clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Are Optimistic Cardinals’ Fans Being Naive?

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Background: INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 17: Arizona Cardinals fans get ready for the NFC Wild Card Playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on January 17, 2022 in Inglewood, California.

Amidst the extremes of fan reactions on social media sites, when Cardinals’ fans express their optimism about the team’s chances for success this season, they are apt to be called “naive” or a “Kool Aider.”

On the other hand, Cardinals’ fans who feel pessimistic about the team’s chances for success this season are called “haters” or “gloom and doomers.”

This morning I just posed the following question to Cardinals’ fans in a Twitter poll:

Three questions to my ROTB brothers and sisters:

  1. Are you feeling optimistic?
  2. What do you think the results of this Twitter poll will be?
  3. In your opinion, are optimistic Cardinals’ fans being naive?

Yesterday, Joe Comeau of The Cardinal Rule and I waged a lengthy discussion about whether it is reasonable to call optimistic Cardinals’ fans naive.

For the record, Joe and I are both feeling optimistic about the Cardinals’ chances for success this season —- to varying degrees.

Are we being naive?

This is a question that Joe has been wrestling with —- particularly because in his interactions with Cardinals’ fans on social media this off-season and on his YouTube videos of The Cardinal Rule (in which Joe now has more than 2,000 followers) his pervading optimism about the team has prompted some fans to call him a naive Kool Aider.

Now —- if you have reveled in the excellence of Joe’s Cardinal Rule presentations they way i have —- you know that few Cardinals fans have done their homework on the team’s personnel in great detail the way that “The Prescient Professor” has.

Case in point:

When Joe conducts his profiles of players whom the Cardinals sign, as he did very recently with the team’s addition of DT Kingsley Keke, as you likely noticed, Joe presents facts and an assessment of the the player’s strengths and weaknesses in order to project the player’s role. It is a very even-handed approach.

But, what has been sticking in Joe’s craw for several months now is the criticism he has been receiving from some Cardinals’ fans of being some sort of a naive, sugar-coater.

This is why Joe decided to write a profound essay titled “The Choice to Be an Optimistic Fan.” He emailed it to me yesterday and I was so impressed with the essay and our ensuing conversation about the Cardinals’ chances for success this season, that by the end of the reading and the discussion, my level of optimism rose from a 7 to an 8 (on the scale of 1 to 10). Thus, I thought you might appreciate reading Joe’s essay. It’s lengthy and multifaceted, but, in a splendid way.

The Choice to be an Optimistic Fan,

by Joseph Comeau

There is, in the social media spaces surrounding professional sports, a toxic culture. A collection of voices from fans and aspiring commentators who fancy themselves “truth-speakers,” peddling a continual flow of negativity.

The problem is not, however that they hold critical opinions of the teams they follow – as I will assert, if this is how they choose to experience their fandom, then I support their agency to do so.

The problem is not the critical takes, but rather how many such individuals respond to those of us who choose to follow a decidedly more optimistic path. Those of us who do not consider a season without a championship to be a waste of our time, or who choose to look toward the future of the team with hopefulness.

The problem is that, to many of the “I-tell-it-like-it-is” types, those of us who have the audacity to choose optimism are written off as naïve and out of touch with reality. Moreover, we optimists are often berated with condescending rhetoricabout how we are accepting complacency, and that the team will never win a championship if we maintain such a Pollyanna mindset. Winners don’t accept anything less than victory, after all.

I would suggest, however, that such rhetoric is itself the real delusion. It involves a failure to acknowledge the difference between being a fan and being a part of the organization.

For coaches, players, and team executives, the mission is simple: Win. The individuals who fill these roles have chosen to pursue some of the most competitive careers to ever exist in human society. Each of these individuals are continually dogged by others who toil endlessly to take their job. If you are a player, coach, or executive, success absolutely depends upon a no nonsense, no excuses mentality. And this reality is reflected in the discourse surrounding sports.

Coaches, players, and executives avoid any public comments that might be perceived as anything less than taking responsibility for their own failings, and they continually reiterate the need to work harder and get better – even when they are winning. And, in the rare occasion upon which a player, coach, or executive breaches protocol and dares draw attention to any external factor that contributed to failure, they are taken to task for “making excuses.”

While I may personally have no interest in working in such a competitive space, I recognize that this is the way ofit for those who choose a career in professional sports. It is the price of entry for such a high profile and lucrative career.

