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The more I think about sports, as I consume season after season and move closer and closer to decrepitude, the more I keep coming back to the idea of expectations. Maybe more than objective results, our expectations are what lead to determinations of success and failure. They’re also what tells us when it’s OK to hope and believe, and what leads to us rolling our eyes and dismissing on-field results.
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With the Wizards mired in a disastrous stretch, coming off of four straight losses with the season in jeopardy, Marcin Gortat put out a simple-sounding request: “We got to cut the negativity we have coming from players, coaches, staff, [and] media.”
In some years—too many, recently—the Wizards losing four straight games in heartbreaking ways would be completely normal, because that’s just what the Wizards did. But expectations were higher entering this season, not only for more victories but for a revamped offensive approach.
(Note that there’s a difference here between amorphous fan expectations, which were high, and analytics-based expectations, which were much more muted—and much closer to what’s actually been happening. Good thing we can confidently dismiss analytics as nerd stuff made by nerds in their nerd basements!)
In practice, injuries have hampered the team, the victories haven’t materialized, and the small-ball approach remains a work in progress at best. Even John Wall struggled before taking steps toward last year’s form in a streak-breaking road win over the Cavaliers.
And nothing leads to negativity quite like curdled expectations.
On the flipside, nothing leads to optimism quite like exceeding expectations, which is where the local NFL team now finds themselves: sitting at a division-leading 5-6 following a gutty, convincing win over the Giants, a rival who has dominated them for three years.
Not for one second did I think they were going to pull it off. Going into the game, I expected them to lose. When they intercepted Eli Manning twice in the first quarter and walked away with just three points, I figured they had squandered the only breaks they were going to get. Even when they went into halftime up 17-0, I was absolutely, positively, put-money-on-it sure that it was going to go south, that Kirk Cousins was going to revert to form and throw a backbreaking interception.
I didn’t believe these things because I’m negative; I believed them because it’s what I’ve come to expect based on what I’ve seen, again and again, over two decades.
When the Browns lost to the Ravens on Monday night on a blocked kick returned for a touchdown as time expired, nearly everyone said the same thing: same old Cleveland. Things here aren’t quite as bad, but they’ve been trending that way, and I—like so many other observers and fans of the team—have no idea quite when to believe that the slide has been corrected.
Every time this squad does something good, I can feel myself mentally moving the goalposts on what constitutes success. (Currently, I’m at “Yeah, well, let’s see you win on the road.”) They’ve firmly anchored my expectations at “horrifically soul-crushing,” and I’m still trying to figure out what it’ll take to move them.
On ice, the Capitals are off to a scorching start, arguably the best they’ve been since the Backstrom/Ovechkin core was put in place. They’re still scoring like they have been for years, but now they’re defending better as a team, and goaltender Braden Holtby has been spectacular.
Yet there seems to be no real buzz around them. Partially this is because football constantly sucks the oxygen out of the room. But it’s also, yet again, down to expectations. The Caps have conditioned people to expect some regular season success, to the point where fans are somewhat inured to it.
If you’re expecting quality regular season play, all the Caps are doing right now is not disappointing you. It’s easy to say that the real test will be if things go bad in the playoffs—which misses just how dominant this Caps team may be.
The performance has not gone unnoticed at the sports books, which have shifted their own expectations accordingly: As of Dec. 1, the Caps have moved up four spots to become the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
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Expectations are an outgrowth of nostalgia, one of my least favorite things in sports. It’s tough to shake the focus on past successes, past failures, expired trends, and dated impressions. So much of sports is about remembering the past that sometimes we can’t figure out when it’s best to just appreciate what’s currently going on.
Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @Matt_Terl.
Photo by Keith Allison / Flickr CC