Our weeklong preview of the previews begins today with a look at the worst preview on the market, offered this year by The Sporting News.
Sporting News 2005 Preview (192 pages; $6.98 U.S., $8.98 Canada)
This is the strength of an otherwise weak and highly disappointing effort by Sporting News. The magazine offers a comprehensive profile of each team that fills five full pages. The main profile is written by a reporter for each local market and most are well done. The five-page spreads include a general overview and grade for each unit, various callout boxes and loads of key data – 2004 results, 2005 schedule, 2005 draft picks, recent first rounders, key offseason moves, stadium information, coaching staff info and key statistical rankings from 2004. Sporting News rounds out each team profile with a projected roster listed by position and a two-deep depth chart. Overall, it's an outstanding and information-filled package. No other preview we looked at offers team previews longer than four pages.
Sporting News predicts each team's final record and positional finish within their division, and projects Philly over Indy in Super Bowl XL (page 21). In fact, that's the popular choice this year. Three of the five previews we examined predict that Philly will face, and beat, Indy in the Super Bowl.
Not a single piece of female flesh is found anywhere. Sh*t, even National Geographic tosses us a fully exposed native nipple every now and then.
Sporting News does not offer a single major feature article. The front of the book is filled with short "notebook" style pieces found in most daily newspapers. The lead story (page 4), a mere 375 words, is senior writer Dan Pompei's brief overview of why he believes Philly will win the Super Bowl. There is a very good case to be made for Philly: they were one of just two NFC teams last year to post a winning record against quality opponents and they had the most bendable defense in football. Oh yeah, they also had the NFL's No. 2 scoring defense and are the defending conference champs.
Pompei fails to make the case, though, merely throwing out the factless pabulum that infects football writing. For example, Pompei writes that the Eagles have gotten closer to a championship every year for five straight seasons. Actually, the Eagles lost three straight NFC title games before finally advancing to the Super Bowl last season. Their best chance came in 2002, when they went 12-4 and led the league for the only time in recent history with a +174 point differential.
When this is the closest thing to a fact-filled feature article the magazine can offer, it's in a bit of trouble. Other preview magazines, for example, offer comprehensive looks at the move toward the 3-4 defense this season. Sporting News offers a short and inadequate 140-word overview of the phenomenon in its notebook section (page 6).
Sporting News is very thin in this category, too. The most interesting table is a front-of-the-book feature that ranks each unit on every team in the NFL (page 9). The magazine then adds up all the scores, and ranks all 32 teams from top to bottom: the team with the lowest cumulative scores gets the highest rankings, and so on down the line. New England and Philly top the list – which makes sense considering both played in the Super Bowl last season. But the rankings are entirely subjective. Not one piece of factual evidence is reported in the analysis.
Hey, if you think New England has the best linebackers in football – a logical but certainly a debatable statement – offer up some evidence in your defense.
Sporting News does not.
Plus, the magazine creates a situation that's rife with contradiction. According to its formula, New England is hands down the best team in football, with a cumulative score of 44 (or an average ranking of 4.9 for the nine units rated in the survey). This puts the Patriots 73 points ahead of the Colts, who rate No. 9 with a cumulative score of 117 (an average ranking of 13 for each unit). Still, the magazine contradicts its very own formulas on its prediction page: New England fails to make the AFC title game. Indy goes to the Super Bowl. Hey, why compile the rankings if you're just going to throw them out?
When we do all that work and crunch all those numbers, we listen to what the data tells us. Of course, that's what separates the enlightened despotism of the Cold, Hard Football Facts from the totalitarianism of opinion that infects the pigskin "pundits" and powers that be and so rankles the trolls.
Sporting News also ranks the top three players in a variety of different skills (page 13), from arm strength for QBs to top long snappers. It's an interesting read, but ultimately useless to those who put stock in the Cold, Hard Football Facts, as it tells us nothing about actual onfield production. It would have been a much more compelling and useful feature if, for example, they told us why Philly's Jeremiah Trotter is a better run stuffer than Ray Lewis or Zach Thomas. Without our trusty bifocals called Cold, Hard Football Facts, our vision is blurred by this disfiguring cataract called baseless opinion.
The only other charts and lists are
  • final 2004 standings and a complete 2005 preseason schedule (page 190)
  • a complete 2005 regular season schedule (page 192)
  • a 2006 draft preview (page 188) – a good piece to peruse if you want to grab the projected top names in college ball this season.
Sporting News offers a short fantasy sidebar within each team profile that looks at three players on that squad. The front of the book features a five-page notebook style fantasy preview (page 14) with several interesting features, including "A Draft Day Primer" (page 15) with a brief list of tips to help you organize your league and help you draft a winning team. Sporting News also offers its list of the Top 100 fantasy players in 2005 (page 18). This list is extremely weak in terms of statistical analysis – a key for any fantasy football fan.
In fact, only the top 12 players on the board get anything more than a mention of their name, position and team. Whatsamatta, rank and serial number weren't available? This dreadful lack of useful information makes this one of weakest fantasy overviews on the market today.
Sporting News has a major strength: it offers the largest and most comprehensive team profiles in the business this year.
But the magazine makes a serious and fundamental error in these very same pages, which take up the bulk of the publication (as they do with all football preview issues).
Sporting News relies upon local beat writers to assess each team and grade each unit. However, the 2005 predictions are made by a single individual, Sporting News staffer Dan Pompei. In numerous instances, Pompei's predictions stand in sharp contrast to the assessments and grades handed out by the beat writers. In fact, it's pretty clear that the hard work each writer put into assessing each team played no role in helping Pompei formulate his projections. The result is, in many instances, a glaring disparity between the tone of the team profile and Pompei's projected finish.
Take, for example, the egregious examples found in the AFC North. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Gerry Dulac hands out high grades across the board to the Steelers: an A or A- for coaching, offensive line and defensive line, and a B or B+ for quarterback, running back, wide receiver, linebacker and special teams. Only the secondary (a C+ in Dulac's book) fails to measure up.
You would expect these kinds of high marks for the Steelers. They went 15-1 in the regular season last year, posted an impressive 7-2 record (including playoffs) against quality opponents, boasted the top defense in football and made it to the AFC title game before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion.
But it's pretty clear that Pompei's opinion of the Steelers is quite a bit different than Dulac's. Pompei projects an 8-8 record and a third-place finish in the AFC North for a team that boasted the best record in football last year. Needless to say, it's highly damaging to the credibility of Sporting News when it writes glowing reports of a team's coaching and onfield talent, and then projects that they'll sink faster than Pauly Shore's acting career.
Cincinnati beat writer Chick Ludwig, meanwhile, gave the Bengals only one grade better than a B-: it was an A- for the wide receiving corps. Sporting News reports, in other words, that Pittsburgh is superior to Cincinnati in almost every facet of the game. Still, Pompei has Cincinnati winning the AFC North with a 9-7 record.
Something doesn't add up. These types of contradictions are endemic throughout the pages of the Sporting News preview and render the bulk of the publication virtually useless to serious football fans seeking insight into 2005 NFL action.
This rather grotesque misjudgement, coupled with a limited selection of features, statistics and fantasy data, puts this at the bottom of the preview barrel in 2005.
The Sporting News spent little time or energy on this preview issue. You shouldn't spend your $6.98 on it.