One of the topics that I've always found interesting in sports, partly because it has some particular relevance to our recent Cowboys teams (both with our quarterback and our head coach), is the idea of who is a "winner" and who isn't-- guys who fans and media deem "clutch" and guys who are considered incapable of delivering. Four or five years ago, two of the most famous non-winners in all of sports, of course, were Peyton Manning and Alex Rodriguez. Looking at the past month, I'd say that perception has changed a bit. Go back a little more than a decade, and John Elway was labeled a guy who could never get it done. That perception, of course, lasted right up until he won back-to-back Super Bowls.
A note in Peter King's MMQB column today got me thinking about this topic again, and led me to look up a few stats that I thought I'd share for discussion.
In his column, King statistically compares the careers of Andy Reid and Bill Cowher through 165 games:
Playoff Seasons: 7
Playoff Record: 10-7
Playoff Seasons: 7
Playoff Record: 6-7
Bill Cohwer was one of those non-winner guys...until he won a Super Bowl. Now he is deified in Pittsburgh and several downtrodden NFL franchises want him to head up their team (I've even heard him called for a few times on these boards). Meanwhile, Philly fans are revolting because the Eagles are in contract extensions with Reid, a guy who has never gotten over the hump.
Throughout sports history, there are examples of players and coaches who at some point were unequivocally deemed "unable to get it done," either by fans, media, their own organization, etc. And there are also many example of cases where that judgement ended up being premature-- even cases like Elway or Cowher where the label was not cast off until the verrrrrrrrrrry end of a long career.
And yes, there are certainly players and coaches with resumes like these that never actually do wind up getting over the top (Dan Fouts, Marty Schottenheimer, etc.). But how do you tell? How do you distinguish 1996 John Elway from Dan Marino? How do you separate 2005 Bill Cowher from Marty Schottenheimer? How do you know which one Andy Reid will end up being? Or (and I'll now say the name that I'm sure was clearly on everyone's mind from the first sentence of this post) which one Tony Romo will end up being?
How do we make these determinations about who is a "winner" and who isn't? Do we look for signs that we think indicate a guy is "clutch"? Do we hunt for intangibles that we think indicate a player or coach's long-term potential? Eh. It's a tempting practice, but I'm skeptical. I think you really only know a guy is a winner when he wins, and that other than that there's nothing in anyone's DNA that puts them in one category or another. I know many sports fans out there believe in the idea of an inherent "clutchness" to some players. I'm not really interested in debating that here. I think statistics show, in cases of decent sample size, that on average athletes tend to perform the same in "clutch" situations as they do in all other situations. Derek Jeter's postseason batting average, for instance, is about 5 percentage points away from his career batting average. Despite all of the claims that he excels in the clutch, the reality is that he's just a very good baseball player, and he plays equally well pretty much all the time. Our impression that certain athletes are much better or much worse in these "pressure" moments are probably either due to a small sample size or powerful anecdotal memories slanting our views.
So right now, Tony Romo isn't clutch. Right now, Wade Phillips isn't a winner. And they won't be for their entire careers...right up until they are. And will that eventual triumph (if it happens) suddenly make everything that came before any different? Did Bill Cowher's DNA change when he got that Super Bowl trophy? Did he gain some quality that Andy Reid has not discovered yet? Or was he a good coach all along, and finally circumstances and a bit of luck put him in a position to become a champion? I tend to believe the latter is the case-- a good coach is a good coach, a good player is a good player, and that "winner" is a label which is only applied retroactively, can only be known with certainy after a career, not during, because otherwise what are you basing it on?