kiper Jr. a D- for never changing his greasy hairstyle for over 30 years. I give David Stern an F for not attending, because he should be booed during every draft, even ones that aren't related to his league. And I give former Florida defensive back Janoris Jenkins an A+ for having four kids while in college (what an over-achiever!).

Blah. Blah. Blah.

See, I was trying to establish the tone for this piece by showing the outlandish and completely arbitrary nature of how draft "experts" grade NFL teams for their rookie selections, but even as I was typing it, I found myself drawn into the satisfying world of grading shit. It's fun! And super easy, too! Any writer could do it, which is exactly what the NFL Draft post-apocalypse has become: Grade things based on whatever you want to grade them on. It's a ball pit of confirmation bias, where media members weight their own evaluations higher than the evaluations of, you know, people who work for professional sports teams. It's a common miscue for media members. We all think we know more than the people who play, coach, work for, etc. sports teams, because we have the opportunity to draw in grandiose outside perspective (even if it's our own biased, and therefore useless, perspective) and to slow-motion analyze every thought and action in any given game. I like to say "grandiose outside perspective" in a big, booming voice. It adds to the drama.

When I saw the NFL Draft grades come pouring out (or is it in?) from writers and pundits, I laughed. Not because they were wrong. No, how could they be wrong? These draft grades are nothing but pure opinion and guesswork. What was funny was how they arrived at their grades. I heard multiple pundits on the radio and TV who graded down teams who picked players they thought should've been drafted later. Just think about that for a second. They are grading down teams for drafting players that they, and only they individually, perceived to be in a certain slot in the draft order. And yet, the sort of beautiful economic principle of the NFL Draft, is that a player is worth wherever he was drafted. You can come up with your own values and assign them to players based on whatever bullshit you see and believe and hear, but, at the end of the day, a player is drafted precisely where he was meant to be drafted (I sound like Gandalf). These draft "experts" are utilizing their massive media platforms to criticize teams that drafted a guy they needed, but they ... maybe ... it's possible, I guess ... could've drafted at a later time. When it comes to the NFL Draft, it's not who you pick, according to the experts, it's when you pick them (according to their own vague valuations of a player's perceived worth ... fucking exhausting, if you ask me).

When it comes down to it, the draft grades are meaningless. Which could be the end of the conversation, really. The teams obviously don't give a shit about what grades their given, nor does it have any impact on anything, so why discuss them? I think they're worthwhile to discuss because they're a) revered by most NFL fans and used as a tool to manipulate public perception, and b) are a crutch that enforces and enhances the careers and credibility of the people who fans are supposed to look to for insider guidance, news, and perspective on the day-to-day sprawl of the league. The problem with this type of self-enhacement is that no one's ever actually held accountable. And, no, I don't think Mel Kiper Jr. should be booted off the air for having a "pick percentage" lower than 40% (or whatever), but the point is that the NFL Draft has become more about the draftniks and their super-conglomerates than it is about the kids getting drafted.

These are college athletes, who are being drafted into the NFL. They are the tiniest percentile of success that pro sports has, and yet, even before they play a single snap in the NFL, the media has already judged them and the teams who pick them. But the grades are false. They're factoring in the wrong variables, and they'll never be able to factor in the right variables because there are no variables to even measure! Every NFL player is only as good as his talent + commitment + (and this is the big one) CIRCUMSTANCE (see how big it is? I caps-locked that shit). A player has very little control over circumstance. A player can't control who is ahead of him on the depth chart. A player doesn't control the playbook, or even what plays are called. A player doesn't control whether or not his strengths are maximized. A player doesn't control the decisions of the coaching staff, or the front office, or who plays next to him. It's just ... insane how much money and admiration is poured into the pockets of draft experts who are measuring absolutely nothing. Isn't that insane? Is it just me that thinks that's insane? Hello? Am I the only one writing in this column?

This whole draft value and grading nonsense sort of segues into a deeper philosophical discussion. There's been a huge swing in professional sports lately (not just in America, but all over the world) in defining a team's success not by its on-field accomplishments, but in how much success a team achieves based on the financial and talent/skill value of the individual players. Every year, payrolls are released, writers dissect stats and compare them to the respective payrolls, and then GMs and front office execs are given shiny awards based on how much they were able to extract from the overall coinpurse. Shouldn't the best GM in any given league be the one who, I don't know,  put together a team that won the championship? How is "best GM" even a thing? We're rewarding people who aren't achieving the highest level of success because they achieved more than their arbitrarily-determined value? I agree that there's something to be said for putting together a successful team cheaper than your competitors. And in the world of economics, those people might win a medal or something. But this is sports, not economics. And while there's always going to be some overlap, these franchises are worth billions of dollars, which means those owners are worth a decent amount of cash themselves. The fact that we now celebrate mid-level financial commitment by rewarding GMs and players who are able to do more than the money says they should is a virus. It's a virus. It's spreading across the leagues and reinforcing lazy, careless, profit-based ownership. And NFL Draft grades are just another symptom of this shift.

These networks pay their experts millions of dollars to spout bullshit about players they hardly know. And yet we trust them more than we trust the teams. The teams, you know, the ones who have watched thousands of hours of video on players, who have full scouting teams assigned the singular task of identifying talent that fits into the offensive and defensive systems, the ones who build relationships with these players from the time they're in high school and continue to track their progress for half a decade before the draft. No, we trust the guys who cycle through college players like Tyrion Lannister at a brothel. It will take years for most of these draft picks to even be relevant, and if they are (or aren't), it's all a product of that talent/dedication/circumstance formula. So let's just enjoy the draft, enjoy whatever players our teams selected, and wait and see what that formula produces. And please, for the love of whatever, let's stop allowing these so-called experts to control the collective response of a team's fanbase. It's frightening.

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