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DK Metcalf’s infinite route tree

Arizona Cardinals v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

DK Metcalf posed a novel answer to the question How many routes are in a full route tree?

Metcalf doesn’t regularly run every point of the morningstar. Even when he’s targeted an awful lot, he runs goes, crosses and outs.

It’s a crooked forest for sure. Now people may think I’m dogging DK when I write this, but I’m not! I am satirizing the often technocratic nature of scouting. There are endless intentionally obscure ways of describing the relatively simple act of playing football. How many routes a receiver can run on a route tree is one of them, and I think it’s pretty foolish. Supposedly the management of a sports team, and the coverage of sports in general, is smarter than ever, but I really, really doubt it.

I recently got bored enough with YouTube and Prime to get Netflix again. Netflix has this infernal feature in which a user cannot browse their catalogue without being constantly accosted by previews. For the unintentionally hilarious preview to Les Miserables, I thank them. But, mostly, it makes it impossible to navigate and in general frustrating. I’ve read but never watched Moneyball. I’ve tried to watch Moneyball but the book just sits there doing nothing.

The preview for the movie is always the same. Handsome Brad Pitt looks with extreme contempt at a bunch of paunchy old guys, because that’s an acceptable form of bigotry in this day and age, as they reveal their stupidity through misuse of statistics and reliance on dated argot. These men are meant to represent the scouts of the Oakland Athletics, and subtextually, an old dying system which is really just an organized form of prejudice.

The film seemed to mark statistical analysis’s breakthrough into the mainstream. After a decade or so of pop nonfiction, blogs, and the like touting the incredible power of statistical analysis, here was the jeering face of a bona fide A-list celebrity to permanently rewrite the boundaries. Nerd guy, he’s cool. Wanna be cool? Quote nerd guy or be nerd guy, but don’t be the dinosaur who rejects the validity of statistical analysis.

And, as this stuff has historically gone, a new efficiency has been created. It is more important than ever to understand which metrics are bogus, which authors are claiming conclusions their metrics do not support, and which conclusions while supported by data are preposterous if analyzed through common sense. If I were a GM, I wouldn’t just have an analytics department, I would have an analytics ombudsman who could help me sort through all the bullshit. In the past 10 years the ratio of good work to BS has gone from 1:10 to something like 1:1,000. In my newly nice middle age, I won’t name names, but holy shit. It’s a fricken morass.

Which gets me back to DK and the truthiness of his limited route tree. DK didn’t produce enough in college. DK didn’t score well enough in agility drills. DK was injured. If some poor sap were transported from 1995 to 2019, one of those scouts we’ve come to malign, I would guess they would say something very different about DK Metcalf, draft prospect. That’s he’s a motherf—kin’ stud. And indeed he is, because playing wide receiver in the NFL is not achieved through narrow and specific means. It’s achieved through whatever works, and, big reveal, being faster and bigger than the opposing defensive back works an awful lot.

A lot of what is called smart in 2020 would be described as pseudoscience by Richard Feynman. People associate that word with microbubbles, and orgastic potency, and transplantation of goat testicles to cure impotence, to name a few examples, but Feynman being Feynman takes a harder and more controversial stance.

“Because of the success of science, there is a kind of ... pseudoscience that ... follows the forms, but they don’t get any laws. They haven’t found anything. What happens, on an even more mundane level, is we get experts on everything. That sound like they’re sort of scientific. They’re not scientists. ... There’s all sorts of myths and pseudosciences all over the place. ... Now maybe I’m wrong but I don’t think I’m wrong. See I have the advantage of knowing how hard it is to get to really know something. How careful you have to be about checking the experiments. How easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it means to know something. ... I see how they get their information, and I can’t believe that they know it. They haven’t done the work necessary, haven’t done the checks necessary, and the care necessary. I have a great suspicion, that they don’t know this stuff is [inaudible] and that they’re intimidating people.”

In 2020, one of the few ways to get a good job as a sports writer is through creation of a metric. One has to seem stat savvy, at the least. Never before has being a sports writer depended less on quality writing or actual knowledge of the sport. You’re either beholden to your sources, beholden to your metric, or beholden to the sheer throughput of your posting. In other words, you have to be cheap and fast, crooked, or intimidatingly “smart.” As stats became mainstream, stats became standard, and if you wanted to be allowed to run a franchise or even just gainfully comment about a sport, you had to prove you were not just stat savvy but stat friendly.

Once DK got that stank on him, once it was “smart” to notice his flaws more than his features, he was marked. In retrospect, Metcalf tearfully asking Pete Carroll “Why y’all wait this long?” is not just cathartic but a fully justified cry of outrage. Why? What miasma of ignorance obscured one of the better wide receiver talents to ever enter the league?

I don’t know how many types of routes must be mastered for a wide receiver to be great. Presumably, if talented enough, one would suffice. The whole fixation on Metcalf’s route tree seems like a new kind of nonsense. Within even a simple route, an out for instance, there are infinite permutations. Look at Metcalf’s charts. There are no right angles, no overlapping lines. Usain Bolt didn’t need fifteen different types of stride to win the 200m. Pete Sampras didn’t need fifteen types of serves to win matches. Incredible talent and a few techniques mastered produce infinite permutations of winning performance.

Metcalf gave us a new route to puzzle over last Thursday.

What should we call that? The seal? The tilting lady? The asp? The doublecross? I’m partial to the “tilting lady.”

It’s two simple crossing routes linked by a disorganized scramble upfield. As trees go, it would look funny even on Slope Point. But it was so damn cool! It was cool because it was novel and it worked. Originality and effectiveness, it’s not something you deduce through regression analyses.

I hope whenever this Moneyball fad blows over, when we collectively realize that blind faith in anything science-like is as ignorant as blind rejection of anything nerdy, we remember that the job of a team executive is stacking damn cool, that is great, coaches and players. That if you chum the water charlatans will circle like sharks. That losers chase trends, and the moment Whitesnake is being certified for a platinum record, Nirvana’s out there playing some dive bar. And that nothing, nothing, reeks of mediocrity and failure like the whiff of the common cool.

The Seahawks won a Super Bowl, the coolest of the cool, by bravely believing in their own weird, out-of-step player evaluations. Drafting Metcalf may have reopened the window for winning another. Not just because he’s playing like an inner circle Hall of Fame wide receiver, but because, I hope! he reminded Pete Carroll and John Schneider about the weird old school Seahawks of nearly 10 years ago, who never seemed to win a trade or draft or signing, but won damn near every game.