24 January 2005


A couple of grim dudes were recently discussing the NFL in the bløgosphere:

"Bottom line is that turnovers absolutely kill you in the playoffs."

"Take away those turnover pts and the steelers would have won."

I hate comments like this, especially after having read Moneyball. What does this have to do with baseball you ask? Well, I think that all pro sports suffer to some degree from old-hand-pundit disease: farty old dudes who used to play constantly holding forth on a bunch of unquantifiable nonsense which they purport explains sporting success or failure.

Michael Lewis discusses the effect this has on baseball scouting during the brief episodes of Moneyball when he does not have Billy Beane's genitals in his mouth. In essence, people believe false theories about sports teams because they enjoy the mystique and tradition more than the cold numbers. As kraken always says, "I'd be surprised if there weren't streaks."

But let's get back to the two points stated at the beginning of this post. First of all, three crippling turnovers will kill you in any football game! What does being in the playoffs have to do with it? If this had been a regular season game would Pittsburgh have had a much better chance of overcoming their mistakes? And as for the remark about taking away the points off of turnovers, that's like saying, "If the Patriots had failed to score any points the game would be different," or "Well if the city of Pittsburgh had imploded before the game, the Steelers wouldn't have lost." The game happened the way it did, including the turnovers, and there's nothing left after that but excuses. The rules of the game were set down, the two teams played by the rules and one team was much better than the other. It isn't like Pittsburgh was a different group of guys in the third quarter (when they outscored the Pats 14-7), they just happened to have tried a plan of attack that had more consistent success than in other times in the game. They weren't trying to lose in the first half or the last quarter, I'm sure.

But beyond these quibbles are comments like, "Tom Brady is a great big-game quarterback." Do these people think he only gives a 75% effort when they're playing a regular season game against a non-division opponent? I'm pretty sure he brings his A-game every time he suits up. Sure there may be different levels of stress between some regular game and the Superbowl, but I'm fairly certain that being an NFL quarterback is a stressful job even if your team sucks. Put another way, Tom Brady is an amazing 8-0 in the playoffs; but he's 48-16 as a starter in the regular season. If you randomly picked 8 regular season games from his career, there is a nearly 10% chance you'd pull out 8 wins and zero losses. Throw out the anomalous 2002 season (when the team didn't make the playoffs anyway) and there's a nearly 25% chance that 8 random regular season games would all be wins. Brady doesn't do anything special in the post-season, he's just a good quarterback who's had a little luck!

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