Should the Bengals Think the Bengals are Good?

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    I opened my mailbox yesterday afternoon to find Sports Illustrated’s NFL Preview issue. It is one of the best things you can possibly receive by post. The team-by-team scouting reports are a crash course on the upcoming season, even if Peter King’s Super Bowl prediction—Falcons over Chargers—seems curious (last year, King had the teams right—Packers and Steelers—but he hasn’t correctly picked the winner since 1995, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
     
    Unsurprisingly, King forecasts doom and gloom for the Bengals. He picked them to have the worst record in the league at 3-13. Equally bleak, Damon Hack’s (not the best name for a sportswriter) team preview borders on mocking, and in his summary of the AFC North division race, he writes that the Ravens and Steelers think Andy Dalton “sounds like lunch.”  Another slight: The magazine’s “watch list” of AFC North games includes three Steelers games, three Ravens games, two Browns games, and zero matchups featuring the Bengals.
     
    I don’t have much interest in trying to refute any of those claims here. As you may have noticed in previous posts, I agree that the smart money is on the Bengals losing. But Hack’s scouting report led me to an epiphany about the mindset of athletes that I think is worth sharing.

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    You probably know that there is a battle going on between those who adhere to old-school theories (one-liners about heart and hard work and being a winner) and those who prefer mathematical analysis (alphabet soup baseball statistics like WAR and OPS). There are fans, writers, coaches, and front office personnel on each side of the debate.

     Let’s use Reds shortstop Edgar Renteria as an example. An old-school thinker might argue that Renteria is contributing far more to the team than his numbers. He’s a veteran leader who is invaluable in the clubhouse and provides innumerable intangibles. (“Intangibles” is a key word for people who don’t like stats; they also enjoy accusing numbers junkies of living in their mothers’ basements.) Renteria is a five-time All-Star, a two-time World Series champion, and the 2010 World Series MVP. He’s the type of winning player who can teach young Reds like Jay Bruce or Drew Stubbs the right way to play the game.

    A new-school thinker might counter by pointing out that games are won with tangibles. The winning team is the one that scores the most runs, not that shows the most leadership. Renteria is four years removed from his last productive season. His .631 OPS and -0.3 WAR (yes, that number is negative) make him thoroughly unplayable. If you want Edgar to impart his wisdom on the young players, make him your manager, not your shortstop.

    Dusty Baker clearly believes in the old-school because Edgar has played in 79 games this season. Traditionalists have a century of narrative on their side, and clichés are hard to overcome. But I think the number crunchers will eventually win out for the same reason that Science is more compelling than Myth. The scientists have evidence on their side, and proof is persuasive.

     ***

    The tagline for Hack’s team preview is “More than mottoes will be needed to instill some credibility.” In the body of the piece, he lists example after example of the Bengals surrounding themselves with platitudes. There are signs that scream out DO YOUR JOB and FIND A WAY. “Success doesn’t discriminate,” Nate Clements says. “All of us working together can do good things,” Andy Dalton chimes in. Kyle Cook says the team has “good players.” As evidence, he invokes the name of Cedric Benson, who is currently in prison.

    At first, my gut reaction as a follower of empirical sports analysis was to laugh at the silly players. How could they be so delusional?

    That’s when I had the epiphany (though I’ll admit, this probably should have been obvious all along). The players are different. They have to be old-school. They have to believe in the power of heart and hard work and, most of all, in themselves.

    Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis should embrace advanced statistics because those objective measures will make them better at their jobs. They need to perceive the value of their players accurately so they can make difficult personnel decisions. But Mike Brown doesn’t have to get tackled by a 250-pound linebacker or stand in to throw from a collapsing pocket with James Harrison thirsting to tear off his head.

    Football is a horrible, violent sport, and to succeed—or even survive—you have to believe that there’s a point to the carnage, a light at the end of the tunnel. You have to believe that all of the pain is simply a preamble to Super Bowl glory. Otherwise, why endure the beatings? Sure, the players’ hope won’t make them better at football, but if they gave up, I bet it would make them worse.

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