21 Nov 2012
Did the Houston Texans nearly lose to Jacksonville last weekend because it was a "trap game?"
I saw this suggested by a number of people across the Internet. It certainly was suggested by plenty of people in my Twitter feed. But what is a "trap game" anyway?
In Pro Football Prospectus 2007, we ran an article analyzing the concept of the "trap game." For that article -- which you can read here -- we defined a "trap game" as "any game against a sub-.500 opponent slotted between two games against opponents who, on the season, posted records above .500." Based on this definition, our analysis showed that winning teams from 1983 through 2006 actually had a slightly better record in these games than they did in other games against sub-.500 teams.
This essay did not do much to silence the believers in "trap games," however, primarily because the definition of "trap game" seems to change based on what surprising loss or close win someone is declaring to be a "trap game."
When people kept sending me tweets arguing that Houston's near-loss disproved my belief that there is no such thing as a "trap game," I had the same response: In what universe is it a "trap game" when your next game is against a 4-5 non-conference opponent?
Oh no, came the response. It was a trap game because the next game is on national television. Or, it was a trap game because the next game was on short rest. Or, it was a trap game solely because Houston had played Chicago the week before, and it didn't matter what team Houston played the next week. It seems to me that last one would be classified as a "letdown game," not a "trap game," but whatever.
Again, this is the problem with the "trap game" concept. If there is such a thing as a "trap game," we have to start by defining what the hell that is. Does it have to be a game between two good opponents, or just after a good opponent, or just before a good opponent? Or, in the case of the Texans, does it have nothing to do with opponent, just with the fact that the next game is on Thursday or on national television? Does a trap game have to be at home? Or on the road? Or either? Does it have anything to do with whether the opponent is a division rival, or not a division rival? Or does a trap game have nothing to do with the win-loss record of your opponent, but instead is related to the point spread? That was Bill Simmons' idea of a trap game on the B.S. Report a couple years ago.
Last week, Houston played a weak Jacksonville team at home, in a "trap" before short rest and a national game on Thanksgiving on the road against a bad Lions team. They nearly lost. New England played a weak Indianapolis team at home, in a "trap" before short rest and a national game on Thanksgiving on the road against a bad Jets team. They slaughtered the Colts. Why is one a "trap game" and the other not?
(Speaking of trap games based on short rest, here's Danny Tuccitto's XP from earlier this week about the effect of short weeks and bye weeks on team performance. A short week might hurt road teams a tiny bit.)
So I'm putting a call out to all the people bothering me about this on Twitter, and all the other FO readers besides. This is your opportunity to prove me wrong about the existence of "trap games." I will run any guest column that can statistically demonstrate that there is such a thing. However, your column needs a specific definition of what a trap game is, and you need to show that good teams do in fact lose in that situation more often than they lose to similar opponents in other situations, to a statistically significant extent. Anecdotes that ignore all the times when teams in "trap games" win anyway won't do it for me.
Do you believe there really is such a thing as a trap game? OK, prove it. We'll happily accept your guest columns on the subject at mailbag-at-footballoutsiders.com. If you would rather prove that there is such a thing as a "letdown game," we're happy to be convinced of that too.
P.S. Of course, math might not prove the "trap game" concept either. I should point out a comment once made by Danny, who has a masters in Sports Psychology: "The less time people play armchair sport psychologist, the better. Even if the numbers revealed some kind of formula for accurately identifying a trap game in advance, we would still have no basis for saying it's psychological because we know nothing about what anyone at team HQ is thinking."
47 comments, Last at 27 Nov 2012, 9:56pm by tgt2
Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?