Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Truth, Found in Football

Killing a bit of time earlier this evening, and I happened upon an article in Slate--don't ask me why, I'm still trying to figure that out myself--by the sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. Stefan, who parlayed his weekend warrior soccer talents into a Paper Lion-style project as a placekicker for the Denver Broncos, has been a keen commentator on NFL issues given his insider experiences. I usually hear him on NPR, but since he had an article in Slate writing about the narcissism of Brett Favre, I figured I'd take a look with a few spare minutes.

Much as I'd like to talk about Favre, what caught my eye was an assertion that Fatsis made about another NFL primadonnish narcissist, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. For those who don't follow the sport, Jones is regarded as something of a football equivalent of Yankees former owner George Steinbrenner: megalomanical, autocratic, a man who interferes with his coaches and management because he thinks that he knows everything about everything. Fatsis describes him like this:

...the meddling owner who considers himself a businessman, promoter, player personnel expert, general manager, entrepreneur, public speaker, draft guru, and coach.

This description is couched as part of a larger point, which is the link between Jones's personality and the Cowboys' rather spectacularly bad 1-7 record so far this season. Leave aside the devastating injury to Tony Romo, the star quarterback of the team, thus utterly preventing easy wins for the past several weeks, the Cowboys were still a bad team this year, despite being picked to be a contender to play in their very own stadium for this year's Super Bowl. The question is why they're so bad. Here's Fatsis's analysis:

It is hard to pinpoint exactly how and why an NFL team falls to pieces. There are so many moving parts. But a hefty share of the blame should go to the meddling owner...That ego seeps into every nook and cranny of that organization and clogs up the machinery. The result is a 1-7 team: uninspired and looking forward to Jan. 3, the first day of the offseason.

Truth can be found in a discussion of football, and the truth is this: it's not hard, especially in an age of easily procured data, to fact-check one's arguments, yet people often seem to rely on lazy assertions as long as it fits in with the prevailing narrative. Fatsis, in writing about Jones, makes not only a specious argument, but makes one while the facts are sitting quietly like Christmas presents, eagerly waiting to be opened and used by their owners.

You see, Jerry Jones has owned the Cowboys for over twenty years...there's a very long track record to establish if his ego does indeed "clog up the machinery." And to judge by his record--or rather, his team's record--it does nothing of the sort. I googled "Cowboys record by season" and within four minutes learned that, since 1989, when Jones bought the team, the Cowboys have a record of 185-159 for a winning percentage of .538, plus three Super Bowl victories. That's not too shabby, especially from the point of view of this long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan. Take away his one true lemon season, his first (which one could argue was a perfect storm of new owner combined with the departure of a legendary coach in Tom Landry), and his record is 184-144, with an even more impressive .560 winning percentage. So if Jones's megalomania is really responsible for their failure, why have they had so many successes during his ownership?

Instead, Fatsis cherry-picks the data, musing on the awful 1-7 record of this season, completely ignoring the rest of the data set. As a result, what we get is a tale of an owner run amok, and a moral lesson about the proper role of humility: don't think you're a genius at everything--just look at what Jerry Jones did to the Cowboys! Never mind that this reasoning is totally at odds with Steinbrenner's success as an owner, nor does it explain the perennially bad showing of the LA Clippers, owned by the hands-off Donald Sterling, who appears to take little interest in his team and almost never bids high for a player's services. Indeed, one reading of Jones's stewardship could be the polar opposite of the Slate article: if you are confident in yourself and trust your judgement, provided your judgement is good, sometimes that will pay off even if you don't rely on (or even overrule!) so-called "experts." (The Cowboys' record, it should be noted, is more erratic than consistently good, as the winning percentage only gives an average of the 20+ years and is misleading. They were the best team in football in the early-mid 90s, while from 2000-2003 they were positively mediocre. So Jones isn't always right, but sometimes he appears to have been as right as one could get.)

I don't care a great deal about Jones, and I care even less for the Cowboys, but what I found singularly irritating about Fatsis's assertion is that it could easily have been checked. Why he didn't is a mystery, since he normally is an intelligent writer. What is much more disturbing is that such lazy baseless assertions are not at all confined to the trivial world of sports commentary. And the assertions that people are going to make in the next few years may--I only say "may"--have a huge impact on how we fare locally and internationally for many more years still.

Sometime soon: cat scans, mammography, and lung cancer, and the media coverage thereof.


  1. Steinbrenner had 12 general managers in his first 24 years (counting Gene Michael twice), winning 3 World Series and 5 league championships in that time. His greatest success came after he took a less micromanaging approach and left matters in the hands of Brian Cashman, who won 4 World Series and 7 league championships in half the time.

    Jerry Jones had great success from 1989 to 1995, when the team won three Super Bowls. In 1994, Jones made himself general manager (the only NFL owner to take such a hands-on role), and the team has won one playoff game since 1996.

  2. Always prescient thoughts from Ted, in theory one of the only readers of the blog.

    I take your point--that perhaps I have over-interpreted the data or missed the subtleties in the numbers, and that Fatsis's contention overall is right--but I'm not completely won over. A couple of points:

    a. You note that in Steinbrenner's first 24 years he won 5 league championships and 3 WS crowns. This Indians fan would be happy to have that record! Plus it was harder to make the playoffs back then, so there would have been theoretically more playoff appearances using today's rules.

    b. Winning playoff games should not be the metric of team success if we're talking about Jones's impact on the team. After all, how could they even make it to the playoffs if Jones is so bad? Or are you arguing that there's something about Jones's meddling that makes them choke only in the Big Game? That doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Since 1996, the 'Boys have had 5 seasons with 10 wins or more, 7 winning seasons and no true "lemon" season (I'm arbitrarily defining that as 4 wins or fewer--they're cruising toward one now). Since 2002, they've had only one losing season until this one. So at worst Jones's record is mixed. There are lots of 13-3 teams that lose in the first round of the playoffs.

    c. We have no idea what other owners are like--we have no point of comparison to other teams and their records so that we can actually evaluate the argument that micromanagement really does lead to worse performance on the field. What makes Jones different is that he's a more public figure than most of his fellow owners. My gripe with Fatsis is that he uses Jones's notoriety to weave a moral about ego and success which ain't borne out by the numbers unless you look myopically only at this season.

    d. You're holding Jones responsible for Tony Romo's injury?