By Gregg Easterbrook
Special to Page 2

Just days now until the mindless crunching violence of the NFL resumes -- and not a moment too soon! But, unfortunately, the fact that the season is about to begin also means that all sports pages, sports shows, sports websites and touts are issuing their predictions for the season. Tuesday Morning Quarterback has a personal motto for this subject: All Predictions Wrong or Your Money Back. ESPN.com is free, get it? So if by chance a TMQ prediction actually turned out correct, you would receive ... oh, never mind. And it is only by chance that a TMQ prediction -- or anybody's prediction -- would ever turn out correct.

Trying to predict what the records of NFL teams will be, who will win the divisions or even who will win the Super Bowl is like trying to predict what the weather will in be like in Bolivia on May 23, 2098. Wait, global warming computers are trying to predict that. Almost all sports predictions are wrong -- why does anyone even bother? Last season, The Sporting News kicked off the prophecy derby by predicting that Bill Belichick would be fired during the 2001 season as the Patriots sank to last place. "Belichick ... will never be a great head coach," TSN assured us. Belichick, ahem, won the Super Bowl.

At various times, TSN ran no fewer than 10 sets of predictions about the Super Bowl. They were -- Ravens over Rams (predicted twice), Raiders over Bucs, Bucs over Raiders, Raiders over Saints, Bucs over Raiders, Broncos over Saints, Titans over Bucs, Titans over Rams, Ravens over Bucs. All wrong!

Peter King of Sports Illustrated predicted the Broncs would "be playing deep into January," while ESPN's Chris Mortensen and the Wall Street Journal predicted the Broncos would win the Super Bowl. Denver failed to make the playoffs.

Mike Freeman of the New York Times predicted San Diego and Seattle would be surprise playoff teams; they surprised only him, by staying home. Freeman's predicted division winners were the Jets, Ravens, Bolts, Giants, Vikings, Niners. All wrong! The Times added four sets of preseason Super Bowl predictions: Tennessee over Tampa (predicted twice), Tampa over Tennessee, and Minnesota over Baltimore (predicted by Freeman). All wrong!

Bill Belichick
Bill Belichick proves why writers and editors never make good general managers.

USA Today ran five sets of predictions, three saying the Broncos would win it, two forecasting the Titans as eventual champs. None of the five USA Today preseason Super Bowl picks made the playoffs.

Then there was the incredible ESPN.com preseason meta-forecast, in which 16 sports nuts made 16 overlapping sets of divinations. None of the 16 had New England so much as making the playoffs, let alone the Big Dance. Here are last summer's 16 ESPN.com predicted Super Bowls: Titans over Bucs (predicted twice), Titans over Rams (predicted twice), Rams over Broncos (predicted twice), Rams over Ravens, Rams over Raiders, Titans over Saints, Titans over Vikings, Broncos over Rams, Broncs over Eagles, Broncos over Bucs, Broncos over Saints, Raiders over Bucs, Bucs over Broncos. All wrong!

Plus, 10 of ESPN.com's 16 predicted Super Bowl winners did not make playoffs. For the last three years, TMQ has been tracking NFL predictions on sports shows, sports websites, sports magazines and in major newspapers -- about 100 in all, per annum. To TMQ's knowledge, no one in summer 1999 predicted the Rams would win the Super Bowl. Two sports nuts of which TMQ knows did predict, in summer 2000, that the Ravens would win it -- Joe Theismann of ESPN, and Freeman of the Times. And to TMQ's knowledge, no one in summer 2001 predicted the Pats would win the Super Bowl. (Actually, no one other than ... Tuesday Morning Quarterback! But we'll get to that in a moment.)

All told, of the roughly 300 Super Bowl predictions tracked by TMQ through this period, two were right -- a one-in-150 performance. If you simply placed into a hat the names of the 31 NFL teams that existed in those years and drew a name at random, your odds of predicting the Super Bowl winner would be 1-in-31. This means that in the past three years, professional sportscasters and commentators, possessed with their incredible insider knowledge, have proven themselves five times less likely than random chance to predict the Super Bowl winner.

