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In NFL Football, As In Hollywood, Does Anybody Know Anything?

Head coach Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles looks on during a game against the Washington Redskins on Dec. 23, 2012 in Philadelphia.
Alex Trautwig
Getty Images
Head coach Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles looks on during a game against the Washington Redskins on Dec. 23, 2012 in Philadelphia.

Baseball: The San Francisco Giants, in winning the 2012 World Series, participated in 16 playoff games — and they'd have had more, had they not swept Detroit 4-0 in the World Series itself.

Football: The San Francisco 49ers played 16 games in their entire regular season. Three more wins would make them Super Bowl champions.

This is not to make football sound inadequately grueling, but to make a purely statistical point: The sample size for football games is much, much smaller than the sample size for baseball games. Graphing a baseball team's season gives you lots of little dots, lots of ups and downs — there's the road trip that didn't go so well, there's the good little run before the All-Star break, there's the ... well, the month of August when it seemed like nobody could remember how to pitch anymore. Graphing a football team's season is much more a series of big happenings — here's that one game where it all went wrong, that sort of thing.

On the one hand, that makes adequately attentive football fandom take up a little less of your time. But on the other hand, it really does contribute to the nagging sense that maybe, just as screenwriter William Goldman said of Hollywood in his book Adventures In The Screen Trade, nobody knows anything.

It's not really true, of course — statistics exist in football just like they do in baseball. Skills exist, strengths exist, and some people are fast and others are slow. It's as dangerous to get gooey and "intangible" about football as it is about baseball.

But consider the fact that on Monday, at the end of this regular NFL season, seven coaches and five general managers were canned. Sure, the Kansas City Chiefs, who fired Romeo Crennel, went 2-14 this season. But the Chicago Bears, who fired Lovie Smith, went 10-6. And while the Philadelphia Eagles, who fired Andy Reid, went 4-12 this season, he'd been there 14 years; they had a little more to go on than that.

And who's close to hiring Reid, according to a report on ESPN? That's right: the Kansas City Chiefs. The team that just went 2-14 and fired the coach is wooing the coach who just got fired for going 4-12. Now, to seasoned NFL watchers, this is all perfectly normal; this is how it goes, round and round, with coaches wandering hither and yon, blamed for the collapse of one team and then given the opportunity to excel with another. If you follow football at all, you see this just about every year. (Although in fairness, Smith's firing has been head-scratched over quite a bit, even within football, including by Mike Ditka, who argued that if Green Bay had beaten Minnesota, thus putting the Bears into the playoffs, Smith would have been spared despite having nothing whatsoever to do with that game.)

But think about it from a civilian perspective. Bring to bear not your football-specific savvy about this "big boys rule business," but your general common sense. Obviously, people get fired all the time despite being very good at what they do, and other businesses wisely snap them up, and that's often very, very smart. But come on. When that's your model, year in and year out, it sounds a little bit silly on somebody's part if you're not conditioned to assume it's not silly.

And considering that the coach is not actually playing in any of the games — and considering injuries, and considering that the fortunes of other teams are intimately connected with your own, and considering once again the small sample size — the entire business of folding arms across chests and insisting upon the firing of coaches for going 7-9 instead of 9-7 is not the rigorous adherence to cause and effect that it's sometimes presented to be, really.

The irony, of course, is that the ways in which nobody knows anything are some of the best things about professional football. Unlike baseball, it's economically arranged to push back against disparities that, for that reason alone, doom certain teams to eat everybody else's dust year after year. That, combined with the small sample size, means your team really can surprise you — not that it can't in baseball, but it's much, much harder. (Of course, baseball lovers would counter that the lack of a clock means that you can come back and change your fate in literally any baseball game at literally any time until the last out and you never run out of time — which is true. And then football lovers would say something else, and in a very short time, everyone would be throwing things at each other, because: sports!)

We do know this much, though, based on the reason and logic that control all analysis of sports: The Vikings and the Packers are playing Saturday night in the NFC Wild Card playoffs, and the Vikings will obviously prevail because of the inherent superiority of Minnesota over Wisconsin.

Excuse me, I have a hat with horns and braids to look for.

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Linda Holmes
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.