Told You So!

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“The Giants figure to be mediocre at best.”
—Don Banks, pro football reporter, Sports Illustrated Aug. 30, 2007

“We now know that a flawed Eli will never be Peyton, but he doesn’t have to be. The Giants will settle for consistency … BOTTOM LINE: Too many people have to step up to get this team to the postseason. Tom Coughlin’s hot seat is burning.”
 —Hank Gola, Daily News, Sept. 5, 2007

“…unless Manning takes a major step forward, the Giants will struggle to make the playoffs.”
 —Clifton Brown, The New York Times, “The Fifth Down” blog, Sept. 1, 2007

“You know the Giants are a mess. Their best player on offense retired, and their best player on defense threatened to join him. They have no left tackle and are stuck with out-of-position guard David Diehl trying to protect Eli Manning’s blind side. The secondary has huge holes. The head coach is a lame duck on a one-year contract who doesn’t seem to garner much respect in the locker room.”
— Aaron Schatz, The New York Sun, Aug. 31, 2007

In the four months since they proffered their predictions, the above sportswriters (and all of their equally short-sighted colleagues) have watched from the press box as the New York Giants proved them—and everyone—wrong, by defying conventional wisdom and the inexact science of sports prediction. When they arrive on the field at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. for this Sunday’s Super Bowl, they’ll have the added pleasure of knowing that they defied all those who said it couldn’t be done.

And that list includes every sportswriter covering professional football in New York City—at The Times, The Daily News, The Post and The Sun—as well as reporters at Sports Illustrated, USA Today, The Sporting News and ESPN.

Every sportswriter, that is, except ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski, who boldly predicted in last August that that “if one NFC team is going to shock the world, it’s going to be ... the New York Giants.”

Which they did. And no one was more shocked than the sportswriters themselves.

It’s a time-honored tradition for newspapers to predict the final standings in America’s top-three professional sports (football, basketball and baseball)—and an almost equally time-honored tradition for those forecasts to be false. Sports fans love nothing more than to relive the past and speculate about the future, which explains the popularity of radio stations like WFAN, the endless debates that dominate Internet forums, sports-bar banter and water-cooler conversation.

But sportswriter predictions don’t exist just to fan the flames of idle chatter. Sports betting is a $150-billion industry, and Vegas oddsmakers say no sport attracts more wagering than professional football. This adds weight to the significance of this wildly inexact science, in which sportswriters use their knowledge of the teams to tell readers, in no uncertain terms, what seems likeliest to happen, when teams finish their regular season and proceed to the conference playoffs and, eventually, the Super Bowl.

Allen Sanderson, a sports economist at the University of Chicago called the “error term” of the sports media’s preseason picks “pretty large.” But he pointed out that sports reporters risk very little by making a bad pick. “I suppose if [the reporter] were a total idiot, at some point he’d get fired,” Sanderson said, “but in the meantime, no—[there’s] very little cost to saying anything you want.”

And so while no one knew in August that the Giants would win the NFC championship, they did know one thing—that by the time December rolled around, no one would remember, or hold them accountable, for just how wrong they were.

We decided to go back and see just how wrong the sportswriters really were. And we found they were almost as wide of the mark as Lawrence Tynes’ fourth-quarter field goal attempts against the Green Bay Packers.

“The Giants are putting a lot of faith in a guy—Brandon Jacobs—who consistently struggled to pick up first downs in short-yardage situations last season … [They] were 5-3 on the road,” wrote Jim Rich in The Daily News on Sept. 7, in a typically dire assessment. “There won’t be many opportunities to make money with Big Blue this season….”

Even the predictions that came closest to being accurate weren’t very impressive. “What has made the NFL so exciting over the past decade is the chase, and the mystery of the underdog down the stretch. And who knows, maybe some lesser club will knock off one of the big boys in the postseason,” Pro Football Weekly’s Eric Edholm wrote of the Giants, in The New York Sun, on Oct. 8.

“The schedule is fair, and an underdog mentality usually translates into a surprise season for Giants,” The New York Post’s Paul Schwartz conceded on Sept. 5, though he felt they wouldn’t be able to “squeeze” into the playoffs.

