Our weeklong preview of the previews continues today with a look at the No. 4 preview on the market, Athlon Sports Pro Football 2005 Preview (256 pages; $6.99 U.S.)
Athlon offers a three-page overview of each team. The lead articles (not bylined) contain a pretty solid look at the evolving personnel situations within each organization. But with little statistical data, these overviews lack in context or meaning. For example, Athlon reports that the Giants' starting wideouts "didn't have a single touchdown catch last season" but "all that should change with the addition of Plaxico Burress, the big-play receiver the Giants so desperately needed."
In fact, Burress has averaged just 4.4 TDs per season in his five-year career and never more than seven in a single year. So yeah, maybe "all that" will change this year. Maybe Giants' wideouts will score five touchdowns in 2005. Not exactly Air Coryell. But Burress is not exactly a game-breaker, either.
Athlon's attempt to be convincing is contradicted in this instance, and many others, by the Cold, Hard Football Facts. It's typical of the strategies employed by many "pundits." They're simply trying to propel an interesting storyline – in this case, Burress is a "big play" receiver – even when the storyline is clearly refuted by the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
The "outside the huddle" feature in each team's profile, however, contains some pretty compelling nuggets of data. Jets quarterback Chad Pennington, for example, has been brilliant in the red zone over the course of his career – tossing 39 TD passes and 0 interceptions, with a 112.2 passer rating. Truly amazing.
Athlon's overviews contain standard information for each team – 2005 schedule, 2004 results and statistical leaders – but little information that you can't get elsewhere.
Athlon does not take a stab at predicting each team's record, only their finish within their division. Athlon projects Baltimore over Philly in Super Bowl XL.
Athlon is one of just two preview magazines we reviewed that had a team other than Indy representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. Three of them project Philly topping Indy in Super Bowl XL.
Editor Rob Doster's introductory letter says that "we tried to find some way to pick against the Patriots. Turn to page 59 to see if we succeeded." Page 59 reveals that Athlon did indeed pick against the Patriots – but not a single reason is found. It simply lists projected finishes in each division, and has Baltimore topping New England in the AFC title game, with not an ounce of data anywhere on the page or elsewhere in the issue.
We expected something more from "America's leader in sports annuals." Why is Baltimore going to win the Super Bowl? Give us the inside scoop. Hell, they had an entire year to put this together, and what they offer is no different than what a 2-year-old could create pulling names out of their diaper – a list of teams with no supporting data. Even Athlon's Baltimore overview fails to make a case for the Ravens. In fact, they sound no different than most of the teams in the NFL: a lot of potential but a lot of question marks.
A three-and-a-half page spread at the back of the book (page 235) fails even to titillate the angry, dateless inbreds here at Cold, Hard Football Facts.com. And believe you us, we're not that choosy.
Athlon steps it up with a bounty of features:
  • The obligatory front-of-the-book notes section (page 17) called, hold your applause, "extra points"
  • An interesting look at four players who took "unlikely paths to the NFL," Antonio Gates of San Diego, Stephen Neal of New England, Marcus Pollard of Indy and Drew Bennett of Tennessee (page 27)
  • Q&A's with San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson (page 35) and Cincinnati's Chad Johnson (page 39)
  • And the most interesting feature in any of this year's previews, a story by William Wagner (page 42) about Terry Bradshaw's debilitating chronic depression and Joe Montana's battle with life-threatening hypertension. It's compelling to see the all-too-human side of larger-than-life football heroes like Bradshaw and Montana.
However, Andrew Maraniss's tailgating feature (page 243) is literally the worst piece of football-related journalism since Skip Bayless tossed out his "Slow, hanging curveball" back in January. The piece is touted as "The Ultimate NFL Road Trip" in which the author purports to visit "17 NFL cities in 17 weeks and check out the tailgating action in each town." Last we knew, tailgating involved food, drinking, general bonhomie and gross excess. Tailgating, as the Cold, Hard Football Facts have long noted, is a true manifestation of the American national character.
Maraniss's article, instead, gives us 17 snippets like this: "Green Bay at Philadelphia: How appropriate to arrive in the home of the cheese steak to welcome the team from the land of cheese. Having saved a few bucks with my jail-themed peanut butter and water pre-game meal in Baltimore, I donate a quarter to the Terrell Owens salary fund. Makes me feel good about myself."
