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There are many weird things we as sports fans do. If you stop and think about it for too long, you start to realize the entire fundamental concept of sports fandom is a weird thing.
I recommend not stopping to think about it.
The specific weird thing in this case is deciding that some group, usually the media, actively dislikes the team we root for and treats them with more hostility and aggression than it does other teams. It’s one thing to believe this when it’s an individual—a player, or general manager, or, just to choose a role completely at random, the team owner. If one of those people presents a deeply unpleasant public character, and makes repeated ego-driven missteps, it is understandable that they would receive a disproportionate-looking share of public criticism.
But it’s another thing entirely to believe that abstract concepts like “math” are biased against your team. And yet.
Every September the NFL media—the whole vast horde of beat writers and columnists and bloggers and smiley TV people and cranky radio people—makes predictions for the upcoming season. And every year, a bunch of fanbases look at those predictions and roll their eyes at the overt disrespect.
How can Washington possibly be picked to finish third or fourth in the division, they might say. They upgraded at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and across the defensive line, while not getting markedly worse at any position. Two of their biggest playmakers are back from injury.
The whole team handled the worst injury luck in the league last year and still managed to finish at 7-9. And they’re picked to finish third? I’m as guilty of feeling this way as anyone, even after predicting a 9-7 myself as part of a cavalcade of guest predictors on NBC Sports Washington’s podcast.
Rationally, predicting the guys from Ashburn to finish around .500 is the most reasonable thing to do. After winning four games his first year, Jay Gruden has won nine, eight, and seven games. Looking farther back, in the eighteen seasons since 2000, the team has been within one game of .500 eight times. Even the best two years in that stretch are 10-win seasons, just two games over .500, and there are two corresponding six-win seasons. So for fully two-thirds of those seasons, the team has been right there in the middle of the standings.
That is the definition of a mediocre team.
From that perspective, picking the team to finish with seven or eight or nine wins is less a sign of disrespect and more a testament to this team’s overall consistency regardless of turnover in players, coaches, and philosophies.
On a more granular level, most of the prognosticators, at least at the larger media outlets, well, they actually seem to put a lot more effort into making their picks than they do into alienating any specific fanbase.
Will Brinson of CBS Sports is an outlier this year, having picked Washington to win the NFC East. He’s the only CBS prognosticator out on that limb, and one of the very few across the NFL media landscape. Most analysts have the team ranked among the bottom ten teams. Reaching that conclusion is not a comedy bit, nor a contrarian play for clicks. Brinson’s process actually starts back in May, when he does over/under columns in preparation for the preseason.
“In doing that I get a feel for how I think teams will do,” Brinson explains. “I usually play out everyone’s schedule in fairly loose fashion (no points or whatever) and come to a win total. There’s a bunch of different factors that go into it—what a team did in the offseason, how I felt a team should have done the year before, certain analytical factors, my gut intuition, etc. But at that point I’ve formed what will probably serve as the foundation for however I predict the season playing out.”
Adjustments have to be made, of course. One of the things Brinson was most excited about in Washington was rookie running back Derrius Guice, who tore his ACL in the preseason and will miss the year. That injury almost disrupted Brinson’s entire prognostication. “The biggest red flag for my…pick is just how much my enthusiasm dipped,” Brinson says via email. “If my pick is predicated on a rookie running back getting hurt, that’s a concern.”
But, after further analysis, Brinson’s model landed where it landed and Washington was on top of the division. (On top, it should be noted, with a 10-6 record. Even the most optimistic prognosticator doesn’t see this team breaking out of that middle tier.) The important thing is that there is actual analysis involved, not just caprice and personal loathing.
Even Deadspin’s Drew Magary, who does have some genuine contempt for the local NFL team, and who doesn’t take his rankings particularly seriously, takes the time to think them through and make sure that, at a minimum, they tally up correctly over the span of the season.
“I mean they’re not deliberately WACKY or anything,” Magary says in an email. “It’s just for fun. If people give me shit for them, well that’s the point anyway.”
Point is, no one is out to get you. Or your team.
“I’m not running some analytical model here or anything,” Brinson says, “but I absolutely believe in the picks I’m making. In other words, while having Steelers/Jaguars/Eagles fans yelling at me for having their teams miss the playoffs is really delightful, I’m not doing it for that enjoyment.”
Photo by Keith Allison on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.