But here’s the problem: This is not the way of it for being a fan.

Being a sports fan is not a competitive career. It is an avocation. It is something we do, outside of our working hours, to inject into our life moments of pride, enjoyment, and what the sociologist Emile Durkheim called “collective effervescence” – that energy we feel when sharing an experience with others. My task as a fan – and yours as well – is to pursue a fan experience that gives you what you want out of it, without denying others the opportunity to do the same. Our job is to enjoy being fans.

Now, some might retort that winning is central to enjoying the fan experience. And I would generally agree that it is far more enjoyable to watch my favorite team win, than it is to watch them lose. I want my teams to do what it takes to win, and I am frustrated when they fail to do so. That’s all fine and well. And if being angry and critical in such times is part of what makes you feel alive and vital as a fan, then I respect your choice to lean into that feeling.

Here’s the thing, though. Just because I, as a fan, prefer to take a more optimistic approach, does not mean that I am naïve. It means I recognize that, as a fan, my goal is to enjoy being a fan, and being optimistic is how that works for me. Now, let me be clear, I am capable of being critical. My chosen career (sociology professor) involves looking at things through a critical lens, and I assure you that one does not successfully defend a doctoral dissertation unless they have developed an acute capacity for scrutiny.

But choosing to bracket such a mindset, in favor of a less exhausting mentality is not naivety. One might argue it is rooted in wisdom. The wisdom of recognizing that I am a fan, and not a part of the organization. I am not the coach. I am not the quarterback. I am not the general manager. I am a fan and a YouTube content creator. If I were the coach, then yes, failure to take a no-nonsense approach would be failure to fulfill the duties of my position. But as a fan, that is not my role.

I know what some of you might be thinking: “But if we don’t keep the team accountable, they will be content with losing!”

Unfortunately, that too is a delusion. With only rare exceptions, every key stakeholder within the organization – players, coaches, executives – already have immensely efficacious motivation structures in place, before they ever hear the cacophony of disgruntled fan voices.

When a team is winning, ticket sales, local advertising revenue, and apparel purchases go up. When they are losing, the inverse occurs. This is a time-tested reality, of which owners are vividly aware. This will happen, with or without my voice trying to “keep them accountable.” Even if I maintain the stoutest of support for a losing team, there will always be a segment of the fan base whose engagement is a function of team success. Some will call these individuals “fair weather fans.” Like them or not, this group is the ones who are really keeping the owners accountable because, as a group, they will stop watching and stop spending if the team is losing, regardless of what you or I are saying on social media.

For general managers, coaches, and players, the motivation is more straight forward: if you don’t perform, you will eventually be replaced. And that’s on top of the intrinsic motivation emanating from the intensely competitive nature of these individuals.

Now, sometimes the rate at which staff-related changes are made is not to the liking of some fans. And, in a reactionary manner, many fans will attribute this to an owner who doesn’t care about winning. But, to this, I would refer to the afore-mentioned connection between winning and profits.

If an owner is slow to make a change, it is not because they don’t care about winning – or, at minimum, the profitability thereof. It is because they believe that the existing staff will get it right and turn the corner. The owner might be wrong in this assessment, but there is an important difference between being wrong, versus not trying to win. Now, make no mistake about it, some owners are better decision-makers than others. But that’s not the same thing as not caring about winning.

There is an argument to be made that the budgetary decisions made by owners can be a barrier to winning. In other words, it’s hard to win with a cheap owner. Free agents might be turned off by an organization that has a reputation for not adequately investing in facilities, etc. An owner might be slow to fire an underperforming coach or general manager, because of the financial implications. These can be legitimate barriers. But if this is the reality for a given organization, if the afore-mentioned financial motivations associated with winning aren’t enough to dissuade such miserly practices, critical fan voices aren’t going to change that.

Just to be clear, I do not think that this is the case with Michael Bidwill and the Cardinals. The organization did have a reputation for being frugal in the past, but much of that seems to have changed under the leadership of Michael Bidwill. Mr. Bidwill has attributed the frugality of the past to the financial limitations that were present prior to having their own stadium. Whether this is true, or is simply Michael Bidwill defending his father, is not for me to judge. Either way, things do seem to be different in this regard. But, even if I’m wrong about that, my voice isn’t going to change it.

But let’s bring this discussion back to how you or I choose to be a fan, and how some respond to our choices. I am a person who is capable of critical thought. I am also someone who understands the role that sports play in society, and its importance to the individuals who exist within society. And, above all, I am someone who has thoughtfully examined the place that I want sports to play in my life. As such, I have made some informed decisions about how I approach being a fan.

