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The Unbearable Simplicity of Greatness

How and why do football fans determine what is "best?"

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The widely accepted greatest basketball player of all time is Michael Jordan, whose six rings are fewer than half of Bill Russell’s. Any discussion of the all time greatest baseball player is unlikely to include the Hall of Famer with more World Series championships than any other (it’s Yogi Berra, by the way). And yet, now that Tom Brady has won his fourth Super Bowl, it seems the discussion on who is history’s greatest quarterback/player (because the greatest player must be a quarterback), is over. Every sports publication I’ve seen in the last week has reached this conclusion, but is it the right one?

It’s no secret that football is the major American sport that has been most reluctant to embrace advanced statistics in recent years. While WAR and FIP have joined common parlance in conversations about baseball and true shooting percentages and efficiency numbers have grown increasingly popular in basketball, it’s the traditional counting stats that have remained eminent in football, none of which is more important than the most conditional of all numbers: how many championships has a player/coach/team won.

The kneejerk first reason why advanced stats might not play with the football set is that they’re sort of dorky. The football culture prides itself on being visceral, active, driven by speed and violence and action. But anyone who has ever watched a football game knows that’s not really true, with the average game coming down to nearly three hours of analysis and strategy and about 11 minutes of actual gameplay.

Football has as much (if not more) to do with counterintelligence and tactics as it does with athleticism, and given the dozens of television shows and hundreds of websites dedicated to analyzing the minutia of all that scheming, it can’t be said that rejection of advanced stats has much to do with football fans not wanting to do their homework.

I think the biggest reason for the lack of interest in advanced stats in football is that they don’t seem to present as much utility. The real appeal of PECOTA and PER and the like is their predictive value. If one can distill into a few useful stats all the different facets of a player’s performance, then one can use that to predict what he will do over the course of a large sample size, barring the unforeseen. Football, however, has no large sample sizes. What would register as a blip in basketball or baseball is an entire season of football.

Anything can happen on any given Sunday. Supposedly great teams lose to supposedly lousy ones every week. Hall of fame quarterbacks can throw five picks and career backups can be the week’s top fantasy performer. The randomness and need to watch each contest is what drives football’s popularity and causes it to eschew predictive analysis. Why then, with its randomness, is it the sport that seems to most value championships?

Part of it is recency bias. The sports media loves superlatives, so being able to say that an active athlete is the best of all time or could become the best of all time is a constant part of the narrative. That’s why Brady is now number one, even though he’s simply tied Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for most Super Bowls won, and neither of the retired gentlemen ever lost one, while Brady has lost two. Brady possesses no major career quarterbacking records except for playoff wins and touchdowns, statistics gleaned from 29 total games, or slightly more than one and a half regular seasons. The most noteworthy record is his 21 playoff wins.

The idea of ascribing a win to an individual player now only really exists in football, and there only unofficially. Baseball still technically gives a W to one pitcher and an L to another, but the statistic is considered a joke by anyone who takes the game seriously. So the idea of greatness coming down to a single player being ascribed a win in a game with so many factors and contributors, from coaching to defense to special teams to the rest of the offense to luck, borders on the ridiculous. And yet, that’s our standard.

I would argue for a more reasoned, long-view driven approach to evaluating greatness that doesn’t depend on outcome (not even performance!) in a handful of games, and could be sucked down the rabbit hole of comparative metrics across era and position, but right now I’m honestly more interested in constructing a theory as to why we’re compelled to almost universally default to playoff and Super Bowl outcomes.

My best guess is that appreciation for nuance and randomness only goes so far, and that we as a society, and especially as football fans, value binary conclusions. At the end of the day, there is one winning team, and that winning team is represented by one winning player, and the one player who wins the most times is the best. I know that’s overly simplistic, but I think that’s the point. One number, one person, no math, and a vibrant sense of rightness. People may come because anything could happen, but they stick around because they know they’ll get an answer.