I was thinking about a theme this week in lieu of focusing on a Week 5 slate that may have shot its best shot on Thursday night (LAR-SEA). We could talk about Russell Wilson’s increasingly strong place in history, or I could dig into the dominance of road teams this season. Or I could bash the snot out of that awful 100 Greatest Games list from NFL Films, but I think I’ve already done enough of that on Twitter.
I could also talk about a 2003 parallel, the year I really got into football stats. That was when I found myself gaining much more interest in the Colts and Peyton Manning (especially after that Tampa Bay comeback) during a down year for the Steelers. It feels similar to me right now where the Steelers aren’t must-see TV and the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes absolutely are. I’m glad they’re on SNF tomorrow, because frankly there is nothing more exciting in this game right now than watching that offense operate. Without the Chiefs, my interest in football would be at its lowest since 2000 for sure.
So I ultimately landed on recapping where my interests in football analysis began and where they are now after a Red Wedding week for a former flagship franchise in sports journalism (Sports Illustrated).
Sports Illustrated –> Sports Informative
I’ve let this cat out of the bag a few times before, but my main motivation for getting into NFL analysis was to prove ex-jocks on TV wrong and to provide better, factual information to fans who deserved more than cliches and myths. That 2003 season in particular was a tough one to stomach when I’d turn on ESPN after school and listen to someone like Sean Salisbury spout nonsense about the likes of the Patriots, Colts and some of the other offense-driven teams at that time (Rams, Vikings, Chiefs). This was just about to begin an era of “The Patriot Way” and ring counting and “he’s so clutch!” taking over sports analysis. Maybe there was some of that in the 90s as well, but that was before my time frame of interest in the league.
The 2003 AFC Championship Game especially left a mark on me. Yes, Peyton Manning stunk in that game and threw four interceptions in snowy New England. It’s one of the worst games of his career and was especially disappointing after the way he played the position flawlessly the previous two weeks in the playoffs. But when the credit kept going to Tom Brady for the win, I wondered if I had watched the same game as everyone else. I saw Brady try to match Manning pick for pick only to see the Colts fail to complete those plays, or a Patriot receiver to break up a should-be interception. Both quarterbacks sucked that day, but as I came to learn, the mainstream narrative demands that the winner gets the praise while the loser choked. I mean, just watch this:
Never mind the fact that the NFL admitted to missing multiple calls on the Patriots’ defense for holding receivers on the final drive, the whole outcome and critique of that game just felt wrong to me. The Panthers also got pretty physical with the Eagles’ receivers later that day, prompting the league to remind officials that illegal contact has been a thing since 1978.
This was my senior year of high school and I’d soon be going to Pitt in 2004, a huge year for so many quarterbacks, including Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie year for the Steelers, Drew Brees’ breakout in San Diego, and Manning’s record-breaking year in Indy. The game was changing again after a weird transition period in 1999-2003 when quarterbacks were coming out of grocery stores, Canada, NFL Europe and the XFL to lead playoff victories while some legendary defenses really soared to Super Bowls. We were entering a new golden age of quarterback play, which even before statistical analysis I knew was the most important position because I was conditioned by Bill Cowher’s quarterbacks letting his team down in the postseason year after year. Thanks for getting me on the right path so early, Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart.
I needed better analysis to complement my growing love of the game, and my own Excel sheets of game logs I started putting together in 2003 just weren’t cutting it. Fortunately, I began finding places like Pro Football Reference (and its blog), Football Outsiders, Cold Hard Football Facts, Brian Burke’s Advanced NFL Stats, and also Sports Illustrated’s website where I would read the likes of Peter King, Dr. Z (RIP) and Don Banks (RIP) while I was in college. My introduction to efficiency metrics (EPA, DVOA, WinProb) and better coverage of the game transformed my hobby into something significant while at school I was learning about linear regression and decision models.
I was now collecting more data, especially thanks to PFR, and in 2005 I began to chronicle all the 4QC and GWD attempts that eventually led to getting my foot in the door of this industry. I started recording games on VCR tape in 2005, bought a DVD recorder in 2006 to switch to DVD-Rs, and started downloading games via torrents in 2006 as well. I was amassing a large collection of data and video to analyze the game the way I knew it deserved, but alas I was just one person who only had time during school to closely examine a few teams (Steelers, Colts and Patriots in particular) each week. It also helped that I watched from 2005-2008 the Steelers win two Super Bowls, the Colts win one, and the undefeated Patriots lose one in spectacular fashion. That four-year stretch will probably never be topped in my life as far as fandom goes.
Late 2007 was when I was initially approached by PFR to sell data on QB starts that I had mentioned on a blog post that I was researching. This stuff just didn’t exist on the internet back then, but I started putting that together along with a database of coordinators and eventually traced all the comebacks and GWDs back to 1940 and sold that data to PFR where I also began to write blog posts in 2009. I made important contacts at that time and would get emails from writers from various big-name establishments (Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, NY Times) to inquire about my comebacks data.
