The Impact of First Impressions in Sports

One night last week, I was in the car with my Dad and we had the radio on, listening to some guys call-in show on the New York ESPN radio affiliate. The first couple of hours we had to listen to this guy talk about his New York Jets, and I was performing my usual routine of making snide comments between his points to make my Dad laugh. Eventually, for the last thirty minutes, he got to talking about the New York Giants, who, as you probably know, my family has had season tickets with for 50 years (that’s not even an exaggeration: my Grandfather’s first year as a season ticket holder was in 1963, back when the Giants played in Yankee Stadium). The host stated his belief that the main obstacle standing between the Giants and a playoff appearance was the running backs, and asked his callers a simple question: “Do you think that Andre Brown and David Wilson would be good enough to carry the load for the Giants for an entire season?”

Just so we’re clear, my answer to that question is a resounding YES, but I have doubts about the offensive line. But that’s not the reason why I bring this up. The callers all started calling in and talking about how they thought Wilson was an explosive running back, but the main concern is his fumbling problem. The host, after hearing around five callers bring up David Wilson’s “fumbling problem,” asked one of the callers how many fumbles he thought David Wilson had last season. I immediately yelled out “ONE” while listening in the car, fully aware of his stats from the previous season. The caller thought about it for five seconds, and then said “seven to ten.” The answer? One.

That begged me to ask myself the question: Why do Giants fans believe that David Wilson has a fumbling problem? After thinking about it for a minute, the answer is really simple: the only fumble that he’s lost all season took place on his debut against the Dallas Cowboys, and it left a lasting impression on the minds of Giants fans. The fumble turned the tide of the game (which the Giants lost), and has not been forgotten since. He got 70 carries last season, averaged 5 yards per carry, scored 7 TDs and returned kickoffs better than any Giant I’ve ever seen (except maybe Ron Dixon), but has been unable to shake off that label that he can’t hold on to the ball.

Flash forward to last weekend, as I’m up early watching Liverpool-Stoke City in the opening English Premier League match of the season. Liverpool are 1-0 up in the closing minutes of the game, when Daniel Agger conceded a very stupid penalty, putting his arm up in the box when he had no need to and making contact with the ball. Jonathan Walters stepped up to take the penalty for Stoke City, facing the newly-bought Belgian keeper Simon Mignolet, who was making his competitive debut for Liverpool. Walters shot it to the Mignolet’s right hand side… and Simon saved it! The ball was loose, Kenwyne Jones ran up and fired another shot at the net, which Mignolet also saved, as it scrambled out for a corner, with the Anfield faithful going absolutely ballistic. The players all jumped on Mignolet to congratulate/thank him, before he pushed them off and made them get in position as Stoke were trying to take the corner quickly. Liverpool held on for a 1-0 win, and Mignolet made a really tremendous first impression on the Liverpool fans watching, not only in the ground, but on TV sets all over the world.

Online afterward, I noticed that many, many fans were praising Mignolet for his penalty save, and seemingly were willing to forget all of the rage they felt after the club loaned out Pepe Reina (remember him?!) in order for Mignolet to start. I remembered how David Wilson’s fumble in his first game forever imprinted negative thoughts on the minds of Giants fans, and really do wonder how Mignolet’s crucial penalty save on his debut will be felt by fans in the long term. This also made me ask myself a deeper question: how much stock do we, as sports fans, put on a first impression we get from a player? In addition, how much should we get out of our first impressions of a player?

I’ve been watching sports for as long as I can remember. I’ve honestly lost count on the number of games I’ve attended, and to remember every debut I’ve seen both in person and on TV would be rather ridiculous. But there are some first impressions I’ve gotten from watching games that do stand out in my mind.

I remember watching Hideki Matsui’s Yankee Stadium debut back on Opening Day in 2003, when he hit a Grand Slam against Minnesota into right field. He ended up being a mainstay in the Yankee lineup for around seven years. On the contrary, I remember Kazuo Matsui’s MLB debut (not related to the aforementioned Hideki), where he hit the first pitch he’d ever seen out of the park in Atlanta. Kazuo ended up hitting .256 as a Met over the next two years before he was traded to Colorado, never truly living up to the hype the Mets had set for him, and that he had set for himself with that first pitch homer.

And with that, we find one of the factors that goes into a first impression: the hype beforehand. In American sports, when a player is selected as a first round pick, there is a certain amount of hype that goes with that player. He’s tabbed as a future starter, an impact player, someone who can improve the team in the short term and be the answer to a problem for the long term. David Wilson was a first round pick, and that’s another reason why his first impression was so damning. The Giants felt confident enough to select him in the opening round as a replacement for Brandon Jacobs, the franchise’s all-time leader in rushing TDs.