Plus virtually all forecasts of division winners are always wrong, but we can slide past that. Even more ridiculous is trying to forecast exact final scores of games. Last year in August, for instance, Mortensen said the exact final score of the Super Bowl would be Broncos 27, Bucs 17. That neither team got past the first round, let alone made the Super Bowl, set his prediction back somewhat. But even if the big game had matched Broncos versus Bucs, the odds of calling a final score are so remote that it's a total waste of time -- like trying to predict not just the weather in Bolivia on May 23, 2098, but exactly what the barometric pressure would be that day at the La Paz airport station at 2:46 p.m. local.

Consider that the accuracy-obsessed, dignified, super-ultra-respectable New York Times inexplicably devotes an entire page each Friday of the NFL season to attempting to predict the exact final scores of NFL games. TMQ has been tracking Times predictions for two years, and found that every single one of them has been wrong. The Paper of Record, as the Times likes to call itself, went 0-520 in 2000 and 2001 attempting to predict an exact NFL final score. (There were 259 games each season, plus the Paper of Guesses ran double predictions for each Super Bowl.) Further misadventures of Times missed predictions will be tracked this year in a TMQ item called New York Times Final-Score Score.

Catherine Bell
Sorry, no swimsuit shot. But this Catherine Bell photo should suffice.

The Sporting News holds an annual invitational event in which celebrities attempt to predict the final score of the Super Bowl -- during Super Bowl week, once the combatants are known. Through the last two seasons, TSN has asked 70 celebrities, including Monica Lewinsky, John McCain and Dan Rather, to forecast the exact Super Bowl final. Every one has been wrong and that proves ... no wait, last year hot-tomato actress Catherine Bell actually did forecast a final of Pats 20, Rams 17! This makes her to TMQ's knowledge the sole representative of genus homo ever to foretell an exact final Super Bowl score. TMQ mentions Bell's accomplishment for two reasons. First, to show that the exception proves the rule. Second, to create an excuse for the ESPN.com art department to add a photo of Catherine Bell to the column. Preferably swimsuit, please.

Still lower on the down escalator of ridiculousness are attempts to predict exact player performance, MVPs and so on. The best -- that is, most ridiculous -- prophecy of this nature TMQ has seen so far comes from Paul Zimmerman ("Dr. Z") of Sports Illustrated, who predicts that "Dwight Freeney will have 11 sacks, Julian Peppers eight. Freeney's tackle and assist totals will be higher, too." Dr. Z, why not predict that Freeney will have 11.5 sacks? And what will the Colts' net punting average be? TMQ is keeping a file of predictions, whose inevitable far-far-far off the mark specifics will be the topic of a column during Super Bowl week.

Now, what of TMQ's own record at divination? Last year on Aug. 28, TMQ noted that in the previous two seasons the eventual Super Bowl winners, the Rams and Ravens, had not been slated for "Monday Night Football" in the seasons of their triumphs, meaning that even the league front office thought these clubs would be terrible. TMQ decided this constituted a strong statistical indicator, and wrote:

    TMQ predicts that the team goin' to Disney World this winter will come from among those that did not make the "Monday Night Football" cut: Arizona, Atlanta, Buffalo, Carolina, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Kansas City, New England, San Diego and Seattle. Yes, this is a sorry group, but if the league brain trust thinks these teams are losers, one of them must be good.

There it is, read it and weep -- a prophecy from yours truly that the Patriots would win the Super Bowl. Pete Prisco of CBS recently wrote, "A year ago, no one could have predicted the Patriots would have won the Super Bowl." I beg your pardon!

