Analyze This, Football Outsiders: We Will Prove You Wrong

Jul 21, 2009 at 5:28 AM


Look, we're not dumb. We didn't expect you to pencil us in for the Super Bowl. We didn't even expect you to say we'd win our division. We know that after six years of misery, and with the question marks still on our roster, we'll raise your expectations either on the field or not at all. We get it.

But you didn't just predict another losing season (5.7 wins). You said "context and luck" were all that stand between us and the Detroit Lions. The oh-and-16 Lions.

That's low, you guys.

I mean, sure, the '04 Niners were lucky—damn lucky—they didn't go winless. (And actually they did go winless, at least in regulation.) And sure, the end of the '08 season seemed a lot like the end of the '06 season, when we last were led to believe we were on the brink of recovery. But can't you tell? It's just different this time!

I admit, you guys are very good at what you do. Some stats-junkie decided to break down the accuracy of your win-loss projections for the 2006 season, for example. He found that your "mean absolute error" was only 2.2563 games. More impressively, 10 of your projections hit within one game, 17 hit within two games, and 22 hit within three games.

I don't have the time, the skill, or even the inclination to try to undermine your methodology; I'll leave that futile effort to our pals at that other Niners site down the dial. You've already proven you know what you're doing. Faced with your projection, we'd be foolish to ignore the very real possibility that our dreams will be dashed again.

But still....

You've also proven that you can be wrong. Way off. In 2008, your projection for one team missed by more than seven games, almost half a season. You don't deny the possibility; after all, while you give us a 66% chance of winning no more than six games, you also give us a 12% chance of winning at least nine games, and 12% is hardly one in a million.

And here's why that 12% chance is coming through. What separates us from the Lions, at least this year, isn't just context and luck. It's something your stats will never measure. It's the category in which we'll lead the league, without a doubt.

It's will.

You have to understand the sheer desperation that permeates this organization. We still remember being the envy of the NFL, if not all of professional sports. That was quite a while ago, and the long road back has just been torture. I'm not saying the Lions enjoyed going oh and 16. But as historic as that season was, it wasn't exactly a culture shock. The Lions, quite frankly, have sucked forever. To them, a loss might be painful, but it's just another grain of sand on an infinite beach. What I mean is, they don't know what they're missing. We do. To us, a loss isn't just a loss; it's a mocking reminder of our winning past. And the mocking's gone on for six years straight.

We just can't take much more of this.

So the organization has made us a promise: the road back ends here. Our owner has publicly guaranteed a playoff berth, this year. He knows, as you do, we don't have the most talent in the league. But that's where will—sheer belief—comes in.

You stats-guys, so married to the measurables, probably don't buy this corn. But any sports-psychologist will tell you it's real. Hell, if you've ever played sports, you know it's real. Next time you go shoot hoops, see how many you make in a normal 10 minutes. Then, for the next 10 minutes, before each shot, tell yourself you're gonna miss. Then tell me which 10 minutes went better for you. It's true. Will matters.

As a new head-coach, Mike Singletary has a lot to prove. The season hasn't even started yet, and already I've questioned him on a couple of grounds. But what I'll never doubt is his ability to wring every last drop of effort, every last bit of talent, out of every last player. This is one of those old-school coaches, a coach who could get his troops to walk through fire. A coach who possesses—and inspires—an indomitable will.

This is where your statistical analysis goes awry. Again, I'm not arguing with your ability to extrapolate past performances to project future results. And I see why you think our players' past performances don't project too well; we're counting on a whole slew of players who haven't proven they can stay productive over the course of a long season. Shaun Hill or Alex Smith. David Baas and Chilo Rachal. Josh Morgan and Vernon Davis. Manny Lawson and Kentwan Balmer. Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown. For us to succeed, every one of these guys has to show he can produce, in every game. That's a lot to ask, and I guess I can't blame you for doubting it'll happen.

But I say Mike Singletary will make it happen.

