Monday, December 29, 2008

The Demeanor Fallacy

Eric Mangini has had his ups and downs as head coach of the New York Jets.

His first season was all up. He took over a Jets team that was 4-12 the year before and coached them to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth. He became a New York folk hero, dubbed ManGenius by the tabloids. He even made a Sopranos cameo.

But season two was a downer as the Jets fell back to 4-12. And season three was a roller coaster ride. A shaky beginning, a terrific middle, and a horrible end.

And this morning the Jets took the New York Post’s advice (DUMP ‘EM) and fired their precocious head coach. The Times’ story on the firing echoed a theme I’ve heard a lot the past few weeks in the tabloids and on talk radio:

"Mangini has been criticized for a lack of emotion in his coaching style..Fullback Tony Richardson said he had never seen Mangini show frustration. He does not storm around the practice fields, spew invective or flip over water coolers."

In fact, this lack of emotion is the only criticism cited in the story, suggesting that if Mangini had expressed more emotion the Jets may have been more successful.

This is a logical fallacy. The syllogism goes something like this:

+ Coaches with placid sideline demeanors can’t win

+ Coach X has a placid sideline demeanor

+ Therefore, Coach X can’t win

But of course, the NFL is filled with stone-faced winners. Tom Landry had 20 straight winning seasons, five NFC titles, and two Super Bowl wins without ever changing expression. (His Hall of Fame bio’s first words are “noted for impassive sideline demeanor”.) Statuary is more expressive than Chuck Noll, who won four Super Bowls. And Bill Belichick, to quote Dorothy Parker’s quip about Katherine Hepburn, “runs the gamut of emotions from A to B”.

Meanwhile, the NFC’s version of the New York Jets – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – featured a coach, Jon Gruden, who is so emphatic on the sidelines that his nickname is Chuckie, from the horror-movie doll. Gruden’s passion did not prevent the Bucs from collapsing in nearly identical fashion to the Jets.

The Torre Stare

We’ve been here before. Joe Torre took over as manager of the New York Yankees in 1996, and proceeded to go on the greatest run in recent baseball history. Four World Series championships, six AL crowns, and eleven straight playoff appearances. Except for walks to the mound, Torre spent the entire eleven years on the bench, arms crossed, staring out at the field. But in his final year – a year in which he once again made the playoffs, he was ripped in New York for not having enough fire.

Alas, having too much fire is also a crime. When Tom Coughlin was, experts all agreed, the worst coach in football, his biggest problem was sideline histrionics. When he won the Super Bowl those same experts agreed that he did so because he followed their advice, and got his demeanor to just the right temperature.

This doesn’t just apply to coaches. Eli Manning appears at all times to be in a medically-induced coma. In the early promising part of his career it was lauded as a plus. In the middle shaky part of his career it was derided as a minus. Now, with a Super Bowl ring and a #1 seed, it is once again a positive. Just wait, though – if the Giants lose to the Falcons in two weeks, the sports psychologists will change their minds again – stoicism will be renamed placidity, calmness will be reclassed as indifference. "Look how excited Matt Ryan is", they'll gush.

The Reason - and a Prediction

There is, I believe, a reason for this. Most football fans, myself included, don't know enough about the complex game of modern football to truly judge a coach on his merits. Very few fans are capable of dissecting the Jets' blitzing schemes or interior line play. I've never heard Pete from Passaic call the Fan to complain the Jets' don't disguise their run formations well enough, or suggest ways to exploit the weak-side linebacker in the Miami defense.

So in our ignorance we go overboard on the things we do understand. That is why clock management mistakes and 4th down decisions are overamplified by fans and media. Even the dumbest among us can form an opinion on these things.

And a coach's demeanor? In the absence of substantive criticism, which most of us are ill-equipped to make, it's an easy one to go after.

I try to stay away from predictions, but I’m going to sneak out on a limb here. Eric Mangini, who at age 40 has had winning seasons in two of his three seasons as head coach, will be hired somewhere else, maybe a struggling team that experienced failure under a fiery coach.

That team will be successful early in Mangini’s tenure. And fans will nod their head knowingly, saying, “It’s his sideline demeanor. He exudes calm, which is just what that team needed.”

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