Monday, January 26, 2015

Pathology of NFL Conspiracies + Super Bowl 49 Pick

That Kitty Purry Half-Time Medley Won't Write Itself

I've long held a belief that the professional sports industries are not really all that different from professional wrestling.  They're both profitable businesses, they both have complex relationships with their talent and in both the winners and losers only matter in regards to establishing a narrative. Hell, you can even bet on pro wrestling if you want.

Turns out, its also a great opinion to put out there if you are trying to start a conversation because you will usually receive a pretty passionate counter argument. Fans of the "real" sports can't even entertain the possibility that they have pledged their loyalty to something that in any way resembles the greasy musclemen of a "fake" sport. If you've started this conversation with someone who is dumb enough (think neck tattoo of their favorite team) or drunk enough (think any new person you meet after midnight) you might just get a lot of unintelligible, spit-soaked yelling which really validates your point. A more nuanced counterpoint typically involves how winning and losing matters economically for the individual clubs, but even that one is a better of a stretch since someone always has to win or lose and as long the narrative is good for the league everyone is a winner.

That's not to say that there aren't some differences that I am willing to concede (forget about the whole scripted part; its not even worth discussing here). For one, the business models are different. There's really only one major player in pro wrestling and they make their gate on the road while other sports have multiple franchises each with their own homes and the revenue generating advantages that come with that. Another difference is the size of each entity. The NFL, MLB, NBA and probably NHL are much larger than the WWE (that only major player), and the coverage of these sports is on a completely different scale. We are at the point now where each region of the country has its own sports network dedicated to the coverage of the big 4 plus whatever else goes on in the area. Not to mention the national sports networks: NFL, MLB, ESPN, FoxSports1, etc. Its not that the WWE doesn't want this level of coverage or interest, it just doesn't have it. Pro wrestling remains a niche form of sports entertainment, like soccer in America. However, while the size and scope of the coverage is a major difference between "real" sports and "fake" sports, the narratives have remained largely the same. 

Nowhere has this been more evident than the 2014-15 NFL season. The most recent and obvious example of this has been the Earth-shattering DeflateGate. At the center of this scandal is the evil New England Patriots with their pretty boy quarterback Tom Brady and their diabolical coach Bill Belichick who allegedly used footballs in the AFC Championship game that were not inflated to NFL specifications. Take a moment if you need to let the anger subside. The reactions this atrocity have run the gambit from those who would want the Patriots to forfeit their Super Bowl birth to those who have called for Brady and Belichick to be taken to the stocks. Its almost as if Tom Brady just won the WWE World Championship after his manager (Belichick) cold-cocked his opponent ("The Charming Underdog" Andrew Luck) with a pair of brass knucks when the ref's back was turned. The NFL in true Vince McMahon fashion has allowed this narrative to develop largely out its hands because it distracts people from things like the uselessness of the Pro Bowl, Roger Goodell's mishandling of the Ray Rice situation and sad reality that former football players are dying off in the same ways as former professional wrestlers.

Another interesting narrative that developed throughout the 2014-15 NFL season was this idea that there was some sort of conspiracy for or against certain teams. The obvious playoff examples fresh in our minds are DeflateGate and the picked up flag in the Dallas-Detroit Wild Card game, but tune into any post-game radio coverage for a losing team in 2014 and you'll heard at least 2 callers alleging some sort of organized malfeasance. To the credit of major media outlets (see, I don't hate on ESPN all the time) and even the local radio shows, they don't give a lot of credence to these wild ideas, but there are more than enough fans who believe there are other forces as work here. 

Obviously, the NFL has no reason to respond to any of these conspiracy theorists. None of these people have any real voice of authority even if they do represent part of the fan base that feels like their team has no shot to win (which is a huge long term problem). If the NFL were to for some reason respond to any of these conspiracies it would immediately lend a shred of credibility to the idea that the games weren't on the level. Also, by not responding, the NFL allows the narrative to grow in a way the distracts from the real issue at hand which is that its referees struggle with understanding the rules and properly applying them. 

The most glaring example of this was the NFL's new, tightened up pass interference rules. These rule changes have well founded reasons (the popularity of Fantasy Football) much like the changes to QB protection (Superstars = $$$) a few years back (which have also had their growing pains). Unlike the rule changes designed to protect players better, the new pass interference rule are much harder to call properly due to the speed of the game. It hasn't the referee's job any easier, but you get very little sympathy when you perform in front of millions of people. And of those millions of people, its pretty easy to find enough of them who look at a couple of bad calls one way or another and view them as some sort conscious effort to keep their team from winning.

Its generally accepted that a belief in conspiracies stems from a feeling of powerlessness over one's situation. Viewed in that light, its pretty easy to understand why some people hold on to the belief that the President of the United States is somehow a secret Muslim, Anti-Christ who is trying to turn this country into a socialist dystopia. I don't agree with any part of that jimmer-jammer, but I can understand why a person might find themselves caught up in it. In such a macro sense I feel that beliefs like that are more of a symptom than a problem, but when conspiracy theories start circulating in professional sports, its a problem for that business.

There's a lot or reasons why people like sports. Its a great past-time. There's an endless amount to discuss. The feelings of comradery and unearned accomplishments (We just won the Super Bowl!!! Really? WE???). And let's not forget out that feeling that as long as your favorite team showed up and suited up, they've at the very least got a chance to win, no matter the odds.

