Sunday, 9 February 2014

Pickwatch Profiles: Deion Sanders

Continuing our offseason profiling of the NFL's TV experts, here's a look at arguably NFL Networks biggest personality, Deion Sanders. For years Deion polarized opinions on the field, and he is no less controversial now that his career has ended. This may go down like a lead balloon, but we're not exactly huge fans of his...

The look:

'Donald Trump circa 1996' seems to be Deion's fashion rule. Even at his most garish - see the all-corduroy monstrosity he wore for this year's Super Bowl - Deion nearly always abides by the Trump's philosophy of braces, waistcoat, a contrast collar and a suit that is about a size too large for him. 

Why is this? I can only think that Deion, standing 6' 1", believes himself to be a giant amongst puny human weaklings and is unable to ask for his real size. Deion always sets this ensemble off with his trademark ear-to-ear smile and an earring that says 'I'm considerably richer than you are'. Which he is, in fairness.


What he does:

Intelligent foil to Michael Irvin's nonsensical ramblings, Deion is a man who clearly revels in his relevance to today's stars, and his platform at NFL Network allows him as much access as possible to the younger generation. Sanders is almost exclusively featured on NFL Gameday to provide gravitas, which as an NFL Hall of Famer he unquestionably does bring.

Sanders's 'Primetime' nickname is used by NFL Network to highlight key plays during his 'Let's go Primetime' slot at the end of NFL Gameday Final on Sundays. As a bona-fide legend, a two-sport athlete and one of the best to ever play the DB position, Sanders commands respect when talking about big plays and NFLN propagate this legacy by highlighting Deion-esque plays during their highlight shows. These include anything where a player runs fast or holds the ball up while entering the end zone.

He also appears on selected draft days during the NFL combine - see 'Working with the Pros' below - and made a bizarre attempt to become a reality TV star over the last few years. These, however, are not his most controversial off-field pursuits. 

Sanders has also invested considerable time and money into 'Prime U', a Dallas area prep school with a noticeably mixed-message that promotes athletics as 'the hook' but seeks to build it's students into 'dreamers and CEO's'. Deion's words, not mine. The school fired Sanders in 2013 citing him as 'unfit to work with children' after two alleged assaults on staff members.

Strengths and Weaknesses:

Ok let's start with the strengths: He definitely isn't a film guru, but much like in his heyday as a player, he simply avoids commenting on those things that he doesn't feel comfortable with (tackling) and concentrates on the plays on which his voice carries the most weight. Seems generally electrified by big plays, particularly punt and kick returns, and is a much needed defensive voice in an NFL landscape that cherishes offence above all else.

Sanders the broadcaster is the definition of 'polished former-pro' and it's easy to imagine the ex-players lining up to attend broadcasting training camps being shown videos of Deion in full flow. Charismatic and verbose, he is a rarity in modern NFL broadcasting in that his opinions rarely seem contrived or designed to provoke argument, instead you can get a sense that Sanders has a genuine passion for his subject matter. It's a refreshing change from the endless line of players who don't seem to know what they're saying until it comes out of their mouth, and who then have to spend the next 2 minutes defending their oratory genocide.

That's what Deion does well, but there is another side to Sanders, a ruthless self-promoting streak that overrides every action both on screen and off. In many ways, this is no different to any other media personality working in the NFL, but at some point, Sanders appears to have bought into the idea that he is a Messiah-figure in the context of both football and life. His interest in the lives of young players has progressed from a healthy mentor to a few kids who needed his guidance, to a man determined to extend his influence as far as possible.

Taken in isolation, such issues would seem extraneous to Sanders the broadcaster, but there can be no doubt that over the years his role as a 'mentor' has often led to a pretty huge conflict of interest. Remember when Michael Crabtree held out until late October in 2009? Sanders regularly politicked for Crabtree during an unseemly half-season, and that episode prompted Roger Goodell - probably the only man Sanders considers himself answerable to beyond you-know-who - to privately tell him to tone down his promotion of those players he had a relationship with.

But the problem is that now that cat is out of the bag we can't know when Sanders is giving an opinion in an unbiased manner, or because the player(s) involved are one of his selected cabal of players who have been granted an audience with Neon Deion. 

