Pros vs. Joes: Do Football Fans Think They Could Play in the NFL?
- 76% of NFL fans felt they could make plays NFL players failed to make, including 91% of Arizona Cardinal fans who said as much.
- NFL fans reported speed as the most important skill needed to play in the NFL (66.4%), but just 34.2% of them felt they already had that skill or could acquire it quickly.
- NFL fans felt that making a 3-pointer (38%) and drawing a charge (30.6%) would be easier than catching or throwing a 20-yard touchdown pass (25% and 21.4%, respectively).
NFL game days must be extremely stressful for participating athletes, with everything from job security and income for their families to their personal health at stake. But let’s not forget that NFL game days are just as critical for die-hard fans – at least from their perspective. With this in mind, all the support these fans show is often offered alongside harsh critique, whether warranted or not. But does the walk meet the talk? How do NFL fans think they would fare in the cleats of the professionals?
We surveyed 1,002 male NFL fans to find out how successful they thought they would be if given the chance to become an NFL athlete. Do these fans overestimate or underestimate the skill it takes to make the league? Are fit fans more confident in their potential success than less athletic ones? Are the various fan bases’ perceptions similar or different? Read on to see what we discovered.
Getting in the Game
Failed NFL plays typically generate a scathing reaction from fans, but how many think that they could have done better?
A shocking 76% of NFL fans believed they could turn a failed play into a successful one, regardless of fitness level and team allegiance. But when breaking this sentiment down by fan fitness levels, we see a significant difference between very active fans (79.9%) and slightly to not at all active ones (63.2%). Still, over three-in-five fans who didn’t consider themselves fit, let alone in pro football shape, thought they could do what paid NFL players couldn’t.
Arizona Cardinals fans were the most confident in their ability to make a play (91%), with the Baltimore Ravens (88.7%), Kansas City Chiefs (88.6%), Atlanta Falcons (87.8%), and Los Angeles Chargers (87.8%) rounding out the top five. The level of critique offered by these fan bases may seem excessive considering the stature of their team’s players.
Imaginary Statistics in the League
Beyond making a single play, how do fans feel their abilities line up with what they perceive it takes to be an NFL athlete? How about their hypothetical statistical performance as a quarterback, running back, or wide receiver? Let us find out.
While many fans believed they could have made a particular play that an NFL player couldn’t, there is some acknowledgement of the skills needed to play in the league. The three most important abilities, according to these fans, included speed (66.4%), strength (65.6%), and stamina (45.4%). On the flip side, when asked which skills fans felt they already had or could acquire quickly, stamina (44%), strength (43.3%), and mental strength (40.4%) came out on top. Only 34.2% of respondents believed they already had or could quickly acquire the speed needed to be an NFL player.
In line with this discrepancy, respondents’ hypothetical stat line reflects a lack of confidence in their ability to be an NFL starter. The greatest difference was in the passing category, where, on average, fans felt they could throw for 49 yards per game – nearly 80% less than the 2020–2021 NFL league average of 241.3 passing yards. However, 18% of NFL fans felt they could throw over 100 yards in a game.
Shockingly, fans of teams with legendary quarterback play seemed to feel more confident in their in-game passing ability. Green Bay Packers fans (34%) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans (31.1%) ranked among the top-five teams whose fans felt they could throw for at least 100 yards per game.
The smallest difference showed up in receiving statistics, where, on average, fans felt they could catch for 37.8 yards in a game, a mere 16% less than the 2020–2021 NFL league average of 44.6 receiving yards.
Fans as Professional Athletes
Beyond their hypothetical potential in the NFL, how do our respondents feel about their chances of succeeding in other notable sports leagues?
When asked about their perceived level of performance within a sports league, nearly 36% of respondents believed they would perform above average in the NFL and MLB, more than both the NHL (34.6%) and NBA (31.7%). Similarly, on average, fans perceived the NFL to be the easiest league to succeed in, followed by the MLB and NBA. The NHL was perceived to be the hardest.
Respondents with a very high fitness level felt they would perform better than average in all leagues and best of all in the NFL, while moderately and slightly to unfit fans felt they would rank the highest playing MLB.
