On Deion Branch and Distortion in Sports Journalism

(Note: This article ended up being much longer than I anticipated, so I cut it in half.  The second section dealt with articles not written by Peter King, so if you finish this one and for some inhuman reason still want more, let me know and I’ll post the rest tomorrow as a Part II or something.)

Opinion is a tricky thing, especially when it’s applied to sportswriting.  Sometimes postgame reports can differ so much that I’m left wondering if the journalists who wrote them were watching the same game (or, in Skip Bayless’ case, whether he is mentally capable of distinguishing between the game that happened here in reality and the one that took place in the rage-fueled hellworld that lives inside his brain). 

Part of the reason for these differences in reports is due to the nature of a team sport like football — we get objective data from games in the form of scores and statistics, but what those numbers mean is open to interpretation.  Did that interception happen because the quarterback threw a bad pass, or because the receiver ran the wrong route?  Did the kicker miss all those field goals because he kept screwing up, or because lousy field conditions made his plant foot slip?  Was the pass rush dominant throughout the game because the defensive ends put in an all-pro caliber performance, or were they just bullying around inferior linemen who should never have been trusted to man the offensive tackle positions?

Those questions seem difficult to answer at first, but if you’re willing to do a little research (or if you’re a twisted weirdo like me who actually enjoys research), you can use statistics from past games to take some of the guesswork out of those interpretations.  Does the QB have an abnormally high percentage of interceptions and incompletions when he throws to that particular receiver, or are his stats just as bad when he tries to throw to other players?  Are the completion percentages any better for other kickers when they attempt field goals in the same weather conditions and/or in that particular stadium?  Granted, statistical averages gleaned from past games are only guideposts, not absolute measurements; sometimes that high sack total just means a defensive end had an unusually good performance, or that the offensive tackle was fighting a bout of the flu all week and just wasn’t himself that game.  After all, even Ryan Leaf managed to keep his passer rating above 100 for one game (his team still lost, but hey).

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But outliers aside, a quick trip through a statistical database will more often than not point you to the most likely explanation of what happened.  And with various free and paid databases readily available online, research isn’t quite the chore it once was.  Not that their increased availability keeps mistakes in interpretation out of reports; sometimes the writers’ deadlines are just too tight for them to spend any time on research, or maybe they were just too lazy to look anything up that day.  Or, and this happens on an all too regular basis, sometimes writers decide to tweak (or outright discard and ignore) the stats to fit a storyline they decided on ahead of time instead of using the narrative that was actually suggested by the data at hand.

Sorry, I know I’m dangerously close to veering off into purely theoretical/academic territory here and never coming back (assuming I haven’t already), so let me attach all of the above to some actual examples, all of them dealing with ex-Seahawk Deion Branch.

In Branch’s first game after being returned to the Patriots, the freshly-traded player caught 9 passes for 98 yards and a TD, a good night’s work by most any measure.  After the game, Peter King asked Branch if he now wished he had stayed in New England instead of forcing a trade to the Pacific Northwest back in 2006.  Take a close look at Branch’s response:

“I think about it a lot,” he told me over the phone from the Patriot’s locker room.  “My brother and my father do too.  They say, ‘You’d be ready to put a gold [Hall of Fame] jacket on if you stayed.’”

Note that Branch only admits to thinking about the subject, then avoids revealing his own opinion by giving King his family’s take on the matter instead.  Now, I find it hard to fault a dad for having a high opinion of his son, nor a brother for his sibling, but neither is their praise of Branch objective or useful in any way.  It’s the sort of information I would expect to read in, say, a feel-good piece on Branch and his family, or quoted on a fan’s website shrine for the player.  So what’s it doing here?  Why include it at all?

Well, it’s in there because it lets King imply two things.  Firstly, if Branch’s production during his time in New England was Hall of Fame worthy and his time in Seattle put him out of the running for enshrinement at Canton, then it stands to reason that the stats he put up while playing for the Seahawks were much worse than his stats in New England (they weren’t, but more on that in a minute). Secondly, it implies that Seattle’s offense was so inept during Branch’s tenure with the team that even a great receiver like him couldn’t put up decent numbers. 

But lest you think I’m reading too much in to this, take a look at what King writes immediately after the above quote from Branch (King took the stat line from the game and stapled it in to the middle of the sentence, which I’ve omitted):

Probably not, But Branch  . . . understands what he lost — and what he may have to gain in the near future.

After distancing himself from the Hall of Fame bit with a quick “Probably not” (take that, Branch’s family!), King insinuates that Branch “lost” something vital career-wise by going to Seattle, something that he has a chance to regain now that he’s back in New England.  Again, the main idea here is clear: Branch thrived in New England, but sucked in Seattle, and now that he’s back with New England he’s fine again.  Or to put it in terms even Jim Rome could understand: Patriots rule, Seattle suck.  (Speaking of Rome, if you also shoehorn the word “crack” into Seattle, like “Crackattle” or something, then you can experience for yourself all the pain and irritation of Rome’s show by reading just those four little words.  You’re welcome.)