Tellingly, we know about this because Sanders couldn't simply help people and keep quiet, he bragged on TV about his text messages to current players, he was embroiled in the Dez Bryant suspension during the latter's college career, and had a strangely manipulative and controlling relationship with WVU prospect Noel Devine. What has been revealed in glimpses each time, is that Deion the smiling politician on our screens every Sunday, is not Deion Sanders. It is Primetime, a polished product that simply ignores these facts and dismisses them when challenged.

Of course, Sanders isn't the first or last TV talking head to have a vested interest in those he comments on, but he is the first to be caught on tape blackmailing the prep school he helped set up and threatening 'I'm going to get more money or else it won't be a school -- period'.

Just let that sink in for a second.

Ok so here's the theory: Everything, the endorsements, the prep school, the kids, the NFL mentoring stuff, the TV gig... it's all just a brand. It's all Primetime, and while there may be some incidental benefit to those whose babies Sanders kisses on his ego-driven quest, the overall aim is simply the continued gainful employment and money-making of one Mr D. Sanders. He revels in his ability to schmooze with the important and good, and the only way to do that is not only talk about football, but to promote his name as if he is the second coming.

It's not his only weakness - we mentioned the lack of film study - but it's been many years since I could watch a Sanders broadcast and feel that anything he said was not, when all was said and done, rooted in his desire to make money and be more powerful. We rightly question the off-screen antics of Sapp, Sharper, Irvin et al when they are accused of misdemeanours, yet Deion is never questioned, never investigated and rarely questioned as more disturbing revelations come from 'Prime Prep'.

Clearly, if you believed it was all about the kids, you hadn't read the name of his school.


Working with the pros

Sanders has always had a solid relationship with Rich Eisen, and in many ways that pairing has been the bedrock of NFL Network programming for almost a decade now. There have been additions to the team, people have left, but through it all Deion has been teflon - nothing ever seems to stick. As such, he has been an ever-present at NFLN since his retirement in 2006.

Deion often seems to be above what little back and forth goes on between the Gameday analysts, usually asserting himself in a way that suggests his opinion is more valuable than those of his colleagues. In reality, this is Sanders the pro at work. When he's on screen, all eyes are on him, and watching him wait for Irvin to finish jabbering is like watching a Praying Mantis slowly poise itself ready to launch an unstoppable attack on it's prey. It's both compelling and, in a strange way, uncomfortable. 

Watching him interact with Mike Mayock at the combine is like watching a car crash as Deion simply dismisses the 265th pick in the 1981 draft, and uses his own criteria (speed, amount player likes or has referenced Mr D Sanders in interviews) to judge prospects. Watching film is for guys like Mike Mayock. Alpha males like Deion don't need tape, they are tape. They MAKE tape. Or something. You can sense too, Deion's slight distaste for the effeminate Mayock in all interactions. No thigh slaps for you Mike, don't want you getting the wrong idea (even though he's happily married with kids). No, Deion is firmly in the T.O. bracket when it comes to anyone who is slightly camp.

That's what makes Deion so compelling though. Even his detractors must admit that there is something disconcertingly watchable in how he interacts with those around him, rarely showing deference or acknowledging their views unless they coincide with his own. It's almost as if the entire set has been built with Sanders front center, and the broadcast team is unsure of whether they should pull up Deion on his opinions. It's not that he spouts anything particularly crazy (see Bayless, S.) but it's very obvious to anyone watching that Deion doesn't embrace the challenge of verbal disagreements. Again, Sanders is the alpha male, using physical strength to intimidate those weaker than him, while being enough of a wordsmith to make more physically imposing people wary of a confrontation.

One of Sanders's more shameful moments, you may remember, occurred when Bears QB Jay Cutler was injured against Green Bay in the NFC title game two years ago. Deion annihilated Cutler (who required ACL surgery as a result of the injury) live on TV, questioned his heart for not playing on and repeatedly using the same phrase: 'It doesn't matter what the reality is, it is the perception that matters'.

You can't help wondering whether that phrase may have cropped up for Deion before. 

Off the Field

See above. A complete liability whose  only interests are (in order):

1: Himself
2: Money

Has cheated on his (super hot) wife with a girl Pacman Jones introduced him to. Note to all: Never allow yourself to get in a situation where Pacman Jones is the man fixing you up with a girl, in the same way you shouldn't let Vince Young near your financial affairs or get Brett Favre to advise you on when to take early retirement. 


