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Gregg Easterbrook on
• Offseason predictions
• Season-start predictions
• Unified field theory of creep
• Bad Brett Favre predictions
• The United States Air Force
• Bad basketball predictions
• Bad TMQ predictions
• Bummer cosmic thought
• Bad Super Bowl predictions
• Worst predictions of the year
Category Three -- Bad Brett Favre Predictions: Suppose William Tecumseh Sherman had said in 1884, "I sort of guess I could be president, but maybe I kind of don't think I am really into that." Weeping, Brett Favre announced his retirement in March 2008, saying, "I know I can play, but I don't think I want to." The most excruciating story in sports history was on.
A few weeks later, the Los Angeles Times said Favre already was planning a comeback. Peter King of Sports Illustrated and NBC promptly debunked the story, reporting Favre had told him exclusively that a comeback was "the last thing I am thinking about." (For most people, "exclusive" means, "Yours is the only news organization I am speaking to." For Favre, "exclusive" means, "Yours is the only news organization I am speaking to at this instant.") Four days later, King said he was "98 percent certain" Favre would never play again. King wrote, "I talked to Brett for 20 minutes and he's content to be married to his 465-acre spread in Mississippi and work the land."
In early July, ESPN reported Favre might indeed play anew; Favre promptly told the Sun Herald of Biloxi, Miss., the ESPN story was "all rumor." Sporting News predicted Favre would play for one of five teams: the Bucs, Dolphins, Eagles, Seahawks or Vikings. Soon after, Packers chairman emeritus Bob Harlan declared that "down deep," Favre wanted to stay retired. Speculation began that Favre would land with the Jets, but the New York Daily News scotched such crazy thinking with the July 12 headline, "Source: Jets won't pursue Brett Favre." What did Favre think of the Jets rumor? On July 14, King wrote, "Favre has gone underground. My text messages for him and agent Bus Cook went unreturned." Text messages not returned -- maybe Favre was hiding in the sewers, or in an air shaft! Just two days after King said Favre had "gone underground," the quarterback spoke to a national television audience at the ESPYS in Los Angeles. Is that what life underground was like for Che Guevara? A few days later, King declared that Favre would come back, with the Buccaneers. Apparently the thrill of working the land had worn off.
In mid-July, Pat Kirwan of NFL.com declared with pseudo-precision that Favre was "80 percent" likely to return, this estimate attributed to "people close to Favre." So, people who live in Sumrall, Miss.? On July 24, Adam Schefter of NFL.com reported exclusively that Favre would be at Green Bay training camp the next day; 10 days passed until Favre appeared at Green Bay camp. On July 30, Pro Football Talk predicted Favre would play for Minnesota, saying, "Favre's defection to purple is, to a certain extent, inevitable." Don Banks of Sports Illustrated predicted Favre would not play for anyone in 2008, and Schefter said Favre had only two options: Green Bay or Mississippi.
August arrived, and Green Bay management offered Favre a long-term contract to remain retired and publicize the Packers' brand. On Aug. 1, Favre told Ed Werder of ESPN he would accept the money and not perform again. On Aug. 2, King seconded that, saying, "Favre has all but decided to take the team's offer of a rich, long-term marketing contract instead of playing." Working the land looks a lot better if promotional fees are included! On Aug. 3, Favre told Werder he was on the way to Green Bay to rejoin the team. Suddenly, it seemed Favre would play for the Packers after all; on Aug. 4, Battista of The New York Times predicted, "It may not be much longer till [Favre] returns to the [Packers] starting quarterback job." Forget that Tampa Bay business: King said on NBC, "Favre has definitely decided not to play for anyone except the Packers or Vikings."
That lasted one day! Favre walked into the Packers' practice facility and walked out a few hours later, carrying assorted items in a plastic garbage sack. (Can't millionaires afford a gym bag?) On Aug. 5, Jay Glazer of Fox Sports declared it was "less and less likely" that Favre would ever play again for any team. The same day, King said it was his "strong feeling" Favre would play for the Vikings. On Aug. 6, the Tampa Tribune reported Favre was "on the verge of joining the Bucs. The deal is likely to be finalized within 24 hours."
