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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Losing to win?

Several weeks ago I got involved in an extended discussion on a sports economics listserv about whether teams ever intentionally plan to lose a game in order to advance their chances of winning a title. Now comes an article in the Chicago Tribune in which the writer, David Haugh, argues that, if the Chicago Bears lose to the Green Bay Packers this weekend, the Bears' chances of winning the Super Bowl will be enhanced:

If the Packers win, it could reduce significantly the number of plausible playoff possibilities for the Bears, especially if coupled with a road loss Saturday night by the dissension-torn Giants at Washington. If Green Bay still has a chance to clinch a postseason berth at kickoff—a good chance—the Bears knocking the Packers out could mean letting the Panthers, Falcons, Rams or Giants in.

Every one of those teams poses a potentially bigger threat to the Bears in January than Green Bay would because of big-play, quick-strike skill players who can turn a playoff game around on a single snap. Those other teams rely on the types of explosive players the Bears have struggled to stop in recent games against the Bucs, Lions and Rams.

I'm guessing that if a newspaper columnist can figure this out, so can the Bears' coaching staff. And they don't even have to do anything odd--just rest most of their most important players fr most of the game against the Packers. After all, the Bears have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and by this point in the season lots of players have little aches and pains that some down time could help with. And no one would think it odd--a couple of years ago, the Eagles essentially decided not to go for an undefeated season in order to rest their regulars for the playoffs.

But, in this case, the larger agenda is to increase their chances of winning the Super Bowl by changing who participates in the playoffs. The issue here is a set of "conditions of contest" that can make playing to lose--not simply not caring whether you win or lose, but preferring to lose--the optimal choice for a team. I think we'd all agree that there's something odd about this, but not omething odd about a team taking advantage of it.


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