Overall

Here at Pickwatch we try to be impartial as much as is humanly possible. That said, Deion Sanders the broadcaster is inextricably linked to the guy who is actively involved in a whole host of off-field pursuits that color his broadcasting image. It's a shame, because Sanders is clearly personable in isolation, but the double standards that applied to Deion the player really don't make sense any more. He doesn't bring anything to the table that another personality could not bring, so why ignore the mounting evidence that Sanders is... well... a borderline loon who may try to strangle you in a Senator's office, no less?

The mind boggles as to why Sanders is still considered untouchable, and I guess, as Deion often tells us, the thing that will define him is not anyone's opinions, but the truth.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Pickwatch Profiles: Rich Eisen

In the first of a new series for the offseason, Pickwatch takes the TV experts to task and breaks down the strengths and many, many weaknesses of NFL media analysts. First up is one of the men who holds the whole thing together, NFL Network's prime time host Rich Eisen.

The look:

Can you imagine Rich Eisen in a T-shirt? No, because this is a man born with a quasi-presidential style that leaves no room for smart-casual in the wardrobe. I like to imagine Eisen's wardrobe as a vast spectrum of color, with shirts ranging all the way from brilliant white to pale blue. Even when running his now ubiquitous 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Eisen - in a self-depreciating manner - insists on wearing a suit, even when NFL Network shoehorn (literally) an Under Armour endorsement in.

What he does:

Eisen isn't there to offer you his own football opinions - more on that later - and it's a good job too, as he is often tasked with controlling the biggest egos in sports, ie: the NFL's prime time broadcasting crews. There is a notable gap between Eisen and any of his fellow anchors at NFLN since Fran Charles left to front the MLB's in-house coverage two years ago.

When Warren Sapp is spouting barely credible rubbish with a vaguely shocked face like he's having a cattle prod inserted into a place nobody wants to see, it is Rich who must step in and guide the conversation to the warm, embracing tones of Marshall Faulk. Ditto when tasked with one of Michael Irvin's Bill Cosby impressions (you know, the ones where he seems to lose all motor skills?), it's Rich's job to keep the conversation flowing.

There's something slightly off with NFLN's pre-game analysis, and if anything one of the slight problems is that they are somehow too prepared. Never shy to show some candid production meeting shots, you get the feeling that every analyst on the panel has an internal clock counting down in their head as a result of the show's script being drilled into them beforehand. That's all well and good, but it's too polished and doesn't leave any room for an ad-hoc discussion on the merits of individual players in a balanced manner. Eisen is one of the casualties of this high pressure approach to gameday broadcasts, as he is shunted aside for an ESPN-esque shoutathon.

Rich also hosts his own podcasts on NFL.com and there we see a different style to him. It's still hard to envisage him recording in anything other than a dress shirt and comfy slacks, but in these less-constrained settings we see hints of Eisen the journalist, offering football opinions in a way that he would never be able to on air with Deion & co.

Strengths and Weaknesses:

Eisen's humor is - although exclusively 'white guy in his 40s' - a bonus that has carried NFL Network through some rough times. It can wear a little thin on the podcast, where the celebrity guests often seem like the only guys in on the joke, but overall it's a good character trait in a leading man like Eisen, particularly given that he spends every day surrounded by football cliches - again, more on that later - and the 24/7 seriousness of the modern NFL.

He's also an orator, never afraid to stretch his vocabulary and challenge the viewer (or even his guests) by using the fabled 'big words' that make Willie McGinest and Heath Evans glaze over and look nonplussed. A charming interviewer, he adapts to every situation the network asks him to cover, but he is at his best when working the pro-bowl or doing interviews with his favorite players such as Maurice Jones-Drew. MJD and some other players have built up genuine relationships with Eisen and that comes across in those settings wonderfully. No seriously, wonderfully.

It's hard to fault Eisen for not standing up for the common man in the battle against the NFL's faceless corporate business side, but it's hard not to get the impression that he has come up short when the game most needed him to press say, Roger Goodell or Jerry Jones when he gets them one on one. In the end, you're left with the feeling that the reason Big Roger calls on Rich for the exclusive interviews is simply because he'll give the veneer of a proper Q&A, without any follow up questions or disagreement.

