Skip to content
Jan 10 / King Kaufman

Great rant: Avoid weak, vague arguments with specifics

This is a picture of some guys whose team had no momentum heading into the playoffs. (Denver Broncos)

This is a picture of some guys whose team had no momentum heading into the playoffs.

Everyone who writes opinion pieces about sports should go read this rant by NBC Sports writer Mike Tanier, who has written for Bleacher Report

Tanier tries to vanquish a quartet of “tired talking points” about the NFL once and for all:

  • Beware of teams that won in the first round—they have “momentum.”
  • Coach should have gone for it on fourth down, or not: poor Mike Smith.
  • The quarterback doesn’t have what it takes to win in the playoffs
  • A rookie quarterback should learn from the bench, or start right away

He does so with specific arguments that point out either how wrong or how pointless all four—actually six, since two of them include both sides of an argument—of these statements are, but even if you don’t write about NFL football, you can take his larger point to the bank:

All four of these chatter points have one thing in common: They are all vague and over-generalized. So if we want to talk football, let’s make it more interesting for everyone by getting specific. Let’s talk about the Giants’ defensive line, not their momentum. Let’s look at fourth-down plays that work instead of [just] lambasting the ones that don’t. Let’s focus on [Matt] Ryan’s short-passing accuracy, not his intangibles. Let’s talk about a rookie quarterback, not “rookie quarterbacks.” We will have better, more intelligent, more entertaining debates.

I would add that aside from being vague and overgeneralized, these statements all hold truths to be self-evident that are not. For example, Tanier points out that however much some writers like to talk about how first-round winners in the NFL playoffs have a momentum advantage over their second-round opponents, who had a bye in the first round, the facts don’t back up the theory.

“Since 2001, teams with a first-round bye are 25-15 (.625) in the second round of the playoffs,” Tanier writes. “In gambling terms, 62.5 percent is as close as you will get to a ‘lock’ in the NFL.”

I’d say you can do better. If you look at the last 20 years instead of the last 10, teams with a first-round bye are 57-23. That’s a .713 winning percentage, which is better than an 11-5 record in a single season.

So first-round winners have gotten better, from 8-32 in the ’90s to 15-25 in the last decade. Maybe there are good reasons for that. Our NFL Lead Writer Matt Miller speculated that maybe advances in technology have made it easier for teams to study an opponent quickly, thus limiting the advantage of the team that had the extra week. He also pointed out that coaches move around more now, so there’s more familiarity within the league than when coaches stayed in place longer.

Then again, as Miller also noted, the improvement might just be statistical noise. But even if that improvement is real, and “momentum” is a better argument than it was 10 years ago, it’s still a bad argument. First-round winners have “improved” to the point of being on the bad side of what Tanier calls the closest thing you can get to a “lock” in the NFL.

Too many writers, at Bleacher Report and elsewhere, take momentum as a given.

A recent Bleacher Report playoff preview began, “If history has taught us anything, it’s that momentum is a key ingredient for teams headed to the NFL postseason.” The writer was talking about late-season momentum, not playoff momentum, so maybe history has taught us that lesson. But as a reader, my immediate reaction was, “Has it?” I wanted to see some supporting evidence, either some numbers backing up the assertion or a link to another page where someone else has done that work.

As a writer, you should be challenging your own assertions in the same way. Is this really true, or am I just repeating something that’s taken for granted? And if it’s true, remember what your high school English teacher told you about your writing: Show don’t tell.