Then No. 4 was traded to the Jets. Warren Sapp predicted on NFL Network that "There will be no problems with Favre in New York." The season would end with a deafening chorus of boos from the Jersey/B home crowd and the Jets' coach fired. Jeffri Chadiha of ESPN predicted the Packers "will be fine" without Favre; Green Bay dropped from 14-4 in 2007 to 5-11 in 2008. Dan Pompei of Sporting News predicted, "There is no reason [Favre] should not be playing at a very high level this season." Favre led the NFL in interceptions. On Jan. 26, 2009, King said Favre "has had enough" of playing -- but might come back if offered a trade to the Vikings. Aaaaaiiiiiiiyyyyyyeeeee!
Peter King addendum: King makes so many hyperspecific predictions it's hard to know what to take seriously. For instance, as noted by reader Ben Binningen of Switzerland, King predicted that in the Super Bowl, Willie Parker would carry 25 times for 113 yards. Not for about 100 yards but for exactly 113 yards. (Parker ran for 53 yards.) On NBC this fall, King predicted, among other things, that "Roy Williams will not be traded" (two days later, he was traded) and that "the Patriots are definitely going to let Matt Cassel walk & Cassel will not be franchised" (he was franchised). Owing to King's track record, it worries me that he has predicted, "There is no danger of the NFL being interrupted by a labor dispute" in 2009 or 2010.
Obama to Announce Voluntary Speed Limits: Given that TMQ has been railing against big bonuses to CEOs and Wall Street types, you'd think I would be happy about the executive-pay limits Barack Obama announced Wednesday. The announcement got fantastic press for Obama -- our new president is the most gifted media manipulator since Ronald Reagan, and successful modern presidents have had media-manipulation skills. But the "limits" are not what they seem. For most firms that receive federal bailout money, the "limits" are voluntary. Golly gee whillikers, CEOs will voluntarily limit their own pay, won't they? Corporate executives don't need a presidential directive to place voluntary limits on their bonuses, they can do that on their own at any point. The "limits" apply only to firms that receive what the Treasury Department calls "exceptional aid," meaning most of the millions and billions being handed out as gifts to banks around the country will continue to come with no strings attached. So far, three firms have received aid classified as "exceptional" -- AIG, Bank of America and Citigroup. Guess what? AIG, Bank of America and Citigroup have been exempted from the limits. The "limits" announced by Obama would bind any firms that may receive "exceptional" aid in the future, but for now, bind no one.
Perhaps some companies will decide to comply for public-relations reasons. But it's disturbing that one of Obama's first major acts in office is classic Washington make-believe -- something that seems like a sweeping reform but actually is nearly toothless. If the country is to have the change Obama promised voters in his campaign, genuine reform is required, not more exercises in Washington phoniness. Plus, if the new president stakes some of his prestige on what seems like a dramatic decision and it turns out a year from now that CEOs easily evaded the seeming "limits" and stuffed their pockets with tax money anyway, Obama will seem an ineffectual leader.
Our Checked Bags Still Haven't Been Found: The trade journal Aviation Week ran an April 2008 article warmly praising luxury-oriented Eos Airlines: "Something must be right with the business model for Eos Airlines," the article began. Two days later, Eos went out of business.Prediction: Lions Unlikely to Face Bengals in Super Bowl: Lions coach Rod Marinelli, after Detroit reached 0-12: "We are not going to 0-16." Bengals player T.J. Houshmandzadeh, after Cincinnati reached 0-8: "Are we going to the playoffs? Probably not."
Vote for Hillary! "Hillary is inevitable, she is a juggernaut, and he [Barack Obama] is not going to stop her," columnist Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News. "Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States," The Economist touted in its first issue of 2008. (That issue also predicted a boom year for Wall Street.) Hillary "will crush Barack Obama you heard it here first," Joe Scarborough said on MSNBC. "[Hillary] is a meteor hurtling through space towards the White House," said Kirsten Powers of Fox News. "It is almost inevitable that Hillary will be the nominee," CNN's Strategy Session show announced. "If [Hillary] wins Texas and Ohio, I think she will be the nominee," predicted Bill Clinton; Hillary did win Texas and Ohio and was not the nominee. (Halfway through the primaries, Bill also said, "This campaign is playing out exactly like I thought it would." So he knew all along -- he just forgot to say so!) "I am in it for the long run. It's not a very long run. [The nomination race] will be over by Feb. 5," said Hillary Clinton on the night before the Iowa caucus, predicting her own rapid victory.
