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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

NFL Sportsmanlike Dumping

There was an interesting point about Sunday's NFL game between the Colts and Jets. The Colts' coach Caldwell pulled his starters at the end of the game. This led to the Jets winning the game and ended the Colts' attempt for a 16-0 regular season.

It was interesting to see the mainstream media decry Caldwell for doing this. If the headline were instead "Peyton Manning has season-ending injury in the 4th quarter!", then the outcry would have been the opposite "He should have rested his starters!"

It's an example of judging by outcomes and not correct odds. Caldwell benched his starters and lost the game. Therefore, he made the wrong decision. If a key player were injured in the 4th quarter, then he also would have made the wrong decision. If the backups won the game anyway, nobody would have complained.

There's also another subtle point. The newspapers most critical of the Colts were those in Denver and Pittsburgh.

If Denver of Pittsburgh make the playoffs, then they might have won their first game and played the Colts in the second round. If the Colts' coach thinks that Denver or Pittsburgh are tough playoff opponents, then it's in his rational self-interest to lose to the Jets on purpose. By losing the game, he maximizes his chance of winning the Super Bowl.

This type of problem is called "Sportsmanlike Dumping". If you maximize your chance of winning the tournament by losing a game, then you should lose the game. It doesn't matter if this adversely affects other teams' chances, like Denver or Pittsburgh. It's their own fault for already having lost so many games.

This logical problem happens anytime you have multiple qualifiers for a playoff. A team that's already clinched its playoff spot and seed might have an incentive to lose on purpose. This lets an easy opponent into the playoff and keeps out a harder opponent.

This logical contradiction is inevitable whenever you have a regular season with multiple qualifiers for a playoff. A reasonable answer is "The Colts earned the right to lose a game on purpose without adversely affecting their seed, because they won their first 14 games." I didn't see this point mentioned in any mainstream media discussion of the game.

A similar logical contradiction will happen in Sunday's game between Cincinnati and the Jets. By Sunday's evening game, New England might have already clinched the #3 seed. There's not much difference between a #3 seed and a #4 seed anyway. If Cincinnati loses, then the Jets will be the #5 seed and Cincinnati will play them at home next week.

Suppose that Cincinnati's coach thinks that the Jets would make an easy first-round opponent. It might be in Cincinnati's self-interest to lose to the Jets on purpose. If Cincinnati wins, they might have to play Baltimore or Denver or Pittsburgh, who might be stronger teams.

The NFL tiebreakers are an interesting combinatorial exercise. This site is interesting, because he runs a simulation of the rest of the season and enumerates the chances of a team making the playoffs. The NFL simulation isn't that interesting now because you could calculate it directly, but he also does simulations for hockey and basketball and baseball.

Mainstream media coverage of the "Sportsmanlike Dumping" problem is an example of people not thinking rationally. A coach should do what maximizes his team's chance of winning the Super Bowl, even if it means losing a specific game. Criticizing a coach for benching his starters is unfair, because it ignores the alternative possibility that they could be injured.

1 comment:

fritz said...

I also believe in luck( I know, makes no sense). But why press it, no undefeated team has ever won the supper bowl. Now buy losing 1 game they have reduced another potential threat to the title(curse reduction).

Like Curtis LeMay said,,,"what ever it takes"


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