What makes this perhaps more acute is that many times on his podcast, or on Twitter, Eisen has expressed a passionate voice that is more in tune with fans on many issues. He spends a lot of time with guys who played in an era of headhunting, 'dings' and 'stingers', so it's no surprise to find him railing against the emasculation of defensive players in the modern era. Similarly, he is first on the scene when a huge call goes wrong and isn't afraid to challenge the rulebook. 

The only time Eisen seemed to genuinely question any off-field direction when working on NFL Network, was during the referee strike in 2012. Even then, he bit his tongue, but that exasperation with the pursuit of dollars over the integrity of the game reflects the feelings of many fans, and it would be nice to see Eisen use that passion to push the owners and executives when they are making 'business' decisions.

If Rich has anything to do with the NFL Network Thursday Night Football broadcasts in a production capacity, he also needs a stern lecture for allowing the propagation of such inane banter as the Deion Sanders CD's, the Mooch bobble heads etc to infect their post-game shows. It might sound churlish, but here's why it's terrible: In a TV landscape where 2 minutes is an age, the Gameday crew often spend that amount of time joking about how much money Deion used to earn, or how Michael Irvin wore the number 88... or blah blah blah. Nobody cares. That's two minutes where I'd rather have heard from a guy who has just won a game, because often that's the only time you'll get anything remotely noteworthy from most pro footballers.

Working with the pros

Eisen has, as mentioned, one of the harder jobs in football in that he is regularly tasked with taming the egos of people who consider themselves above (in no particular order) the law, polite manners, allowing others to finish speaking, and generally not being an idiot. We've made it clear a few times in a Lucille Bluth-esque way that Pickwatch doesn't really care for Warren Sapp, but from all appearances Eisen genuinely seems to enjoy the camaraderie of the Gameday crew and is not afraid to join in the banter.

Sometimes this can border on the sycophantic, as he indulges the idiosyncrasies of men like Deion Sanders as if the show would implode if 'Prime' didn't get his own way. You'd like to see him sometimes step in and show that nobody, no matter how big a personality, is bigger than the broadcast, or challenge some of the sillier views that come out of his panel, but in the end Rich seems just a bit too much of a company man to bring that kind of autonomous, ad-libbed discussion into play.

Off the Field

Eisen's social media presence is something of an enigma. He'll post inane stats with first-glance 'wow' factor - such as the fact that Russell Wilson's passing yards in his two games at the Metlife equal Seattle's area code - but generally this is a fan doing something he loves. It's a cliché to say it, but you do get the sense that he is awestruck by the fact that he gets to do his job, and some of the pictures of more candid moments behind the scenes really reflect that. 

He's not shy of retweeting or engaging with fans off camera, although it seems to be a tendency of his to only truly have a back & forth with true 'celebrities', particularly when they have worked on his favorite TV shows. Still, it's good that he often gets involved in those conversations, or lets you see the other side of the NFL, something to be commended in a league bereft of connection with fans in many ways.

Overall

If you dislike Rich Eisen you're probably a bit of an idiot. The guy stands out as an effortless professional, in a world where everyone is coached how to act professionally. He's also funny, reliable and an ever-present in our football lives over the last decade that will one day mark him down as a legend of TV broadcasting.

Is he perfect? Well no, but is he preferable to the loud-mouthed opinions of some hosts on rival channels? Yeah definitely. He commands the type of everyman appeal that only comes with age and experience, making the NFL Network execs look pretty savvy for making him the face of the league's network in 2003. Eisen has blossomed into the yardstick for sports presenting, affable but professional, sombre when called upon, but with the passion of ten drunk guys in a bar. Yep, no matter what his flaws, Rich is one of the best, and surely has another 15 years left at the very top of the game if he so chooses.

Let's hope he does, because you'll miss him when he's gone.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Pickwatch Top 3 in 2013 Correctly Pick Super Bowl Result

Wow. Well did you see that coming?

You can hardly blame anyone who thought that even if the Seahawks would win, the Broncos would put up a lot of points. Most of the predictions this week had a margin of 4-6pts, so anyone who claims they were all over a Broncos shut-out is most likely lying. If they're not, they're probably just guessing, because there wasn't a shred of evidence that suggested Peyton Manning and the Broncos would put up 8 points in the entire game.

