ESPN Michael Wilbon analytics ESPN’s Michael Wilbon once again railed on “analytics” on ‘Pardon the Interruption.’ Credit: ESPN

The wave of new information, or in simpler terms “analytics,” has already taken over the sports world in the 21st century. Teams and front offices are more progressive, advanced-thinking, and meticulous than ever. Data has never been both more accessible and more in-depth. The things you can track in the sports world range from incredible to insane. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell, but we’re probably better off for all this stuff. Unless you find yourself still treating analytics like it’s a bogeyman. ESPN’s Michael Wilbon has notoriously been anti-analytics over the years. From the sounds of it, he hasn’t wavered off that stance.

Wilbon has been incredibly consistent on this front. He’s held an anti-analytics stance since at least 2015. It’s not just about football, either. He’s remarked about analytics in baseball and in basketball as well.

On Monday’s ‘Pardon the Interruption,’ Wilbon and host Tony Kornheiser discussed, among other things, the Detroit Lions’ victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A “controversial” moment in the game became a topic of discussion. The Buccaneers trailed the Lions by 14 points. Tampa Bay scored a touchdown to move the margin of defeat to eight points. They were faced with a decision: Go for 2 to cut the deficit to six or kick the extra point to make it seven.

Tampa Bay chose to go for two. They missed and then trailed by eight points. Eventually, the Buccaneers lost the game on a Baker Mayfield interception attempt on their final drive. That decision, not surprisingly, loomed somewhat large and became a discussion point.

Enter Wilbon, who, of course, railed against the idea of “the analytics” saying to go for it.

“The two-conversion attempt that left them eight down, don’t start me with the two-point conversion. The analytics say go for it. Do the analytics say go for it no matter who’s going for it? So if you and I were on the field, the analytics say go for it?

“It’s the stupidest, laziest, lamest thing I’ve ever heard for reasoning in competition. And I hate when announcers buy it without questioning it,” Wilbon said.

To answer Wilbon‘s question, they would likely say to go for it. Unbiased statistics don’t care who you are, how you play, or what you do. They’ll generally tell you to go for it if the down and distance are manageable, among other things like two-point conversions.

However, Wilbon is correct in one regard, although not in the way he might think. It is lazy to use a term like “analytics” and do it in such a broad-stroking way that it blankets everything. Because the players also need to execute at the end of the day. Simply keeping it in that house does nothing for the players’ accountability. If anything, stopping the operation at the coach itself absolves everything else. And that’s not to damn the players, but part of helping things along would be to extend the conversation and add more nuance to it.

Because while we might live in a results-based world, there’s no need to be regressive in how we react to failed tries. Sometimes, players just don’t execute. Sometimes, the defense does their job and makes it tougher on the offense. But after the distance for extra points was pushed back in 2015, a change in thinking occurred. And so did a change in probability, and like NBC’s Cris Collinsworth explained, the Bucs made a reasonable, logical decision.

To the other part of Wilbon’s argument? It doesn’t really hold a lot of weight. MLB’s Statcast-based broadcasts and Amazon’s Prime Vision broadcasts for ‘Thursday Night Football’ have been legitimate breakthroughs in sports broadcast TV. But on the traditional wave, there’s still a lot of work to do. Commentators, on the whole, really haven’t bought into it.

The length of the conversations isn’t often long. There are no “data” or “analytic” experts on most broadcasts, even while broadcast crews have added officiating experts and have reporters on both sidelines. It’s often just the lead play-by-play man and color commentator, who might banter over it. Maybe that’s not “questioning” it, but we’re only two years removed from this segment on CBS’ ‘The NFL Today,’ which largely revolved around… the same conversation that we’re having now.

And in other sports? John Smoltz has become a lightning rod for his anti-new age thinking and critique. It’s hard to ever recall a situation where he wasn’t.

While sometimes the bad-faithers can spoil the bunch, what’s true is this: “Analytics” is not a broad-stroke term. All it simply refers to is data that teams have at their disposal, and it lets them play the percentages. Not unlike finding platoon hitters in baseball, or finding the sweet spot on a shot chart for a basketball player, down-and-distance data will live on and be utilized unbiasedly. Until the talking heads figure out how to talk about it in a way that doesn’t treat the term like a bogeyman, they’ll have to settle.

Similarly, sports leagues and their broadcast partners clearly owe it to the fans and viewers of their product to get as informed and proper a product as they can. If the leagues, especially the NFL, are so obsessed with rules experts and making sure the fans know their inconsistent rulebook (which might be generous) then there’s no reason why they can’t add a data expert. Like with anything, viewers want to understand what’s happening and why. The conversations should exist before and after while also understanding that sometimes, in a results-based world, you will fail. But that doesn’t mean that another referendum needs to be set every time that a team fails to do its job either.

The numbers, or “analytics,” aren’t going anywhere. That war, if you were fighting against it, has already been lost. It’s clear that the next forward-thinking step has to be to find a way to cut down on this silliness once and for all.

[Awful Announcing]

About Chris Novak

Chris Novak has been talking and writing about sports ever since he can remember. Previously, Novak wrote for and managed sites in the SB Nation network for nearly a decade from 2013-2022