"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
23 Nov 2010
by Alex Carnevale
On this week's B.S. Report podcast with Bill Simmons, I mentioned an article from Pro Football Prospectus 2007 which showed that good teams don't play any worse in "trap games" than they do in games overall. For those curious who don't actually own a copy of PFP 2007, here's the article in its entirety. It's unedited, which means all the numbers in here only represent games through the 2006 season. -- Aaron Schatz
Last year Andy Reid was spared the indignity of facing the Minnesota Vikings in Brad Childress' debut season as Vikings coach, but he'll go head-to-head with his former offensive coordinator in 2007 when the Eagles travel to Minnesota in Week 8. Making this visit to the Minneapolis Metrodome to face a team that may be worse than its 6-10 record of last year is hardly the equalivalent of playing the Patriots in a freezing Foxboro Stadium, which the Eagles will do a month later. Still, it comes between two tougher home games: a matchup with the defending NFC champion Chicago Bears, and a divisional game against the Dallas Cowboys.
When Week 8 comes around, talking heads and odds-makers alike will identify this as a "trap game." The theory behind the trap game is that it's hard to stay on an emotional high game after game, so teams are prone to let up against lesser opponents when they're facing them between games against higher quality opponents. The trap game concept is not unique to the NFL -- in fact, the idea makes even more sense in basketball, where there isn't a week of preparation between each game -- and it makes a certain amount of sense. But does the trap game phenomenon really exist?
A quick statistical reality check should show us if NFL teams should really be worried about trap games. Giving this supposition as wide a berth as possible, we'll define 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. Going by these criteria, there have been 474 trap games since 1983. Since we're only interested in how good teams deal with this problem, we'll focus on how teams that finished the season over .500 performed in these games.
It turns out that good teams win trap games just as often as they win other games. Contending teams went 389-85 overall in trap games, good for a .820 winning percentage (Table 1). In all other games against sub-.500 teams, the same contenders posted a .815 winning percentage (Table 2), meaning they were actually more likely to win trap games than other games.
While these contenders were far more likely to win a supposed trap game at home than on the road, their home-road splits again largely mirrored their performance in non-trap games against sub-.500 teams. As you can see from Tables 1 and 2, the additional pressure (or lack thereof) of the trap didn't mean much. Despite the hype, the overall effect is nil. It's possible that the existence of the myth itself has lessened the impact of a trap game.
|Table 1: Winning Teams in Trap Games 1983-2006|
|All Traps||Home Traps||Road Traps|
|Table 2: Winning Teams Non-Trap Games against Sub-.500 Teams, 1983-2006|
|All Games||Home Games||Road Games|
Besides the game against the Vikings, the Eagles have a textbook trap game earlier in the season, hosting the Lions on September 23. That game falls in between two nationally televised games against division opponents; the Eagles host the Redskins on Monday Night Football in Week 2 and play the Giants at the Meadowlands on Sunday Night Football two weeks later. Conventional wisdom suggests this is a trap game of tremendous proportions. Not only are the games that surround it crucial intra-division contests, both of which will be broadcast on national television, but Philly will have a shortened week heading into the game against the Lions.
Are divisional trap games different from trap games in general? Since 1983, winning teams are 53-13 in trap games sandwiched between two divisional opponents. That's a slightly lower percentage (.803) than their record in trap games overall, but good teams are still winning 80 percent of these games.
While we found that success in trap games hasn't been more difficult to come by overall, for some coaches it has. One big name in particular hasn't been particularly sharp in these situations, including a trap game loss to the Lions late last year.
Others have performed better in trap games:
Andy Reid's 4-0 record in trap games is actually part of a larger streak. The Eagles have won 20 straight trap games since 1991.
The Eagles play four prime-time games in 2007: three against division rivals, plus a trip to New England. Their games against cupcakes such as Minnesota and Detroit won't be any harder just because they come in between.
Just to update a couple of those numbers, Belichick is now 21-0 in trap games. The loss to Cleveland in Week 9 doesn't count as a "trap game" by the standards of this article because it didn't come between two games against winning teams; the Patriots played Minnesota the week before. If you want to define that as a trap game, you now have to measure every game against a losing team that comes before any game against a winning team.
Philadelphia's streak of winning trap games ended at 23 when the Eagles and Bengals tied in Week 11 of 2008, but if we base the definition of a 2010 "trap game" on the current standings, Andy Reid is now 9-0-1 in trap games, including wins over Detroit and Washington this season. -- Aaron Schatz
12 comments, Last at 25 Nov 2010, 3:00am by TomE