In making this astonishing super-prediction, TMQ benefited from possessing no incredible insider information. Also, TMQ benefited from random chance, the only thing that was really working in my favor. Last year in the same column, I also predicted that of the 2000 division winners -- Miami, Tennessee, Oakland, New Orleans, Minnesota and Jersey/A -- "only one will repeat." Give that man a kewpie doll, because Oakland alone repeated. Since only two of the previous 18 division winners had repeated, this wasn't a hard guess. But having read all the 2001 forecasts, I can tell you most experts predicted that most division winners would repeat.

Now, having mocked the prediction business, I too will make predictions -- solely for solidarity reasons so other sports types can mock me, certainly not because I think anything I'm about to say will fare better against final results than names pulled from a hat.

Drew Bledsoe
AP
Drew Bledsoe might be playing himself out of Buffalo.

First, it has now been three straight seasons that the Super Bowl winner has not been picked by the league for the "Monday Night" showcase in the year of its triumph. A statistically strong indicator! (League front-office inability to guess which of its own clubs will be good, that is.) And so TMQ predicts that the team goin' to Disney World next winter will come from among those that did not make the "Monday Night" cut: Arizona, Atlanta, Buffalo, Carolina, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Minnesota, New Orleans and San Diego. Yes, this is a sorry group, but if the league brain trust thinks these teams are losers, one of them must be good.

Second, TMQ predicts that of last year's division winners -- New England, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis -- only one will repeat. It's just that TMQ has no idea which one it will be. (Hedge: Two might repeat, owing to this season's realignment grade inflation that pushes the total number of division-winner slots to eight.) Considering that a mere three of the last 24 division winners have repeated the following year, this isn't too hard a guess. Though TMQ notes that despite last year's example, and the example of the prior year, and the example of the year before that, this summer most touts are predicting lots of division winners to repeat. See, for example, the ESPN The Magazine division forecast, which calls for three of last year's six to repeat.

(Aside: Why is it ESPN The Magazine rather than just ESPN Magazine? You don't tune in ESPN The Channel. But then the formal name of Oprah magazine is O The Oprah Magazine, meaning you're supposed to go into your local newsstand and ask, "Have you got this month's O The Oprah?" Actually, given its content, TMQ feels the latter publication should be called, Oprah Winfrey's Oprah Winfrey Magazine Featuring Oprah Winfrey. We'd have to check with Elias Sports Bureau, but Oprah Winfrey's Oprah Winfrey Magazine Featuring Oprah Winfrey is believed to be the first magazine in history to have exactly the same subject on every page.)

Still worse, against my better judgment, I will offer a predicted finish for each of the 32 teams, solely to expose myself to ridicule when all the predicted records turn out wrong. Oh, and I'll offer a haiku for each team, too. You mean you've never seen an NFL forecast that includes 32 all-new team-by-team haiku? Hey, I'm tryin' to set a bar here.

Tuesday Morning Quarterback poetic forecasts

Annual leader
in: lowest league attendance.
AZ Cardinals.

Forecast: 4-12

***** ***** *****

Raptors, but play like
chickadees -- in v. large cage.
Atlanta Falcons.

Forecast: 7-9

***** ***** *****

Offended football
gods; cut Bowl-winner Dilfer.
Bal-a-mer Ravens.

Forecast: 8-8

***** ***** *****

First lose four in row,
Now lose the red, white and blue.
The Buffalo Bills.

Forecast: 6-10

***** ***** *****

Record losing streak.
Maybe -- jump to NBA?
The N.C. Panthers.

Forecast: 3-13

***** ***** *****

Spending mucho mil
not to get new stadium.
The Chicago Bears.

Forecast: 11-5

***** ***** *****

Perennially duds,
their helmet stripes should blush red.
The Cincy Bungles.

Forecast: 4-12

***** ***** *****

They're back, sort of. They're
brown, at least. The Cleveland Browns,
Release 2.0.

Forecast: 6-10

***** ***** *****

America's Team???
America likes winners!
The Dallas Cowboys.

