The days and hours before Super Bowl Sunday are catnip for those who love to prognosticate, bet, or otherwise do what humans have done with marginal success since we lived in caves: look into the future.
Who do you got? The Carolina Panthers or the Denver Broncos? Will Denver’s pass rush somehow rattle Cam Newton? Will Peyton Manning be able to figure out a way in and around the Panthers defence, his towering football intellect enough to make up for his right arm, which seems deserving of its own seniors’ discount at this point?
For those of us without a gambling problem, it’s all fun and harmless. A lot of people will pick with their hearts and be right and many more will dive into the data to do their handicapping and be dead wrong.
But one thing is for sure and will be proven again when the Panthers' Newton takes his spot under centre at Levi Stadium for his first Super Bowl appearance: A lot of people who are paid good sums of money to know what they’re talking about when it comes to football don’t actually know what they’re talking about.
There are all kinds of examples of this, but Newton’s is as informative as any. If you arrived from another planet and watched your first football game this season it would take about three plays watching the six-foot-five, 245-lb. quarterback to figure out the guy was really, really good—quite possibly better than anyone else. He’s bigger, faster and stronger, and throws farther than the rest of the best. He’ll be the NFL MVP this year in a walk and no one can really argue. If the Panthers win on Sunday they’ll finish the season 18-1, putting them on the shortlist of best teams in NFL history.
But just five years ago Newton was a mystery to the oracles that broadcasters and teams alike look to in order to know the future. They believed in what they could see—big, fast, strong. But they had doubts. What was behind the curtain where the intangibles are hidden? Did he think the game quickly enough? Did his teammates rally around his leadership abilities? Did he work hard enough? Was he reliable?
None of these things are truly knowable about anyone, in the same way that no one truly knows their neighbour, or even their spouse. Hey, veteran super-scout Friedrich Nietzsche probably had it right way back when he evaluated the human race and concluded: “We are unknown to ourselves.”
Neitzsche’s prime was about 150 years ago, well before the Internet and the NFL draft, but his big-picture approach to scouting could save a lot of talent evaluators a lot of hot air, and no shortage of embarrassment. That said, it’s hard to make a living for knowing stuff when the only proper answer is a shrug and "Who knows?"
Most of Newton’s career and certainly this past season has been an exercise in proving that people, for the most part, have no idea what they’re talking about. Thanks to the Internet, it’s easy to demonstrate exactly who and how little.
This past week Awful Announcing gathered some of the more egregious examples of experts getting their intangibles tied in a knot when it comes to figuring out how truly good athletes are without having actually met them.
Newton's athletic gifts were clear and he’d led Auburn to a national championship, but there were some off-field elements that cast a shadow of doubt about his worthiness as the No. 1 pick in the draft. He’d been charged with stealing a laptop and caught cheating on tests, and his father was found to have accepted $180,000 for his son to play at Mississippi State. And for all his success at Auburn, he was only there for one year and ran an offence that wasn’t as complex as what he’d be in charge of in the NFL.
So yes, mix that all together and you could understand why there were some questions about Newton as the No. 1–overall pick. The problem was that there were people who questioned whether Newton deserved to be taken in the first three rounds and others who pegged him as a likely bust. It was like all his faults were lit in neon and his obvious gifts—the tools he would actually be taking to work every day—were window dressing.
And some of the criticism was downright vicious. High-profile draft prognosticator Nolan Nawrocki writing for Pro Football Weekly, crushed Newton like a pass rush could only hope to:
“Very disingenuous—has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup. Always knows where the cameras are and plays to them. Has an enormous ego with a sense of entitlement that continually invites trouble and makes him believe he is above the law—does not command respect from teammates and will always struggle to win a locker room... Lacks accountability, focus and trustworthiness—is not punctual, seeks shortcuts and sets a bad example. Immature and has had issues with authority. Not dependable.”
Nawrocki has long been viewed as a bit of a troll—someone who drops opinions so confidently and controversially that he’s bound to stir up a reaction—but he wasn’t the only anti-Newton voice.
Former-all-pro-linebacker-turned-broadcaster Derrick Brooks said he wouldn’t take Newton in the first round. Terry Bradshaw? “I’m not a Cam Newton fan.” Skip Bayless, the troll of all trolls, said that Newton was Tim Tebow without the throwing accuracy.
A well-reported pre-draft feature in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel surveyed 24 NFL executives and scouts about Newton, and found that almost half wouldn’t take Newton in the first round and that twice as many predicted he’d be a bust than pegged him as a superstar.
"He's got all the talent in the world," Tom Heckert, then general manager of the Cleveland Browns, said in the article. "But I don't know if anybody knows what you're getting."
Since Newton is black and didn’t come into the league as a polished pocket passer, many have chalked up the bulk of the criticism surrounding him to racism—or at the very least an institutional bias against someone who doesn’t fit neatly into the regressive, prefabricated box labelled "quarterback." There may well be something to it. Newton suggested as much last week: "I've said it since Day 1—I'm an African-American quarterback," Newton said. "That may scare a lot of people because they haven't seen nothing that they can compare me to.”
That said, athletic oracles have a long history of getting things wrong and have been colour-blind in the process. Facing off against Newton on Sunday will be the Broncos' Peyton Manning. They are opposites in many respects but they have one thing in common—in Manning's draft year he too dealt with widespread debate about whether he was worthy of the No. 1 pick in the draft.
The quarterback that many of the cognoscenti thought should go ahead of Manning, eventually taken first overall by the Indianapolis Colts?
That would be Ryan Leaf, taken No. 2 by the San Diego Chargers, who washed out of the NFL after playing 25 games over four seasons and throwing nearly three times as many interceptions as touchdowns. After retirement, he developed a drug problem and eventually was given a seven-year prison sentence for theft as he tried to support his pain-killer addiction. A sad story, but a reminder that being wrong about players in the NFL has a long tradition.
So go ahead, make your bets this weekend; call your shots. Be fearless in your predictions confident in the knowledge that right or wrong or right, you can accurately feel that you're at least as good as the experts.