The Commish Online                                                                                
When Stats Go Bad
January 14, 2006

I love numbers.  Specifically, I love stats.  Brett Butler's total bunt singles in the '80s?  Yeah, I want to find that stat.  Why do I like stats?  Because they help tell the story.  When the numbers don't contribute to the story, however, is when stats go bad.

During last week's NFL Playoff coverage on ABC, two "stats" really fried my eggs.  The first involved Byron Leftwich starting after missing the last 5 regular season games.  Never shy for graphics and useless information, ABC posted a stat (backed up by Al Michaels) that showed the only other 2 QBs in playoff history who started a playoff game after sitting out the last 5 games.  I don't even remember the players, but one QB won his game and the other lost.  So what did we learn from this stat?  Nothing!  Don't bother displaying a stat if it doesn't indicate a trend or tell us something of interest.

The other stat that fogged my lenses indicated a trend but was misleading to a point.  ABC and just about every media outlet keeps talking about New England's 10 straight playoff wins.  They are propping the Patriots up as a team that can't lose.  While the stat itself is technically correct (10 playoff wins without a loss), what is NEVER mentioned is that New England didn't even make the playoffs in 2002, which happens to be in the middle of that 10 game "winning streak."  Except for the goober fans who root for their teams to lose so the team gets a higher draft pick, wouldn't most New Englanders PREFER a 10-1 record over that same period with a 2002 playoff loss?  At least the loss means their team was good enough to make the playoffs.  Like the classic quote about love, it is better to have played and lost than never to have played at all.  However, every Joe Announcer from LA to Beantown would have you believing otherwise, spouting the 10 straight playoff victories as if the Patriots never had a misstep.  That's where the stat goes bad:  it deceives, and deception is the root of all bad stats.

I know I take my stats more seriously than most, but before the networks have no room left on the TV screen because of all the graphics and stats displayed, let's make sure what IS on the screen is useful.  Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some Googling to do on Brett Butler so I can sleep tonight.