Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Curse of the Undefeated?

This past Sunday, the Indianapolis Colts lost their first game of the season, to the Dallas Cowboys. Now, I have absolutely no personal stake in this...I never even watch football. (I do have to say that I'm a big fan of that old Peyton Manning commercial..."Let's go insurance adjusters!")

So why even bring it up? It is the aftermath of this surprising result that intrigues me a bit. You see, at the gym the other day, I heard some sportscasters agreeing that losing the game was the best thing that could have happened to the Colts.

Their reasoning? Well, it is taken as a kind of fact of sports life that you do not want to go into post-season play without having experienced a loss. Being undefeated, so the argument goes, is actually detrimental to a team's prospects of winning the championship. There's too much pressure to keep the streak alive, the other team is super motivated to pull off the get the idea.

And we all can think of examples where the undefeated team lost in the playoffs to a team with a much more modest record. The last team to enter the NCAA men's basketball tournament without a loss, the 1991 UNLV Runnin' Rebels, famously went down to a Duke team they had pasted by 30 points a year earlier.

But is it really the case that a team is better off with a loss or two under its belt? I would be willing to bet that the answer is "no". My hunch is that undefeated teams, over time and across sports, are statistically more likely to win the title than teams with a couple of losses. If you can make it through the rigors of regular season play without a blemish, then your team is simply the best (taking into account, of course, strength of schedule, injuries, and other vagaries). And, in the long run, the better the team, the more likely the victory.

I think part of what's going on here is that we pay differential attention to different kinds of information. Whenever an undefeated team goes down in flames at crunch time, it is huge news in the sports world. Even casual fans take notice. But the same does not hold when the favored team comes through in the clutch. Who really was paying attention, other than hoop heads, the three times when UCLA went undefeated and then won the championship? I would guess that there wasn't much madness in those particular Marchs (1964, 1972, 1973).

Peyton and the gang may indeed win the Super Bowl come February. And the legend will live on...

Live Event Learning

Did you know that the area in and around what is now Harrisburg was originally settled thousands of years ago by indigenous peoples? Or that the 1979 incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant led to billions of dollars in economic losses for the residents and businesses of Pennsylvania's state capital?

I myself knew neither of these facts until last Saturday. You see, Julie had to complete an assignment in which she explored how a city of her choosing affects the river it is situated on and how the river, in turn, impacts life in the city. Rather than type up a report or put together a poster, Julie opted to make her first ever documentary. So into the minivan jumped the four of us, for a family field trip up the "mighty" Susquehanna.

I say all of this because I was struck by just how much more interested in learning about Harrisburg and the Susquehanna I was once the commitment had been made to do some "live event learning" (as Desi tells us this kind of adventure is called). Part of it was simply being there in person, experiencing the riverwalk, the state capitol building, the downtown restuarant scene, and the John Harris mansion and grave site with my own senses. Part of it was doing it together as a family. We certainly had plenty to talk about on the two-hour car ride back to Silver Spring. And, in the end, I think all of us will retain our newfound knowledge much more effectively than had Julie taken a more traditional route with the project.

Now, let's see what kind of grade she gets...