I want to start with King’s second implication (i.e. the one about Seattle’s offense being so terrible it hurt Branch’s stats), because it’s so lazy and incorrect that it might as well be working in middle management somewhere.  In 2006 the Seahawks’ offense was ranked 14th in points scored and 19th in yardage gained — not great, perhaps, but they weren’t the ’76 Bucs, either.  Besides, they still played well enough get to the postseason, where they upset Dallas in the Wild Card round and forced the eventual NFC champion Bears to kick a field goal late to tie, then kick another to win in overtime.  So no, the Seahawks were not bad that year.  Nor were they terrible in 2007 when the offense was ranked 9th in both points scored and yardage gained before going on to earn a fourth consecutive division title and win another playoff game in the Wild Card round.  The offense took a turn for the worse in 2008, but Branch still produced in the eight games he was able to play (13.7 yards per reception, 51.5 yards per game).  2009 was a bad year for both the offense and Branch (I hate you, Jim Mora), but that still leaves one full season that supports King’s implication against three that don’t.

As for his first point, well, take a look for yourself:

Team Games
Played
Receptions Rec/Game Yards Yds/Rec Yds/Game
New England 61 249 4.1 3,241 13.0 53.1
Seattle 51 190 3.7 2,347 12.4 46.0

 

Branch’s average yards per game for both teams differs only by 7 yards, his averages for receptions per game and yards per reception are almost identical, and the disparity between total receptions and yardage for both teams is easily explained by the ten extra games he played for New England.  (Heck, if you want to ignore that ineptly coached season under Mora, his averages with the Seahawks become 3.9 rec/game, 13.2 yds/rec, and 51.6 yds/game.)  Even the injury situations are similar: he missed 15 games due to injury in Seattle, but injuries also forced him to miss 11 games in his first four seasons with the Patriots.  In short, the Branch New England had for all those years really and truly was the same Branch we saw in Seattle.

(As a quick aside, I don’t know which possibility is worse for Tim Ruskell: that he overpaid for Branch because he overvalued his ability, or that he knew exactly what Branch was capable of and still overpaid for him.)

The frustrating part about Peter King’s insinuations about Branch’s time in Seattle isn’t so much that they’re provably wrong, but how incredibly easy it was to prove them wrong — seriously, finding all of the above data took me maybe six mouse clicks and thirty seconds’ worth of effort on my part.  Now, it’s entirely possible that King was too lazy to put even that minimal amount of effort into vetting his preconceptions about how Branch played with the Seahawks.  But as we’ll see in the next quote from his article, it appears far more likely that King simply chose to ignore all that data because they didn’t fit the narrative he wanted to advance — namely, that Deion Branch would have had a significantly more impressive career if his production hadn’t been stunted by that awful team the NFL keeps locked away in South Alaska:

Check out [Branch's] last six playoff games in New England.  That’s how you can tell how much the Pats and Brady were beginning to lean on him, and what a great career he could have had if not for the forced deal to Seattle:

G Rec. Yards Avg./Catch Avg./Game TD 100-Yd. Games
6 36 596 16.6 99.3 2 4

There is so much wrong with this short paragraph and chart that I’m not even sure where to start.  First off, do you want to know how many postseason games Branch played in New England?  Eight.  King was working with a pool of eight games, but decided to toss out the first two because Branch’s stat lines were not that impressive (3 catches for 10 yards and 2 for 23, respectively).  Better yet, the games included in King’s average are the Super Bowl after the 2003 season (but not the two playoff games before it),  two playoff games and a Super Bowl following the 2004 season, and the two playoff games New England played after the 2005 season.  Not only do those “last six” games span three of the four years Branch was with the team before leaving for Seattle, in order to average just those six together King had to ignore the 27 regular season games Branch played in between them.  As examples of cherry-picking go, this one is so textbook it deserves to be taught in school.

As for those vaunted four 100 yard games, King conveniently ignores that Branch has only produced a single, solitary 100 yard regular season game in every season he has played for the Patriots.  In fact, the only time in his career Branch had two 100 yard games in one regular season was with — you guessed it — the Seahawks, in 2007.  Way to ruin his career, Seattle.

But to be fair, it’s possible that King simply misspoke.  Maybe what he meant to say was that those six playoff games Branch spent catching passes from Tom Brady somehow helped Deion Branch build a rapport with Matt Hasselbeck and Seneca Wallace. That would be a stupid thing to say, but at least it wouldn’t be as intentionally dishonest as what King actually said.

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