Data, Romance, And The NFL Draft, With Alec Lewis

The one thing you absolutely do not want to do, as a podcast that covers both sports and things that are not sports, is find yourself in what we in the biz call “A Truly Sad Week In America, Plus The 2005 NBA Redraftables Scenario.” The freedom to talk about whatever you choose is inherently also the freedom to do some severely wrongheaded and embarrassing shit. This actually has been a truly infuriating week in America, even by the high standard set in recent years, and I went into this week’s episode with a lot of trouble on my mind, even by the high standard I have personally set for having a bad time. The possibility of that making its way into the podcast, leading to an episode that was half me seething about creeping fascism and half a good-natured consideration of which teams were likeliest to trade up for a quarterback, was very real.

But I am happy to report that thanks to Drew’s enthusiasm, a wonderful guest in The Athletic’s Alec Lewis, and the gaudy allure of the looming NFL Draft—a spectacle that one critic has hailed as “the Burj Khalifa of brightly colored bullshit” and which I myself have always thought of as “something I don’t care very much about”—I didn’t talk about any of the bad stuff in my head. Also we talked about pajamas a little bit at the beginning of the episode, but mostly it was football stuff.

The variously fraught and conflicted decision-making process behind the draft, which was the subject of Alec’s fantastic article about the state of the draft, is kind of hard to know, to be honest. But in contrast to draft-related speculation, you can at least trust that the people involved aren’t strategically or just habitually lying about all of it. Alec’s story illuminates how NFL decision makers navigate the conflict between contemporary best practices and lore/romance/tradition in a sport that is institutionally and constitutionally averse to the former and besotted with the latter, and in which the final say belongs to some of the most reliably out-of-pocket rich guys this country has ever produced. We talked about how difficult a general manager’s job is, and how that job is difficult in terms of managing up to their owners and down throughout their organizations. We also talked about the externalities that bear on all this, and the Classic Dumb Guy Stuff that is always present in the NFL, and the challenge of admitting that all that variance or uncertainty even exists, let alone being able to say “I don’t know,” in a culture like the NFL’s.

There was some actual draft talk, too, mostly relating to the question around why teams trade up when the data says they shouldn’t. This, if you have been following the draft at all, inevitably becomes A Vikings Thing, but also points towards one of the more interesting complications about the draft, which is that quarterbacks really are different. Sometimes flipping the script is not just the right move, but the only way for a team to make a leap forward.

That was a lot of football, and left us time for only one Funbag question. Luckily, it was a good one, and dealt with one of the longest-running and most-disputed questions in the culture: Is it acceptable to ask Edgar Martinez for a photo, as a dad, if you really want to do it? Given the other questions that had been crowding my mind going into this, I felt more than happy and something like blessed to be able to really consider that one.

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