Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Powered Out, by Sara Hatch

A professor of mine once said “there’s something inherent in America, in our national psyche that loves rankings.” He was talking about ranking presidents, but the statement works equally well for the NFL and the current obsession with Power Rankings.

Power Rankings are a way for a fan to know that his team is best. With the shortest schedule of the four major sports, it’s almost a given that at least two teams each week will have the same record. How can these teams be qualified? How is one to know for sure that an 8-5 is better than a 7-6 team? They can’t. Thus, Power Rankings. But as this past Sunday’s slate of game shows, even Power Rankings can’t predict the future, much less how whether or not a team is good or just great.

Fans want to know that their 7-6 team is better than your 7-6 team, and they are great ways for commentators to wax poetical about why one team is better than the other despite the fact they’ve lost two more games. At the beginning of the season, everyone considered the Giants as definite contenders. They lived up to the expectations for the first half of the season, going 6-2. They then lost 4 games in a row; falling from spot 6 in ESPN.com's rankings down to 15, and then back up to 11 with one win over a lackluster Carolina team. There is no formula to the madness, no logic to the numbers. It was a crucial game that the Giants needed to win and they stood up and did it. But they’re still not guaranteed a playoff spot, much less a win next week. Their rise to spot 11 means nothing all that much.

It matters even less when you get to the top of the rankings. Indianapolis has a worse ranking than the Saints but a better record, as does Chicago. But all have looked capable of an almost total implosion. Ranking reveals little, as evidenced by the ESPN-ranked #9 Seahawks falling to the #29 Cardinals. It’s all a big guessing game, and hardly a perfect science.

ESPN is not the perpetrator of Power Rankings. Many sites have them and everyone has a different opinion about who’s the best and who is the most likely to fall on the spikes of defeat. The best example of is Profootballtalk.com’s short and pithy Power Rankings that dispense with trying to make some sense of a crazy NFL season where good NFC teams look like peewee football and bad AFC teams beat up on perennial favorites.

Great examples from last week their characterizations of the Falcons (“Finger-flickin’ bad”), the Patriots (“Junior, say-ow”), and the Buccaneers (“Yo ho yuck”). This week’s offerings are no less entertaining: Panthers (“Show your Weinke”), Bears (“Gross, man”), and Lions (“Try softball?”).

This is what sports coverage really needs, a good dose of not taking itself a little too seriously. Great minds of football can predict all they like, try to explain why the Colts implode with regularity, and sing the praises of LaDanian Tomlinson and Philip Rivers. But good old comedy always gets the job done. And editors are always yelling, “tighten, tighten, tighten!” Finally, someone is listening.

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