Ben Baldwin sits stoically at his kitchen counter, deep in thought. His eyes are still but his bottom lip trembles gently while thinking back to how it used to be. How everything used to be. “I took it for granted,” he whimpers while shaking his head, the disbelief transparent.
Everything Baldwin once held dear is gone, consumed by a void that mocks him daily. All that remains? A memory so vague that to sense its familiar apparition in dreams is to exist within an ancient civilization; a time capsule into an age of cyber-conflict that thankfully no longer exists.
After approximately a minute of silent contemplation, Baldwin strains to keep his composure and utters a muffled name; a name once so important to him; a name that single-handedly brought down the NFL’s data revolution.
Josh Hermsmeyer can’t remember the last time he saw a chart. “It’s a blur to be honest,” he whispers, his voice soaked in regret. Once a respected voice, Hermsmeyer now lives in exile amongst the hopeless and the statisticians. “I was in my mom’s basement picking at a day old pizza when the news came in.”
After spearheading the movement to spread analytics throughout the world of football so long ago, Hermsmeyer cannot rid his brain of Christine Michael’s face; that overconfident, beautiful face that has wreaked unimaginable havoc on the world; a manifestation of destruction forever seared into his mind’s eye.
Every time Hermsmeyer feels within reach of peace, the American flag jumpers arrive in droves. “I use them to dry my tears,” he quietly sobs.
While historians have debated the actual date of reckoning, Baldwin saw the signs well before they turned into his personal apocalypse. “In two plays, it all came crashing down. All of our carefully-crafted charts, spreadsheets, and tables. Two plays.”
On October 30th, 2016, the Seattle Seahawks traveled to New Orleans to face off against Drew Brees and the Saints. While the team didn’t come out on top, Michael had the last laugh. “Tanner McEvoy completed a deep pass to C.J. Prosise,” recollects Baldwin, pain evident in his voice. “And then Christine Michael scored on a two yard run off tackle…” He pauses, clearly struggling to continue.
“Big Analytics thought we were safe, assuming that nothing on the field mattered except for quarterbacks and wide receivers. But after McEvoy and Prosise fired the opening salvo, Michael dealt the death blow. Two plays, 45 yards. No quarterbacks, one touchdown. Football is concentrated free-market Darwinism and the subconscious statement of hierarchy is the running back is king…” He trails off before finishing his sentence, speaking angrily to himself rather than his surroundings.
“And I don’t even realize it.”
Gregg Rosenthal grins as he speaks, simultaneously enthused and sated. He sees the new era of football as a net positive; an opportunity for widespread growth. “I remember feeling lighter,” he exclaims. “Christine Michael didn’t just kill analytics; he made me question the underpinnings of Western Civilization itself. What is God, philosophy or the NFL Draft industrial complex but a series of forced perspectives that Michael shook off its moorings?”
Rosenthal, a writer and podcaster for the NFL, had done his due diligence on what drove the analytics movement’s motivations before it all crumbled. Having watched C-Mike’s eminence from afar, he crunched his own numbers, manipulated his own data, and confirmed what most believed: you truly can never quantify a running back’s impact.
But that didn’t stop the keyboard warriors. “Data doesn’t measure the fear in a linebacker’s heart,” Rosenthal insists. “Data doesn’t measure how fast a man runs, how far he jumps or what down is most effective to run the ball.” One of his coworkers shoots him a strange look. “Oh, it does? Well that shit’s stupid, have you ever even SEEN Christine Michael’s arms?”
While many were believers in data-driven decision-making, the Analytics Scare of 2018 clearly took things too far, steering the masses back toward their familiar friend: a reliance on intuition. Now, anything remotely interpretable as data analysis is hard to come by. “Charts used to be freely available on the open market,” reminisces Baldwin. “But the C-Mike Revolution has confined them to the black market, making them effectively unattainable.” After a long day of work, the former economist used to come home and create his own graphics. Now he is left with whatever scraps are put into Sunday Night Football broadcasts.
Unfortunately for many, the devaluation of running backs had begun well before Christine Michael changed the landscape of football. This was inevitably going to irk those who really knew what they were watching. “It’s been tough as an NFL fan over the years to see the continued marginalization of running backs,” Rosenthal recounts. “Would-be greats like Barry Sanders and Adrian Peterson are barely known by the average fan because some computer geek in their mom’s basement decided that the position wasn’t valuable or worth celebrating.”
That geek, Hermsmeyer, recognized C-Mike to be the chosen one before Big Analytics had a chance to snuff out his flame. His biggest regret? Not informing his colleagues in time. “When you have that much generational talent locked into such a powerful frame…” He shudders violently before carrying on. “…coupled with vision, quickness and the willingness to be physical and patient all at the same time, it was always going to be Michael. That’s obviously hindsight bias but it’s the only bias left that we’re able to talk about with any credibility.”
“Our models are estimated using historical information regarding what happens on a football field,” remarks Baldwin. “But how do you account for someone who can jump 43 inches and only holds the ball in one hand? There’s no precedent for that.”
Rosenthal is personally thankful that Michael revolutionized the league. “Christine has made it safe for us running back truthers to walk in sunlight, talk at work functions, even pursue romance again.”
While not a supporter of backs by any means, an example of the latter lies in Baldwin, who, despite his sorrow, expresses that his family is happy to finally see him again. This is clearly a bittersweet situation for him.
While some families have found solace, others haven’t been as lucky. “My wife left me,” laments Hermsmeyer. “I lost all my jobs and had to let [my manservant] Forthington go, so I don’t know what’s going on in the league anymore. I never knew how much I relied on the play-by-play. Watching games, it all just moves too fast; I can’t make sense of it.” He sighs heavily, understanding that, without Pro Football Focus, he can’t focus on pro football. “The joy is gone.”
Even Rosenthal, who has been such an advocate of the insurrection, gloomily admits that this has affected him for the worse. “My family has no idea who Christine Michael is,” he mutters. “They barely speak to me.”
Luckily for the annals of football, most will remember Michael and what he has done for this game. “I see a future where final scores aren’t even kept, much less statistics,” declares Rosenthal. “The game will become an endless series of inside runs on 2nd and 10, with teams hoping to win the favor of fans simply by impressing them with their toughness.”
Those who remain in the small but reluctant opposition must persevere in these strenuous times. “I think the biggest change is that we have to spell out numbers now,” mourns Hermsmeyer. “It takes a long time to type out ‘first and ten at the twenty-yard line.’ But I can’t afford internet anymore so it’s less of a problem for me personally.”
Ben Baldwin stands up, wipes a lone tear from his cheek, and turns his back, attempting to salvage equilibrium. What he and his compatriots could not stop will haunt him forever. He speaks softly, words potent with remorse: “With Christine Michael, we learned our lesson the hard way.”
He paces back and forth, back and forth, before stopping in his tracks at the window. Peering outside, Baldwin watches a finch land clumsily on a nearby branch. He won’t admit it, but the bird faintly reminds him of C-Mike. He chuckles before closing his eyes and exhaling. He waits for two ticks and pivots back around, a look of determination in his eyes. The fury of a thousand nerds burns within his visage as he begins to speak, a robust growl straight from the guttural depths of his soul:
“We’re coming for the eye test.”