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Zwiller: Luck is everywhere in sports

| Friday, February 11, 2022

I recently came across a tweet from Peter Bukowski, a sports podcaster mainly focused on the Packers, that intrigued me:

“The funny thing about the Rams all-in narrative is they mortgaged their future for the 4th seed. It still took a TON of breaks to go their way to win. They’re playing well, credit to them, but it still requires so much luck. Like Jaquiski Tartt dropping an arm punt right to him”.

I found this tweet so intriguing because it felt like a knock on the Rams. “They’re playing well credit to them,” felt in part like a “no offense.” No offense, but [insert offensive thing here]. We have all experienced it, and it doesn’t feel too good.

The Rams are good, but they’re only here because they’re lucky with a hasty “no offense” added in for good measure. Maybe that wasn’t the point of the tweet, but it sure felt like it.

To knock the Rams for 49ers safety Tartt dropping an easy interception in the NFC championship game is a disservice to the Rams. Yes, it was a lucky break, but it happens to everybody. You need only look at the Bengals for proof of that. Ben Baldwin of The Athletic notes that Cincinatti’s defense has had four interceptions on deflected passes in the last two games.

And on top of that, you can look at the Bengals first round playoff opponent in the Raiders. It could have changed if the Chargers had won in the regular season finale, or heaven forbid the two teams had tied.

But we aren’t knocking the Bengals for being lucky.

Maybe we don’t appreciate luck when we see it in the moment, but luck is certainly involved with every single game. And in reflection, I often feel we miss it because we just look back at games with the knowledge of who wins. Hindsight is 20-20, as they say.

I can look back at the Chiefs Super Bowl victory and know that everything turned out okay in the end, despite worrying that Mahomes might not get his first super bowl.

As someone who likes to try and quantify everything and look at the insights statistics give us about the game we all love, luck is something that nobody can really quantify.

But it certainly is there. Look at Joe Montana. He never threw an interception in the Super Bowl. It honestly might be one of the more interesting stats, a stat that could help his case as the GOAT. However, that stat, too, is luck. In Super Bowl XXIII, with the 49ers down late, the Bengals nearly picked off Montana. On the next play, Montana would tie the game at 13 and later win it for the 49ers. Talk about luck.

Nobody is immune to luck in football, not even my personal GOAT, Tom Brady. And it goes both ways.

Think back to 2008 when the Patriots played the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. The Giants trailed late for those who are too young to remember. On third-and-five, one of the most miraculous catches in the Super Bowl history happened: the Helmet Catch. Eli Manning could have been sacked, the ball could have been intercepted, or simply fallen incomplete. We could easily be looking back at a Super Bowl that the Patriots win, completing their perfect season.

It goes both ways too. In Super Bowl LI, when the Patriots played the Falcons, they trailed with just over 2 minutes in the game. Tom Brady heaved a ball to Julian Edelman, but it was tipped by a Falcons defender. The ball had appeared to hit the ground, but it actually hit a fallen Falcons defender’s shoe before being caught inches from the ground by Edelman.

And the Patriots dynasty got lucky in different ways. In their run to Super Bowl LIII, Tom Brady threw an interception down by four points with less than a minute remaining. The Chiefs looked like they would win the AFC Championship with an exciting young QB named Patrick Mahomes. However, Dee Ford was offsides, giving the Patriots new life.

Whether you like it or not, luck plays a role in every game of every sport. The Milwaukee Bucks, the defending NBA champions, were just inches away from not even making the Conference finals.

In game seven of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, with just six seconds left. The Nets trail 109-107, and everyone in the world knows where the ball is going. Kevin Durant gets the ball and sinks the three. It’s 110 Nets, 109 Bucks, and the Bucks go home. Or not. In a weird twist of fate, Kevin Durant, who likes to wear sneakers a size too large, had his toe on the line, making it a two-pointer. Instead of winning the game, he had tied it, sending an incredible game seven to OT, where the Bucks would prove the victor.

That’s just how sports work sometimes. A shot hits the pipe, the ball rolls into the hoop, the kick double-doinks the uprights, and the home run is snagged by an outfielder who stole a home run and the breath of the crowd.

And you don’t have to just take my word for it. Michael Mauboussin, the author of The Success Equation, was able to quantify luck to some extent. He used a statical technique that ranks sports by their respective relation to skill and luck. So, for example, the lottery is pure luck; you just pick numbers or buy a scratcher. Chess is just the opposite; it is pure skill. Behind chess is Basketball, then soccer, then baseball, and finally football. Hockey ends up being the “luckiest” sport, but my point still stands: luck is everywhere in sports and in everyday life too.

So don’t knock the Rams for it. Or if you do, you must knock everybody who has ever strapped on a helmet, kicked a ball, or hit a puck. Because as much as we might hate to admit it, sports, have a lot of luck in them.

About Thomas Zwiller

I am a junior at Holy Cross College. I love covering the NCAAF, NFL, and all things Holy Cross. Comment with any questions, statements of outrage or the like, I will try my best to reply.

Contact Thomas