Around this time I had some pretty big dreams about how the future of NFL analysis should look with an emphasis on advanced stats created from game charting. In the early 2000s I would argue on message boards about things like air yards and passing under pressure, collecting whatever data I could find from SI’s website (usually provided by STATS LLC) on those splits. People thought I was crazy for caring about how far a pass was thrown, but I knew that was important information to differentiate performance. Now of course today we see it all the time with PFF, Next Gen Stats and the other innovations that have come along, many of which were things I talked about years ago like tracking time to throw, how long linemen hold their blocks, receiver separation, throws into tight windows, route types, etc.
I’m not saying I created modern analytics in the NFL, but I definitely knew what could be tracked with the right technology and big enough workforce to handle charting every play. Those days of blaming a QB’s OL for his tendency to hold the ball and take sacks should be over, but that’s a topic for another day.
Eventually in July 2011 I decided to take a chance writing about the NFL full time. Ten months later, I had an article that was featured on the front page of the SI website. No, it wasn’t in the print edition, but this was still a huge deal to me. In fact I still have a screenshot of the site with my article featured in a frame. Getting on SI seemed like the ultimate high in sports writing to me. I’m sad that the link no longer works, but I did find it on a web archive here. I’ll also add that SI paid over $500 for this piece, so I thought that was incredible for one article at a time when I was lucky to see $50 for my articles. When you just start out in this business, you know it’s hard to make anything and writing for free is common.
Of course, I probably should have known better than to enter an industry where Skip Bayless is paid more to yell hot takes than what some sites pay their writing staffs combined. It only seems to be getting worse too as countless sites have had to stop print media and have tried to pivot towards video or have dreaded “influencers” promote their brand. Yes, let’s hire someone who couldn’t get a role on a CW show to film a 90 second hot take to put on the ‘Gram instead of publishing a thoughtful piece people have to actually read. Is that really the future of sports journalism?
When news broke this week that, under new management, SI callously cut a large chunk of the full-time staff, I saw another nail in the coffin for the industry. I felt it personally too as SI was a place where I had someone put in a word for me this summer, but I never heard back. You can see why when they were in the process of selling and cutting jobs.
Sadly, from a financial standpoint I can see why companies are doing this. Why pay someone tens of thousands of dollars in salary when you can contract a few freelancers for peanuts to produce the same amount of content for a fraction of the cost? Is the work going to be as good? Probably not, but if it’s close enough and they promote it with a click-bait headline, then it’s probably going to work out just fine for the company. With so many people wanting a foot in the door, some freelancers are okay with peanuts as long as they’re being sold on “great chance for exposure” and “future opportunities available” along with that check that might pay their phone bill for one month.
I feel sick for even typing that paragraph as some executive vulture would likely nod in agreement as they see the dollars saved there.
This can be a brutal industry, and I am honestly reconsidering if I can stay involved with it. I’m already at a disadvantage because I want a job that is very specific and in very low supply:
- I’m not a beat reporter or news breaker
- I don’t live and breath fantasy football
- I’m not a draft scout and spend very little time paying attention to college prospects
- I want to cover the whole NFL rather than just one team
- I want to write long, informative pieces and I may need to include a table or graphic that looks good on your mobile site
I also want to be able to work from home like I always have and I don’t want to move to CA, NY or CT (the most likely destinations). I recently asked about living in CA on a $75,000 salary and the results were overwhelmingly negative and that it would be too difficult. That was related to a screenwriting position. From my experience, sports media jobs aren’t paying $75k, so it would be even less than that, if not considerably less.
This summer I reached out to two big companies I’ve done well with before about a full-time position and I heard the same thing from both. The roster was filled for 2019, but I can pitch some one-off ideas to them. So you may see something from me on that front this season if things work out as I do have some studies I’ve been working on that I would love to complete.
But as far as full-time writing goes, that seems to be a position that is a dying breed. Companies always want content, but the willingness to pay the creators these days just isn’t what it used to be.
I would love to get a job where I have access to this new charting data and to try making sense of what that’s telling us, or to properly put into context just how ridiculous Patrick Mahomes has been through 22 games. But busting your ass on an article to make peanuts isn’t a sustainable way of life. So if you’re asking me what I’m writing this season, just keep following me on Twitter and what I decide to write here. Otherwise I truly don’t know what the future holds.
Maybe I need to go into business for myself and write books. If anyone has advice on that, I’d be glad to talk about it.
NFL Week 5 Predictions
Going all in on gambling sure doesn’t seem like a good option for me. I would have turned a profit last season going all in on my weekly bets, but this year has been off to a pretty brutal start. When the Raiders jumped up 14-0 on the Colts last week, I remarked that we must be insane to put real money on this league. Hockey seems like the smarter bet from my experience with its limited scoring.
I almost wanted to pick Tampa Bay to win outright since it has had success in the Superdome before, but something about trusting Jameis Winston for a third straight week to play really well feels scary to me. I do know Teddy Bridgewater needs to show more than he has as the Saints try to win with such a limited offense.
Thankfully the Dolphins are on a bye, but the Jets return so we could have already eight games this season with a spread of at least 11 points thru Week 5. There were nine such games from 2015-2018 combined. This is not a good thing for the league.