The end of the beginning of the 2010 NFL season

Posted on October 4, 2010


A well-rounded sport-spectator experience involves following several sports through the course of the year. Different sports showcase different features that make sports spectatorship rewarding: from the mental determination and courage of individual athletes in, say, golf, tennis, or the marathon, struggling to maintain focus in the face of self-doubt, pain, and exhaustion; to the perfectly executed strategy by every player in a team sport like soccer or American football; to the exquisite beauty of a seemingly impossible athletic maneuver in sports as different as gymnastics and baseball.

But a well-rounded sport-spectator’s life involves doing a lot of things besides following sports — like a day-job, his or her own amateur sporting or fitness activities, other hobbies, and commitments to family, friends, and community. So most of us don’t have the option of watching as much of our favorite sports as we might like. Especially during months like September when the seasons of several of the sports we follow intersect. So over the past month I’ve seen some tennis, soccer, baseball, college football (including 3 games live), and NFL, but very few full games.

Here are some random thoughts about the NFL as we now complete the first quarter of the regular season.

1. For reasons I will no doubt try to articulate in the coming months, the NFL is probably my favorite sport. (Technically it’s a league, not a sport. But it differs significantly enough from other leagues that play “American football” — including the Canadian Football League — and it constantly adjusts its defining rules, so it is close enough to being its own sport.) But it is also one of the sports in which I do not have a perennial favorite team. I come to like some teams for the physical, tactical, and “moral” quality of their play and their personnel, and I come to despise a few others. But each year I am willing to let the narratives play out for awhile on and off the field before I get too firmly invested on any given team’s success or demise. I wonder how unusual this is?

2. I was struck after the first weekend of the NFL how many veteran pundits admitted how struck they were by the punishing physical violence of the sport. [Click the button below to read more…] : I felt the same way. And perhaps I do every year. The game is not significantly more violent this year than it was last year. In fact, there seem to be additional rules (or enforcement) on contact to the head that make it, in principle, a little less violent. But yes, the players are bigger and faster than they were a generation ago. And it is astonishing how much punishment they endure. If Europeans need an inkling about why Americans are so morally disgusted by the play-acting of soccer players when they roll around gesticulating and mugging in agony after contact (or even without contact), it has little to do with their faith in some bygone British imperialist notion of fair play. It is because American football fans see several players each game endure blows that break bones, scramble brains, and tear major tendons in the knees and ankles. And these players generally lie quietly as they receive genuine medical treatment.

3. Every year the pundits are amazed by week 4 that the standings do not look like they did the year before. There are 32 teams, with several doing much better than expected, and several much worse than expected. So as lucky and unlucky breaks in weeks 1 and 2 start to give way to emerging trends in weeks 3 to 5, there is a lot of head-scratching and finger-point going on among the punditry. Here are a few reasons we should never be generally surprised by this time of year:

(a) The NFL has a greater degree of parity than any other major sporting league. Virtually all the players enter the league through the draft; a draft in which the worst teams get to pick first in each round. The teams now essentially pool most of their scouting information on incoming players, virtually all of whom have played 3 or 4 years for Division-1 college teams (all of it televised). There is a salary cap that most teams meet which prevents richer clubs from amassing the most talented free agents. Some teams can spend and draft more wisely than others, but the differences in overall team talent are relatively small.

(b) There are better and worse head coaches, to be sure. But it is harder in the NFL than in most sports to keep tactics and methods secret. Other teams have a tremendous amount of film on very specific types of plays they can study. In addition, coaching in the NFL requires a team of coaching specialists and there is a tendency for these specialists (on offence alone, e.g., coaches for the linemen, the quarterbacks, the running backs, the receivers, as well as an offensive coordinator) to be lured away with promotions to coach for other teams. In short, coaching talent and coaching innovations spread fairly quickly and widely through the league.

(c) A third reason we shouldn’t be surprised when bad teams from last year do well, and good teams do badly, is that we tend to minimize the role that luck and general randomness played in past results. Whenever possible, in all sports, we try to explain results by showing how the better team, not the luckier team, won. So in retrospect, we take a team’s record last year to be firmly indicative of its quality. We make adjustments in our predictions for changes in personnel, but we rarely consider that a 12-4 team may have just been an unusually lucky 8-8 team.

(d) And finally, it is impossible to account for the impact of injuries. It would be interesting to see some comparative statistics across major sports, but I would be surprised if marquee NFL players were not more likely to be injured in the course of a season. And since most successful plays in football require near-perfect coordination and execution by all 11 men on the field, key injuries have an amplified impact. The loss of an unheralded but reliable offensive lineman can unravel an entire offense.

So no, I have no money riding on this year’s NFL season. Not yet, anyway.

[I’ll push two other random observations to the next post, because they share a common theme.]