How Spreadsheet Warriors butchered the NFL

The NFL is in a state of crisis.

Back in the golden days, football was a sport that separated boys from men. It was a physical test surpassed only by joining the military. It embodied the best of America: our lust for war and battle, Capitalism in the Salary Cap Era, a knack for making stupid and shortsighted decisions, and of course, our racial insensitivity. Now, this beautiful game has been ravaged by basement dwelling nerds who have never stepped foot on a field of grass before, claiming that they know how to beat the Patriots.  How did they do it? How did they ruin the NFL?

There several answers to that question, but the most definite cause is the rise of the anti-running establishment. Like most of Twitter groupies, anti-run truthers provide play-by-play breakdowns using All-22 film and contribute to the occasional scouting report. Most recently, some members have created what Twitter calls “the deep pass state,” an agenda that has blinded themselves to the likes of strawman arguments, Mike Leach, and the forward pass.

As of today, these “spreadsheet warriors” have already amassed a cult of over 20,000 people. The league has seen its share of armchair GMs before, back in 2013 when Zach Whitman attempted to assign toughness and grit into a mathematical formula. Most of these are fads (like the read-option) that ultimately dismantle their fans after 5 games of mediocrity. But anti-run truthers also promise their following something more: By integrating a statistical model to the sport, they have offered fans the opportunity to critique the game through data interpretation rather than conventional means.

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No one is more prolific and egregious in this aggression than Ben Baldwin, a writer for The Athletic Seattle. According to the SocialBlade, Baldwin averages 60 tweets and 53 follower gains per day using a narrative of misinformation and pseudo-mathematics. His scope is frighteningly not limited to the NFL. Praising Charter Schools, the Stanford Cardinal, and convoluted economic theories are all but routine assaults from his Social Media account – and a strategic attempt to discredit the most influential members of Seahawks Twitter and make them tick.

Of course, Baldwin is not alone. Notable lieutenant Nathan Ernst of HawkBlogger serves as the face of the anti-run movement. Josh Hermsmeyer of the Air Yards blog is mostly responsible for most of the Advanced Stats slang. Together, the three have created a loyal following that has threatened to unravel the league, from alternative views on Special Teams and dissonance on the impact of body blows, offensive play-calling, and even field position variance – including the hilarious notion of punting to win.

“They think their research and opinion is the be-all end-all. They will die on their hill of analytics.”

The anti-run base often relies on complex language to perpetuate a flair of intellectual authority. Commonly used terms, such as Expected Points Added (EPA) and Weighted Opportunity Rating (WOPR) are the most recent additions within the advanced stats lexicon. It’s a vernacular synonymous with click-bait and fake news, and it’s only a page within a glossary of Orwellian tactics and false equivalences that the anti-run group uses. Baldwin has mutilated numbers and statistics with complete disregard of their purpose, and he has used it to discredit opinions that he finds threatening or unflattering. He has justified his studies by stating that “the data tells us what happens on the football field” when he is the one who has repeatedly attacked the other writers, bloggers, fans, film breakdowns, and any opposition he regards as hostile.

This, too, has an unnerving echo in the behavior of the anti-run establishment and Ben’s own followers, who loyally lie and protect on the economist’s behalf. In Seattle’s Week 5 game against the Rams, Baldwin refused to credit the success of the run game with Russell Wilson’s effectiveness in play action, insisting that the two concepts are unrelated. These lies go beyond an attempt to defy the most basic of conventions, but also dangerously attempt to adjust the truth for the passing agenda. “They have a complete lack of flexibility on the subject,” says Ryan LeClair, who joined Twitter in 2010. “They think their research and opinion is the be-all end-all. They will die on their hill of analytics.”

LeClair, an aspiring blogger for the Seahawks and Huskies, has faced the brunt of the anti-run game’s attacks and remains perplexed at their propaganda. “I understand analytics help us understand football better and help the coaches make better decisions, but analytics are a minority percentage of football,” he confessed. “Football isn’t numbers, it’s so much more.”

Quite simply, the anti-run research is nothing but a bully’s efforts to intimidate, gaslight, and polarize its victims.

Unfortunately, Baldwin and his associates aren’t content with manufacturing false numbers. A BeastPode/Tasteful Profanity investigation has found that few of their supposed “studies” are statistically significant. In comparison with the film archives used in our network, it appears that Baldwin and his cronies have doctored game footage to support their narrative – some of the more egregious examples have been attached below. These comparisons provide a frightening insight into the anti-run base’s steady and unyielding assault.

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Baldwin and his associates’ tactics are emblematic of the chaos he creates and thrives on, as well as an essential instrument in his liar’s toolkit. Quite simply, the anti-run research is nothing but a bully’s efforts to intimidate, gaslight, and polarize its victims.

The advanced stats movement has eroded the league into a state of crisis. Gone is reasoned debate and trusted expertise, replaced by appeals to fear, anger, and the momentum of the crowd. Some believe this campaign started as early as 2011, when ESPN  developed their own version of the Quarterback Rating, or as late as February when commentator Cris Collinsworth referred to basic play action concepts as run-pass options (RPO’s) in Super Bowl 52. Whatever the reasons, it is clear that the NFL has eroded into a slow, tragic death – if we are to save it, we must analyze the game in the way it was meant to be broken down.

With regards to the Seahawks, the anti-run establishment’s rise to power came through various avenues: a frustrated fanbase still reeling from the disappointment of the 2017 season; Russell Wilson’s transition into the role of face of the franchise after the departures of Marshawn Lynch and the Legion of Boom; and an egomaniacal head coach who came to symbolize the old-fashioned fraternity that millennials decried as they struggle to get a job reference.

Examined at a closer context, analysts like Baldwin, Ernst, and Hermsmeyer are avatars of narcissism and ignorance – or quite simply, more sophisticated trolls who got lucky. It is equally unwise, however, to diminish the more ridiculous aspects of the anti-run personality for the flaws they have exposed in the social media algorithm. Examining the narrative that the Seahawks – and the NFL – has built, it is unlikely that Baldwin and his associates would’ve received the support they have now had fans been not been so ignorant in aligning their support.

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When the Seahawks won their first Super Bowl in 2013, most fans were not surprised. In fact, most were more engaged with explaining why they were successful rather than the actual success at all. This pursuit – one that appealed to hardcore and bandwagon fans alike – brought the community together in fun, thought-provoking conversation. As the Seahawks continue to re-establish themselves over the next five years, and analysts like Baldwin attempt to assert power and morality by inflaming fandom and complaining about Pete Carroll, unity and discourse are even more important today.

The rebuild will be long and tedious, but it’s essential that fans defy the cynicism and resignation brought on by numbers alone. After all, without the running back, football would’ve never existed – so anti-run truthers might secretly not even be football fans at all.

2 thoughts on “How Spreadsheet Warriors butchered the NFL

  1. Thank you blowing this thing Wide Open and deflating the Analytics Football of lies and deceptions. Had we only known their twitter accounts were a Trojan Horse with which they could record our practices and use that footage against us! It’s a deplorable, vicious assault on the common decency of this Greatest of Great American Pasttimes and I applaud you!

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