Forecast: 6-10

***** ***** *****

Fans get two great views:
of Rockies, of hot cheer-babes.
The Denver Broncos.

Forecast: 10-6

***** ***** *****

Half century since
last title. But who's counting?
The Detroit Lions.

Forecast: 4-12

***** ***** *****

Millennia hence,
uniforms will be the same.
The Green Bay Packers.

Forecast: 13-3

***** ***** *****

New field, new old name,
lovely cow-inspired logo.
The Houston Texans.

Forecast: 2-14

***** ***** *****

Fans wave towels like mad,
but do foe teams fear towels?
The Indy Horsies.

Forecast: 9-7

***** ***** *****

Enron-like sal cap,
WorldCom-like drop from glory.
Jacksonville Jaguars.

Forecast: 5-11

***** ***** *****

The best home record
and the best ribs. Plus, cheap beer.
Kansas City Chiefs.

Forecast : 7-9

***** ***** *****

Dolphins are not fish.
Should be: "Go, Marine Mammals!"
Miami Dolphins.

Forecast: 10-6

***** ***** *****

Rattles, teething rings
issued to all purple-clad.
The Minnesota Vikes.

Forecast: 4-12

***** ***** *****

Patriot-ism
now the first refuge of fans.
The N.E. P-Men.

Forecast: 12-4

***** ***** *****

Confused about state;
think Broadway in Jersey, too?
New Jersey Giants.

Forecast: 7-9

***** ***** *****

Confused about state;
the unis that time forgot.
The New Jersey Jets.

Forecast: 8-8

***** ***** *****

Just one playoff win
-- and resting on that laurel.
New Orleans Saints

Forecast: 8-8

***** ***** *****

Crowd in spikes, leather,
chains. And that's just the women!
The Oakland Raiders.

Forecast: 11-5

***** ***** *****

Play on field that makes
airport runway appealing.
The Philly Eagles.

Forecast: 12-4

***** ***** *****

Play at Ketchup Field,
with gents not drafted but forged.
The Pittsburgh Steelers.

Forecast : 12-4

***** ***** *****

Bolts on their helmets,
babes in the crowd. Which to watch?
The S.D. Chargers.

Forecast: 8-8

***** ***** *****

Fans boast, "We score more!"
But only in football sense.
The St. Louis Rams.

Forecast: 12-4

***** ***** *****

Where the crowd checks out
players' butts not cheerleaders'.
The S.F. Niners.

Forecast: 13-3

***** ***** *****

Even Microsoft
won't buy their stadium name.
Seattle Seahawks.

Forecast: 7-9

***** ***** *****

Coach cost more than Dow
Jones worth. But, who will line up?
Tampa Buccaneers

Forecast: 9-7

***** ***** *****

Moses wandered, too.
Rename home Mount Nebo Field?
The Flaming Thumbtacks.

Forecast: 10-6

***** ***** *****

Whether or not name
offends, owner surely does.
The "D.C." R*dsk*ns.

Forecast finish: 8-8

***** ***** *****

Running Items Department
Obscure College Score of the Week: Mars Hill 41, Virginia Wise 6. Located along the scenic Blue Ridge near Asheville, N.C, Mars Hills College allows students to have cars on campus but not to drink beer. TMQ would do it the other way around! At the college's food-service building, "children 3 and under eat free with a paying adult." Umm, does Mars Hill, a Baptist school, have a lot of undergraduates with children under 3? Told you that you should have let them drink beer; after a few beers it becomes difficult to make this sort of mischief. Though boasting of strict focus of academics, the school offers a degree in "recreation and leisure services."

Bonus obscure score: Pittsburg State (Kan.) 48, Langston 0. Item note: The big schools get all the media hype, but TMQ has long loved small-college football, especially Division III. I find it reassuring to think that all over the nation each autumn, in small stadiums nestled amidst various foothills, plastic-clad gentlemen slam into each other while bands play, guys try to get girls' phone numbers and car alarms go off in the parking lot. Why, it's the eternal cycle of life. Obscure College Score of the Week will bring a little notice to small-school games and the small schools that play host to them.