On the other hand, there was a groundswell of Seahawks support from the outset. As early as Tuesday last week we had Seattle pegged as favorites, according to the 20 or so analysts who had picked by that point. The Broncos slowly began to assume the favorite tag as media week began, leading to 57% of experts finally going with Denver at kick-off time.

Most importantly though - and those of you following us on twitter will know already - all three of our top experts in 2013 (John Halpin, Gregg Rosenthal and Prediction Machine) went with the Seahawks. This isn't the first time, and it won't be the last time that following the best experts works out a lot better than simply going with the majority. Many of you have been in touch over the season to say just how much Pickwatch helps you make the right decisions week-in, week-out, so it was nice to highlight that in the biggest game of all.

Our final standings are now available above, incorporating both regular season and playoff data. Let us know if there are any other things you'd like to see in the comments. We try to read and respond to everybody who takes the time to contribute.

It's been a great season for us here at Pickwatch, we've enjoyed hearing from our readers and fans across the world. All of the feedback and suggestions have been noted (trust me, it's a big-ass file...) and I can guarantee next year the site will have 100x as many features presented in a much clearer way. You'll be able to interact with the data any way you see fit to get the best results for whichever game you're picking.

Our next focus is the NFL draft in May. We'll be gathering scouting reports, mock drafts and other analysis to build an ongoing draft compendium, giving you a chance to see who knows their Russell Wilson's from their Vernon Gholston's.

That's all for now, but follow us on Twitter for the latest on our new projects, and if you have any suggestions at all for our upgraded site, let us know!


Monday, 20 January 2014

Pickwatch Super Bowl Picks

Well it's the morning after the night before, or rather it's the afternoon after the night... you get the idea. Time has passed.

I just wanted to update you on what we have planned for Super Bowl week. With 2 weeks to prepare (5 of which I will actually spend in the beautiful city of Amsterdam in Holland) we'll be bringing you some cool stats relating to all the expert Super Bowl picks we can find.
Richard Sherman. Possibly.

Top of the list is to use our database to bring you situational stats for Denver and Seattle this season. We'll be showing who has picked the Seahawks and Broncos well, who has predicted their upsets, how many times they have picked them, and of course, all of the usual trends and analysis you might expect.

We'll also be updating our table with Super Bowl picks from tomorrow evening. They may be thin on the ground, but we'll cover everyone we can, including those experts who aren't usually featured in Pickwatch.

As always, thanks for taking the time to read our work, it means a lot.

Shaun 

Saturday, 18 January 2014

NFC Conference Championship Best Expert Picks: San Francisco 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks

The NFC title game is - for the second time in four years - a divisional struggle. This time it's the turn of the NFC West, and if you'd have told me three years ago that the NFC West would have the two best teams in the conference, I'd have got genuinely angry with you and possibly stood on your foot to emphasise it. Seriously I'd have been really annoyed.

Here's why I like the 49ers: Firstly, remember this is just one opinion, and Pickwatch is a site of many, so if you don't like this one, that's absolutely fine. Now, the reason I see the 49ers winning is that they have hit full-stride at the exact right time of the season, whereas the Seahawks appear to have stagnated somewhat since mid-season. Sure they've had some impressive wins, but they feel like a team that is lacking offensive momentum, and the way the Saints passed on them last week - and rushed to a certain extent - leaves question marks about their defensive stability.

As much as I like Russell Wilson, it's no secret that he is a game-changer, and like I said about Brady yesterday, when the game is on the line there are few players better, but I think the 49ers will stuff Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks may find themselves desperately trying to figure out how to move the ball by the second half. Colin Kaepernick has  Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, whereas WIlson has some solid but unspectacular guys like Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin.

To put it in a nutshell (whatever that even means), I think the Seahawks are in real trouble if the 49ers take away the run, but if the Seahawks shut down Frank Gore, the 49ers can still win through the air. 

Sometimes you have to stop over-thinking these things...

San Francisco 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks (6:30pm)

Matchup Difficulty: 80.58% (the higher the score, the better the experts' success rate when picking these two teams. An 'average' matchup would be 62%) 
Consensus:  Seattle 64%
Top Overall:  Seattle 81.8%