Looking Back at the NFL

Every year, ESPN has their experts make their predictions for the NFL season. And every year, Gregg Easterbrook mocks them for missing so badly. Most years, however, I criticize those predictions before the season by pointing out how timid the are. They not only demonstrate tremendous groupthink, but the sport pundits inevitably just pick whoever won last year to win this year.

I can’t remember why I missed the opportunity to bash the sports media this fall. I was in Australia, I guess. But now that their predictions have turned out to be mostly wrong, it’s a good chance to go back and point out how wimpy they were to begin with.

In a typical NFL season, the turnover in playoff teams is about 50%. That is, half of the NFL playoff slate consists of teams repeating their appearance from the previous year while half were watching the playoffs on TV one solar revolution ago. This year was not unusual — seven teams made the playoffs for the second year in a row, five teams failed to make it repeat.

But let’s look back at the pre-season predictions. And let’s particularly contrast their uber-insider information against the predictions of the stat nerdboys at Football Outsiders.

15 of 16 picked the Jets or Pats to win the AFC East. That worked out.

10 of 16 picked the Ravens to win the AFC North, which also worked in that they won the wild card. Seven misguided souls though the Bengals could win a division or wild card two years in a row.

All 16 said the Colts would repeat. This happened, but only because the division was weak. The Colts squeaked in, something FO warned us about.

All 16 picked the Chargers to repeat in the AFC West. No one picked the Kansas City chiefs to win anything. And Football Outsiders? They correctly predicted a division title for Kansas City and warned the San Diego’s special teams were terrible. They were right on both counts.

Those predictions aren’t bad, per se. The favorites to make the playoffs were New York, New England, Baltimore, Indy, Houston and San Diego. Four of those made the playoffs. Maybe you could make that five since a number picked Pittsburgh. But notice how spineless they were. Only Houston had failed to make the playoffs the year before — and that just barely. The other teams were all picked to repeat a playoff appearance. And notice how uniform they were. No one really went out on a limb.

Turning to the NFC:

12 of 16 picked Dallas to return to the playoffs by winning the NFC East. Not only was this wrong, it could be seen in advance how wrong it was. FO pointed out how badly Dallas was aging and how poorly their roster was constructed.

15 of 16 picked the Packers to win the NFC North again. No one picked the Bears to win anything, even though they were acquiring their first real quarterback in 20 years.

The NFC South was split between the Saints and Falcons, which seemed a reasonable pick and actually came to pass.

All 16 picked the 49ers to win the NFC West, which was badly wrong. The was the most unpredictable division prior to the season but a stunning groupthink emerged that Mike Singletary was scowling enough to win the division.

The wild card was picked as either the loser of New Orleans-Atlanta or Minnesota. One out of two ain’t bad.

Their record here is worse — the experts picked only three of the playoff teams. But again, notice the lack of boldness. Of their six picks, only San Francisco and Atlanta failed to make the playoffs the year before, and Atlanta barely.

Breaking it down by pundit shows a little more courage.

Matt Mosley, Matt Williamson and Adam Schefter showed some guts, only picking seven teams to repeat from the previous year. But their new picks weren’t exactly Cinderellas, being teams that made the playoffs two years ago or had just missed.

Harris, Kuharsky, Wickersham and Sando only picked eight teams to repeat.

Berry, Seifert, Yasinskas and Chadiha picked nine of the 12 teams to repeat.

Clayton, Graham, Walker, Bill Williamson and Joyner picked 10 of 12 to repeat, with all but Joyner picking the entire AFC slate to repeat. Graham actually picked the exact same slate as Clayton.

Of course, the prediction business is silly at best, especially in a sport like football where injury is so common and the season so short. I judge these by playoffs appearance since the 1-game difference between a division winner and wild card is usually trivial. And predicting the Super Bowl … well, you might as well draw the names out of a hat.

Moreover, the pundits are caught by their prominence. If they go out on a limb and pick, say, Cleveland to win the division, they’ll be mocked for it.

But if you’re going to make predictions, why not have some fun? And as I noted, some of the biggest misses — Dallas, Kansas City, Chicago — were forseeable.

Update: OK, so I’ll make a fun prediction. Patriots over Bears. I think the Bears are being very overlooked this post-season. They host a home game in Soldier Field and then will host again if New Orleans, Seattle or Green Bay manages to upset Atlanta (and I think New Orleans could).