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We have no proof that all rookies will be adversely affected by unusual offseason

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Now is not a good time for predictions

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Tennessee v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Your clothes, your furniture, the sheets on your bed, the Rams jersey in your closet. You are surrounded by products using synthetic dyes. It’s literally in the fabric of our lives. Did this come to be after teams of researchers spent decades looking for alternatives to the natural dyes that cost too much and are far more limited? No.

An 18-year-old scientist named William Henry Perkin was working on a cure for malaria in 1856 and accidentally invented synthetic dye.

Kevlar, balloons, camcorders, and silly putty, the list of products in our lives that started off as happy accidents or unintended consequences is endless. The fact of the matter is that even if humans are the smartest and most ingenious creatures in the universe, we seem to be “educated guessing” far more often than we care to admit. When one of those educated guesses works in your favor, you get to be a “genius” for a day.

There are too countless examples of unintended consequences shaping the NFL and how it is played. Everything from the forward pass to rushing that eventual passer was at least in some way connected to reacting to the world they were facing at the time and evaluating the consequences, both intended and unintended.

Look no further than the NFL draft, where every year football fans are sold a bill of goods that teams know what they are doing and yet whether you’re looking at 1955 or 2015, it kind of just looks the same: most of the great players are drafted early, but then there are also a bunch of regrettable picks in the first round and regrettable misses on players who they did even worse evaluations on, like Bart Starr in 1956 (200th overall) and Tom Brady in 2000 (199th overall) and Dak Prescott in 2016 (135th overall).

The New England Patriots drafted Brady to be a dependable backup to Drew Bledsoe for years to come, signed Bledsoe to the richest contract in NFL history, he got hurt, and a happy accident (for them) occurred.

“Plans” in sports are hilarious. And now we are attempting to plan for the most mysterious and unprecedented season in any of our lifetimes.

On Thursday, the MLB attempts to return with its first-ever 60-game season and even if the world miraculously allowed for baseball to comeback with a 162-game campaign in 2021, could there not be unintended consequences that would impact the sport forever?

Next Thursday, the NBA attempts to return with a smaller league (22 teams) playing just enough games (eight) to finish a shortened regular season and a play-in tournament to the playoffs. What affect will this have on the league for as long as we live? There are answers to that question that we can’t possibly know right now.

And within that same time frame, NFL players and coaches are supposed to begin reporting for 2020 training camp. Rather than have 90 players, they’ll have 80. Rather than play four preseason games, they’ll play zero. Rather than hang out and congregate and spend time with their families and go unwind at a bowling alley with like 10 other players on the defense, they’ll be encouraged to isolate and bowling alleys don’t exist right now.

Teams are going beyond just checking temps of anyone who enters the building, they’ve also made sure to take steps like removing couches from locker rooms so players don’t make the mistake of sharing it.

Oh, and no fans. In any of these leagues. Well, maybe a few, we can’t rule it out yet. But if homefield or home court advantage is in any way impacted by the presence of a home crowd, then that too should change the sport in the present and carry unintended consequences well into the future.

The idea that humans — even experts in a field — can predict something like how an upcoming sports season will go with great accuracy should be treated with the same amount of credibility as if I asked to read your palm and tell you that tomorrow you’ll meet a man with a plum in his pocket and he’ll tell you to follow the white rabbit. Combine that with the fact that we are now facing an NFL season unlike any other and it’s hard to see how anyone could be so bold as to say that they know which players or coaches or teams will be most adversely affected or gain the most advantage from these circumstances.

From Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, psychologist, economist, and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow:

Yet the illusion of valid prediction remains intact, a fact that is exploited by people whose business is prediction – not only financial experts but pundits in business and politics too. Television and radio stations and newspapers have their panels of experts whose job it is to comment on the recent past and foretell the future. Viewers and readers have the impression that they are receiving information that is somehow privileged, or at least extremely insightful. And there is no doubt that the pundits and their promoters genuinely believe they are offering such information.

Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, explained these so-called expert predictions in a landmark 20-year study, which he published in his 2005 book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?

Tetlock interviewed 284 people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends.” He asked them to assess the probabilities that certain events would occur, both in areas of the world in which they specialized and in regions about which they had less knowledge. Would Mikhail Gorbachev be ousted in a coup? Would the United States go to war in the Persian Gulf? Which country would become the next big emerging market? In all, Tetlock gathered more than 80,000 predictions. He also asked the experts how they reached their conclusions, how they reacted when proved wrong and how they evaluated evidence that did not support their positions.

