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Scratch Gaels’ poor season and you’ll find lots of bon chiffres to celebrate

November 13, 2014

COLUMN Claude Scilley

COLUMN
Claude Scilley

There’s not a lot to suggest that Arthur Balfour knew anything about football.

A Scottish aristocrat and Britain’s prime minister at the turn of the 20th century, Balfour was apparently something of a tennis player. He’s also one of the earliest to be quoted as suggesting there are three kinds of falsehoods: Lies, damned lies and statistics, a remark he made in 1892 that was repeated and thrust into the popular lexicon 10 years later by Mark Twain.

Indeed, the notion had taken several forms by the time Twain got a hold of it: “a fib, a lie and statistics,” for one; “simple liars, damned liars and experts,” was another.

Truth be told, there’s not a sportswriter, political pollster or market analyst worth his or her salt who hasn’t backed a dubious theory or absurd point of view with a few statistics. Numbers give an argument credibility, and, believe me, it’s not as hard as you think to pluck a few bon chiffres to support almost any point you wish to propose.

Here’s one, for instance.

In football, the red zone is defined as the area from the opponent’s 20-yard line to the end zone. Once a team gets there, it’s expected to score. This year, the Queen’s Golden Gaels actually reached the red zone 31 times, four times more often than its opponents did. Seventeen times the Gaels scored a touchdown; that’s the fifth most frequently since the statistic began to be tallied in 1996.

That must help to define a pretty good season, you might suspect.

Here are a few more highlights gleaned from a statistical review of the Gaels’ 2014 campaign:

  • After some official scoring changes, running back Jesse Andrews was credited with a 245-yard rushing game at Carleton on the final weekend of the season. That ties him for the seventh-best single-game performance in the history of the Queen’s program.
  • Alex Carroll had 209 receiving yards the previous week against York. That’s the ninth-best day by a receiver in Queen’s history. He finished the year with 872 yards, and that’s the seventh-best season total since they started keeping track of forward passes.
  • Billy McPhee threw for 2,235 yards, the fifth best passing total among Queen’s quarterbacks. He also became the leading rusher, all-time, among quarterbacks in team history.

Wow.

There’s more.

  • Queens scored 242 points. Only 11 times in the 132-year history of the program have the Gaels scored more.
  • Kicker Dillon Wamsley’s 74 points were the ninth-most in a season by a Queen’s player ever; in just three seasons he’s moved into third place on the team’s all-time scoring list, behind just the last two Vanier Cup kickers: Dan Village and Jamie Galloway.

That’s some season the Gaels just had.

Not quite.

The team finished 3-5 and missed the playoffs. For the first time in nine seasons (or the third time in 12 years, if you prefer).

How can so many good things arise from a season that started with a five-game losing streak?

Consider this:

  • The Gaels gave up 256 points. Only once in 123 years has a Queen’s team been so generous to opponents (that was the 1-7 season of 2000).

(And, yes, 132 years and 123 seasons—there was no play in the four years of the Great War or five years during the Second World War. So do you prefer a time continuum or an absolute number to define the Queen’s legacy? Call it statistician’s prerogative, or, in a little while it will be marketer’s prerogative: In two years they’ll be selling merchandise commemorating the 125th season of Queen’s football, exactly nine years after they celebrated with 125th anniversary of the program. More smoke, more mirrors—make ’em believe what you want.)

  • Queen’s gave up 66 points at Guelph this year; that’s just off the all-time high water mark for ineptitude, the 67 points Laurier dumped on the Gaels in 2000. The 66-point margin of defeat in that 66-0 debacle reached No. 1 on the chart, however, edging the 60-point expanse of embarrassment from that unhappy day in Waterloo. (Nice to know it didn’t take quite so long re-open the record book the second time; Queen’s next-worst defeat was a 49-2 whipping administered by McGill in 1913).

There are surely other unpleasant bits of data that would enter the all-time descriptors of futility, but this team has already taken its share of lumps. Besides, the Queen’s record book seems to have far fewer dimensions by which it measures the bad and the ugly than it does the good.

So what? Statistics are fun if all you want to use them for is to add a little historical perspective, give some idea of the magnitude of a performance—good or bad—or just remind people of who came before, and what they did to capture our imagination around the achievements of those who came before them.

Or maybe just define an obscure fact: The team’s longest run from scrimmage this year wasn’t by Andrews, or Jonah Pataki, or any of the others you’d more likely suspect. It was by McPhee, the pocket passer, who ran 25 yards, in the first quarter of the final game of his career, Oct. 25 at Carleton.

Sometimes statisticians just like to show off.

The lesson: Enjoy them, discuss them, mock them—but never take stats too seriously. It’s only a game, after all.

Apply to statistics that other utterance for which Prime Minister Balfour is famous: “Nothing matters much, and few things matter at all.”

 

 

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