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NFL Discourse: The Rational, The Emotional, The Tim Tebow

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Frith in the Sky, am I really writing about Tim Tebow, here on Field Gulls? This is like if Conan the Cimmerian joined the Mad Hatter and March Hare for tea. Madness! The antithesis of our being!

Right, deep breaths. It's not so much Tim Tebow I want to discuss, but he makes for a nice framing device, plus mentioning him will probably double our traffic over this weekend. Gotta be willing to take one for the team. All he does is win! He's a baller! Shattered the mold!

I'm not a huge fan of Tim Tebow, primarily because I don't enjoy watching bad football players play bad football, and that's the only way I can describe this remedial passing offense the Broncos run. I also don't really like the Denver Broncos, or John Elway. I do find the idea of Tim Tebow "shattering the mold" an attractive one, because as nervous as it makes scouts and stats-geeks, the NFL just gets more interesting when there are type-defying players playing.

Tebow's 8-4 over the season, ending the regular season as 0-3 with some horrifying performances everyone seems to have forgotten about now. Remember when Tebow threw 60 yards on 22 attempts? Nope, it was Chuck Testa. In games where the opposing team scored 20 or more points, Tim Tebow went 3-3. So they went 5-1 in games where the defense won out. That should define the story of this Denver Broncos season, but it doesn't, and that's sad, because unlike Tim Tebow, Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller and their defensive teammates are (mostly) good football players.

See? I'm discussing Tim Tebow, even though I didn't really want to. All I did was mention him, and my mind just went off on a tangent of its own, and took my fingers with it.

My point: Tim Tebow, at least to me, is so interesting not because of his winningness or uniqueness, but because his predictably unpredictable nature casts the nature of NFL discourse into such a stark contrast, which makes people rethink the way we analyze football (this Matt Waldman piece is pretty good if a little fluffy, read it). Rationalists, like Greg Cosell, just shrug and note weirder things have happened, and it's not sustainable. Emotionalists, like Skip Bayless, will insist he has some kind of indefinable character trait that makes him win games. It's fun because they're something for everyone, whereas players who win games by being good at football are kind of boring. And Denver staunchly refuses to lose enough games for the story to end. Well, they'll probably lose against the Patriots. Just like they were probably going to lose against a lot of teams. I won't be watching because it is airing at 4am here, and it shouldn't be that competitive, as long as the Patriots don't throw in a Cover-0 shell in overtime, because that's stupid.

I belong pretty squarely with the rationalists. I know, I know, you're all shocked at this revalation. But being rational doesn't get you very far in the world of sports. If anything, maintaining a rational outlook is pretty much impossible, especially if you're a pretty invested fan of a specific team, like all of us are. I think I'm pretty good at keeping optimistic tendencies/homerism at bay, but to "fix" this I sometimes swing too far to the other end, which is a pain in the ass. But at the best of times irrationality takes over, and I latch on to Golden Tate even though he really hasn't shown that much over two years (not shockingly little, either, just not enough to be as optimistic as I am). That's fine, that's what you're a fan for.

When I watch the Seahawks play, I try to keeps focused, not just watch where the ball is, but to watch multiple parts of the game simultaneously. But man, that gets kind of boring (and drains energy). And you can't really keep it up as a fan anyway. I remember watching our wildcard game against the Saints last year. I was feeling optimistic all game long, watching it with a 49ers fan (I know, but he's good people). We were at our own 33, with about four minutes left, up four points. I was mumbling something to my friend about "we just need a nice, slow, long drive, even if it ends just on a field goal". And then...BeastQuake happened. I sat back, blinked, calmly said "Oh, or that happens", before leaping up, jumping around pumping my fist and shouting "BEAST MODE" an idiot. Or like a fan. Take your pick. In moments like those, the distinction is academic.

Here's a better one for you: I love the Seahawks lime green jerseys. Love 'em. You can't tell me that's based on any kind of rational thought. It's not allowed! But man, I'd love to see our team take the field in these massively despised colors again.

So what's my point? Just this. Years back, before I joined Field Gulls, I latched on to advanced stats, particularly Football Outsiders. Advanced Stats are perfect for the rationalists. They're not significantly subjective as long as the methodology is consistent, so there's not a lot of vagueness about it, just rock solid numbers and rock solid conclusions. It's admirable work, and is being refined each year, and I certainly depend on it to supplement my own knowledge of teams across the NFL.

But then I discovered there is no replacement for watching tape. But then...what each person sees in the tape is different. It depends on their own preferences, biases, knowledge of the team, and knowledge of the game overall. So despite what you might expect, someone going "what the tape is saying" bugs me almost as much as Bayless screeching... Well, alright, not nearly as much, but it does bug me, because it reifies an object, which I was taught is bad writing, but also because it pretends there is some kind of uniform, objective message here. There isn't. Which is why for pretty much every writer (except Greg Cosell) I have to confirm their points with my own eyes before I'm buying it.

But I think both advanced stats geeks and smart analysts are making a mistake if they think their work is hugely predictive. It is analytic, and the more it is used as such the more interesting and meaningful it becomes. There is too much parity and unpredictability in the NFL, which is a big part of what makes it such an attractive sport to follow. Analysis helps understand it, and it does help set expectations, but it'll never be all that objective or predictive.

So, that's really me saying: Field Gulls is a place that's always valued rational analysis over everything else. And it should, because we're a blog, and blogs are all about dialog, debates, enriching each others' knowledge. You can't accomplish those goals by screaming at each other about purely subjective stuff like a bunch of Baylesses. Despite the changes we've gone through over the past year, and the different content we offer that has various spots on the rational-to-emotional scale, we've never lost touch with those principles. But nor should we pretend the emotional side of things is just "wrong". If anything, it's that counter sound that you need to remind yourself of the shortcomings of rational analysis, and of the unpredictive nature of the NFL and emotion-driven nature of fandom. I'm not worried about it being drowned out. If anything, it's too loud NFL-journalism-wide, drowning out the rational and being used as a lazy crutch, but I am glad it exists.