That's the entirety of his insight into the Philly tailgate scene. The rest of his reports are equally as inane and uninformative. Hard to believe Athlon wasted three entire pages on this piece of junk. It's a useless, embarrassingly poor feature. Next time, folks, if you want the oversized skinny on tailgating, get in touch with the 225 Club.
Athlon also attempts to grade the 2005 draft. This, of course, is a fruitless exercise. It will be at least two years, and most likely three, until we have an idea of how each team fared in the 2005 draft. Alex Smith, for example, may be the next Peyton Manning -- or the next Ryan Leaf. The way his career -- and the career of every player -- evolves will tell us who's had a great draft and who had a lousy one. Right now, we just don't know.
Athlon's two-page photo spread of "Off-the-Field Snap Shots" (page 24) is a shameless attempt to ingratiate itself to the NFL Players' Association. In fact, it looks like an advertising supplement from the NFLPA, though it's not labeled as such. Athlon would have done a much greater service to its readers – and to the NFLPA – if it built a story around its photo of Manning accepting the Byron "Whizzer" White award. This story could have told us more about this relatively unknown award and offered some insight into the life of White – a former University of Colorado star who led the NFL in rushing in 1940 and eventually served 31 years as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
A small collection of charts and lists is highlighted by a ranking of all 32 NFL head coaches (page 21), from Bill Belichick (No. 1) to Dennis Green (No. 32). Athlon also offers its list of the top 25 players in the NFL (page 22) -- Manning and Tom Brady chime in at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively -- and a look back at the varying degrees of pro success among the first 32 players taken in the 1995 draft (page 45). Team profiles include statistical leaders from 2004, along with a long list of overall team stats. Generally speaking, however, Athlon's limited collection of statistics is tepid at best.
Athlon literally embarrasses itself with its fantasy football rankings (page 246). Oakland's Kerry Collins, for example, passed for 3,495 yards, 21 TDs and 20 INTs in 2004. In the minds at Athlon, that makes him the No. 4 QB in fantasy football – a full five spots ahead of Trent Green, who last year passed for 4,591 yards, 27 TDs and 17 INTs. Athlon is counting on Randy Moss's arrival in Oakland to somehow turn Collins into Dan Marino.
Michael Vick, meanwhile, earns the No. 7 spot on Athlon's QB list, following a year in which – despite a mountain of hype and a handful of electrifying plays – he generated a mere 3,215 yards of offense and just 17 TDs passing and running. There were two running backs in he NFL last year, Tomlinson and Shaun Alexander, who scored more TDs than Vick did with his feet and his arm. Still, despite his lack of production, Vick is three spots ahead of Tom Brady, who passed for 3,692 yards and finished second in the AFC with 28 TD passes, while tossing a mere 14 INTs. These two examples alone discredit Athlon's entire fantasy projection.
But there's more: Priest Holmes is incredibly productive – when he plays. He missed half the 2004 season, but that's doesn't stop Athlon from ranking him the No. 3 back in their fantasy football rankings. Rudi Johnson of Cincinnati earns the No. 7 spot, after a season in which he generated 1,538 yards of offense and scored 12 times playing for an 8-8 team. His ranking puts him ahead of players with far more consistent, and more proven, production and who play on better teams -- players such as Curtis Martin (No. 12), who last year led the entire NFL in rushing and helped carry the Jets to the playoffs, and Corey Dillon (No. 8) who scored 12 times, led the NFL in rushing yards per game and set numerous personal and franchise records playing for the Super Bowl champs.
Both Martin and Dillon rated well ahead of Holmes and Johnson according to that emotionless arbiter of all things pigskin, the Cold, Hard Football Facts. But not according to Athlon.
Athlon is one of the top names in sports publications. In fact, it touts itself as the publisher of "America's Premier Sports Annuals." Its NFL preview looks slick, and its reach is indicative in the slate of non-football related national advertisers that fill its pages, companies like UPS, Ralph Lauren, Samsung and JVC.
All of which makes Athlon's less-than-compelling preview more startling. Only its decent collection of feature articles puts it ahead of the pabulum released this season by Sporting News. Athlon's fantasy rankings are only loosely based on actual onfield performance, it provides few compelling statistical analyses, and its tailgate story never should have seen the light of day and is literally a waste of time, energy, space, paper and ink. And on a crowded magazine rack, Athlon's Pro Football Preview is a waste of your $6.99.