In the world of sports, sabermetrics has become one of the running mantras that has, in some ways, replaced conventional scouting. It has gotten to the point where the Cleveland Browns, the Chernobyl of the NFL, have gone in that direction, bringing in metrics specialists to oversee the drafting process.
For fans of the Minnesota Vikings, the best thing they have going for them is that using metrics from previous seasons and previous games has decreasing bearing on what is going to happen in the next game. Unlike baseball, basketball and hockey, trying to espouse some sort of inside authority using past performance to promote future expectations is a crap shoot at best and, if recent history is our guide, means almost nothing.
Such was the case last weekend when the ESPN-branded sports analysis website Football Outsiders made its early 2016 prediction using, by its own admission “Innovative Statistics” and “Intelligent Analysis” to project who will rise and who will fall in 2016.
While Football Outsiders projects the Vikings to make the playoffs by its labyrinth of stats to come up with their exhaustively complicated numerical methodology, they have Minnesota losing the NFC North to the Green Bay Packers and dropping two games in the standings – from 11-5 to 9-7.
But Vikings fans shouldn’t have too much to worry about because, if last year’s projections were even remotely accurate, the Vikings would have finished 6-10 and Mike Zimmer would be on the coaching hot seat heading into the 2016 season.
Instead, the Vikings are coming off their first division title since 2009 and Zimmer and his team are being viewed by football insiders as a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
But, not so much with the Football Outsiders.
To summarize their 2016 NFC projections, the Outsiders are yet again picking the Dallas Cowboys to win the NFC East with a 10-6 record – running away with the division despite coming off a 4-12 record in 2015. Apparently the projected difference for Dallas will be running the table in the division, since the other three teams are all projected to finish 6-10.
In the NFC North, Football Outsiders is back on the Green Bay bandwagon, projecting a lofty 12-4 record. They go on to pick both the Vikings and Lions to finish 9-7 and the Bears to finish 7-9, citing that all four teams will get fat playing the NFC East and AFC South.
What do the hundreds of decimal points – the same ones that projected Minnesota would be 0.3 games worse last year due to the season-ending loss of Phil Loadholt – have to say about the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers? A drop from 15-1 to 9-7, but still enough to win the NFC South because Atlanta and New Orleans are both projected to finish 7-9 with Tampa Bay finishing last at 6-10.
Out west, the Arizona Cardinals of the flavor of the month, projected to finish 12-4 and narrowly beating out 11-5 Seattle. They have more love than most for the Artist Formerly Known as the St. Louis Rams at 7-9, with San Francisco picking up the rear with a 4-12 record.
It’s easy to take pot shots at May predictions of pious numerologists who are the smartest guys in the room. It’s not as easy to go back and let reality serve as your guide as to whether to buy into the logic and insight they’re promoting.
Fortunately, there is a relatively easy way of tracking down past predictions.
So, with hindsight as our guide, how did Football Outsiders do in predicting the NFC last year? Let’s just say sight like that needed a guide dog.
In the NFC East, FO predicted the Cowboys (clearly a brand or statistical favorite of theirs) to win the division at 11-5, followed by the Giants and Eagles at 9-7 and the Redskins wallowing far behind at 5-11.
How did things work out? The Cowboys and Giants were both projected to make the playoffs. Dallas finished 4-12 and the Giants finished 6-10. The dismally-projected Redskins won the division with a 9-7 record.
OK, that’s only one division. It had to be better elsewhere, right? Nobody in the NFC East was good, despite the projection that the NFC East would be the strongest division by record in the NFC. Maybe the problems ended there.
Not so fast, my friend.
In the NFC North, a tight race for second place was projected. The Packers (another FO favorite) were expected to finish first at 10-6 with the Bears and Lions finishing tied for second at 7-9 and the Vikings taking a step backward in 2015 and finishing in dead last with a 6-10 record.
To its credit, FO got it right with the Packers and Lions record, but the Vikings finished a whopping five games better than the best testing would indicate and finished 11-5 and the NFC North champ.
Two up, two down. So how about the NFC South? Were they on the Carolina bandwagon coming off a division title in 2014?
In fact, FO projected the Panthers to finish 7-9, just one game ahead of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had the worst record in the league and the No. 1 overall pick in Jameis Winston. Carolina was going to be overrun, by the computer printouts, by both Atlanta and New Orleans, who were projected to finish with identical 10-6 records.
How did that work out? They got Tampa Bay’s 6-10 record right, but came up eight wins short for the Panthers with the Falcons finishing 8-8 and the Saints finishing an all-too-typical 7-9.
Fine. Three swings. Three misses. They had to get the NFC West right. Just about everybody was on the bandwagon that Arizona was going to give Seattle a good run in the NFC West…except those who use sabermetrics to do their talking.
The Seahawks were supposed to be dominant, finishing with the No. 1 seed at 12-4 and quickly distancing themselves from the rest of the league. The 49ers, who lost half their team and their head coach, were projected to finish second at 7-9. The Cardinals and Rams were picked to finish tied for last at 6-10. Apparently, the numbers claimed that Arizona’s 11-5 record in 2014 was fraudulent and the Cards weren’t going to repeat that performance in 2015.
They didn’t. They finished 13-3.
The best thing about predictions is that most people don’t remember them after the fact. However, the numbers here remain and don’t lie. They weren’t good.
Given FO’s track record from this time last year, all that fans should take away from it is to be afraid of teams like Washington, Chicago, Tampa Bay and St. Louis. If the site’s 2016 voluminous factors brought into play have the same effectiveness as those used to make predictions in May 2015, the Vikings could go 14-2 and Dallas may have the quarterback of its choice in the 2017 draft.