Tuesday, January 15, 2019


It is not supposed to be chilly and rainy in San Diego.  Football teams are supposed to win games that they lead 20-3.  Northwestern is not supposed to score 28 points in a quarter, and Utah players are supposed to have played a football game in wet weather before instead of performing as if the game had been relocated to a functioning hog rendering plant.  The Wildcats are supposed to melt down in bowl games at the hands of a superior opponent or a ludicrous hail of onside kick return touchdowns that I didn't even know were legal.

For an entire season, Northwestern was supposed to finally lose and conform with conventional wisdom, the advanced numbers, and the aura of losing that pervades the team even though it's been nearly a quarter century since the Wildcats were in the throes of their notorious streak of football abominations and have since been more or less ok.  Instead, they continued winning after a heinous loss to Akron came to define their season as they became Northwestern-Which-Lost-To-Akron, a name that became funnier and more absurd as their feats became more impressive-- Northwestern-Which-Lost-To-Arkon Hangs Tough With Michigan was one level; Northwestern-Which-Lost-To-Akron Advances to Big Ten Championship Game was most bizarre football sentence that could be constructed.

My favorite part of this wild season was the Wildcats' emergence as the numbers-noids of the Big Ten, racking up victory after victory even as advanced metrics kept spitting out spreadsheets saying that they were terrible.  Northwestern, a 9-5 team with a division championship and bowl victory finished the season as the S&P+ metric's 79th best team in the country (the Associated Press ranked them 22; the coach's poll, which is filled out from what I understand, by a coach wadding it up and throwing it out of a truck window while crossing state lines to buy illegally caffeinated Monster Energy drinks and then sending a graduate assistant to spend several hours looking for it by crawling through storm drains in the hope that someone had filled it out had them at 19).
The Wildcats finish the season the traditional Treble: 
The Big Ten Western Division, Holiday Bowl, and Hat

The numbers seemed to catch up to Northwestern when Utah (S&P+ rank 16) came out and obliterated them in the first half.  The Wildcat defense, depleted by injury, and configured in the generous zone defense designed to smother the run and dare some truck suspension Big Ten West quarterback to throw a pass directly at Montre Hartage, got sliced up by Utah's passing game.  The Utes flummoxed Northwestern's run game and swarmed Thorson.  Top receivers Flynn Nagel and Bennett Skowronek left the game injured.

And then whatever unholy force it was that propelled Northwestern all season kicked in and set off the greatest single quarter of football I have ever watched.  An interception thrown directly to Blake Gallagher.  A couple of monster blocks springing Chiaokhiao-Bowman to set up a touchdown.  A Gaziano strip has Jared McGee flying down the sideline.  An offensive lineman catches a pass and somehow trips for 12 yards before belly-flopping into the endzone.  A confused Utah team that keeps falling down and flinging the ball at Northwestern players.  In the end, Northwestern put up 28 points in one quarter and that was it for the day save for a couple more hideous Utah turnovers and Pat Fitzgerald's decision to kneel out the clock so much that they literally turned the ball over because Pat Fitzgerald would like nothing more than to score a touchdown and then kneel so hard that he burrows into the core of the Earth.


To anyone who somehow managed to follow this blog website for the entire season, Northwestern's success this season in the face of some advanced metrics became a running theme.  I appreciate the epistemological project to bring some scientific order to college football rankings, which are now based on branding, recency bias, shadowy cabals of bureaucrats, and ineffectual screaming at the radio.  On the other hand, football, and college football in particular, is subject to many bizarre vagaries and bounces that it remains nearly impossible to predict, and to have the team I like continuing to frustrate math was funny and also weirdly inspiring.

Fifteen years ago, anyone attempting to follow sports on the internet subjected him or herself to a profoundly moronic culture war between the statheads and the rumpled newspaper columnists and flinty-eyed coaches on television wearing the absolute largest sports coats that could be fashioned by human hands.  This phenomenon, in its original baseball origins, weighed so heavily for the argument that fairly basic stats like on-base percentage were better than weird nineteenth-century stats in the face of counterarguments that consisted of "shut up" and "you live in a basement" that the statheads became sympathetic protagonists. 

More than a decade later, the statheads have easily triumphed.  The empirical case became nearly impossible to argue against in sports as teams that leaned heavily on numbers won.  As front offices began to adopt analytics wholesale, the media shifted to hire people who could write about them; the annihilation of the newspaper sports columnist as a job in the face of buyouts, layoffs, and ill-fated pivots to video took out most of the holdouts.

And yet, as a person who enjoys reading about sports on the internet, it is difficult to see the triumph of the advanced analytics movement as an altogether positive thing.  The grouchy, cigar-chomping columnist performatively photographed with a typewriter in 2004 has given way to the lanyard-clad Sloan Analytics Guy who is here to talk about Assets.  Advances in stats and use of new kinds of data from player tracking cameras has unveiled a lot of novel and interesting wrinkles in sports.  And yet, while knowing how fucking hard Javy Baez drilled a home run or how many miles Jimmy Butler runs during a basketball game is enjoyable, advanced analytics are not really for the fans, but for the front offices, and now more than ever the discourse in sportswriting revolves almost entirely around value and efficiency.

Here are some of the things that have happened as a direct result of broad analytics movements in sports and sportswriting: convincing fans that watching a complete and utter garbage shit team do Wile E. Coyote plans for years at a time is not only the smart way to enjoy sports but any other way is for neanderthal dimbulbs who call into sports radio shows with names like Headbutt Stan; looking at the same trades where shitty basketball players move around because the NBA's salary cap is a miserable rube goldberg contraption as genius moves because now players and draft picks are called "assets"; podcasts where people basically list how much money everyone makes for hours each week.

The broad revolution in sports information that comes from analytics and the internet has had two deleterious effects on following sports.  One is to frame everything in terms of what front offices value, which is money.  Yes, it is important for a writer covering a sport to understand the ins and outs of salary caps and taxes in order to understand what front offices are likely to do but it is exhausting to constantly read about how players fit in and out of these dumb and artificial caps in leagues where the only penalty to signing whoever they want is for some third-generation yacht guy to spend slightly more money.

Second, the analytics movement identifies more efficient ways to build teams and play that quickly become correct.  This is true in baseball, where the three true outcomes have triumphed and in the NBA, where teams increasingly gravitate towards the threes-and-layups offenses.  In many cases, these strategies proliferate because they are effective-- the extra point available on three pointers has made it an unassailable strategy not to jack them as often as possible-- but they flatten and homogenize the game in a way that can be less pleasing, aesthetically.  These strategies have also emerged in team building, where the owners' overwhelming concern with maintaining low salaries have made it all but impossible to consider building a winner that doesn't rely on underpaid young players in every sport. 

It was absolutely good that the stat nerds won their culture war because the people on the other side were ridiculous oafs.  At the same time, the analytics movement has loosed a torrent of irritating spreadsheet-mongers and payroll calculators on sports that have warped the discourse in other bizarre ways.  There will probably never be ways to analyze sports that aren't inherently stupid because the amounts of money and attention paid to these games remain unfathomable and ludicrous.  Sports have become too lucrative to risk on weirdos and suboptimal strategies.  

And while I welcome any attempt to bring some sort of empirical debate to college sports, I also can enjoy a hitch in the system when the team I personally root for flummoxes the ratings and continues to win under an undulating crew cut maniac fist pumping the numbers straight into a garbage can.

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