The Rise of the Hyper-Informed Football Fan

By Paul Glavic

A few weeks back, I tuned into sports talk radio just as an 11-year-old called at 10 on a weeknight to submit his mock draft to the show’s host. He wanted his team to draft a running back and linebacker with its first two picks, and when the host pushed back on that rationale—the team needs a quarterback, he said—the little guy rebutted with a list of reasons to retain the team’s incumbent quarterback and bolster an already strong corps of receivers.

And while this scene may seem laughably weird to some, the truth is that I have to recalibrate my view of leisure (and child development) to recognize the fact that this is a somewhat new and rather bizarre way to love a sport.

For many Americans, football fandom is a knowledge contest, an anxious dedication to information gathering that drives us to consume the NFL’s human-resources wing as entertainment. Last year, more than 7.9 million of us watched the draft and another 7.3 million viewed some portion of the scouting combine. This year, the draft moved from April to May, a transition attributed to a scheduling glitch: Radio City Music Hall, the draft’s venue in recent years, booked a Rockettes Easter special during the NFL’s big weekend. But it’s a favor, really: We need more time for recreational panic, more time for our 11-year-olds to prognosticate with radio hosts.

Draft obsession is now a year-round process that leads fans to scan mock drafts and seek scouting reports from analysts long in advance of the actual draft event. It’s debatable, though, whether our love-fest with talent acquisition is good for us—or, for that matter, for the sport. Even the emblem of today’s football consumption—Mike Mayock, the NFL network analyst—has his concerns.

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Mayock became a recognizable figure in sports around 2005, when he joined the NFL Network’s coverage of the scouting combine; before, though he’d played a couple of seasons for the New York Giants, he had been relatively unknown. But like Mel Kiper, the ESPN analyst who pioneered the draft media industry with his capacious notes and auctioneer cadence, Mayock showed he could spout details about prospects, even those who would likely never see an NFL field.

The challenge seemed ambitious at the time: Mayock had to walk viewers through the combine’s 40-yard dashes and bench presses, all in the name of entertainment. Even his father, a former offensive line coach at Penn and head coach in suburban Philadelphia high schools, was skeptical that the event would gain traction with the audience. When Mayock spoke with his father after the network’s first ever combine broadcast, his father confessed that he had to turn off the pedantry on his TV.

Nevertheless, Mayock’s work at the combine served as his breakout. His analysis during the NFL Network’s draft coverage further boosted his profile, but the broadcast booth made him the symbol of football consumption today. For the past few years, he’s offered color commentary for the NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football and NBC Sports’ Notre Dame coverage. When he calls a game for a high-profile college prospect, he references a player’s pro potential and projected draft value. For NFL games, he recalls combine statistics or anecdotes he learned during his draft research. His very presence in the booth offers tacit approval of the way fans conflate football’s games with its draft.

On a Thursday afternoon in April, Mayock is hunkered in front of tape from last November’s Louisiana State-Alabama game, the third film in the day’s study of LSU’s quarterback and receivers. He’s a reputed film junkie, and though he’s watched these guys before, he wants to refresh notes before he visits their on-campus workout for pro scouts. He’ll have to scan the tapes again to focus on running backs and offensive linemen. But for now he's paying attention to just a few players, or really just one: Jarvis Landry, the pass-catching conundrum.

Landry is the type of prospect who gives guys like Mayock cause to both cash paychecks and curse in their sleep. He had a prolific college career, but during the combine his shortcomings showed through a 40-yard dash of 4.77 seconds, vertical leap of 28 inches, and broad jump of 110 inches. Those numbers test well among most subsets of humankind but not NFL wide receivers: His vertical jump placed him behind 38 receivers and ahead of just one, and his broad jump was also second-worst in his position group.