So, what happens to a fan base if they feel like their team can't win a game? How long would we keep tuning in night after night, week after week, year after year if we felt like the Tuscaloosa Turtlenecks had no shot to win because their league didn't think it was good for business? I mean, how many fans do the Washington Generals have? With that model, we'd wind up with a league comprised solely of teams from New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. In sports we call it parity, but in nature its called biodiversity. And its the main reason why we call giant dead lizards dinosaurs and not that giant lizard that just took a dump on my front lawn.

Are those who believe and advance NFL conspiracies apart of a crazy minority? Maybe, but crazy's about where you stand. From where I stand it seems kinda crazy to drop $5K on a nosebleed seat for the Super Bowl. It also feels a little crazy to me for a grown man to wear an authentic Ryan Tannehill jersey on a family outing on PRO BOWL Sunday (I don't have picture. It would have been rude. Plus I think that dude's crazy, who knows how he would have reacted). What's not crazy is the possibility that enough people start to believe that their favorite team can't win and they stop watching. Once a sport starts loosing fans its real hard to get them back (just ask the NHL or Boxing or Horse Racing).

On to "The Big Game"

As always playoff lines are taken from and are a mode of accumulated lines.

New England @ Seattle (+1)

This line has already moved around a lot. Locking it in on the Monday before the game is probably not the smartest move betting wise, but I'm after readers and I need to give people time to find this article. If you find this late in the week and the line has shifted dramatically one way other the other comment, email ( or Tweet (@SleazyBones) and I'd be happy to discuss a revised pick with you.

The fact that the line moved around so much is really a testament to how hard of a game this is to call. Any time the line gets within 1 its basically a tossup which feels about right in this situation. Both teams are very good but with their flaws. But both are lead by Super Bowl winning QB's and coaches.

Last year at this time, Seattle came in as a bit of an unknown. Playing their games in the Pacific Northwest they were really only known the resurgence of Pete Carroll, the emergence of Russell Wilson, and that terrible thug from the NFC Championship, Richard Sherman (how dare he be so emotional after making a big play to win a big game. The shame). While it was no secret that the Seahawks were a good team, they had nowhere near the profile or the narrative of the Peyton Manning led Denver Broncos. As we all know, the Seahawks got up all in the Broncos and ruined them like the Hipsters are trying to ruin Sriracha.

Now, the Seahawks are no one's surprise team. They are now known for their 'Power of Positive' coach, irrepressibly charming (although not statistically overwhelming) QB, and the Legion of Boom inspired defense. Its also now a well established fact that Marshawn Lynch doesn't like talking to the media. A behavior that went largely unnoticed during his time with the Buffalo Bills (because the 2001-2014 Bills operated like they hoped that no one in LA realized they were still in the NFL).

The Patriots on the other hand have been nobody's mystery team since I ran out of canned peaches and crawled out of my basement just after Y2K. Since Brady and Belichick have taken over, the Patriots have been to 5 Super Bowls, winning 3 and in the playoffs every year minus like 2. Its the type of sustained success that every fan in the NFL would envy. Its also the kind of success that tends to bring out the hater in even the most casual fan. Go ahead and try to get through your Super Bowl party this Sunday without hearing from one of your buddy's wives about how "Those Patriots are cheaters". That's not to belittle women, you'll hear it from a lot of dudes too who like to talk just to make noise.

The sad reality for all these haters is that the Patriots are just plain a well run team with an all time great playing quarterback. Does Belichick go to far sometimes? Maybe, but NFL coaches are very intelligent men who work 80 hour weeks. All they do is look for the tiniest advantage. In some arenas this is celebrated, but when all you do is win people get tired of it and look to tear you down any way they can.

Narratives aside, we are left with 2 very well coached football teams who both have very good QB's. Seattle does have Marshawn Lynch at RB, which would appear to give them an advantage, but New England has been so good at using a 4 RB system that this feels like a push at best. Receiver wise, Patriots have the advantage due only to the presence of Gronk who is an unparalleled player when healthy. I also feel like the O-lines are basically a push. Both are a well coached group of about equal talent. Not a strength for each team, but certainly not a weakness.

The real difference in these 2 offenses is at the QB position. Russell Wilson is good. No doubt about it, but Tom Brady has been there, done that, again and again and again... He also seems to have the kind of fire in him that we haven't really seen in a while. He was so jacked in the Raven's game that I thought Belichick could have put him at middle linebacker if he needed. Brady is a guy who knows how to win and is hell bent on it right now. And for whatever DeflateGate might mean, I'm pretty sure its got Tom good and pissed off.

Defensively, I believe that talent wise Seattle is better across the board. Even after what might have been considered "downish" year for the Seahawks, their D was still the best in the league. What New England might lack in talent compared to Seattle, they more than make up for in scheme and coaching. No one is better than taking away your greatest strength and making you beat them with your weakness.

At this point New England has probably seen the tape from the NFC Championship and will do everything their power to keep Lynch under wraps. They will be happy to make Russell Wilson beat them through the air and if they some how manage 4 picks, there won't be any sort of miracle comeback. Say what you will about Bill Belichick, but he coaches every game to win. Its the only way he operates.

So that's what I think ultimately decides this game. The quarterbacks. Russell Wilson is good, but Brady is still better. For how much longer, I don't know. But I do know that Brady is going to take the field Sunday with the plan and the fire inside to take that game by throat and choke the life out it until he's left standing there holding a bloody esophagus with Belichick behind him already trying to figure out how to win again next season (possibly trying to hide a pair of brass knucks).

Pick: New England (-1)

As always, if you disagree let me know. I'm 7-3 so far this postseason and I've got no plans of slowing down.

To verify my previous picks check out my past playoff columns:

Wild Card Weekend

Divisional Round

Conference Championship

Thanks for reading.

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