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Smokescreen Season: How the NFL Uses and Abuses the Media

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If you have a disdain for sensationalized sports journalism that's more interested in inciting riots than going deeper than the surface, then you'll take great satisfaction in how the media gets played like a fiddle during smokescreen season leading up to the NFL Draft.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps it's the Average Joe Philbin in me, but I cherish the vicarious experience of watching the media chase their tails like a dog during smokescreen season in the NFL. Remember that commercial for "Beggin' Strips" for dogs? "BACON! BACON! BACON! I SMELL BACON!" If an NFL team wants to spread some misinformation, they will find a member of the media to prey on and push their agenda. Not that the national media needs help to look stupid, but I love that NFL teams use their "means to an end" philosophy to dangle the media like puppets in the NFL's version of House of Cards. In these private team meetings, teams not only work on stacking their draft boards with "good information", but discuss in earnest how to spread bad information. Everything is done methodically.

As a young pup, I wrote a FanPost about trying to decipher the smokescreen code. I believe the tenets remain the same 2 years later. This article stands to build on what we learned a couple years ago, specifically how the NFL uses the media to its advantage to intentionally mislead and misinform to keep their intentions secret - it's the NFL teams' desire to hide in plain sight because there is no other option in their media-saturated environment. But as we'll discover, smokescreens are not just a counterintelligence enterprise, but a PR mechanism as well.

On April 24, 2012, a former St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams scout, Russ Lande, gave an interview on ESPN's Bob and Groz. Lande is now one of the few resident experts on smokescreens, as he is no longer a scout or NFL personnel, but coincidentally, a blogger and draft analyst for the Sporting News. Here is the radio segment in its entirety.

Teams are constantly trying to [feed reporters and media bad information]. I mean, the perfect example, this morning, I got a text message from someone that works for a team saying, 'Hey, just finished final meetings - if Michael Brockers is there, he is definitely our pick.'

No one's going to tell anybody that!

And clearly, I know this guy, and I consider him, not a friend but an acquaintance, and [Groz: And he's using you!]... They all are!

When you think about it, the media probably cares very little that they're getting played: they still get to generate clicks and traffic, despite the near certainty that the information is false. It's really a win-win for both parties. Although fans complain about the limited scope and accuracy of national sports media publications, we still go right on clicking, hoping that we've stumbled upon an actual nugget of truth. But what intrigued me is that smokescreens can be leaked for other reasons, namely to save face in the age of "group think":

They do everything they can to get names out there. And, sometimes teams also put stuff in the press so if they want to take a guy higher than everybody projects him to go, they won't get killed in the media because someone will put the name out there. That's one of the rumors that everyone says about when the Chiefs took Tyson Jackson a few years ago, out of LSU, most teams had him as a 3rd, 4th rounder, a lot of people believed that the Chiefs put the word out there that he was an elite prospect so when they took him 3rd overall, they wouldn't get a lot of backlash. Except, the fact that he's been a flop now, now they can get punished for it.

Totally makes sense, too. Ct and I have had this discussion on other threads: "group think" is job security. If you go out on a limb for a player and it backfires, that costs you your job if it doesn't pan out. Winning teams like the Patriots*** and Seahawks can afford to take calculated risks because, well, they win. In the New England Patriots'*** case, they could take a punter in the 1st round and it would be seen as genius. Their relative success as organizations can mitigate the fallout of a busted pick because they win despite it. Most middle-of-the-road and below-average teams leak information to try and counter the "group think" in order to save face if they plan on reaching for a player, especially considering the whiff rate in the NFL Draft. Speaking of whiff, DAMN, you might think my one-year-old ate Taco Bell last night. I'll be back in a minute.

(removes gas mask and biohazard gear)

OK, thank you for your patience.

The NFL is a brotherhood business, as we see all the time that connectedness gets you a job. If you're like me, I know my wife is going to lie before any words actually come out of her mouth. Lande had something to say about friends in the business and the interplay between trusted relationships and the information that gets sent to the public. In other words, how does someone like Lande, who knows the smokescreen landscape, pick and choose what gets published in an article?

"You know, the only ones that I'll put out there are from the ones that I know and trust immensely, and are really good about stuff. They'll say, 'Hey, I'm willing to tell you the position we're going to address, if you promise me you'll use the guy's name in the mock draft, that I want used.'"

"And to me, that's a fair tradeoff, because for me, at least I can narrow down what they're looking for. And, I just promise not to use a few names and just use a few other names in the mock drafts. And that's a fair tradeoff for me. But you have to be very careful of who you're dealing with, and you have to remember the relationship you've had with them, because everybody lies, and this is the part of the year where the best guys in the business won't even talk to their best friends in the league, because they don't want to have to lie to them."

Again, this speaks to my intuition that it's hard to lie to someone you know and respect. As hard as this would be to decipher and measure, I think the take-home message is this: the stronger the relationship between the media member and the "leak" of the information, the more likely it is that the information has a kernel of truth. Now, in this circumstance, the "leak" won't be revealed if it's between two trusted parties, giving us no actionable data. In other words, it would have to be a serious slip of the tongue if we had the ability to see the connection between the media member and the source of the information. On the other hand, if you're a young, aspiring journalist, you're running with whatever information you're given. My guess is that NFL executives use these impressionable, ambitious journalists to serve their needs - they're easier to play, all the while protecting the relationships with others that have been forged for years.

Normally, where there's smoke, there's fire. During NFL smokescreen season, where there's smoke, there's a big steaming pile of poo poo. I know what you're thinking: that's not mutually exclusive, SUTTON, couldn't  the pile of poo poo be in a bag and lit on fire like in Billy Madison? You know what I mean, smart ass. Here is a small list of other things (some of which were taken by my smokescreen article 2 years ago) to consider during smokescreen season:

  • If you're pigeonholed into a specific need (e.g. QB), smokescreens aren't very effective. NFL teams will see through that in a heartbeat.
  • The more detailed a GM, coach, or NFL executive is in talking about a player, the more likely it is they are NOT selecting that player. One of the cardinal rules of smokescreen season is to not talk about specific players that you actually like. Put another way: don't connect yourself with someone you actually like. Teams initiate smokescreens, they don't respond to them - unless they WANT to. If they do respond, it's highly likely they are lying through their teeth.
  • Televised interviews with NFL personnel about a team's approach to the draft or about specific draftees are usually scripted, or kept intentionally vague, as to avoid the discomfort of being asked a direct question about a player a team might actually be targeting. Actual information puts a team at a competitive disadvantage, and putting your team in that situation might get your ass a pink slip. When information leaked about the Redskins desire to draft Jason Campbell, there was a full in-house investigation.
  • Don't read into GM "non-speak". They have to meet with the media. Most of what they say are blanket statements, or so vague that it can be interpreted a million different ways. If they are looking "to improve every position on the club and get the best 53 players we possibly can", that does NOT mean they are skeptical about Jarvis Landry's ability.
There you have it, my brethren. Take these smokescreen by-laws into consideration, but every situation and every smokescreen is different. If you have a smokescreen to discuss, leave it in the comments section and let's hash it out! Normally, I'd tell you to keep an open mind as you approach life. When it comes to NFL smokescreens, you might as well assume you're getting spoon-fed hot garbage. It's what teams are NOT saying that actually means something. Unlike Bob Marley, don't inhale if you find yourself tempted by the smoke. Exhale only. It might just be the difference between passing a drug test and being a Jets fan.