One great play. That's all Bill Walsh needed to see. If he saw a player make one great play, he knew he could coach that player to make great plays consistently. And since he was such a great coach, he usually did.

Singletary has a long way to go before it'll be fair to compare him to Walsh. But all those players I mentioned up there? All those players you doubt? They've all made at least one great play. They might not be great players, but they can play great. And since they can play great, you can bet that Singletary will see that they do.

On the wall of my office is one of those motivational posters that people make so much fun of. You know the kind; the nice photo, the big single word, the smaller inspirational phrase. And yeah, a lot of 'em are ridiculous. Mine isn't. The photo's of Joe Montana. The word is "determination." And the phrase is a quote of Vince Lombardi's: "The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will."

You guys at Football Outsiders assume, not unreasonably, we'll fail because of our lack of strength. But you haven't measured our will. And that's why you're wrong.

Starting September 13th, we'll prove it.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • dbt
    I have to tell you, this article reminds me of nothing more than the scene in Blazing Saddles when the brand new sheriff arrives in town. Given the choice between talent and pure desperation, I'll take talent, thanks.
    Jul 27, 2009 at 8:10 PM
  • Hanson
    Thank you for that! Having read the same article as you it was an ugly contradictory feeling. Knowing the stats don't lie, but knowing this IS going to be a different season. I coached youth football for 12 yrs. My most successful season was NOT the season when we had the best talent (i didn't say i was a genius!) but the season our boys possessed a cohesiveness that resembled the movie "Remember the Titans." They believed in one another, they bought into eliminating mistakes and not beating themselves, and when the season that began 3-3 ended with us as the lowest seed to start the playoffs, it concluded with us winning the conference championship over the perennial favorites. I've seen the power of will translate to improbable victories on the field. It's real. Ignore it as a coach of a young team and you'll get young results. Harness it and magical things begin to happen. Look no further than the 1981 Niners team...they just kept winning and it had nothing to do with proven playmakers or proven NFL talent! FORMULA: Motivational coach + athletes CAPABLE of playing great + BELIEF! That belief quickly turns into expectations, which quickly turn into reality.
    Jul 22, 2009 at 8:18 PM
  • Brian
    Jul 22, 2009 at 12:50 PM
  • _Jerden
    Great point. We will be competitive this year. In 2006 I had hope for our offense. Our team was motivated. I knew our defense would continue to play hard as I had seen in 2005. They lacked talent but now with Willis, Clements, JSmith, Michael Lewis, Spikes, and the others we are set to slow down and stop opposing offenses. We hope Singletary's leadership will push our players to make plays for the team. To give all of themselves. To want to win each battle. I can't argue with the stats. We didn't improve ourselves over the offseason well enough to warrant playoff expectations. But we have talent and we have desire. So as long as we don't make turnovers and we cause them through a desire to lay it all on the line for the team and for the victory then we will be a surprise contender.
    Jul 21, 2009 at 3:44 PM
  • ddmur
    I agree. The last five seasons like any fan I started the year with hope, but deep down in my gut I knew it was going to be a disaster. If we truly analyzed the 2006 season we would have known that we were NOT on the verge of anything. This year I see more strength everywhere on the team. On offense it appears that a system is being put into place that suits our skills. The defense was really quite good by the end of the season, but there are some big ifs: 1) Can either of our QB's play at a play-off level? 2) Do we have a true #1 receiver on the team? 3) Can V. Davis really catch the ball? 4) Was Balmer worth a late first round pick? 5) Is Lawson a pass rusher? 6) Will our nose tackle get pushed off the ball like happened last year with some more physical run-oriented team? 7) Can the new players in the defensive backfield play even half as well as they say they can? A lot of "ifs." But the team has some clear strengths. 1) Gore 2) Willis 3) Clements 4) J. Smith 5) Spikes. This is a nice nucleus to build around. I predict that this time next year there will be four more players to add to this group. Hopefully the QB will be there.
    Jul 21, 2009 at 6:37 AM

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