COMMENTARY : Statistics: the Fool's Gold of Sports


Something Mike Tomczak said recently got me to thinking. There's a lot of time for thinking when you're winging to Las Vegas, particularly when you go by way of Minneapolis.

Anyway, the Chicago Bears' quarterback, after a recent ruinous afternoon, said, "Statistics are for idiots."

After several hours poring over the stats from weekend National Football League games, I might amend that to read, "Statistics can transform you into an idiot."

For years, coaches have been feeding us the line about how successful offenses are balanced offenses.

So New Orleans runs out, creates terrific balance between its rushing and passing and ends up losing to the bedraggled Detroit Lions, 21-14.

After every Baltimore victory in the mid-1970s, Ted Marchibroda (alias, coach Furrowed Brow) used to say, "Now that was Colt football: good offense, good defense, good special teams."

In Los Angeles, Denver obviously played "Bronco football." They outrushed the Raiders, outpassed them and had a 26-11 edge in first downs. They had the ball all day, 44 minutes to 23, and 78 plays to 46. And they lost.

Green Bay lost a fumble, had two passes picked off, rushed the ball for only 61 yards, had to punt nine times and was penalized 10 times. Uh-huh, the Pack beat Tampa Bay.

In the biggest game of the day, Philadelphia drew 16 penalties while running 62 plays and stuffed the New York Giants.

As numbers were checked for contest after contest, a very definite pattern seemed to be forming; mentionably, there is no pattern to parity ball.

The way the New York Jets and San Diego Chargers came through on big plays -- combined, they went 7 for 33 on third-down conversions -- it's amazing the game didn't end in an overtime scoreless tie.

Fortunately, the Jets passed for an awesome 68 yards and prevailed.

New England, trailing 16-15 and touchdown-less inside the last two minutes, drove the length of the field to score and beat Indianapolis. Faced with a third-and-21 on their own 26, the Patriots came up with a 30-yard play.

One suspects the Indianapolis owner stole down from his box and was dictating defensive strategy on the sideline.

In game after game it was thus, the old tenets of the game, the cliches, the verities being brushed aside or disregarded. It was discouraging.

With still hours to fill, a bunch of National Basketball Association boxscores was scrutinized in hopes sense would return to the numbers.

A truth long held to be self-evident in hoops dictates that if a team has a dominant or at least capable center, it will win a lot more than it will lose. Rubbish! A half-dozen starting centers for NBA clubs tallied point totals of zero, eight, four, two, nine and zero, with rebound totals not even that good, and four of the teams won.

Individually, David Robinson had a great night for the San Antonio Spurs Saturday, scoring 32 points and picking off 18 rebounds. Had the ball in his hands all night, right? Amazingly, he didn't record an assist.

It's still early in the never-ending NBA season, of course, but where in Newton's Laws does it even suggest the possibility that the Los Angeles Lakers should be the only team among the 27 that has a winning record on the road?

On and on the study raged as the bags of peanuts and apple juice kept coming. Numbers, numbers.

Just about everyone who follows pro football concedes the NFC is decidedly stronger than the AFC, yet in inter-conference tilts the latter holds a 20-17 edge.

Janet Evans, thought to be unbeatable after crunching the East German women in last year's Olympics, not only loses in the pool, but by two seconds, an eternity in swimming.

The further the research proceeded, the more ridiculous the statistics became, just as quarterback Tomczak had instructed.

It went from ridiculous to the sublime upon arriving in Las Vegas, where conservative estimates have folks paying in the vicinity of $60 million to watch a couple of oldies-but-goodies, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran, try to render each other senseless Thursday night.

With that much dough, a guy might be able to land himself a .500 pitcher, a utility infielder and a decent long reliever at baseball's winter meetings. Checking some of the deals in Nashville, Tenn., so far, obviously several general managers subscribe to Tomczak's theory about statistics.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World