This weekend, I got an email from my father-in-law, a retired actuary. He asked me what chances I thought the Saints had to make the playoffs. My reply boiled down to: it all depends on who the Saints are.
So many times, the sports punditry spouts meaningless, stat-based factoids instead of giving real analysis. You all know the type: “The Saints are 12-47 as road favorites following a home win since 1980.” (That’s not a real stat, by the way, so don’t waste your time looking it up. It’s an example.) Just exactly what anything that happened in 1980 might have to do with this week’s game is beyond me. I suspect it’s beyond everyone…but you can turn any set of numbers into a stat if you try hard enough, and if you’re stupid.
Now, actuaries use stats all the time. They have to: it’s their job to predict future outcomes. The survival of their companies depends on it. So they understand something that sport statmongers seemingly don’t. Yes, all other things being equal, a larger sample is a better one. That’s because the larger the sample, the smaller the margin of error. But it doesn’t matter how large the sample size is if the sample is the wrong one.
Analyzing every game since 1980 (or thereabouts) gives you a pretty big sample. But it’s meaningless, because teams change. There is not one single player from that time still active. Not counting interims, we’re on our fifth coach since then. Even the owner has changed.
Trying to cobble together a meaningful stat by including performances from that long ago is like trying to predict the death rate for smokers in America by including non-smokers, or smokers in Paraguay or Pakistan. It’s the wrong sample. And trying to assess the chances of this year’s Saints by what happened to other teams in long ago and faraway seasons is equally the wrong sample.
Let’s suppose, just for the sake of argument—and again, these are not real stats, but just play along—that only 3 percent of teams starting out 2-4 make the playoffs. That means the Saints face a very difficult road, right? But also, let’s suppose that in any given year, only 3 percent of vertebrates actually fly. That may be meaningful in some arcane sense; but if you open the cage door, figuring there’s only a 3% chance your parakeet is going to take off on you…well, you’re too stupid to have a pet, anyway. Rather than basing your analysis on vertebrates, you should have identified what you’re actually dealing with—birds—and limited your sample to that.
So it is with football. If you wonder how many teams have ever made the playoffs after starting 2-4, you simply look up all the records and apply a simple formula. Easy; a sixth-grader could do it (so long as he wasn’t from Atlanta). But when you do that, you’re including a lot of miserable teams that never had a realistic chance of making the playoffs anyway, and merely went on to prove it. They were fish, so to speak. They could never fly. A few were parakeets, and they flew out the window and into the playoffs, because that’s what parakeets do.
So which one are we? Are the Saints a goldfish, or a parakeet?
And it’s at this point that the whole exercise is rendered moot, because who the fuck knows? Do you? After that performance against the Bucs? Can you tell me which offense is the real Saints? Which defense?
We gave up over 500 yards in total offense. Josh Freeman had a career day. Vincent Jackson looked like he could only be stopped by Vincent Jackson. And yet the Saints defense came up with two goal-line stands to win the game.
Or the offense: 26 rushes for 81 yards. Pierre Thomas had a 2.5 average and didn’t catch a pass. Yet Drew Brees had statistically (there’s that word again) his best day of the season.
We surged back from an early 14-0 hole to take a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter. And in the final twelve minutes we ran nine plays for 22 yards, and had to sweat out a defensive stop to prevent the overtime that we all knew would end badly.
So we won. We’re 2-4. But what are we?
I said before this game that whatever Saints team showed up today would be what we would see for the rest of the year. They had two weeks off to focus on identifying and fixing problems—and apparently, they failed completely, because the same problems are still there. All we really know is this: so long as we have Drew Brees, we stand a good chance of eking out close wins against bad teams. Will that be good enough to get us to the postseason? Will it be good enough to get us to 7-9?
Will it be bad enough to give me a heart attack before January? Is the bar open?