Herein lies the “fun” of covering the draft like Mayock does, or of just following along. In this context, Landry is a problem, a riddle to solve just as much as he’s a young man to know. Do his test numbers indicate he won’t get open against NFL defenses, or does his success in real game situations prove he runs routes well enough to give his quarterback at least a small window to complete a pass? Does Landry need to be open, or can he use his 10-and-a-quarter-inch mitts to corral passes that hover between him and a defender?

For all of Landry’s negatives, Mayock likes him. He says he just jotted down a note that Landry could be a combination of Anquan Boldin and Hines Ward, speed-deficient but tough with great hands.

When Mayock started his work, most information about prospects was relegated to team officials and media members. But now, anyone could develop informed opinions about someone like Landry. Anyone who wants to can study six of his games and learn about his perceived value on mock draft sites. Walter Cherepinsky, the founder of one such site, tells me it gets 40 million visits per month. (One of his recent mocks has Landry going to the Carolina Panthers with the 92nd selection.) For the most committed students, there are draft guides such as Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio, more than 1,200 pages about offensive prospects. Waldman writes that Landry blocks and runs routes like a reserve player, but he catches passes like an NFL star.

While the adage tells us knowledge is power, though, it’s less clear how all of this information empowers draft-obsessed fans. That 11-year-old from the sports talk show wanted his team to select a receiver, but wanting that or having an argument in favor of it won’t make it so. What erudition of this sort provides is a sense of autonomy, in terms of identity, a guard against power abused. NFL insiders tend to whisper the same general stat: that one-third of the league’s general managers have no business overseeing personnel decisions—they’re either misguided in the way they evaluate players or they don’t bother to put in the requisite research. Draft savvy, then, lets fans separate their outcomes (the success of their favored college prospects) from those of their favorite teams (the players chosen by their teams and the team’s outcome on the field); fans can timestamp their opinions and later say, “I told you so.”

But does this kind of autonomy relieve fans’ helplessness, or does it make them feel more like pawns beholden to the real draft-day outcomes they want to control but can’t? Let’s say you’re sure, after months of research, your team should use its third-round pick on a quarterback, but the team instead drafts a punter—a punter—and the quarterback selected five slots later goes on to win a Super Bowl within two seasons. Besides a conniption, this could also give you a grudge to unleash on team executives, message board commenters, and media members who disagree with your football opinions.

Daniel Jeremiah, one of Mayock’s fellow analysts at the NFL Network, scouted for three NFL teams before moving to the TV side of the draft world. He says fans rival the passion of team scouts when vouching for a prospect, but the arguments they offer are different. Fans like to point out statistics and awards, whereas team scouts don’t bother—they stick to identifying player attributes they might translate to the NFL. “I’ve never been in a draft room and said, ‘How do we have this guy so low? He won the Biletnikoff Award. He won the Mackey Award. He was a first-team All-American,’” Jeremiah says. “That argument’s never going to make its way to a draft room, but I get it quite a bit on social media.”

Most feedback Jeremiah receives is either from loyal followers of an NFL team or staunch defenders of a particular prospect—maybe people who share an alma mater, or who just like what they see and hear about the player’s potential. Even the relatives get involved. Dane Brugler, who covers the draft for CBS Sports, sometimes gets mock-draft feedback from family members who question his assessment or want to know if he has inside information. Waldman had a similar experience this year when a site user by the name of Gerard Landry, that of Jarvis’s brother, engaged him in a friendly exchange about Jarvis’s abilities.

It’s an anxiety industry, this year-long passion for the theoretical wins and losses of the offseason. Even Mayock gets uneasy about the monster he helps create. It’s in his laugh when he diminishes the combine as so-called “underwear Olympics,” or when he laments having to publish a mock. Yes, this is a platform that he built, that in turn built him, but he’s not always sure it works as he’d like.

When I ask Mayock about this turmoil, he pauses for a moment and exhales a couple of laughs. “I’m probably conflicted because, in my heart and soul, I have a passion for the game of football,” he explains. “And being a coach’s son and being around it my whole life, I try to view it through the prism of purity. Sometimes I think we get too commercial.

