Let’s Talk About The Intangibles Of Tails

There’s a school of thought that the end result of a game or series says something fundamental about the teams that competed in it.  The notion that a team can win a playoff series despite being outplayed is openly scoffed at by some, but it seems self-evident to me.

So I engaged in an exercise.  I took a loonie, and I decided to make a playoff bracket – two conferences of eight teams each.  I picked one team as heads and one team as tails in each round.  Now, we know that the odds of either team winning the series are 50/50, but that’s not what we saw in the results:

The first round broke down like this:

• 4-1 Tails Win
• 4-2 Tails Win
• 4-1 Tails Win
• 4-2 Tails Win

The nice thing about this first round is that we have even numbers of tails and heads in the second round.  But something shocking happened in the second round:

• 4-2 Tails Win
• 4-3 Tails Win
• 4-0 Tails Win
• 4-2 Tails Win

All tails!  I’m happy to explain it, as well.  Tails played their game.  They just wanted it more than heads.  They paid the price, went into danger areas, and won puck battles.

In the third round, I was forced to make two of the tails switch to heads.  The new heads won one round (four game sweep) and the new tails won one round (again, a four game sweep).  In the final, the converted heads met the original tails and tails won in an epic seven-game series.

There’s a point to all this.  There was no difference at all between heads and tails in terms of what they were doing.  Yet, tails won 10 of fifteen series, wiping out the second round and winning the finals.  If sportswriters were covering my coin-flipping, we’d be hearing interesting things about intangibles, strategy, and character.

Because that, to me, is a fundamental flaw with the way sportscasters cover the game.  They look at the winners, they decide what the winners did to win, and construct a story line around it.  They assume whoever won yesterday must be doing something right, and whoever lost yesterday must be doing something wrong, and the simple fact is that it isn’t that way.  This is sports, not morality; a smart bet can backfire and a dumb decision can pay off in spades.

Over a long period of time – a regular season or two – the cream rises to the top, but that’s not how we judge teams.  We judge them on the basis of success in a series of seven game series, and accept no excuses for failure.  It’s inevitable and understandable, but produces a lot of nonsense as a result.