Last week, the Sporting News brought us the second hyped anonymous NFL player poll of this half-season. In the survey, NFL players picked Rex Ryan as the league's most overrated coach. (Bill Belichick finished second, which gave Ryan the basis for a fun little press-conference jab: He was glad to have finally beaten Bill Belichick at something.) The poll followed a late-October Sports Illustrated poll of 180 NFL players, which named Tim Tebow and Mark Sanchez as the league's most overrated two.
Do polls like these teach us anything? The easy response is no, particularly when they ask about over- or underratedness, relative and imprecise terms. Why should an NFL player's opinion—or meta-opinion, his opinion about the value other people's opinions—be the best gauge of another player's abilities?
But there's no need to drop a smarm-bomb like Dan Wetzel's, from last week, under the headline "Anonymous, mean-spirited quotes and player polls in NFL need to stop." Wetzel wrote that NFL players should stop behaving like a "clique of seventh-grade girls" and put their names behind their words. To borrow from college football, a sport Wetzel's plenty familiar with: Rex Ryan and Bill Belichick are men; they're 40. And, God forbid we get to hear player's opinions of the game through anything other than ritualized press conferences and Inside the NFL's managed vignettes.
The results of the SI and Sporting News polls do, in their way, teach us something about NFL players. Mark Sanchez is, in no sense of the word, overrated by the public. We'll use the handy (and totally scientific) method of gauging popular perception by Google autocomplete: "Mark Sanchez is …" The top result is "terrible," followed by "gay" and "a bust." "Mark Sanchez is good" ranks seventh, in between "Mark Sanchez is awful" and "Mark Sanchez is a loser," and two spots behind "Mark Sanchez is the devil."
No one who isn't an employee, or owner, of the New York Jets has said anything nice about Mark Sanchez in the last two years. Tebow's case is similar, if not quite as stark. Everyone—well, everyone who isn't Skip Bayless—acknowledges Tebow's limitations as a passer. He's treated as a curio, a quirk, not a superstar.
As for Belichick and Ryan—overrated? Please: We need not waste words defending Bill Belichick, who has three titles and a 146-56 record while steering the once-hapless Patriots. As for Ryan, his defenses have excelled every year. Ryan took the Jets defense from 14th in the league in DVOA in 2008 to first in 2009, fifth in 2010, and second in 2011. In 2012 they're 12th, even though they've lacked cornerback Darrelle Revis, their superstar, and nose tackle Sione Pouha, their second- or third-best player, for most of the season. Ryan still doesn't have a losing season on his résumé.
The thing you'll notice here is that the four don't have much in common with one another, aside from former or ongoing association with the New York Jets. Sanchez and Tebow both fail at their jobs, as measured by any number of quarterback metrics. Ryan and Belichick both succeed at their jobs. They have winning career records in the regular season and playoffs, and players want to play for them.
What the four really have in common is that they're on ESPN all the time, Tebow especially. Are there coaches who are on ESPN constantly? Off the top of my head, I'd say Rex Ryan, Bill Belichick, and Andy Reid, and, lo, there they are, first, second, and third in the poll. A coach or a player who appears on TV often is, to his NFL peers, highly rated.
There's broader evidence of this phenomenon. Here's Tony Gonzalez, talking to USA Today, about how the then-undefeated Falcons weren't getting any respect: "Is the national media making a big deal about us like they would if it was Philly, Green Bay, or New England? No, they're not. We played Philly and beat them. And Philly was on TV all week."
Why were the Eagles on TV all week? Because they were getting destroyed by ESPN. Their airtime signaled not praise but trouble.
This state of affairs results in part from ESPN's organizational priorities, which emphasize piping-hot sports debates. But it's also better journalism to tell a story about a team missing expectations, rather than about a team meeting them. (For the record, the Falcons going 7-0, or 8-1, against a weak schedule is meeting expectations.) A good team playing pretty well will never get as much attention as a hyped team floundering—or, on the good-news side, a feckless team triumphing.
Was Tony Gonzalez processing the noises coming from his TV, or just looking at the pictures? Maybe what these polls really teach us is that NFL players almost never watch ESPN with the sound on.