Collective Cowardice

ESPN’s gurus have officially whimped out. Here are their collective cowardly picks for the 2007 NFL season. As I noted before, there is typically a 50%+ turnover in the NFL teams that make the playoffs from year to year. Regressions to the mean is one heartless bitch. We can expect at least six and probably seven of last year’s playoff teams to be watching them on TV this January. We can also expect six or more groups of last year’s disappointed fans to be happily freezing to death come Christmas time as they paint their team’s color on for the wild card or divisional round.

So what I want to know from the experts is this: Which teams will stumble? Which ones will surprise? Who’s a sleeper? Come on. Dazzle us by picking Cleveland to win the Super Bowl or something.

Well the brave ESPN analysts, people paid for their insight, have given us an exercise in pussy groupthink.

  • All 16 expect New England to take the AFC East division again.
  • Eleven of 16 tap Baltimore to repeat in the AFC North, with two more giving them the wild card.
  • Fourteen of 16 expect Indy to repeat in the AFC South, with the other two bodly predicting a wild card while Jacksonville take the division.
  • All but one expect San Diego to take the AFC West once more, with the outlier only prediciting Denver will knock them back to the wild card.
  • Nine of 16 expect Philadelphia to repeat as NFC East champ. Seven more say they take the wild card with Dallas winning the division.
  • All 16 expect Chicago to repeat as NFC North champ and New Orleans to repeat as NFC South champ.
  • 9 of 16 expect Seattle to repeat as NFC West champ and five of the remainder expect a wild card with St. Louis or San Fran taking the division. Wow, that’s almost controversy.
  • As for the wild card teams, the most likely to fall off the Earth, they have a little more courage. Eight expect Dallas to repeat as wild card; seven tap them to win the division. Only two pick the Jets to make it again and no one thinks the Giants or Chiefs will repeat. The most common wild card picks are Denver (10 votes + 1 division win) and Cincinnati (eight votes plus four division crowns), Dallas and Philly (15 of 16 expect both to make the playoffs) and Seattle (five votes – after nine to take the division).

    Buffalo, Miami, Cleveland, Tennessee, Houston, Kansas City, Oakland, Giants, Minnesota, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Arizona are given no chance at the playoffs. Washington, Green Bay and Detroit are given only one vote. I boldly predict that at least one of those teams will make the playoffs and probably at least one will win their division. I’m really surprised no one picked Green Bay to do anything since a) their defense is excellent; b) they have an easy schedule; c) they finished 8-8 last year; d) the media worships Favre.

    OK, maybe this is some collective wisdom of crowds thing. After all, the collective picks of Yahoo! users from week-to-week always outperform the analysts because, even though most of them picks lots of upsets, collectively they all pick favorites. Maybe the ESPN analysts understand there will be a lot of turnover, but aren’t agreed on where it will happen.

    Nope. Breaking the picks down coward by coward:

  • Len Pasquerelli has spinelessly picked seven of the 2006 division winners and nine of the 12 2006 playoff teams to repeat.
  • Jeffrey Chadiha goes Bert Lahr on us — picking seven division repeats and nine playoff repeats.
  • Mike Sando raised the level of sissyness, picking all eight division winners to repeat along with one wild card team.
  • Matt Mosley has the most craven set of picks I’ve ever seen. He picks all eight division winners to repeat and ten of the twelve playoff teams to do so. He even chickens out with the awards, boldly predicting Ladanian Tomlinson, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Brian Urlacher to take home hardware. Um, Matt, did you get this year’s picks mixed up with last years?
  • Sal Palantonio has only six division repeats and boldly predicts Indy will lose the division. But then he goes namby-pamby, picking nine overall repeats.
  • Mike McAllister boldly predicts only five teams to repeat their division, but the goes all milksop by having nine repeat playoff teams.
  • Michelle Tafoya is the only analyst with any balls. She only picks seven teams to make the playoffs again and only four teams to repeat as division winners! I guess women just don’t understand football.
  • Joe Theismann shows there are still a few bone fragments floating in his brain by picking all eight division winners to repeat, along with one wild card team. He gets bonus points, however, for picking Detroit to make the playoffs. That’s bold if nothing else. He is matched identically by Mark Schlereth (8/8 and 9/12), who has neither the leg excuse nor the beautiful Detroit pick to make up for this display of wimpiness.
  • Merrill Hodge is almost brave, but goes baby by picking six division repeats and eight playoff repeats. Eric Allen is in the same boat, picking seven of eight division winners to repeat and eight of twelve playoff teams.
  • I love Tom Jackson. But come on, TJ. You’re a big guy. Be bolder than picking six division winners and eight playoff teams to repeat.
  • Michael Smith goes a yellow-belly 6/8 on division winners and eight of 12 on playoff teams.
  • John Clayton has a weak 7/8 division winners and nine of 12 playoff teams repeating.
  • Scott Symes closes it up with a cowardly 6/8 and nine of 12.
  • Now, fun aside, I understand why they do this. It’s the same reason the fans do. We know that half of last year’s playoff teams will be playing pinochle by New Year’s. We just don’t know which half. And to be honest, if you were a betting man, you’d probably bet on teams to repeat, since you’ve got a 50% chance of winning that bet against only a 25% chance betting on any team that didn’t make the post-season last year.

    It’s the old Final Four Dilemma. Picking all favorites is the safest and most rational course since the favorites are the most likely to win. Of course, if you do nothing but pick favorites, you won’t win the betting pool. So most people pick lots of upsets and either end up in first or last place, depending on whether they picked the right upsets or not. There’s always the potential of looking silly if you pick Weber State to win it all. But anyone who tapped George Mason two years looked like a genius. And as Spanky says, why not at least have fun?

    No one except Gregg Easterbrook is going to remember who made what NFL prediction when January 2008 rolls around. So why not have fun? Why not go out on a limb and say this is the year New England stumbles? Or be bold and predict the Falcons will be better off without Vick. Something. Anything. I don’t need to turn on ESPN to see a bunch of favorites get picked. I can do that all on my own.

    Easterbrook himself went with Football Outsiders picks. The boys over at FO would laugh if anyone took their 0.1 win precision predictions seriously. They’ll be the first to tell you that error bars on those numbers are a few wins, give or take. The entire league is not going to finish sandwiched between 5 and 12 wins. Some team will have a great year and lump up 14 victories. Some team will be awful and only manages two (my money’s on the Raiders for that achievement).

    But even the spineless computers only pick two division winners and six playoff teams to repeat. They project a strong AFC North, a surging Jacksonville, bad stumbles and missed playoffs for the Chargers, Cowboys and Saints and the Packers taking the division from the Bears (although I should note that FO thinks that the Saints’ prediction is wrong — the computer is being fooled by the Katrina Year).

    Maybe they’re wrong, but at least they’re interesting. At least they’re fun. At least there’s insight. Congratulations, ESPN. You have fewer balls and less sense of adventure than a lump of silicon microchips.