Moment of existential small-school assertion: Trailing defending national champion University of Miami 49-0 late in the third and facing fourth down at the Hurricanes 18, Division I-AA Florida A&M kicked a field goal to deny Miami the shutout. The 'Canes home crowd booed when it saw the visitors' field goal unit trot out -- serves 'em right for wanting to run up the score on the weak. And why did the Rattlers agree to travel to Miami for certain humiliation by a Division I champion looking for an easy tuneup? According to the Tallahassee Democrat, the University of Miami will pay Florida A&M $418,000 for agreeing to be clobbered.

Lindsay
When dining with Lindsay, don't offer to go Dutch.

Cheerleader of the week: A Dolphin cheer-babe was promised for this week and she is Lindsay, whose team bio reports that her nationality is "Italian-Dutch" and that her favorite food is "anything Italian." Lindsay, you don't crave Dutch food? (TMQ once lived in Brussels, Belgium, just down the street from a Dutch restaurant called In de Kwack, decorated with frog images, because "kwack" is how a frog croaks in Dutch. The food was -- well, the food was there. And like all European restaurants, smoking was mandatory.) Lindsay's bio also reports that she works as a bartender. I'll have a double! And how come the bartender has never looked like this in any drinking establishment TMQ has ever entered?

Scientific proof that it's good for you to gawk at beach babes in triangle tops Speaking of the team of hot cheer-babes, going into opening day the Miami Dolphins are riding a streak of 10 straight first-game-day wins, best in the league. Jacksonville holds the second-best streak at six, and Tampa has won two straight, leaving Florida with a combined 18-0 opening-day streak. California is also riding a positive streak on opening day -- the Bolts, Niners and Raiders are a combined 4-0. Sun and sand rule!

Pennsylvania, by contrast, is an opening-day loser -- the Eagles and Steelers a combined 0-3, while the old industrial Cities of Rust (Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit) are on a combined 0-8 opening-day streak

Nice job, now get out of here! This offseason an incredible eight gentlemen -- Jesse Armstead of Jersey/A, Ray Brown of the Niners, Ken Dilger of the Colts, La'Roi Glover of the Saints, Jeremiah Trotter of the Eagles and Sam Adams, Shannon Sharpe and Rod Woodson of the Ravens -- were waived after making the Pro Bowl. Gary Walker of the Jaguars and Jermaine Lewis of the Ravens also made the Pro Bowl and were in effect waived when their names were placed in the expansion draft. A total of 10 Pro Bowlers were shown the door.

This also made it the third consecutive offseason that at least one player who had made the Pro Bowl was immediately let go (Mark Fields, Randall McDaniel and Ted Washington in 2001, Sam Gash in 2000). Note the trend toward more Pro Bowl players cut with each passing season. Isn't the salary cap wonderful?

Terrell Davis
Don't expect Terrell Davis to lower his shoulders into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Davis, his medical charts retire: Tuesday Morning Quarterback salutes Terrell Davis, wishing him good luck and godspeed endorsing used-car dealerships or whatever he does in his next career.

Davis was a top back and a fun player to watch, but on the current question of should he go into the Hall, TMQ exits through the portal marked NAY. Davis' rushing yards don't put him in the top 20 all time. His productive seasons came with an offense that was so good, two gentlemen who subbed for him, Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson, also rang up 1,000-yard seasons. Davis was one-dimensional, rarely catching the ball and throwing about one block per season. (Gale Sayers, who made the Hall with a short career like Davis', ran back kicks and holds several all-time return records; this second dimension opened his door to Canton.)

