When Losing is the Way to Win

(published December 29, 2011)

Consider the following situation that plays out several times each season:

Your team leads by five points with a minute and a half to go in the game.  Your opponent has driven down to your one-yard line, where it’s first and goal.  You have no timeouts.

What is your optimal strategy?

You can try to shut them out of the end zone with a heroic goal-line stand.  It might work, but it’s a four-down situation where the opponent must have a touchdown.  You may stop them once or twice, but even if they just run four quarterback sneaks, they’re almost certain to cross at some point.

When they do, you’ll wish you had the time back on the clock for your offense to try to get a game-winning field goal.

If you have a good or even average offense, your chances of getting a field goal in a minute and a quarter after a kickoff are better than they are of stopping the opponent on the goal line.

So on first down, you basically stand aside and let them score, giving up the lead but preserving time for your offense.  You give up points in the present to improve your chances of winning in the future.

How is this different from tanking games to get a better draft pick?

Or consider this one:  In December 2007, with the Eagles leading 10-6 just before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, Brian Westbrook broke free on a first-down run from the Dallas 25.  He was untouched as he approached the end zone, then veered to the side and went down at the one.  The Cowboys had no timeouts.  Donovan McNabb took three kneel-downs and the game was over.

Westbrook wisely recognized that possession of the ball, not increasing the score, was the sure path to a win.  It is unlikely Dallas could have scored a touchdown, recovered an onside kick, and scored another TD – but it’s possible.  He sacrificed short-term gain for a larger goal.

How is this different from sitting your starters in a late-season game to keep them fresh for the playoffs?

These are the type of questions that arise at the end of an NFL season.  Or earlier, if you’ve been following the Suck-for-Luck campaign.

St. Louis and Indianapolis are tied for the worst record in the league at 2-13.  The Colts hold the tiebreaker, on the basis of strength of schedule.  (The team with the easier schedule gets the nod when there’s a tie for draft position; they both stank, but since the Rams stank equally against a tougher set of teams, they didn’t stink quite as badly for top-pick purposes.)

The Rams host the 49ers Sunday, and they would probably have no trouble losing even if they had no special incentive to do so.  San Francisco has considerable incentive to win, since victory clinches the #2 seed in the NFC playoffs and a week off.  (New Orleans can equal the 49ers’ record, but San Francisco has the edge in games against common opponents.  The Saints’ losses to Tampa Bay and St. Louis were crucial in this, and grow more inexplicable by the day.)

Indianapolis has won its last two games and goes to Jacksonville, where Blaine Gabbert is doing his best to undermine official recognition of 2011 as The Year of the Rookie Quarterback.  The Colts have nothing to gain by winning, and a great deal to gain by losing.

Why should they even try to win?

On the other end of the St. Louis/San Francisco matchup, we come to the matter of the Saints.  They have clinched their division, cannot be passed for the #3 seed, but will only move up to #2 if they beat Carolina (see “Year of the Rookie Quarterback,” above) and the Niners lose to the Rams.  Unlikely in the extreme.

Should they rest their starters?

I’m sure they’ve already given it a lot of thought.  It’s one reason it made sense for Drew Brees to go for the passing-yardage record on the final series against Atlanta on Monday night.  There’s now no record-related incentive to have Brees on the field on Sunday.  (I’m no fan of putting records ahead of the play of the game, as Sean Payton and Brees did on Monday, but this additional factor makes it okay in this case.  And, incidentally, before celebrating a yardage record, it would be wise to remember that it’s possible to lose yards, too.  One screen pass tackled for a loss of four, and the record’s Dan Marino’s again.)

There is no ethical problem when a team does what’s in its own best interest, even losing.  The problem is, pro football players have short careers, and the game hurts.  It’s hard to ask them to go out and get beat up.

Still, for a worst-case scenario in all directions, consider the Vikings last week.  Two season-ending losses would put them in the potential 2-14 mix with the Colts and Rams.  Instead of joining the great race to the bottom, Minnesota played to win, and lost Adrian Peterson to a devastating knee injury.  Worse draft position and the loss of their one great player made last Sunday at FedEx Field an almost perfect definition of “Pyrrhic victory.”

The NFL has actually done a terrific job of reducing the possibility of late-season manipulations.  Matching all teams against division opponents can create head-to-head battles for playoff spots, as with the Giants and Dallas on Sunday night.  (The Cowboys had their moment of weirdness last week; when the Giants beat the Jets it eliminated the Eagles, and the Dallas-Philadelphia game meant nothing to the Cowboys’ playoff prospects.)  Scheduling teams whose games affect one another so they’re played simultaneously this week – to the extent possible – is another smart move.

Still, when there is an incentive for losing, as there is with the draft, no one should point fingers at a team that chooses to lose.














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