Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Winners Get Lucky

When the New England Patriots lose certain football games on certain blatantly absurd refereeing decisions, I tend to get a little testy. I may or may not have tweeted about a hypothetical rage-fueled on-field murder scenario in the aftermath of one of these contests, but that's neither here nor there. 

Shit happens. We all know this. Your car breaks down on the way to a job interview, you slip on ice and bruise your tailbone so you can barely sit down for a week, or the beer runs out when it's 2-2 in a five game series of beer pong. All of these instances come down to various forms of luck. Sometimes you’re lucky, and sometimes you ain’t. 

But there's a certain way that people speak about luck. For whatever reason, even against all statistical evidence, people keep talking about luck as if it is a finite entity. Every Cinderella team that goes deep into March Madness and then finally loses hears that their luck “just ran out.” If you find five dollars on the ground, you’re immediately told to go buy a lottery ticket.

Even the phrase “catching lightning in a bottle” boils down to the same thing – your team (or most important player) got hot and went on a run that defied rational explanation.

After the atrocity of a game last night, my good friend Drew and I were discussing our outlook on the rest of the season, and he got me thinking about this topic. This was what he said:

“I’m actually okay that we lost. I’m convinced that every NFL team gets a designated level of luck and fortunate calls. I want to save all of ours for the playoffs. Sorta like the Ravens did last year. And the Giants. And basically every team since the ’04 Patriots.”

He went on to do some swift Googling and found out that, in fact, since the 2003-04 Patriots, who went 14-2 and were the number one overall seed, no top seed has won the Super Bowl. The Saints won as the top seed in the NFC in 2009, but they had to beat a Colts team that had gone 14-2 in the regular season (as opposed to New Orleans’s 13-3).

Simply put, the best team in the NFL does not win the Super Bowl. This may sound ridiculous, because in our society we’re all about rankings, tournaments, eliminations, brackets, and finding a definite best thing that is clearly, as Mike Francesa says, “Numbah One.”

But it isn’t ridiculous. The best team is clearly measured by the level of success it has over the entirety of the season, playing a (generally) balanced schedule of many different opponents. Everybody basically gets the same chance to win the most games, and whoever does that is the best team. This is how European soccer works, and they seem to be fine with it. But when the playoffs(!?!) start, it’s all down to luck.

Ask a fan of any NFL team whether they’d want to have the best record in the regular season or win the Super Bowl, and you’ll only get one answer. The Patriots’ 2007-2008 season is a perfect example. We had an all-time great team. In a million different categories, we were the best team to ever play an NFL season. Then what happened? Asante Samuel missed a surefire game-winning interception (I’ve never watched a replay of that play and refuse to link to it, but I can picture it exactly), and fucking David Tyree became the Bucky Fucking Dent of our generation.

Just like that, the best team lost, as it always seems to these days. Drew said it best – we need to save up all our luck for the playoffs. I know it flies in the face of logic, but maybe, just maybe, if we can benefit from one made-up “pushing” call or one picked-up flag on a blatant defensive hold, we can scrap our way back into the winner's circle. We're clearly not going to be the number one overall seed, but obviously, that's a good thing in the long run.  

Just like my dad always says, it’s better to be lucky than good. 

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