Vote for Mitt! The week before Obama made his vice presidential choice, The Huffington Post said it was "sure" to be Evan Bayh. Three days before the choice, MSNBC said Obama would select Tim Kaine. Before the announcement, Joe Biden told The Associated Press, "I am not the guy." He didn't say which guy! Ten days before John McCain made his vice presidential choice, Politico.com declared the pick was "certain" to be either Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty. Seven days before, Time magazine said it had "confirmed" with "senior sources" that Romney would be chosen. The day before the choice, The New York Times said McCain would choose Romney, Pawlenty or Joe Lieberman. No dark horse candidate, the Times said, was under consideration. What about a dark-moose candidate?The U.S. Air Force Is Already Three Times More Powerful Than All Other Air Forces Combined: In Washington, D.C., news-radio adverts are touting the incredible prowess of the Air Force's new F-22 Raptor. So are these ads supposed to make you want to rush out and purchase a supersonic fighter plane? "Hey kids, let's head over to Lockheed Martin and buy an F-22!" What's happening is that as the new president draws up his first defense budget proposal, Obama is under tremendous pressure to prove he is a tough guy via a defense spending increase -- which seems the last thing the country needs with the defense budget already historically high and debt being a greater danger to the republic than any foreign government.
Cramer Also Advised Listeners to Buy Tulip Bulbs and Nutria: On March 11, 2008, James Cramer, arm-waving star of the cable investing show "Mad Money," declared, "Bear Stearns is fine, Bear Stearns is not in trouble ... don't move your money." Over the next three days, Bear Stearns stock dropped from $71 to $10. On July 16, 2008, when the Dow Jones Industrials was at about 11,500, Cramer advised viewers to "buy, buy, buy" because the stock market had bottomed out and would rise; five months later, the Dow had fallen to about 8,500. On June 24, Cramer said Wachovia Bank was "crash material" and urged viewers to sell Wachovia stock, then trading at $18. On Sept. 19, Cramer called Wachovia "a strong buy" at $14, saying the company was "likely to be a winner" in the federal bailout-a-rama. Two weeks later, Wachovia was essentially liquidated, with stockholders receiving $7 per share. A few days after that -- after Cramer had given a succession of spectacularly bad financial advice that would have caused anyone who listened to lose his or her shirt -- "The Today Show" had Cramer on to give financial advice.
His advice? Most investors should get "out of the stock market right now," meaning sell your stocks at a loss, and use some of what's left to buy gold. When he said this, the Dow was at 10,000 and gold at $875.
Anyone who did exactly what Cramer said -- buying stocks in July, then selling them in October -- would have taken a major loss in just three months. Cramer's "Today Show" appearance is viewed by financial analysts as having been like shouting "fire!" in a crowded theater; he convinced many people to sell, and thus helped depress the market, because when the supply of stock for sale increases, prices decline. Cramer's much-ballyhooed investing advice seems to boil down to: Buy when prices are rising and sell when prices are falling. This is the core psychology of bubbles, and a great way to lose money.
This is the right approach: Buy stocks only if you plan to hold them for years, and never try to beat the market by jumping in and out! Here's my prediction: in October 2009, the one-year anniversary of Cramer's "get out now" declaration, the Dow will be above 10,000 and gold will be below $875.
Bummer Cosmic Thought: Recently, astronomers glimpsed the most distant gamma-ray burst ever observed -- so far away it may have occurred only about a billion years after the universe formed. If gamma-ray bursts are caused by dying super-massive stars, as some cosmologists think, this is the oldest (or youngest, from the perspective of the cosmos) such death so far observed. But as TMQ cautions about gamma-ray bursts, don't assume they must be natural. Maybe they are the muzzle flashes of doomsday weapons. Maybe what GRB 080913 tells us is that shockingly soon after life began, so did the horror of combat.
Reader Comments: Jacob Holloway of Fruitland, Md., writes, "The fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIII saw 23 points scored, almost as many as the previous three quarters combined (27). In the nine Super Bowls played this millennium, an average of 9.1 points are scored in each of the first three quarters, but an average of 18.3 scored in the final quarter. This probably means something that a smart coach could take advantage of, but I have no idea what."