To be fair, it should be noted that no one except delusional, diehard fans thought the team had a realistic chance of ending up in the Super Bowl this season.

With the departure of the Giants’ star running back, Tiki Barber, the threatened departure of their best defensive player, Michael Strahan, a head coach, Tom Coughlin, who seemed games away from getting fired, and a quarterback, Eli Manning, who had yet to live up to his supposed potential, the conventional wisdom was that the Giants would land in the middle of the NFC East, and consider themselves lucky if they got a playoff berth. There, it was widely believed, the Giants would be bettered by formidable opponents like the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles—both teams it managed to beat.

“Nobody liked the Giants because they were such a question mark,” The New York Daily News’ Bill Gallo said in a telephone interview. “The quarterback [Eli Manning], he’s great guns now ... but they didn’t expect him to even hang around for god’s sake, the way he was playing, you know. He was so uneducated on the ways of playing quarterback. And then we find out ... who the kid is. We find out that he has that perseverance. We find out that he studies this game ... He had such gumption to correct his errors that ... now he’s become one of the top quarterbacks...

“And the coach [Tom Coughlin], same kinda thing,” continued Gallo. “The coach was gonna be run out of town for god’s sake. And look where he is now. The special teams came around. But it’s always that impetus that does it. And the impetus was this kid, Eli.

Gallo remembers first seeing preseason picks about 25 years ago. Gallo, who has been at The New York Daily News for 60 years (and who, like many others, picked the Patriots to beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl this year), explained that preseason picks are guesses, no matter who’s doing the guessing. And that goes for the sportswriters who “hang out” with teams at their camps before the season starts. To Gallo, the preseason pick is simply a pastime for fans, and publishers continue to run the picks because they “sell papers.”

A big reason for their popularity is that readers want to be right. And that influences the credibility the readers give to a columnist or to a publication’s picks. “If it’s what they think, they say ‘Hey, this guy’s great,’ whether he wins or loses ... It’s a game of being right ... And sometimes you vie with the writer [and] say ‘Hey, what the hell is he doing picking in a newspaper? I’m better than him. I would say it’s 40 percent of the readers, feel that way,” Gallo said. “I get mail when I’m wrong about something, that I’m a bum, and I don’t know anything and all that sorta stuff, you know.”

Dave Cokin, a highly regarded gaming handicapper and award-winning ESPN radio host in Las Vegas, acknowledged in a phone interview last week that he had no idea the Giants would be in the Super Bowl at the beginning of the season. “There’s no way I thought they’d be in the playoffs, to be honest with you,” he said. “I didn’t think they were a very good football team.”

Cokin credited Tom Coughlin, whose two consecutive playoff losses as the Giants head coach put his job in jeopardy at the beginning of the season, with the team’s resurgence as a winning team. “Basically until the Patriots game [on December 29th] ... they were kinda limping into the playoffs, a bottom seed in a weak conference,” Cokin said. “But something happened in that New England game where they ... just started believing in themselves ... There was great coaching by Coughlin. [He told them] ‘Go out there and play these guys in a meaningless game,’ basically, ‘but play it like it was the most important thing of all time.’ And they really bought into it ... And I think it galvanized the team.”

Some sportswriters have at least learned from their early-season mistakes.

“The Tom Coughlin era figures to be over this year.” That was’s  King Kaufman on writing about the Giants in his Sept., 6, NFL preview. “The Tom Coughlin era figures to be over after this year. The team gave him a one-year extension for some reason, but his ‘You’re late if you’re not early’ routine has obviously grown thin … Eli Manning may be a better quarterback than he’s shown, but he’s not going to show it behind the line that’s in front of him. I think the Giants’ season is going to be a spiral, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Coughlin doesn’t survive it. The good news for Giants fans, as long as they don’t think too much about their tax bill: They’ve broken ground on the new stadium….”

The tone of Kaufman’s Jan. 22 column had changed.

“Yes, the New York Giants have a chance,” Kaufman wrote. “They have a chance to pull off the greatest Super Bowl upset since the Jets beat the Baltimore Colts 39 years ago.”

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