During the period Davis was on the field, there were four better backs who will make the Hall: in order, Emmitt Smith, Thurman Thomas, Curtis Martin and Barry Sanders. Plus runners are overrepresented in Canton anyway, with 22 RBs and 27 OLs from the modern era. Considering that football is played with more than twice as many offensive linemen as running backs, that means the Hall should take many borderline-case OLs before it takes any borderline-case RBs.

While it is a shame that Davis' career was cut short, it's no surprise, given that he ran with his shoulder down. TMQ believes the truism that the human body can absorb only so many hits; each unnecessary hit a runner takes by lowering his shoulder is a carry subtracted from his career. Davis often dropped his shoulder even when he was surrounded without hope of breaking free; it may have made him tough and respected, but it meant only four full seasons of performance. The seven-year back Eddie George, who also lowers his shoulder too much when he's going down anyway, is developing chronic injury problems in his seventh year.

Contrast this with the 11-seasons-and-still going Jerome Bettis, who despite his rep, rarely lowers his shoulder. Watch Bettis closely -- he's constantly juking to avoid all-out hits. Most Bettis highlight-reel runs involve him busting through attempted leg tackles, which is easier on the body than dropped-shoulder running -- the difference between glancing contact and a head-on collision. Davis has taken his departure stoically, and that's the right approach. Runners who make their reputations with their shoulders down should not complain when their curtain calls come early.

Offseason cinema marketing highlight: "Clockstoppers," a movie about halting the inexorable march of time, closed after just two weeks.

Offseason malt marketing highlight: The Jack Daniels distillery began shipping "Jack Daniels Original Hard Cola," a beer that contains neither Jack Daniels nor cola.

Offseason Slim-Jim highlight: In the first round of the NBA draft, the Washington Wizards picked Jared Jeffries of Indiana and Juan Dixon of the University of Maryland, two of the skinniest representatives of genus homo ever to perform in any sport. Combined, they average 6-6, 189 pounds.

Offseason cap casualty update: Shannon Sharpe and Ray Brown weren't the only victims. Fox waived John Madden for salary-cap reasons; Disney quickly signed him for ABC, and waived all remaining Michael Ovitz projects to clear cap space. To fit Madden under the ABC cap, the cost of his bus is being prorated over the length of the contract.

Miramax waived Tina Brown; TMQ now looks forward to a new magazine called Tina Brown's Silence.

WorldCom waived Bernard Ebbers, taking a $400 million cap charge for Ebbers', hmm, what's the word I'm looking for ... oh yeah, "larceny." (Actually, Ebbers counted $57 billion against the WorldCom cap, this being the amount of "good will" assets the company has finally admitted was always pure fiction.)

Adelphia waived the entire Sopranos family -- sorry, I meant the entire Rigas family -- and then waved to them as they were led away in handcuffs. TMQ would like to see the elder Rigas, especially, spend the rest of his life writing "I will not steal from shareholders" on the blackboard of an isolation cell.

And Mariah Carey was cut by Virgin Records, which had to pay her a $28 million workout bonus to end the deal. Virgin announced it planned to have several losing seasons while developing younger, cheaper artists. Shortly after being released by Virgin, Carey signed for a $20 million bonus with Universal, which promised her a starting job. After Mariah Carey had received a total of $48 million over a short period for doing nothing, what did Michael Jackson call her? "A victim."

Real at last! The pro football fan's long, long national nightmare -- OK, seven months -- is finally at an end. And that means the Tuesday Morning Quarterback season premiere next Tuesday. No more "vanilla" items. I'll roll out vertical-game deep jokes designed for quick-strike laughs, blitz-package adjectives and adverbs that come at readers from all directions, onside puns, fake gerunds, mix up my coverages of events -- can't wait!

Gregg Easterbrook is a senior editor of New Republic, a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is believed to be the first Brookings scholar ever to write a pro football column. You can buy his football book, the incredibly cleverly titled "Tuesday Morning Quarterback," here.


SPONSORED HEADLINES



Gregg_Easterbrook
Gregg
Easterbrook
TUESDAY MORNING QB