The use of anonymous sources has become more prevalent in journalism over the years. On-the-record, named sources are always preferable because attaching a real name to information or opinions adds layers of accountability to them. At the same time, trusted anonymous sources can be absolutely critical for attaining important but sensitive information in a timely manner.
The debate over the use of anonymous sources isn’t close to as important in our highest levels of football as it is in our highest levels of government, but a recent (and typical) ESPN piece caught my eye.
It was a standard June piece carrying the headline, “NFL executives grade every team’s 2017 offseason.” It’s under the “Insider” umbrella, and I’m both a subscriber plus someone who clicked on the headline. So I could be considered part of a certain core audience.
All 32 teams are given grades, with some of the criteria apparently gleaned from comments made by NFL executives who are quoted anonymously throughout the piece. Again, it’s unlikely that someone like Vikings GM Rick Spielman — for example, though I have no idea if he’s one of the anonymously quoted execs — would want to be on the record ripping or praising other teams. So it makes sense that if we want honest assessments this is the route to go.
On the other hand, executives given free license to talk freely about other teams might embellish or overstate opinions — or even push agendas they think would help their team while hurting others.
All of that brings us to the few paragraphs on the Vikings. Minnesota is given an offseason grade of C-minus. That might sound close to average, but you have to realize there were only four teams below them (three Ds and a D-plus) and three other C-minus teams. So if we’re dividing things into four quadrants — excellent, above average, decent and below average — they were in the last category.
The item starts by questioning how well the Vikings’ offensive line will hold up even after adding new tackles Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff. It’s an absolutely fair question, and the first quote from an anonymous executive is a general statement that applies across the league:
“For a lot of these teams, the question is, ‘Will their tackles hold up?’ A lot of these teams have one decent offensive tackle, one who they are hoping is a low- to mid-level starter and then they have no idea who the third guy is going to be. Tackle depth is going to determine the fates of a lot of these teams.”
The author (Mike Sando, who does a very good job) goes on to note that Vikings QB Sam Bradford has limited mobility, making offensive line play even more critical. But then an anonymous personnel director is quoted saying he liked the Vikings’ pick of Dalvin Cook but questions how much impact the running back will have.
The exec’s overall assessment is that the Vikings “are starting to go backwards just a little bit.”
That’s a reasonable opinion to hold considering the Vikings went 3-8 in their final 11 games last season and still have plenty of roster questions. But here’s where we also must try to decipher the motivations of whomever said that. We are offered no clues about the executive’s role or affiliation other than it is a personnel director.
Was it someone from a rival team trying to create an early narrative that the Vikings are on the decline? Was it someone from an AFC team who has less exposure to the Vikings? Was it someone repeating a consensus opinion from talking to other executives?
Nobody knows, so let’s leave it at this: feel free to worry about the Vikings, but don’t worry about what one anonymous executive has to say about them.