Eric Skaugset of Redlands, Calif., writes, "Your item in last week's column regarding the Federal Reserve buying bonds from the Treasury Department reminded me of an article in the Los Angeles Times recently. Some California cities are selling their streets and buildings to local financing authorities, then leasing them back. The financing authorities issue bonds, which they can do without voter approval. The kicker is that the elected officials who make up the city council doing the selling, and the financing authority doing the buying, are essentially the same. So we're pushing the art of fishy public financing here in California." Eric, here's something else to worry about: The issuing of municipal bonds, and insurance on such bonds, is historically fraught with fraud; no-bid contracts and inflated commissions tend to go to cronies. Each time a local government uses the on-paper ploy of selling an asset and then leasing it back, multiple opportunities for corruption are created. Wouldn't it be nice if government bodies simply matched outlays to revenues? But when you do that, it's a lot harder to skim from the public till.
Bryan Watts of Denver notes that in Roger Goodell's pre-Super Bowl chat with Bob Costas, Goodell said the NFL is now investigating "maybe putting a chip in a ball so that we can determine exactly when a ball crosses the goal line." Chipping the football is, of course, a long-standing TMQ cause. I said James Harrison should have been Super Bowl MVP. Numerous readers protested he was not the right candidate, having been called for a personal foul during the contest. One noted in haiku,
The P stands for best player
not best punch-thrower.
-- Benjamin Johnson
Category Five -- Bad Super Bowl Predictions: Michael Wilbon of ESPN and the Washington Post predicted Pittsburgh would win "on the strength of a sack-strip-fumble recovery in the final 90 seconds." Wait, that's exactly what happened -- erase that prediction! Since most authorities picked the favored Steelers, let's turn to the incredible celebrity ring-up conducted annually by David Nielsen of Scripps-Howard News Service. For 20 years, Nielsen and his colleagues have called celebrities the week before the Super Bowl to ask their exact final score predictions. So far he has collected 1,741 final score predictions, and two have been correct: Martina Navratilova predicted Denver 31, Green Bay 24 in 1998 and tough-guy actor Dennis Farina predicted New England 24, Philadelphia 21 in 2005.
In 2000, TMQ did an incredibly scientifically advanced calculation of the odds of predicting an NFL final score, if working within the band of probable outcomes. (Which teams are playing has nothing to do with it.) I concluded there was roughly a one-in-500 chance of an exact final score prediction being correct. The Scripps-Howard celebrity ring-up has tested this notion and so far has produced two of 1,741 correct. Back when the Multicolored Lady predicted NFL final scores, TMQ had a running item called New York Times Final-Score Score. Times predictions ended on the last day of 2003, and at that point, the paper was 3-for-1,085. Add these two score-prediction test cases together and you get 5-for-2,826 correct: all but square on the one-in-500 result that Tuesday Morning Quarterback predicted in 2000. Thus, I predicted the ability of people to predict!
Anyway, here are some selections from this year's Scripps-Howard celebrity derby. Poet Maya Angelou predicted Arizona 27-16 "because the Cardinal bird is so poetic." Paul Pierce of the Celtics predicted Pittsburgh 31-17 "because the Steelers won't be overwhelmed with all the hype." Penn and Teller predicted Pittsburgh 27-17, noting, "Ben Roethlisberger has an unbeatable motivation, the NFL promised that if he wins a second Super Bowl, he can put an umlaut on his uniform." Newly sworn-in Interior Secretary and TMQ college classmate Ken Salazar predicted Arizona 21-14. Tennis stud James Blake predicted Pittsburgh 24-10. Vanilla Ice predicted Arizona 31-21, adding with rare self-awareness, "I don't know why I believe this." Oscar-nominated actress Taraji Henson predicted Pittsburgh 45-12. (Hint: choose score pairs in the probable-outcomes band.) Actress Connie Britton of "Friday Night Lights" predicted the Dillon Panthers would win the Super Bowl. Cartoonist Scott Adams predicted Pittsburgh 21-14 because "a steelworker should be able to stomp a bird."
Now let's examine two Scripps-Howard predictions closely. First, outgoing CIA director Mike Hayden was close with a forecast of Pittsburgh by 10 points. Two years ago, Hayden predicted Indianapolis would beat Chicago by 13 points in the Super Bowl, and the actual by Indianapolis by 12 points; last year he predicted Giants over Patriots 17-14 in overtime, and the actual was Giants over Patriots 17-14 in regulation. So the Central Intelligence Agency was totally wrong about Iraq, yet has sophisticated insights into the Super Bowl. What are CIA agents really doing all day long?
