Balls In The Air
Inside the world of football prognostication

For 22 weeks of the year, the football fan lives for nothing but the passion and glory of the gridiron. Families and spouses are abandoned, careers are neglected, weddings and funerals go unattended. And then, for the other 30 weeks of the year, it's even worse. Mulling over next year's facts and figures, I stare silently out the window like some 20th century Nostradamus...

See also...
... by Patrick Hughes
... in the Scope section
... from September 1, 1999

...until July, when the first helmet appears in the back of the sports page, snapping us out of our NFL stupor. That's about the time I camp out in front of the local Barnes & Noble, waiting for the arrival of my football porn. Oh, those annual football season preview magazines -- so thick, so glossy, so fully-packed, sporting exotic, sexy names like Preview Sports Pro Football '99, Street & Smith's Pro Football, The Sporting News 1999 Pro Football, and BLITZ 1999 NFL Preview.

All these pigskin previews tell the same story: Who's going to win what (and how), with gossipy features on players and the coaches, and all the information to sate even the most rabid fanatic. I buy the lot of them anyway, but that doesn't mean they whet my appetite equally. Despite the constricting uniformity, two magazines in this year's crop really bring the season forecast to life: Preview Sports Pro Football '99, and The Sporting News Pro Football.

Preview Sports is top-notch and well researched. Look for the great gossipy feature on power-mad coach/general managers to find out whose head is on the chopping block. The magazine utilizes a self-styled "talent quotient" -- a harsh and unforgiving 1-10 rating system -- to make their predictions. They've singled out the "Must-See TV" and the "players to watch." Their prognosticators don't go so far as to pick all the winners and losers themselves, but if you dig through the details, you'll see that Preview Sports predicts a stellar year for the Denver Broncos and Minnesota Vikings.

On the other hand, The Sporting News 1999 Pro Football spectacular is all meat. It weighs in at an impressive 192 pages, with not one bullshit fantasy football statistic, just the facts and figures. The gimmick is that they use a member of the hometown media to profile the team. It takes a writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to ream Steeler's head coach Bill Cowher for coddling his underachieving quarterback Kordell Stewart. Sporting News is well-designed, with eye-popping photographs and pleasing infographics certainly make for a slick package, but they must be making their predictions under the influence of airplane glue. Buffalo over the Jets? The geriatric Cowboys over the younger and faster Arizona Cardinals? Are you mad? TSN even goes so far as to pick the creaky Dan Marino to lead the Miami Dolphins to the Super Bowl. Hardly, I say.

I only mention the also-rans to warn you off. Street & Smith's Pro Football uses the flimsy cloak of Sesame Street graphics to cover up fuzzy information that would appeal to people who read TV Guide for the articles. The hot topic: Is Terrell Davis the "best sixth-round draft pick of all time?" And as for the newcomer, Blitz, avoid it at all costs. The parent company also puts out the basketball rag Slam -- that one-word-at-a-time approach tells all you need to know. A paltry 11 pages are devoted to a breakdown of the new pro season, and the rest is on the college teams. Don't be hoodwinked at the rack when you spy this rip-off -- stick to the professionals.

Football prognostication is serious business. These learned men crunch all the numbers, evaluate each team's draft choices, and have an up-close look at the training camp. They check the teeth and feel the odd hamstring to give me the lowdown. I respect them, really. And yet, not one of them has gotten it right. I support the Washington Redskins, and every one of these soothsayers dogged my boys yet again. Regardless of what anyone else says, I almost certainly guarantee a championship season for Washington. I should know. I've got all the facts and figures at my disposal.

See Also: Homebrewed Prognostications

Patrick Hughes tried playing football once.