Thursday, October 20, 2005

Luck and Randomness

This week's Tuesday Morning Quarterback makes a provocative point:
Defending champion New England is struggling, having dropped two of three; oxygen-depleted Denver is soaring, having won five straight. Reasons include injuries to Patriots and strong play by the Broncos -- but a central factor is simply luck. We'd like to think sports outcomes are determined by merit, and usually the better team wins. But luck plays far more of a role than is generally acknowledged.

Consider that red-hot Denver hasn't committed a turnover in four consecutive games, while beleaguered New England hasn't gotten a takeaway in three consecutive outings. Skill and tactics are aspects of limiting turnovers and obtaining takeaways -- but luck is a huge aspect too, especially when it comes to fumbles. Skill may protect the ball and hard hits may cause it to pop out; whether a loose ball bounces toward you or the opponent is sheer luck. Lately, New England hasn't had much luck, and lately Denver has had a lot.

This week, the down-to-the-last-snap Falcons-Saints, Giants-Cowboys, Jags-Steelers, Redskins-Chiefs and Panthers-Lions games were so close no victor could have taken the day without benefit of luck. Against St. Louis, the Indianapolis defense looked terrible in the first quarter, surrendering 17 points, then looked great for the rest of game, partly because Lady Luck provided takeaways. Luck was not determinant in every game; the Seahawks simply blew the Texans off the field. But you get my point. A dropped pass, a random bounce, a behind-the-ball penalty -- luck heralds many NFL outcomes, and explains the supposedly "baffling" fact that the same team may win big one week and lose big the next. Luck has more to do with many aspects of life than is commonly admitted: For instance, the rich want to believe they got that way based solely on personal worthiness, but luck is often a leading difference between the well-off and the needy. In the NFL, all teams are stocked with big, fast, strong guys, while luck is distributed randomly week-by-week

Up to a point, I agree with Easterbrook. But luck is more than random events.

Napoleon liked lucky generals. He explained why in Maxim #95:
War is composed of nothing but accidents, and, although holding to general principles, a general should never lose sight of everything to enable him to profit from these accidents; that is the mark of genius .
In war there is but one favorable moment; the great art is to seize it.

The ability to profit from accidents is a capacity that can be developed. Adm. Chester Nimitz wrote that:

Luck can be attributed to a well-conceived plan carried out by a well-trained and indoctrinated task group.
The old-fashioned, Lombardi virtues can make a team "lucky". Ball carriers who always protect the ball-even in practice-will fumble less than those who are sometimes sloppy. A well-conditioned team makes fewer mistakes. A receiver who hustles downfield to make a block is also going to be nearer the ball if there is a fumble. Fat, lazy d-linemen don't tip many passes late in the game.

More than luck was at play in the most famous "lucky" play in NFL history. On the Immaculate Reception, Franco Harris was held in to block. When the Raiders did not blitz, Harris went downfield to be an outlet receiver. After Bradshaw threw to Fuqua, Harris headed toward the ball to block. That's how he ended up near the deflected pass and broke John Madden's heart.

It was bad luck and bad play calling that put the ball on the ground in the closing seconds at Meadowlands in the Giants-Eagles game. But it was more than an accident that it was Hermann Edwards who was on the spot to make the miracle.


Credit Where Due


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