Odds Are, the Odds Don't Mean Much To Me

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

At a time when statistics are in rampant use to predict what will happen during the NFL's regular season, the Minnesota Vikings' recent preseason losses have many holding their collective breath and predicting a bad season. Predictably or not, I don't care about the predictions.

They did it again. Our Minnesota Vikings lost another preseason game and managed to look fairly amateurish in the process while the San Francisco 49ers looked, a lot of the time, like the team who made it to the Super Bowl last season. For Vikings fans looking for a sign that this year's team was going to build on last season's remarkable turnaround, this was not an encouraging performance. In fact, this was seen, by many, as a good excuse to bust out the sack cloth and ashes and get the wailing and lamentations started with a bang.

I've read a lot of stuff from fans on our Facebook page saying that the Vikings are done. The stats are discouraging, it's hard for teams to go on to the Super Bowl when they, as ol' Jerry Burns would say, "stunk up the joint" during preseason, blah-blah-blah, and yadda-yadda-yadda.

Well, in what would likely annoy the kindly man who was my statistics professor, I don't particularly care.

Not my thing

I am, admittedly, a dreamer, a romantic, a big fan of the long-shots and underdogs, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong in believing statistics don't mean much--or at least that they don't mean as much as we sometimes act like they do. I subscribe more to the Han Solo school of thought, "Never tell me the odds." And, on a tangent, if you can't trust a guy who shot first, who can you trust?

Statistics have their place in football, but I can't help feeling that they get a higher place than they really deserve as we strive to make everything quantifiable and thus negate risk. Teams don't want to take a risk on players with short arms, players don't want to take a risk on a team that didn't win it's division the previous season, fans don't want to take a risk on optimism and end up feeling foolish. We're risk adverse and, while that isn't a bad thing, it can definitely limit our vision.

Limitations

Risk is always with us, a fact that's pretty apparent when you watch a game where elite athletes hurl themselves at one another at top speed. No matter what you do, no matter how you plan, shit happens.*

One of the WTF moments in Vikings football that immediately comes to mind is when former Viking EJ Henderson planted his foot, turned, and dislocated multiple toes during the 2008 season. Nobody hit him, he wasn't doing anything weird, it was a really lousy fluke.

Statistics use data to analyze information about things that have happened and things that are known. So the greatest strength of statistics is in telling us about the past and striving to understand it. I have no beef with that.

I get annoyed with the attitude that numbers, the meat and potatoes of statistics, are somehow not maleable. People know the saying, "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics" but that doesn't always translate to a healthy skepticism. Depending on what is included in the statistics or how they are calculated, you can alter the statistical outcomes. And, there are always statistical outliers that don't jive with the mean, median, and mode.

Futurama

As a somewhat subjective way of analyzing the past, statistics have their place. As a somewhat subjective way of predicting the future, statistics' place, for me, hovers a little above reading tea leaves and staring at chicken bones. I honestly think KJ Segall's dogs are just as likely to be right about the Vikings in 2013 as any of the prediction engines out there.

Though a lot of us try, you can't predict the future. Most of the predictions out there are predicated on things staying the same or changing in a predictable way. If that happens, huzzah, you look like a genius. If it doesn't, we blame the discrepancy it on factors we can't account for, like a technological advancements we didn't know about or don't have enough data on yet, or can't quantify, like human spirit.

For example, Adrian Peterson suffered the same type of injury that ended Leslie Frazier's playing career back in the mid-1980s. At one time there was a lot of statistical significance given to players not being able to come back from that kind of injury and it was accurate--right up until medical technology advanced and altered that stat. At the start of last season we heard a lot about how long it can take a player returning after ACL surgery to return to his previous level of play or how they avoid contact when they return to the field, and that was accurate too--right up until Adrian Peterson rewrote the book about returning from an ACL injury.

Unquantifiable quantities

You can't quantify human spirit. It's a wildcard, an unknown, a fluke, and it is on the field for every player, every team, every play, every game, every season. Every year there are teams and players who have every reason to win and yet find a way to lose, like the 2010 Vikings. But there are also teams and players who have every reason to lose, but who find a way to win, like Adrian Peterson, like John Randle (my favorite example of how the NFL draft is overrated), and like the 2012 Vikings.

Ah yes, the 2012 Vikings. It seems like yesterday we were braced for a bad performance from the Vikings during the 2012 season. All the signs seemed to point in the don't-get-your-hopes-up direction. The team was coming off a dismal 2011 season in which they tied a franchise worst record of 3-13 that had stood since the Les Steckel season of infamy, Adrian Peterson was attempting to return from an ACL injury and hadn't taken the field at all in the preseason, Christian Ponder was unimpressive in the preseason, and the team was heavy with untried rookies. Sports media was largely in agreement, the Vikings would probably win 4-5 games. Instead, the Vikings clawed their way to a 10-6 regular season record and a trip to the playoffs (where, yes, they lost) and an MVP season for Peterson. And Ponder, for as much heat as he has taken, much of it deserved, went toe-to-toe with Aaron Rodgers in the final game of the regular season, and made the throws you expect a good NFL quarterback to make during a clutch game.

Did you see that coming? I sure didn't. The odds of it happening weren't great.

And that's what makes football so thrilling, you don't know what will happen. Tell me the Vikings' quarterback play is concerning, I'll agree with you. Tell me the offensive line is being sloppy, not contradiction here. Tell me the Vikings' defensive secondary is in trouble if Chris Cook can't stay healthy, you may be on to something. Tell me the Vikings are going to have a lousy season in 2013 because they've lost three preseason games? Nope, never tell me the odds. They just don't mean much.

*I probably should have used a spoiler before I used naughty language. Sorry 'bout that.

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