In the modern age, YouTube has helped fans come up with first impressions without even seeing a player come on the pitch for their side yet. The problem with YouTube, however, is that the video creators can really edit any film enough to make you think that someone is a star if they have enough footage. Milan Jovanovic looked like a star on YouTube, as did Christian Poulsen—neither one lasted more than a season at Liverpool. College football fans remember all too well about Sam McGuffie’s YouTube video, which was 10 minutes of him running around and jumping over high school players like he was in a video game on cheat mode, only to discover that his athleticism didn’t transfer to the college level when he played at Michigan under Rich Rodriguez (McGuffie is currently in training camp with the Oakland Raiders, but I highly doubt he’ll make the team after the preseason is over).

While I remembered Luis Suarez making a splash onto the scene in South Africa in 2010 with his handball against Ghana, I’d honestly forgotten about him until Liverpool started chasing him six months later during the January 2011 window. I remembered watching his YouTube compilations, in addition to his not-so-endearing highlights, such as the handball in South Africa and his celebrating after Asamoah Gyan missed, his diving, and his biting of PSV player Otman Bakkal on the shoulder. I put all of the negative stuff to the side and focused on the fact that he was a good striker who could answer a problem that Liverpool needed to address, and really didn’t think too much about the fact that he was clearly a troubled player.

From this, we do find the answer to the first question: “What do we get out of a first impression as sports fans?” The answer? Whatever we’re willing to get out of it. Honestly, if you don’t try to get much out of watching something, you won’t, and if you are trying to get something out of it, you will. It’s a ridiculously simple answer, but it is true. The only real exception is when something so extraordinary happens that you can’t help but ignore it, such as when Suarez cheats on Global TV in a World Cup Quarterfinal. If you were a cynic, you’d say he was a cheat, but you could also view it as somebody willing to do whatever it takes to win. As sports fans, we’re willing and able to take any sporting moment, view it in a vacuum, and assign it to whatever agenda we’re pushing, even if it’s just a call-in to ESPN radio.

Follow Greg Visone on Twitter @njny

The Jets and Geno Smith: How a Trainwreck Led to This

As an avid fan of the NFL and comedy, I’ve always kept my eye on the New York Jets. It’s not that I hate the Jets—if anything, as a New York Sports fan, I want them to win because I have many friends who are Jets fans. But I also find it equally enjoyable to watch them constantly fuck up, and boy, when the Jets fuck up, they do it in GRAND fashion.

I could probably do a three-hour stand-up routine based solely around the New York Jets. From their horrible draft picks to their lunatic fringe fanbase and even their consistently horrid play on the field, I could probably make a living off of the failure of the Jets if I put the time or effort into it. For the time being, however, this column is the best I can do.

Over the last 18 months, the Jets have made a series of fuck-ups that are right up there with any series of fuck-ups in the franchise’s long, storied history of fucking up. Where did it all begin? Well, after the Jets finished the 2011 season at 8-8, failing to make the playoffs off the back of two successive AFC Championship Game appearances, in conjunction with the cross-town New York Giants winning their fourth Super Bowl, Head Coach Rex Ryan and General Manager Mike Tannenbaum evaluated the squad at the time to find out what went wrong. Obvious problems? Franchise quarterback Mark Sanchez had regressed in his third season in the league, completing 57% of passes in an offensive system that revolved far too much around him throwing the football.

Upon sticking their nose in the stats and the tape, the Jets looked at other possible options they could pursue at QB instead of Sanchez, eventually coming to the conclusion that, unless they signed free agent Peyton Manning (which was unlikely), that keeping Mark Sanchez would probably be the best option for 2012. So the Jets hierarchy went to Mark Sanchez and said something along the lines of, “We believe in you, you’re our starting QB next year, and there’s no need to worry about losing your job.” After saying that, they continued to pursue Manning in free agency.

That would turn out to be a massive mistake by the Jets front office that would come back to bite them in the ass, because Mark soon found out that the Jets were pursuing Manning and that they had held meetings with him after they had assured him that he would be the Jets starter next season. As such, when Manning went to the Broncos, the Jets had not only lost out on Peyton, but they had also demoralized their current starting QB. So, what did the Jets do to show that they had confidence in Mark? They made their second mistake: they gave him the contract extension. 3 years, $19.5 million guaranteed. At the time, he was higher paid than Aaron Rodgers.

