The Baltimore Ravens are flirting with the future of sports decision-making, and it’s both populist and grand.
No longer must front-office executives take the weight of the world on their shoulders when deciding whether to trade prospects for established talent at the deadline, or whether to value consistency over potential in the draft, or whether to sign a somewhat controversial quarterback during training camp. Why should the hard stuff be left up to coaches, GMs and owners, when they can just crowdsource those headaches, and let the fans and sponsors decide? They don’t even need to pay for scientific public-opinion polling. A good Twitter poll should do the trick.
The Ravens, as you know, seem pretty well set at quarterback this season, between an injured Joe Flacco and a perfectly healthy Ryan Mallett, who managed to hit the under on “5.5 interceptions” during a recent practice session by throwing just five picks. And yet the troubling suggestion has been raised that the Ravens might get into the Colin Kaepernick business.
It’s a complicated call. Mallett has tossed more interceptions than touchdowns in his brief and itinerant career, while Kaepernick has thrown more than twice as many touchdowns as interceptions. Mallett has eight regular season starts — which is two more than Kaepernick has (playoff) starts. Mallett has thrown at least one touchdown in six games. Kaepernick has thrown at least two touchdowns in 22 games. Mallett has a rushing touchdown. Kaepernick does, too, times 13.
Anyhow, I wouldn’t trust myself to make an NFL front-office decision of this magnitude, or even pick between two water boys, really. But I would trust Matt from Pasadena. This is a cutthroat, win-or-be-fired, bottom-line business, which is why no major decision should be made without Matt from Pasadena’s guidance. There’s an untapped efficiency opportunity in constructing your team via sports-radio callers from Dundalk, and the Ravens have jammed phone lines. Rack ’em. Rack all of ’em.
“The Ravens have gauged public opinion on signing Kaepernick, and they’ve found a very split response,” the team’s website reported this week.
“All I would ask is to just talk to your neighbors and your friends and your co-workers, because I think you’ll just get the same sense that I got, that wow every time I hear something negative I hear something positive, and sometimes it shocks me who it’s coming from,” owner Steve Bisciotti told a group of fans, when asked whether signing Kaepernick could hurt the team’s brand. “So I hope we do what is best for the team and balance that with what’s best for our fans. And your opinions matter to us.”
Now, it’s possible that the team is just paying lip service to these fan opinions, while actually relying on its football people to make football decisions. It’s possible the team won’t run its final cuts past Matt in Pasadena before setting its 53-man roster. It’s possible we haven’t yet reached our free-agency-by-plebiscite future.
But imagine the possibilities of a world in which big sports decisions are crowdsourced, as the Ravens are apparently doing with their quarterback room. Do you think, for example, that Redskins fans would have made such an embarrassingly low opening bid to Kirk Cousins this offseason? I mean, they would have at least added a couple pieces of lettuce to that ham sandwich the Redskins offered.
Or what about the Jonathan Papelbon trade? There’s no chance a majority of Nationals fans would have voted to bring in the hated Phillies reliever, in the process displacing the beloved Drew Storen. Bryce Harper would have been choked one fewer time. And if Storen had remained the Nats closer, he wouldn’t have blown those two setup man chances during that disastrous series against the Mets. Appealing to the fans might have saved General Manager Mike Rizzo from himself.
You don’t think Wizards fans could have helped their team? How do you think the fan poll would have gone when the Wizards asked whether fans wanted to use a high first-round pick on a raw and skinny big man from the Czech Republic who struggled shooting free throws? Or when the team sold second-round picks for cash? Or when the team changed its name to Wizards? (Okay, ignore that one.)
The Redskins could have crowdsourced their message after firing Scot McCloughan; maybe they would have avoided the “anonymously blame alcohol abuse” angle. The Nats still could crowdsource their daily lineup, giving special precedence to mid-day listeners on 106.7 the Fan. D.C. United could crowdsource its offensive formation; should the Black and Red score zero goals with a 4-4-2, or score zero goals with a 4-3-3, or score zero goals with a 4-5-1? If the Caps had crowdsourced their expansion draft plans, Nate Schmidt might still be grinning madly in Arlington instead of in Vegas.
The Ravens situation obviously is a bit different. This is an organization well-versed in handling simple decisions: how to welcome back a player who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, or one who struck his fiancee. This franchise already knows how to sell potentially explosive personnel decisions to its fan base. So if the Ravens are now turning to that fan base for guidance, this case — a player with an unpopular political stance — must be truly flammable.
There is, to be sure, another approach other than turning this matter over to the people. These franchise leaders — who are paid handsomely to make hard choices — could theoretically trust themselves to make good and fair football decisions, based not on the popularity of a political stance but on the on-field needs of their team. They could take on the responsibility of selling those decisions to the fans, secure in the knowledge that wise football choices will ultimately be rewarded. They could acknowledge that some fans might disagree with their choice — whatever that choice might be — but refuse to allow their front office to be programmed by fans and sponsors, lest draft day choices soon be turned over to PepsiCo, or a show of hands, or a Twitter poll.
“We’re trying to figure out what’s the right tack,” Bisciotti told the fans. “And so pray for us.”
Maybe the Holy Trinity can take a vote on the matter.
More on the NFL: