Confirmation Bias in the NFL: Connecting Predictions with Reality


If you were all aboard the Raiders hype train Sunday proved their potential. If you doubted Oakland, a one point win over New Orleans doesn’t impress you much. (Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports)

– Jim Bearor

Every team has played one game so far, and people think they have answers. It has been a long offseason of discussing narratives, who went where, and why it’s all going to come together for Team X this year. That’s totally cool, summer – the driest season for sports – is when the juiciest hot takes blossom. I think of it like a Quentin Tarantino movie, where the long dialogue scenes have more weight to them because you know it’s only a matter of time until the fight starts. Then when there is action, its significance is amplified. But in the NFL’s case, we talk so much and for so long that the events of the prior season get reduced to statistics, and the memories of it start to fade. Because of this, and for reasons beyond my comprehension, the first few games of the season have such a disproportionate effect on all of our opinions, even if we think we know better than to jump to conclusions.
The Raiders are the perfect example. They opened the season in New Orleans and “BlackJack” Del Rio’s team answered the bell, winning 35-34. They’re one of the darlings of the NFL, and a win like this is gas on their fire. Whether or not they’re actually good is almost beside the point. All that matters is that they were hyped up, and immediately followed through. Hype train full speed ahead. The same goes for Tampa Bay. Jameis Winston was expected by many to make a leap in his second year, so of course his 2016 started with four touchdowns in an impressive win over the Falcons.

The defenses of the Falcons and Saints aren’t good, but we weren’t really watching watching them. We were watching for the players on our fantasy teams, the guys who we had hunches about, and the ones who were regularly mentioned on the podcasts we listen to. These first few weeks of the season reek of confirmation bias and over-the-top reactions, but that’s what makes it great. Over the next couple weeks, I’m willing to bet that your opinion on a lot of things either don’t budge, or they flip completely. If your feelings about a team have only shifted slightly, you probably didn’t feel strongly about them to begin with.

Washington is one of those teams for me. Their killer finish to last year’s regular season smelled flukey to me, but I didn’t know what to expect from them going forward.  So when the Steelers bullied them on Monday Night Football, I largely shrugged it off. The bad loss knocked them down a peg in my book, but nothing crazy. Cousins is still an enigma to me and I have no problem admitting that. Even though Washington is a divisional rival to my Giants and they’re the reigning NFC East champions, I haven’t paid them much mind over the past few months. I can’t remember the last time Dan Snyder’s team had a quiet offseason like this (if you tune out Josh Norman, which I do). My attention was drawn elsewhere and because I’m not grappling with imaginary expectations I’ve set for them, my perception of Washington is a bit more flexible than it might be for other teams that I hold more of a stance on.

My Hard Foul teammate Evan Sally gave his take:

“Confirmation bias works the other way too, by lowering expectations. After losing Megatron, it was expected that Matthew Stafford would struggle. When he comes out and throws for almost 400 yards and 3TDs, it’s surprising enough to make you reevaluate everything you thought about the Lions offense before. Ignoring that, you could arrive at the conclusion that the Colts defense is abysmal.

We as fans or opinion givers, professional and amateur, are constantly grading teams and players based on our expectations of them, as opposed to the reality on the field. Look at San Francisco’s demolition of LA on Monday night, a result deemed surprising by some. Why? Because we determined the Niners would be terrible and the Rams might be ok this year. When a result happens in Week 1, that flips that on its head. It’s not that we were wrong, it can’t be. It becomes this shocking result! We always see what we want to, and we bend the narrative as we see fit.”

Yes we do, and I figure we might as well enjoy it while it lasts. If you’re a Raiders fan, I’d wager you’re as happy with your team as you’ve been in over a decade. Yeah, you might really be contenders, but right now, Week 1 is everything; Del Rio is coach of the year, Derek Carr is king. Across the league, It felt like legacies were at stake and this 1/16th sliver of a season would give us answers. We wanted answers, so we walked away with some. The Jaguars are frisky, Miami has some fight in them, the Giants are better than the Cowboys, Carson Wentz is the future, and the Patriots already won the AFC East.

I know I’m being dramatic, but the essence of it is true. Even if you’re as grounded and informed as they come, you can’t entirely avoid the undertow of knee-jerk narratives that peak during these first few weeks. The power rankings and analytics from 2015 are fading fast, but conversations that took place in summer are still fresh. Now that a game has been played, there’s even more of a disconnect from last year, and if you’re looking for continuity, you’ll probably start by looking at the offseason and only touching on 2015 if necessary. As games go by and results start to compile, there will still be those who hold onto their stories and predictions with a white-knuckle grip that screams closed-mindedness. Don’t be one of these people.
– Jim Bearor (@JimBearor)jimbearor


2 responses to “Confirmation Bias in the NFL: Connecting Predictions with Reality

  1. Pingback: Confirmation Bias in the NFL: Connecting Predictions with Reality | HARD FOUL SPORTS

  2. Pingback: Giants Let One Slip Away to Washington | HARD FOUL SPORTS

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