First, and foremost, it is about the experiences. Watching my teams win is a better experience, no doubt. But if my team fails to win a championship – or even make the playoffs – I refuse to accept the idea that it was a wasted season. Each season provides me with an abundance rich and entertaining experiences. The wins are more fun than the losses, for sure. But the time spent watching games, having conversations with friends, teaching my sons about football, setting my fantasy football lineup, following news about my teams, and the general sense of connection I feel to the state in which I was born, is all something that I enjoy – win or lose. To say that the only thing that matters is winning, is to erase all these parts of being a fan. Winning makes all these experiences better, but it is not all that matters.

Second, I choose to view past outcomes with what I consider to be a critical, but balanced lens, and the future with cautious optimism. When my team fails to win, I try to understand why. The answers are often a combination of factors, such as a lack of roster talent, injuries to key players, good players who played poorly, and issues with the game plan or play calling. But when it comes to looking toward the future, I choose to identify an array of potential outcomes – ranging from the worst-case scenario to a best case-scenario – and lean toward a reasonably optimistic outlook.

For example, going into the 2021 season, many Cardinals fans felt that the cornerback group was going to be a glaring weakness. Patrick Peterson had left as a free agent, Malcolm Butler – the player who was signed to be Peterson’s replacement – had decided to retire (well, at least for one season) and the Cardinals had passed on cornerback during the first two days of the draft. The Cardinals were wagering on the oft-injured Robert Alford, the promising but still unproven Byron Murphy Jr., and fourth-round selection Marco Wilson. This group did not inspire confidence among most fans.

I, too, was concerned about the cornerbacks, so I started looking at the cornerback groups across the league to get a sense for how the Cardinals group compared. Upon this closer look I found that, while the Cardinals cornerbacks were far from being one of the best groups in the league, they didn’t fare as poorly as some might think. The group seemed to be somewhat below average, but certainly not among the worst.

Now, I realize that’s not the most resounding endorsement ever uttered, but I felt like the cornerback group had enough talent to be serviceable, with enough upside to surprise people if things went well. After coming to this conclusion, I authored a Tweet that said:

I could have easily gone down the path of lamenting how bad the cornerbacks would be – the worst-case scenario – but I opted for a measured, yet optimistic view. And, in the end, the cornerbacks ended up playing better than expected throughout most of the season. But my view was not simple, blind optimism. I did my research, identified the probable range of outcomes, and leaned toward optimism.

As I look toward the 2022 NFL season, I see the Arizona Cardinals as a team with a wide range of potential outcomes. If key players struggle, the team is vexed by injuries, and they start out how they finished the 2021 season, this Cardinals team could end up with only six or seven wins.

But I also see a realistic scenario in which the team has better luck with injuries, has better depth to withstand the injuries it does experience, has young players like Zaven Collins, Marco Wilson, and Rondale Moore take a step forward in their development, and gets outstanding seasons out of key players like Kyler Murray, James Conner, DeAndre Hopkins, Hollywood Brown, J.J. Watt and Budda Baker. In such a scenario, this team could look much more like the squad that started 10-2 than the one that finished 1-4. The ceiling for this team is a championship.

But that’s not where I land with my final outlook for the upcoming season. I look at this range of outcomes and I find what I consider to be the median outcome – a team that is fighting for a wild card spot – and lean just a bit more optimistic than that, while acknowledging both the potential floor and ceiling of this team.

After reading all of this (and, thank you for sticking with me this far if you did), you might still think that my views are too optimistic. And you have a right to that opinion. But it would be in error to believe that my optimism is born of naivety. It originates, rather, from a conscious choice about what I want from my fan experience.

Commentary:

Kudos, Joe, for taking the time and the effort to write this eloquent and commendably cogent essay. This is a superb and highly relatable read, from start to finish. Thank you for sharing it with me and the members of ROTB.

If anyone wants to call Joe Comeau’s optimism “naive” —- then you will have to say the same about J.J. Watt. His recent interview with Dave Pasch and his reasons for training six days a week all off-season has me fired up beyond all belief.

What are your answers to the three questions?

  1. Are you feeling optimistic?
  2. What do you think the results of this Twitter poll will be?
  3. In your opinion, are optimistic Cardinals’ fans being naive?

What are you reactions to Joe’s essay?