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Posted by Doug on June 9, 2006

I've gotten a couple of emails in the last few weeks alerting me to a situation that I'm sure many others were already aware of. But this is the first I'd heard of it. Friday is rant day, and I think this deserves a rant. Here is one of the emails:

Why are the New York Giants of 1930 listed in first place, while the Green Bay Packers won the title that year, and have a better record?

First let me say that this is a completely appropriate email, and that nothing I write in this post should be interpreted to mean that the emailer was in any way out of line.

I get emails like this every so often. Normally they alert me to a legitimate error in my data or in my programs. I fix it, thank the emailer, and move on. But this time is a little different. The page in question is the 1930 standings page, which does indeed show the following:

New York Giants 13 4 0 308 98
Green Bay Packers 10 3 1 234 111

So I went to Total Football to verify. Those are indeed the correct W-L-T numbers for each team, but Total Football lists them in the opposite order. The problem boils down to this:

  • 10/13 = .769

  • 13/17 = .765

  • 10.5/14 = .750

Instead of being counted as half a win and half a loss, ties were simply discarded before computing winning percentage back in those days, which is Just Plain Wrong, and that's the nicest way I know how to put it. If you disagree, then consider that your system would rank a 1-0-15 team ahead of a 15-1-0 team. That's a contrived example, but it is illustrative. Discarding ties would be appropriate if tie games conveyed no information about which team was stronger. But that's not what tie games do. They convey information that the teams were equally strong on that day, which is a very different thing.

Someone please tell me if there is something that I'm missing here. Did forfeits used to count as ties or something like that?

The NFL eventually figured out the error of its ways, because ties are now apparently counted as half a win and half a loss in computing the winning percentages. As best as I can figure it, the change occurred between the 1971 and 1972 seasons. Total Football lists Washington's 9-4-1 record as .692 in 1971, which indicates that the erroneous system was still in place at the time. But it lists the Eagles' 2-11-1 mark in 1972 as .179, which is in compliance with the new (correct) way of counting ties.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that they didn't have a postseason back in 1930. The team with the best record was simply declared the champion. It should have been the Giants, but it was the Packers. Sports fans and pundits really love their asterisks, generally too much, but this is a rare case where an asterisk is completely appropriate.

As I said, I am quite sure I am not the first person to notice this. But it was something of a shock to me. I haven't yet decided whether I should "fix" the standings at the site.