Second, former Playboy model Pilar Lastra, now a briefcase-holder on "Deal or No Deal," predicted Pittsburgh 28-24; Miss United States, Crystle Stewart, predicted Pittsburgh 27-21; former Miss Panama, Patricia de Leon predicted Pittsburgh, 27-24. Lastra, Stewart and de Leon came closest of the 100 Scripps-Howard predictions to the exact final score. Three years ago, Playboy model Andrea Lowell came within one point of predicting the exact Super Bowl score; two years ago, one of the closest Scripps Howard predictions was from Playboy model Kendra Wilkinson. If scantily-clad mega-babes are better than washed-up jocks at predicting football outcomes, perhaps ESPN should re-examine its business model.
Worst Predictions of the Year: If you think the above predictions are bad, here are the pits:
Honorable Mention: Skip Bayless, ESPN/Deuce: "Brett Favre absolutely, definitely will play for the Packers next season." Said the day Favre announced his March retirement.
Honorable Mention: Hub Arkush, publisher, Pro Football Weekly, August: "Pittsburgh looks to me like a club headed in the wrong direction."
Honorable Mention: Phil Simms, CBS, to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in July: "I hope Brett Favre stays retired." Simms on air on CBS in September: "Favre clearly made the right decision by coming back."
Third Runner-Up: Tuesday Morning Quarterback, Page 2, early December: "The Chargers and Eagles are all but mathematically eliminated." Both made the playoffs.
Second Runner-Up The incredible ESPN.com meta-forecast. Ten of the 16 ESPN.com-predicted Super Bowl winners failed to make the playoffs.
First Runner-Up Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk and The Sporting News. In early October he wrote, "It's not too early to say that it's over for the Ravens." The Ravens made the AFC Championship Game. In July, Florio predicted the AFC North would have no team above .500; both AFC title-game entrants came from the AFC North. The Steelers "haven't done much in the offseason to improve," he foresaw.
Worst Prediction of the Year: Alex Marvez of Fox Sports, who predicted Pittsburgh would be the season's "most overrated" team while Detroit would be "most underrated." Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl; Detroit went 0-16.
TMQ Season Sign-Off: Tuesday Morning Quarterback folds its tent and steals off into the desert till August, though will resurface briefly around the NFL draft. As usual, I recommend you employ the offseason to engage in spiritual growth. Take long walks. Perform volunteer work in your community. Exercise more and eat less. Attend worship services of any faith. Drink less coffee, more green tea. Appreciate the beauty of nature -- God did not make nature by accident. Read one of the great books you've always meant to read. Be with your family and friends. As Barbara Bush said to the graduating class of Wellesley College in 1990, "At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent."
Of newly released works, in political books, I recommend "The Party Faithful" by Amy Sullivan; in science, "Why Evolution Is True" by Jerry Coyne; in psychology, "Beyond Revenge" by Michael McCullough (explains why the desire for retribution is an evolutionary proclivity we must overcome); in general nonfiction, "Traffic" by Tom Vanderbilt (hilariously shows that traffic jams have plagued society at least since the days of the Caesars); in economics, "Good Capitalism Bad Capitalism" by William Baumol, Robert Litan and Carl Schramm; in history, "A Nation on Fire" by Clay Risen (about the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. -- the night before King died, he said, "Only when it's dark can you see the stars"); in self-published books, "The Losing Game" by T.E. Scott, which argues Wall Street is a giant hustle designed to separate investors from their money; in sports, "Positive Sports Parenting" by Jim Thompson, a book every youth-league and high-school coach and parent should read; in humor, "Our Dumb World" by the writers of The Onion; in fiction, "Bridge of Sighs" by Richard Russo and "Lark and Termite" by Jayne Anne Phillips.
Read, mediate, serve others: Do these things, and you will feel justified in racing back to the remote, the swimsuit calendars and the microbrews when the football artificial universe resumes anew in the autumn.
In addition to writing Tuesday Morning Quarterback, Gregg Easterbrook is the author of "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse" and other books. He also is a contributing editor for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Monthly.