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On Pacing And The NFL

As a teacher, I spend the entire academic year looking forward to summer (my time off). But as a football fan, I spend the entire summer looking forward to the upcoming NFL season. It's only June, and I already find myself impatient for the games to get underway. It seems as if it's been an eternity since the Patriots (the Patriots!) won the Super Bowl.

And it seems like several eternities since the games of Week 2 in the 2001 season were postponed. I dimly recall a lot of impassioned arguments from people about whether the games should have been postponed or not. Some maintained that playing football would be disgraceful; some maintained that altering our sports schedule was just another way of giving in to the terrorists. I can't remember whether I thought the games should be played or not, but I'm sure I wanted them to be played.

I wanted to think and read and argue about Eddie George (whose disappointing season had only just begun) and Marshall Faulk and Ricky Williams, but instead I was thinking about whether the games for Week 2 would be cancelled. And once they were cancelled, I was wondering about whether they would be made up.

By the time the season was back to normal, the Patriots had walloped the Colts twice, the Titans were on a monumental losing streak, and Marty Schottenheimer's Redskins had managed, despite all odds, to strike an even sorrier pose than the discombobulated Cardinals and quarterback-controversy-mired Cowboys.

Not only could I not have predicted any of it, but I wasn't really able to appreciate it as it unfolded before my eyes. The NFL never fails to deliver surprises that sneak up on the fans, but because of 9/11, I can't help thinking that a lot of those surprises ended up sneaking past us. In any event, a lot of them managed to sneak past me. The postponement of the Week 2 games threw off the pacing of the entire season for me. I was in a bit of a daze until the playoff picture was pretty well developed. I'm not complaining about it or trying to minimize the significance of the terrorist attacks by observing this; I'm merely reaching a conclusion that I was too distracted to reach at the time. Pacing is important in the NFL-to the players and coaches as well as the fans. When the entire League gets a bye just one week into the season, things get screwy.

But there's another kind of pacing that is perhaps just as important, the pacing that we fans do in anticipation of kickoff on opening day. We pace in different ways. Some of us frantically attempt to keep up with the off-season moves of our favorite teams. We study salary caps and potential trades and all sorts of esoterica. Then there are those who are more historically minded. They have acquired the schedule for the games of the 2002 season and are already looking over the stats of the last five meetings between their favorite team and that team's opponents through the course of the upcoming season. The vast majority of us, however, pace not by looking backward, but by looking ahead. We take our minds off the fact that football is still three months away by making predictions (knowing full well that much of what we base our predictions on will change between now and the time the season begins).

Most of us realize how difficult it is to make predictions with any degree of accuracy even in the middle of the season (when we've had a chance to see all the teams in action and everyone is still alive for the playoffs). Such predictions may be unreliable, but they are, to some degree at least, informed.

Preseason predictions are a different animal. We make predictions concerning brand new coaches, brand new offensive schemes, sometimes (as in the case of Houston) even brand new teams. We predict good things for a defense simply because the new defensive end who has been brought in, according to all the scouts, will be a good fit (remember Kevin Carter?).

My brother and I usually spend at least one afternoon every summer looking over every game on the NFL schedule so as to predict the records for all the teams. We're never even close, but that doesn't stop us. It's an excuse to think about the NFL. What's really amusing to me about our predictions is that we usually lose track of them. The paper that we write on ends up being folded up into a beer coaster a few weeks into the season and gets thrown out.

Last year, however, we had to make our predictions via email. So I have a record of my predictions. If I had a brain in my head (or a shred of pride), I would simply delete this little record of my own criminal ineptitude as a prognosticator. But the way I see it, readers of NFL columns will have ample opportunities to see 'expert' predictions concerning the 2002 season in the months to come. Few of those experts, however, will bother to include the predictions that they made last summer. And that's a shame-because the predictions that we make in the summer are worth a few laughs at the very least. Here's what I expected from the 2001 season last June.

I'm an idiot; I know that.

Indianapolis 11-5 / 6-10 No.1
Miami Dolphins 10-6 / 11-5  
Buffalo Bills 6-10 / 3-13
New England Patriots 5-11 / 11-5
New York Jets 5-11 / 10-6
Baltimore Ravens 14-2 / 10-6 No.1
Tennessee Titans 13-3 / 7-9 X
Pittsburgh Steelers 9-7 / 13-3
Jacksonville Jaguars 6-10 / 6-10
Cleveland Browns 3-13 / 7-9
Cincinnati Bengals 2-14 / 6-10  
Denver Broncos 12-4 / 8-8 No.1
Oakland Raiders 12-4 / 10-6 X
Kansas City Chiefs 12-4 / 6-10 X
San Diego Chargers 6-10 / 5-11
Seattle Seahawks 5-11 / 9-7
New York Giants 10-6 / 7-9 No.1
Philadelphia Eagles 10-6 / 11-5 X
Washington Redskins 7-9 / 8-8  
Dallas Cowboys 4-12 / 5-11  
Arizona Cardinals 2-14 / 7-9
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 13-3 / 9-7 No.1
Minnesota Vikings 11-5 / 5-11 X
Detroit Lions 7-9 / 2-14
Green Bay Packers 6-10 / 12-4  
Chicago Bears 5-11 / 13-3  
New Orleans Saints 12-4 / 7-9 No.1
St. Louis Rams 12-4 / 14-2 X
San Francisco 49ers 8-8 / 12-4  
Atlanta Falcons 6-10 / 7-9  
Carolina Panthers 5-11 / 1-15

Thank goodness for the Jaguars, the only team whose record actually corresponded to my prediction.  Of the 12 teams that I predicted to make the playoffs, less than half actually went (the Raiders, Ravens, Rams, Buccaneers, and Eagles).  Most embarrassing is my worst-to-first ratio.  I had the Bears slated to finish last in the NFC Central (which they won) and the Patriots slated to tie for last in the AFC East (and we all know the story there). 

So go ahead.  Make your summer predictions if doing so helps get you through the rest of the off-season.  But don’t throw them away once they’ve done their part to distract you.  Hang onto them for next year.  And when you find yourself itching to think about football next season, look over those predictions.  They’re not just a way to kill time; they’re an elaborate joke whose punchline is the season as it actually plays out.