While respondents generally felt they would rank higher in the NFL than the NBA, they felt that making a 3-pointer (38%) and drawing a charge (30.6%) were easier than catching or throwing a 20-yard touchdown pass (25% and 21.4%, respectively).
On the other hand, knocking out or submitting a fighter in the UFC were perceived as the most difficult tasks, with only 9.6% and 9.4% of respondents feeling that these actions would be easy, respectively.
Success in Specific Scenarios
Fans feeling they can play in the NFL is one thing. But how do they think they would fare going up against some of the biggest names in the NFL or sports in general?
Out of 13 different scenarios that pitted fans against elite sports talent, respondents felt they would fare best in those related to the NFL. In fact, of the top six scenarios in which fans thought they would perform best, only one did not involve a professional football star.
Based on a scale from 1 (terribly) to 10 (extremely well), the scenario with the highest average hypothetical performance rating was catching a pass when guarded by Jalen Ramsey (3.78). In reality, however, this would likely prove to be extremely difficult. In 2020 alone, when matched up against some of the best wide receivers in the league, Ramsey allowed an average of 2.2 catches, 23.5 yards, and 0.1 touchdowns per game.
With an average rating of 3.70, NFL fans felt taking a hit from Ramsey’s teammate, Aaron Donald, would be the next most manageable scenario. While the level of skill required to take a hit is minimal, having arguably the best defensive player in the NFL tackling you at full speed can’t be a walk in the park. Not to mention, he is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
Stacking Up to NFL Talent
Following opinions centered around perceived talent and ability, it seemed only right to ask our respondents which NFL team’s roster they felt it would be hardest to earn a place on – and which superstar players they felt would be most difficult to outperform.
NFL fans believed making the Kansas City Chiefs roster would be the hardest out of all NFL teams (32.8%). Their Super Bowl 55 rivals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, came in next at 28.6%, followed by the perennial playoff-contending Baltimore Ravens (25.2%), the tightly run New England Patriots (23.4%), and the rising Buffalo Bills (22.8%). As for the easiest team to earn a place on, according to NFL fans, the Detroit Lions, who won a disappointing five games in the 2020 season, came out on top (9.3%).
While Aaron Rodgers put up historic numbers last year on his way to his third NFL MVP, over one-in-four respondents felt they could outperform him, the most among all starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Nearly one-in-10 fans also felt they could take the place of Tom Brady, often referred to as the greatest football player of all time. Whether respondents felt this way about two first-ballot Hall of Famers due to their age, surrounding teammates, etc., it is safe to say that these respondents are quite confident in their ability to sling a football around.
From Dream to Reality?
When it really comes down to it, NFL fans can be overly critical and tend to exaggerate what impact they could have if given the chance to take to the field with the pros. While a large majority believed there had been failed NFL plays that they could have made, it was clear that most understood they don’t have the necessary skill set to thrive in the big leagues full time. Still, their confidence was impressive, with many feeling they could compete against some of the NFL’s most elite players. Some fans were equally assured of their chances in any sporting arena.
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Methodology and Limitations
For this study, we surveyed 1,002 male NFL fans about how they would hypothetically fare in the NFL and other sports leagues. The average age of respondents was 36.8 years with a standard deviation of 11.4 years. 30.7% reported being very fit, 53.8% reported being moderately fit, and 15.5% reported being slightly or not at all fit.
The main limitation of this portion of the study is its reliance on self-report, which is faced with several issues, such as, but not limited to, attribution, exaggeration, recency bias, and telescoping.
Additionally, using ESPN.com’s NFL statistics, we were able to calculate league averages for passing yards, rushing yards, and receiving yards per game for the 2020–2021 season. For a player’s passing yards to qualify, they must have attempted at least 14 passes per game played. For a player’s rushing yards to qualify, they must have attempted at least 6.25 rushes per game played. For a player’s receiving yards to qualify, they must have caught at least 1.875 passes per game played.
No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed above are based on means alone. As such, this content is exploratory and is presented for informational purposes only.
Fair Use Statement
Have you ever thought about how you would fare as an NFL athlete? Whether you have or think you know of someone who has, feel free to share this study for noncommercial use; all we ask is that you link back to the full study so that people can see exactly what we did and how we did it.
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