Wednesday, February 4, 2015
Wins, Losses, and the Cruel Dichotomy
By now, football fans have replayed and rehashed the last three significant plays of Super Bowl XLIX dozens of times: Jermaine Kearse's improbable catch; Marshawn Lynch's run to within the breath of the goal line; and of course, Russell Wilson's ill-conceived and ill-executed intercepted slant pass.
On each of these plays, minute deviations would have yielded dramatically different results. And yet, the (playoff) rules of the NFL force a binary outcome: there must be exactly one winner and exactly one loser, subtlety and representative distribution be damned.
More than any sport, NFL football is a casino table game, carefully crafted to level competition through violent roster turnover and rules concentrating the game's influencers to a few positions. It's NBA Jam with the diabolically maddening "computer assistance" turned way, way up.
This institutional parity serves the league well. Relatively high year-over-year turnover keeps most franchises within view of the playoffs and close games hold the industry's attention for creepingly longer windows.
However, the sport's affinity for the level is lost on much of the football media. While the statistical revolution of baseball has only partially spread through NFL coverage for a variety of reasons, football shares baseball's coven of orthodoxy protesting new ways to think about the game. Some question the comprehensiveness of just-a-little-too-perfect valuation stats. Others bemoan a shift in influence from sports-lovers to Excel jockeys. And some, to be painfully frank, got into sports writing because they have no ability or interest in the nuances of early high school math and statistics and must fight sophistication out of self-preservation.
But most of all, the torch- and pitchfork-waving crowd storming the Castle of Stats value narrative. And put simply, honest and effective stats make unique narrative construction a lot harder.
Columns are far easier to write when teams' true natures are treated as fixed quantities only hidden by a few mystical, unpassed hours.
To some, the Patriots' victory Sunday was an inevitable destiny. Maybe they were inspired by Deflate-Gate or some ambiguous revenge for having lost the last Super Bowl played in greater Phoenix. For others, this game somehow tips the scales of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady's legacy.
These are, of course, ex post facto conclusions. Had one of any number of things happened differently in the game, particularly in its last minute, these narratives would have been reversed. "Motivations" would have been branded as "distractions" or "curses." Belichick and Brady's unparalleled run would be derided for three consecutive Super Bowl losses. With a wealth of puzzle pieces on the table in front of you, it is much easier to create the picture you are seeking out.
In reality, many games, including Sunday's thriller, are much closer to draws than decisive results. The Patriots have now played in six Belichick/Brady Super Bowls, winning by margins of three, three, three and four while losing by margins of three and four. Were those four wins by less than a touchdown so much different from the two losses by less than a touchdown?
And this is where teams that repeatedly find success are so impressive. Yes, championships are the goal, but when margins are as slim as they were on Sunday (and if you watched the NFC playoffs this year, you know they often are) we cannot overlook the role of luck. The best way to avoid striking out at luck's cruel hands is to maximize your opportunities.
Brady and Belichick are perfect examples. While they have amassed four Super Bowl wins together, they have lost twice on Super Sunday and three times in the AFC Championship. In total, the duo has made the playoffs 12 times in 14 years, each time giving themselves a chance to win three or four close games against equally matched competitors. Sometimes they win that series of coin tosses; most others, they lose along the way.
So are we wrong to focus so narrowly on wins and championships? Of course not. In the NFL, as in life, certain moments and outcomes are most influential by orders of magnitude. Partial credit is a figment of academia.
But getting near the end has value in real life. The Seahawks came about as close to winning the Super Bowl as a team can without raising the Lombardi Trophy. The lost opportunity will haunt those players because they recognize not only how near they were to the win, but also how far they came to get there.