If you’ve been following my columns this year, (which I’m sure most of you haven’t, but hi, mom!) you’ve probably noticed I’m “the politics guy.” That is to say, I’m the Oppy staffer who got stuck with putting political opinions in a public space where they can do me only personal and professional harm. But did you know I’m into sports, too?
I’ve written about it for The Oppy once or twice, and would you believe I wrote about it professionally once upon a time? If you need any indication for how respected my critical eye was in the world of sports journalism, well, I’m in business school now. Once in a while, however, I’m fortunate enough to see my two journalistic loves cross paths, and this week, as one of the great sages of our age put it, worlds are colliding. But unlike Mr. Costanza, no one is killing Independent Dave. On the contrary, I love everything about this.
Let’s rewind a bit to this past week’s Sunday Night Football showdown between the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos, a game I did not expect to be remotely competitive. After all, this was a matchup between the best all-around team in football and an opponent that couldn’t even field a quarterback the week before. But what looked at the outset like a lopsided dirge in the making was turned on its head by an unexpected addition. No, not Drew Lock, a real, live NFL quarterback wearing a Broncos uniform. I am talking about the one and only thing that could truly take Sunday Night Football to the next level.
I’m talking, of course, about Steve Kornacki.
Yes, I see you there, staring at this screen with a furrowed brow, but even if you missed the broadcast, don’t pretend you don’t know who I’m talking about. If there was any star born during the 2020 election, it was neither of the candidates nor their running mates. Instead, it was the bespectacled human Excel doc crunching the numbers during those four sleepless nights in November. Someone recognized a khaki-wearing gold mine in NBC’s family of networks and made the greatest decision in sports broadcasting since the score bug.
“You should write about this for business school.”
That’s my wife. She’s brilliant. And, apparently, she doesn’t need an MBA to recognize the fertile territory that is analyzing this particular bit of corporate synergy. But why write an incisive, ground-breaking, almost-certainly Pulitzer-caliber paper on this for one of my EMT courses, when I could simply jibber jabber about it in The Oppy for 1,000 words with no parameters or stakes whatsoever?
The choice is clear. Let’s get into the nitty gritty.
Kornacki, whom I will henceforth refer to as Steve since we spent so much quality time together in November I assume we’re besties, was a fount of tremendous data-based insights Sunday night. In multiple appearances across Football Night in America and the SNF halftime show, Steve took his usual position at the big video board and parsed the NFL’s complex playoff picture into the easily-digestible nuggets we came to love in campaign season.
By relaying the info from Pro Football Focus, Steve gave us all the pertinent numbers. We now know why Minnesota, despite jumping into the seventh playoff spot in the NFC, is still a lower-percentage chance to make it than Arizona, which is currently on the outside looking in. He told us how the Jets, with the most inexplicable and yet Jets-like defensive play call in recent memory, took the Raiders’ postseason hopes from very unlikely to a virtual coin flip. And he showed how the Giants’ stunning upset in Seattle has them in a shockingly good position to win the NFC East. I bring this up not because of my lifetime of Giants fandom, but because it was wildly entertaining analysis. Though it does bear mentioning that the Giants, left for dead a month ago, are in first place with firm control of their own destiny.
Sorry, not sure that you got that. The New York Football Giants, who reached the season’s halfway mark at 1-7, are now in first place. Interesting, huh?
Anywho, while Sunday night gave us a raucous entree into Steve’s new career as my favorite sports analyst, what should have numbers-minded football fans excited is not the effective cross-promotion and critical analysis we already know Steve for. No no. What we should be most excited about going forward is the potential. We all love seeing Steve poke and drag on his supersized tablet screen, but what if he blended his insights across both disciplines? When you look at the cross-section of professional football and America’s wacky political map, there are endless possibilities.
Who better to tell us if Erie County’s late-arriving absentee ballots will reaffirm its status as a bellwether? The Browns’ chances of sealing their first playoff berth in 18 years or the likelihood that the Steelers earn the top seed may hinge on the numbers. What’s the probability of fans in the suburbs of Cobb County dropping off season ticket rolls if the Falcons suffer a third-consecutive losing season? Will polling places in Maricopa County ultimately decide who wins the NFC West now that the Cardinals and 49ers both call it home?
This is the forum Kornacki-like analysis was meant for.
Now, don’t worry. Steve is still at his day job. But his addition to NBC’s Sunday Night Football team is a masterstroke. In a season when postponed kickoffs and Wednesday afternoon games have altered our perception of time and space, Steve is the totem that keeps us steady and helps us make sense of it all. I, for one, am grateful.
Football has always been a sport with an evolving strategy, and an evolving understanding of how the numbers impact the outcome. In recent years, the game has begged for a voice that can explain why using second-half timeouts early is wasteful, why teams shouldn’t blindly accept penalties at the expense of a lost down, or why, for goodness sakes, you should probably be going for it on fourth down most of the time.
The time is right for Steve, and NBC has given us the thing we didn’t know we needed. Teams across the NFL have beefed up their analytics departments in recent seasons, and the revolution is finally coming home. Look no further than Monday night, when the Bills and 49ers each passed up easy field goals on their opening drives in favor of going for it on fourth and goal. We should dive even further. Just imagine where the Jets might be this morning if they had a defensive coordinator who understood the low probability of stopping the deep ball when you rush eight defenders. On Monday, Jets coach Adam Gase fired defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. The final straw had to be the implausibly strange decision to leave an entire defensive backfield in single coverage when a 40-plus-yard touchdown was literally the only outcome that would beat you. I can only assume Gase had one thought when he made the coaching change:
“Man, where’s Steve when you need him?”
He’s right here, Adam. Maybe he’ll stick around for a while.