Tom, your note about Bob Sanders’ health is where our chitchat about NFL brutality converges with traditional football punditry. Sanders, you see, has “problems staying healthy”—that is, the Colts safety is a small guy by NFL standards who has an unfortunate habit of getting himself split in half. The analysts at Football Outsiders have shown that a winning team is a team that evades injuries. As fans, we don’t typically stop and think that this is strange or perverse—that as a predictor of success, avoidance of torn ligaments and high ankle sprains is more important than turnover margin or time of possession.
Pro football’s injury scourge did actually come up at Wednesday night’s NFL Kickoff Fan Forum. The best questions at the forum—a staged event during which Commissioner Roger Goodell fielded queries from star-struck Saints fans—came from a high-school freshman (“Why is the NFL the only major sports league that does not offer a fully guaranteed contract to players?”) and a guy in an Elvis suit (“Do you think it’s going to put too much stress on the players to play 18 regular [-season] games?”). In response to Elvis, Goodell—always a politician’s son—contended that the body-destroying effect of additional regular-season games would be mitigated by the deletion of two preseason games, an argument he instantly negated by deriding those preseason games as fan-unfriendly and “meaningless.” (Yes, commissioner, they are meaningless because starters don’t play in them, so as to avoid injury.) Goodell’s response to the guaranteed contract question was even more demagogic. “I think it’s one of the things that is unique to the NFL, probably, is that everyone has to earn their paycheck,” he said. “That’s how we’re all paid. We’re paid on the basis of our performance.” Indeed, that’s precisely how I relate to NFL players—I, too, have been sent packing by my employer without pay after having my limbs broken on the job.
But enough about the commissioner being a smarmy, slick bastard. Tom, you asked what I think of the Saints’ chances in 2010. Mostly, I’m annoyed that the people in the business of telling us who will win the Super Bowl doubt the Saints’ chances precisely because they won the last Super Bowl. “It’s hard to repeat,” you see. The Colts, meanwhile, are the second favorite of ESPN.com’s panel of 42 million “experts”—behind only, yes, the indomitable Ravens!—by virtue of having lost the Super Bowl to a team that now has no chance to win the big game.
While the Saints probably won’t do it again—even if they are the best in the league, it’s still more likely that one of the other 31 teams will be making confetti angels in February—this is the kind of selective, stupid analysis that makes watching an NFL pregame show the worst form of torture yet concocted by man. To cite the geniuses at Football Outsiders once again, “offense is more consistent from year to year than defense, and offensive performance is easier to project than defensive performance.” The 2010 Saints offense, which returns every significant player from a 2009 unit that scored the ninth-most points in NFL history, seems even easier to project. They will score a lot of points. Points are good. Then again, turnovers are extremely inconsistent from year to year, and there’s no reason to believe the New Orleans defense will once again lead the league in takeaways per game. So, I don’t know … maybe go with the Ravens.
Along with the Saints’ Super Bowl prospects, one thing I’ll be monitoring this year is the leaguewide penchant for ass-covering. Over the weekend, the New York Times’ Judy Battista assessed the state of the league riskwise. Her findings: While there was a small uptick in coaches’ willingness to go for it on fourth down in 2009, statisticians and economists still believe the league’s decision-makers have a ways to go before they’re acting rationally. As Battista says, “[T]he conventional wisdom of play calling remains more geared toward dodging disaster than encouraging innovation.”
I think Battista has it exactly right. Coaches aren’t making irrational decisions because they misunderstand the percentages. Rather, they’re simply avoiding those choices that could make them look foolish. Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on fourth down against the Colts last year was the right move numberswise. It was also a testament to Belichick’s confidence that he wouldn’t lose his job if the Patriots came up short.
That brings me to Saints coach Sean Payton. A huge chunk of the NFL Network’s America’s Game documentary on New Orleans’ Super Bowl-winning season was devoted to celebrating the onside kick that Payton sprung on the Colts. We see footage of the Saints practicing “Ambush” and listen as the coach tells his charges that they’re going with the surprise kick to start the second half, imploring them to “go get this fucking game.” The ref blows his whistle and Saints kickoff man Thomas Morstead executes Ambush perfectly, just like in practice. The only difference: The Colts’ Hank Baskett is in perfect position to catch the bounding ball. Baskett drops it. The Saints recover, score a touchdown, and win the Super Bowl.
If Baskett makes the catch, the Saints probably don’t win and Payton gets ridiculed. We need to remember all of this when we’re asking coaches to make gutsy and/or rational decisions. (And Ambush was both gutsy and rational—teams recover 60 percent of surprise onside kicks.) To make the rational call, you truly have to be irrationally confident.
Stefan: Speaking of irrational confidence, I believe you spent Wednesday night reveling in the antics of New York Jets coach Rex Ryan on the season finale of Hard Knocks …