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Why today's NFL is a paradise for nerds

Raised in 1980s Denver, caught in the grips of Broncomania, Crave's Eric Mack later stopped following the NFL for 15 years. This year he jumped back on the Broncos bandwagon and quickly felt more at home than ever.

Peyton Manning, the NFL's most valuable nerd.
Getty Images

It's often hard to remember many things about being a kid in Denver in the late 1980s and 1990s that don't involve the Denver Broncos, John Elway, or football. Sundays were for watching the games, leaving six full days a week to talk about them at school and with strangers on Prodigy or AOL. The off-season brought the NFL draft and time to trade collectible cards of the players (Prodigy and AOL were good for this too) and play Tecmo Bowl.

The struggles of a scrappy team and its Hall of Fame quarterback to finally win the coveted Vince Lombardi trophy during those years often seemed to parallel my own travails as an awkward tween, adolescent, and pretty terrible high school tight end/strong safety in my own right. During the same era that girlfriends, good grades, and my own big wins on the field escaped me, the Broncos made eight playoff and three Super Bowl appearances -- all of which ended in disappointing and sometimes embarrassing losses.

I don't think I was alone in commiserating with that team in those years. Denver itself spent much of the 1980s in the grips of recession, a beautiful but isolated and landlocked cowtown without much of the glamor, appeal, or bright future of shinier places like California or New York that many of us secretly longed for. A team, a city, and its individual teenage citizens were on the verge of something greater that always seemed just out of reach.

Catharsis for a team, a city and a blogger. Video screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

Then 1997 happened.

I graduated, moved to the West Coast for college, got a girlfriend, good grades, and gave up the gridiron in favor of the theater and nights spent in the computer lab programming -- I finally embraced my inner nerd wholeheartedly. Back in Denver, the dot-com and housing booms were transforming the city seemingly overnight -- suddenly Californians and New Yorkers were moving in by the thousands. And the Broncos and their aging quarterback had fought their way into another Super Bowl appearance.

On January 25, 1998, as the clock ran out on Super Bowl XXXII, the Broncos claimed their first-ever NFL championship, and my college roommate -- also a Denver native -- and I hugged and ran screaming out of an Oregon dormitory with tears in our eyes, running laps around a completely indifferent liberal arts school campus and shouting our joy to an empty quad. It was a moment of catharsis experienced, I'd like to think, by millions of Coloradans and fans at the same moment.

Then I stopped caring about football.

I moved to San Francisco in the middle of college to join what seemed like the nerd revolution. When that collapsed, I devoted my time to becoming more of a literaryrural hipster type, a politics and policy nerd during the George W. Bush era, and eventually the science and technology blogger that types before you today. After being raised on the NFL, I took a 15-year leave of absence from the ranks of fandom.

For some reason, last summer I decided I missed that part of my life. Since August, I've been getting reacquainted with the Denver Broncos, the NFL, and a remarkable genius/gladiator named Peyton Manning. The differences between the game today and the one that I grew up with are myriad. The rules, culture, incredible athleticism, and dangers involved in an average NFL game seem to have progressed radically, but the most surprising revelation about today's NFL to me is the fact that it has become an absolute nerd's paradise while I was away.

A game for geeks
While it's easy to make the case that football is a more violent game than ever played by men who sometimes seem like super humanoids from an alternate universe, it's also populated with plenty of nerds. Sure, he's a jock, but watch a few interviews and profiles of Peyton Manning and tell me he's not also a nerd. Dude is a human algorithm crunching the data of opposing defenses' every move.

Daniel Terdiman/CNET

More than ever, NFL football is one of the few ways to watch a humanized drama of competing data sets translated into complex strategies that are then carried out through the insane speed and strength of 22 humanoids. With far fewer games making up a season than the other three major pro sports, each play of each game can be crucial, and each movement on the field is the product of intense study -- not only of an internal team strategy, but also of every move that each player on the opposing team has made in his season, if not his entire career.

This has always been the case, of course, but today's NFL is bigger business than ever, raising the stakes and the value of all this data. The game today is not just the fusion of speed and strength with some basic strategies that I remember from my youth. It has become more like Tri-Dimensional Chess from "Star Trek" played on outdoor holodecks before a global audience with human pawns whose actions are determined by analyzing masses of data and whose reactions are largely dependent on repetitive but complex and almost algorithmic conditioning.

There is a compulsive savant quality to the game's best players that should be familiar to many Crave readers. Manning is said to celebrate a win by studying more tape of opponents, feeding more data into his algorithm. Put a hoodie on the guy and he's almost a dead-ringer for Mark Zuckerberg, obsessively coding away his evenings as billions accumulate in his bank account.

The world is my stadium
Over the past 15 years, the fans have become bigger nerds as well. Just when I thought my love affair with my mobile devices couldn't get any more intense on a near Spike Jonzian level, Google Now, NFL Mobile and other apps like Bleacher Report and Umano injected Broncos-related notifications, statistics and other trivia into my daily life with practically no effort. As a kid, I would devour statistics and standings from the sports page. Today, they're pushed to my pocket in real time. I recently walked around a local wool festival watching streaming video of a Broncos game when I inevitably lost interest in Angora dyeing techniques. After all, why shouldn't rural hipster types also be football super fans? We have the technology. We can rebuild him.

After fleeing the dot-com bust, I worked for several years in public radio, an area of media that has little time to discuss professional sports, unless of course you're talking about professional birdwatching in Vermont. Why bother? ESPN has that covered, right? So I assumed as well all these years.

Turns out that while I wasn't paying attention, the subculture of nerdy NFL fans blossomed into a community approaching America's game from a more intellectual perspective. Sites like Grantland and podcasts like Slate's Hang Up and Listen manage to provide a surprisingly verbose and thoughtful take on the game. I may never have taken a hiatus from football if these outlets were available in 1998.

And then there are the fantasy football leagues. Now this is where the nerds truly reign, and aren't even afraid to own the "n-word" themselves. Fantasy football has been around for quite a while, to be sure, but in the age of social media, Google and mobile everything, it has exploded into a universe all its own. And fantasy nerds have even begun to cross-pollinate with more traditional species of their nerd brethren -- I recently took note of one declaration that Minecraft can make you better at fantasy football with great interest.

There's another blogger out there by the name of Eric Mack -- he covers fantasy football for Bleacher Report. In the past he's joked that perhaps we should switch jobs for a day to see if anyone notices. Now that I've had time to get reacquainted with the new, nerdier world of NFL football, I may just take him up on it.