Respondents were asked to rate the probabilities of three alternative outcomes in every case: the persistence of the status quo, more of something such as political freedom or economic growth, or less of that thing.

The results were devastating. The experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned equal probabilities to each of the three potential outcomes. In other words, people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options. Even in the region they knew best, experts were not significantly better than non-specialists.

Those who know more forecast very slightly better than those who know less. But those with the most knowledge are often less reliable. The reason is that the person who acquires more knowledge develops an enhanced illusion of her skill and becomes overconfident.

Based on that study by Tetlock, human predictions have come out almost the same as no predictions. We simply can’t do it. Maybe one day we will, but thus far humans have proven incapable of predicting what will happen. Will the sun rise in Buffalo, New York on Saturday? Probably. Will it be cloudy? If they forecast it only two days out, wouldn’t be that surprising. Could it be sunny? We can’t rule that out.

Will the first quarterback drafted be better than the seventh quarterback drafted? Probably. But what if the year is 2000 and the seventh quarterback is Brady? We can’t rule these things out. And after decades of drafts, we’ve yet to met a single person who could reliably avoid a first round bust even if he had spent 50 years in a front office.

There’s been much speculated about the upcoming NFL season, should it happen, and one thing that’s driven the narrative perhaps as much as any other is that we might as well write off the 2020 rookies because they won’t have minicamps and preseason and are spending less time with their team, adjusting to the league. This would have an even greater impact on the Los Angeles Rams because one-third of their roster is made of rookies, including 22 undrafted free agents. This number will likely get smaller as the league cuts down to 80-man rosters, but the Rams have long expected to put a slightly heavier burden on first-year players than normal.

Positions like starting running back, number three receiver, starting outside linebacker/edge rusher, starting slot corner, kicker, and backup quarterback all have rookies expected to compete there for the Rams. Sean McVay is not only sorting through them for players who could start, but what if “second string” is more important than ever next season?

A player who tests positive for coronavirus will spend at least three weeks on injured reserve. “Tough luck” may not just happen on the field anymore, it could happen in the hotel gift shop.

If Taylor Rapp or John Johnson miss time, they’ll likely be subbed in for by a rookie. Seventh round pick Clay Johnston isn’t far away from starting at inside linebacker. Fourth round tight end Brycen Hopkins could be one Tyler Higbee nasal test from basically starting in a two-tight end offense. Undrafted free agent center Cohl Cabral could be in the mix from day one but if one player at his position tests positive, is it more likely that multiple players at the position will test positive? And then if Cabral is the one who doesn’t test positive ...

There is speculation that rookies desperately need their first offseason because long has been the narrative that this is such a crucial time in their development. This may be generally true (though I am not aware of empirical evidence to support) but we know it is not a hard and fast rule. Though rookie holdouts have been rare since the 2011 CBA, we saw Joey Bosa sit out from the Chargers and miss all of his offseason and the first four games of 2016.

He had two sacks in his debut and 10.5 sacks in 12 games, one of the best rookie seasons by a pass rusher in the last decade.

Is Joey Bosa “special?” Of course. Just as I imagine Chase Young could be or Isaiah Simmons could be or Cam Akers could be. Trying to predict which of these players who’ve never played in the NFL before will be special and which won’t is like ... well, it’s just like that. Every year we read and hear from analysts which draft picks were great and deserve an “A” grade and which ones were terrible and get a “D” and yet with a far lower failure rate I can guarantee you that you will go back and more often than not be amused at how wrong they were.

So in that sense, 2020 should be no different than any year before it: we don’t now which of these prospects are special or not special yet.

We also don’t know that the lack of a preseason and/or fewer offseason team programs and practices will have more of a negative impact on rookies or veterans. How do we know yet that the mindset of some rookies isn’t already set to “Prove it” mode and if that has motivated them more than a comfortable veteran getting the longest break of his career?

What if players in their first two or three years will have spent more time in the weight room?

What if Zoom meetings make more sense for someone who recently graduated from college?

What if Rams rookie Terrell Lewis, who has battled injuries that’ve kept him off the field for most of the last three years, will have benefited more from fewer practices and more studying? Maybe rookies are more glued to their playbooks now than they’d ever been before. What unintended consequences have already emerged from the last four months and this most unusual offseason?

We can’t know that yet and we certainly shouldn’t presume we can predict the answers.