“As much as sometimes I drive information at the combine and I drive all the measurables—so I’m involved right in the middle of all that stuff—in my heart of hearts, I want people to look at the information for the right reasons, not just because it’s out there.”

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It’s easy, of course, to write off NFL draft obsessives as a bunch of armchair quarterbacks who bloviate to kill time. Yes, there are plenty of novices who occupy message boards with unsubstantiated player evaluations, who attempt to sound like Mayock without matching a modicum of his labor. (That crowd exists in every niche.) But for the serious mock-draft addicts and game-film enthusiasts, scouting is cerebral and nerve-racking.

At just 25 years old, Josh Norris, an NBC Sports draft analyst, already has experience working in the St. Louis Rams’ front office. After a regime change in St. Louis cleared the personnel staff, Norris posted his evaluations on social media and earned widespread respect, which eventually led to his national media gig. When I bring the Landry conundrum to him, Norris takes me to LSU’s game against Texas Christian last fall, to a nondescript play the highlight-minded novices would overlook.

There’s 2:20 left in the second quarter when Landry lines up in the slot receiver position to his quarterback’s right. It’s third down with four yards to gain—or as Norris terms it, “Jarvis Landry territory.” Zach Mettenberger, the LSU quarterback, takes the snap and Landry begins a route directly upfield—in football this is called a “vertical stem”—and leverages his weight to the outside of the defender across from him. “He forces the slot corner to cover his outside shoulder,” Norris points out. The cornerback shifts outward to match Landry, who then slants in toward the middle of the field. “As soon as that corner takes a step in the wrong direction outside, he’s bursting to cross his face,” he adds.

The technique is crisp, and though Landry isn’t wide open by any means, he’s now able to use his body to shield the defender and lunge for the catch. Norris loves it.

“Get across the corner’s face,” he says, “because we’ve seen it time and time again, that these corners, when trailing, have a much more difficult time because they like to pull the back of the jersey. And they get pass interference all the time for that, right? So if you can make him trail you in these situations, and the ball comes out in front, you’re going to win.”

Any one of Landry’s advocates to say he “runs routes well,” or that he’s “more of a craftsman than a track star,” but Norris can elucidate why those mantras are true. He can point out the intent to Landry’s motions and why the receiver can manipulate a defender. “If he doesn’t exaggerate that vert stem,” Norris says, “the corner is in a much, much better position to cover that inside slant.”

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The week after I speak with Mayock, he’s in Baton Rouge watching Landry and the other LSU Tigers try to impress NFL representatives during their workout. Landry betters his 4.77-second 40-yard dash time from Indianapolis. Mayock has his two attempts at 4.61 and 4.63 seconds—slow, but plausible for an NFL receiver. He adds a few inches to his vertical and broad jumps as well, but even the new stats are alarming compared to his fellow receivers in this draft. The sure-handed pass-catcher then drops four balls during his drills.

As Mayock tapes a segment from the workout site for his network, he remains bullish on his guy. “Trust me, he’s just a flat-out football player,” Mayock says. “He’ll be a core special-teams player, and he’s one of the toughest players in this draft.”

Mayock moves on from Baton Rouge, to the next city and the next workout and the next riddle of a prospect. He spends a lot of time in airports, and the scene that sometimes transpires there is proof enough to Mayock that our draft obsession can function as he’d want it, to help the casual fan decipher more of the game.

“I can’t tell you how many times men, women, kids will stop me in an airport or whatever and say, ‘Thank you for not dumbing everything down. Thank you for helping us learn the game.’ That’s all I want from a fan,” he says. “I love a fan that wants to know a little bit more and doesn’t want everything dumbed down to them. And I think there’s a heckuva lot more fans out there like that than people realize.” 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/05/the-rise-of-the-hyper-informed-football-fan/361855/