I’m a big Denver Broncos football fan (and a sports nut in general, as you may know). I was born in Denver but have lived most of my life in Southern California. Even when we had football teams here, as we are apparently positioned to have again, I was still a Broncos fan.
It goes back to my college days, I guess, when my parents lived in Denver and I would spend the summer there. Summers, as you may know, mean football training camp and the beginning of the preseason. The Broncos were the first major league team in any sport in Denver, so the city has a huge love affair with the team. Consequently, any football news, and certainly training camp qualifies, was front and center in Denver during those summer months I was there. It was infectious.
At any rate, the Broncos just won the American Football Conference championship, sending them to the Super Bowl in two weeks to play against the National Football Conference champion Carolina Panthers.
For weeks now, the experts who make predictions about games have been picking against the Broncos. They had their stats to back up their decision. One that was repeated over and over was that Peyton Manning, the Broncos quarterback, had only thrown nine touchdown passes and seventeen interceptions.
It was a true stat. But what no one said was that Peyton was hurt for the first two months of the season, until he finally missed six weeks while he got treatment. Turns out he had been dealing for months with plantar fasciitis, a condition that causes pain in the heel and bottom of the foot. Because he continued to play on it, he eventually experienced a tear. The treatment was to have his foot immobilized for two weeks—along with who knows what in his rehab phase.
When Peyton came back in the middle of the final week of the season, the experts nevertheless reported that only Peyton’s knowledge and experience were valuable to the team, that what he contributed physically was a liability. Even when the Broncos beat Pittsburgh in the Division Playoffs, Peyton was criticized more than he was praised. He was a game manager now, the experts said, and that label was meant as disrespect.
After all, the once great quarterback who set records—more touchdowns in one year than anyone in history, and the like—was now dependent on a running game. How the mighty have fallen!
In truth, the experts said, Peyton couldn’t run the new coach’s offense because it required him to make throws he could no longer make. He couldn’t run the bootleg and he couldn’t throw long and he couldn’t throw to the sidelines.
So you see, the Broncos simply could not generate enough offense to win a game against a player such as Tom Brady of the New England Patriots.
Until, of course, Peyton threw a touchdown of twenty-one yards and another one to the back corner of the end zone, and until he ran twelve yards for a first down.
Was he the “old Peyton”? The one who set all those records two years ago? No. From what I understand, plantar fasciitis takes considerably longer to heal, so I have no doubt that he’s still not one hundred percent healthy. Just a whole lot better than he had been.
But here’s the point. When everyone was looking at Peyton’s seventeen interceptions—and those coming in ten games instead of the full complement of sixteen, they made a determination about what kind of performance they’d see from him during Championship Sunday. They didn’t realize the stats lied because they were about the performance of an injured Peyton Manning, not a healthier player who engineered the win against New England.
The same was true about the Patriots and Tom Brady. Their stats were the opposite of Peyton’s. Tom was on a mission and was playing his best ball of his career. Except those stats came mostly against teams that didn’t make the playoffs, against defenses that weren’t ferocious.
Tom Brady is a good quarterback . . . maybe even a great quarterback . . . but people were making judgments about how he would perform on Sunday based on what he’d done against lesser defenses.
So here’s the bottom line. Appearances aren’t everything. And sometimes stats can lie. If I told you I won ten out of ten one-on-one basketball games against my neighbor’s son, you might think, Wow, she can still play. But what if you found out my neighbor’s son was six? Uh, the stats can lie.
Things really aren’t as they seem, at least not always. It’s an important point I think, because we tend to be a society preoccupied with appearance and eager to jump on bandwagons. Oh, we say, the experts have all these stats that point to the Patriots steamrolling the Broncos, so that’s surely what will happen.
But it didn’t.
Maybe there’s a lesson for life in there. Maybe we should all be willing to look a little deeper than that first stat line.