The cycle is inescapable.
Every year, three forces push NFL fan bases to refill the wellspring of optimism as they head toward the regular season.
First is the sheer power of the parity the NFL offers. This isn’t the NBA, a league dominated by the weight that its superstars provide (see: the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors). In the NFL, teams can turn things around on a dime with a good offseason. So fans of teams that struggled mightily last year don’t have to be tied to that performance once the offseason comes rolling in.
Second is how most media cover the offseason. It’s nearly impossible in nearly all NFL situations to gauge which players or coaches are going to underperform based on the offseason program. So instead of any analysis that lines up with outcomes, we get the kind of coverage we’ve been accustomed to since...well, forever. Player A looks fast. Player B made a nice catch. Great breakup from Player C. Who knew Player D was so athletic? This is the modern-era NFL. Every single one of these humans are insanely physcially gifted. And so what you get with offseason reporting is a litany of plaudits and compliments and praise that never gets balanced out with what would otherwise be an appropriate level of criticism or reprehension. For two and a half months, fan bases are told repeatedly how good players are looking.
The third factor at work is who is feeding the media so much of this praise. It’s the team itself. Every team goes through free agency and the draft. Every team has a plan for how they want to invest in those periods. Every team believes in their plan. Not every team’s plan will work. In fact, several won’t. Many free agents won’t fit. Many rookies will bust. But if you only ask the team who selected those players, they’re not going to tell you why it won’t work. They’re only going to buy into their own reasoning. So coupled with the media’s impossible job from OTAs on, you’ve got another layer of repeated positive reinforcement. Coaches are really impressed with this rookie! Players who have been with a team for years are really excited about how well this new free agent is fitting in!
Those three factors every year take over every fan base to pull the entire rooting NFL world into a state of optimism. That isn’t to say every fan base thinks their team is going 14-2. Instead, what you get is a conditioned sense of optimism given the constraints each team is facing.
And yet again, our FanPulse results show this at work.
Our most recent polling asked fans whether they thought their team would win more or less games than their over/under as set by Westgate. While you can tell where this is headed, let’s rewind a bit just to set the stage.
Every week during the 2018 season, we asked fans whether they were confident in the direction of the team. Heading into Week 1 of the regular season, 30 of 32 fan bases polled 80% or higher in their confidence. By the end of the season, only 9 fan bases crossed that threshold. Looking at it from the other side of the spectrum, those two teams at Week 1 that were under 80% were both over 65%. Not a single fan base reported confidence levels below that. By the end of the season, 19 fan bases dropped to 65% or less. A majority of fans for a majority of teams were severely disappointed in their season. Why? Because they had overinflated expectations based on the three factors in the offseason I discussed above. None of the teams that failed (or failed spectacularly) had considered in any depth the possibility of that happening or how it might have come about. Instead, they had focused nearly all of their coverage and attention on how things were going to go right.
Now in the 2019 offseason, we see the cycle at work again.
In early May, we looked at how some of the most unconfident fan bases, the teams who disappointed the most in 2018 were already seeing their fan bases refill the wellspring of optimism. I mentioned that at the end of the season, we saw 19 fan bases at 65% confidence or less. Already since the draft? That number’s down to 7. I won’t be surprised in the least if after training camp and the preseason, we get five of those fan bases above the 65% mark for Week 1 to match the 2018 population of teams over and below that mark.
That’s the cycle. And it’s powerful.
I mentioned our most recent FanPulse poll looked at over/unders for win totals. Obviously given the power of the cycle, a majority of fan bases took the over for their team. How many? How many fan bases had a majority that took the over?
If you’re paying attention, you might have guessed it.
Just two teams’ fan bases, the New York Giants and the Miami Dolphins, had fan bases that went with a push or the under for their win total. Even then, the % of fans that took the under for those teams was under 30%.
But the results are less about the teams that we think will be among the worst in the NFL. It’s more amazing how the cycle empowers the 90% or so of teams we don’t expect to be in that bottom tier.
For 23 teams, more than 75% of their fan base is taking the over. That’s about 3⁄4 of the entire NFL hitting the over. You don’t have to be conversant in any advanced mathematical theory to recognize that that doesn’t match up with reality. The odds we used had 21 teams with an over/under of at least 8 wins. Every fan base took the over. There aren’t going to be 21 teams with winning record. And it’s not just teams with high o/u’s.
The Denver Broncos’ o/u is 7.0. 86% of Broncos fans took the over.
The Detroit Lions’ o/u is 6.5. 91% of Lions fans took the over.
The Buffalo Bills’ o/u is 6.5. 96% of Bills fans took the over.
For the Los Angeles Rams, we had an incredibly high o/u of 10.5. The only team with a higher one was the New England Patriots at 11 wins (only 1% of Pats fans took the under...). 95% of Rams fans took the over. That’s the power of the cycle. Don’t blame Rams fans for being uniquely close-minded. The New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs also had a 10.5 over/under. Their fan bases clocked in at 92% and 88%, respectively.
The cycle is indeed powerful.
Here’s hoping we’re one of the few teams who end up on their other side of it with reality coming anywhere close to the aspirations that get fed into it.