If you don’t get how stupid this move was, here’s the analogy: Imagine this being a marriage between a wealthy husband (The Jets) and his wife (Mark Sanchez). The Jets, by telling Mark Sanchez that they believed in him and that he would be their starter next season, basically renewed their vows to Mark Sanchez, specifically including the words “I will not cheat on you” in those vows. Meanwhile, at the same time, said husband discovered that a supermodel he had ties with (Peyton Manning) had just recently divorced and was now on the market. Despite renewing his vows, the husband chased after the supermodel. They texted. Pictures were exchanged. Tubesocks were ruined. Dinners happened. The husband was spotted running by someone that his wife knew, and word subsequently got back that her husband tried to cheat on her. As such, when the husband was confronted by his wife after being unsuccessful in cheating on her, clearly hurting her feelings, his response was to go on a second honeymoon despite clearly not loving her.

With Sanchez getting this contract in mid-March, this should’ve been the end of it all. But it wasn’t, because on March 22nd, the Jets made their third mistake, and this would undo any showing of confidence that they gave Mark Sanchez with that new contract: they traded for Tim Tebow.

Trading for Tim Tebow was, bar none, the stupidest mistake they could possibly make. Tim Tebow had just come off a season where he had taken the NFL by storm and developed an even greater cult following than what he had in college. He was one of the most recognizable names in all of football, and he would now be the backup behind a QB with an already fractured confidence.

Sim through the 2012 season. Mark Sanchez had no confidence, played abysmally after Week one, ran into Brandon Moore’s ass on National TV against the Patriots in the Thanksgiving Night Game, got replaced in the middle of the game by Greg McElroy the following week, and the Jets ended up finishing the season at 6-10, their first losing season since 2007 (the year before they traded for Brett Favre). Sanchez played in 15 games, starting them all, throwing 13 TDs and 18 interceptions, regressing dramatically from the year before.

General Manager Mike Tannenbaum got fired after the season was over and was replaced by John Idzik. Rex Ryan, much to the chagrin of some Jets fans, is still in his job despite failing to make the postseason two years in a row. Looking to start fresh and improve a lackluster defense, the Jets used their two first round picks on defensive players in the 2013 draft. And then, early in the second round, the Jets selected West Virginia QB Geno Smith, projected by many to be a Top 5 pick, but instead fell to the second round because he was perceived by many to be a standout of a poor QB class.

With the selection of Geno Smith, the Jets have made it clear that the leash on Mark Sanchez is going to be very tight for the 2013 season. If I were a betting man, I would guess that Mark Sanchez would start the first two games of the regular season, home against Tampa Bay followed by the Patriots at Foxborough four days later on that Thursday night, and then, barring a 2-0 start to the season, he will be replaced by Geno Smith, who would start week 3 at home against the Buffalo Bills, having ten days to prepare with the first team and get acquainted to his role as the starter.

Despite that, I honestly believe that the Jets have made a mistake in drafting Geno Smith, and think that he will suffer after he plays one or two games. The problem with Geno Smith in college was that he didn’t have a running game to help him at West Virginia. He also didn’t have a defense. He started off the season 5-0, winning those shootouts against Texas (48-45) and Baylor (70-63) and appearing to be a sure-fire Heisman Trophy winner. He beat those five teams by simply outscoring them. And then, out of nowhere, the Mountaineers went to Texas Tech and got hammered 49-14. How did it happen? Simple: Texas Tech played 8 in the backfield specifically to take away Geno Smith’s passing lanes. They didn’t blitz the whole game, nor did they deviate from their 8-man zone. This could’ve easily been countered by West Virginia if they had a decent running game, but alas, they did not. This game exposed Geno and West Virginia. The result? A five game losing streak as coach after coach realized that stopping Geno Smith was an easy task. To be honest, Geno Smith’s stats were probably inflated by the Big 12 defenses that he faced. If that West Virginia team had played in the SEC, they’d have probably finished 3-9 and Geno Smith would’ve gone un-drafted.

Why do I bring that up when talking about the Jets? Because the Jets are worse off than West Virginia. They don’t have a running game. They have some receivers for him to throw to, but they’re not gonna be able to protect him all that well. The only saving grace that Geno might have is that the Jets defense will be able to keep him in games, but that won’t matter if he’s gonna be given the keys to yet another one-dimensional offense. It’s worth asking: if John Idzik was so desperate to draft a new QB, why didn’t he wait a year for Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez to fail again, be able to fire Rex and get a Head Coach in that he liked and that he could work with in the next NFL draft, which will have a much better class of QBs to choose from? They failed to properly hit the reset button on an expensive, aging, and inefficient roster accompanied by a lame duck coach. They entire team is a sunk-cost at this point.

The fact of the matter is this: the Jets have made some horrible decisions in the past 18 months when it has come to the QB position. Selecting Geno Smith, in my opinion, is just the latest installment of that long sequence of fuck-ups the Jets have made. But hey, who am I to crucify them? I get to watch another year or two of that garbage! Hell, if anything, this is a victory for us all. So let’s just sit back, relax, and enjoy the greatest comedy on American TV: The New York Jets.

Follow Greg Visone on Twitter @njny