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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

More Than the Residue of Design

            Watching football this past weekend I was once again reminded of the importance of luck in sports — and in life as well.
            Playing in Philadelphia, against a highly favored team, our 49ers came from 20 points behind in the second half to win the game 24-23. There was a lot of skill and grit involved in their doing that, but some spectacular luck as well. In the fourth quarter alone the Philadelphia kicker missed two field goals inside the 40-yard line, which, as far as I’m concerned, is one more than a professional kicker should miss from that range in an entire season.
            Either field goal would have won the game for Philadelphia but didn’t. Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers once said that luck is the residue of design, but please tell me what design makes a pro kicker go wide right from short range twice in one game. How do you design an opposing kicker’s yips?
            Coaches in all sports are volatile people, and no wonder. Whatever they say for public consumption, they have to know in their hearts that a lot of the outcome is outside their control. By every measure except the numbers on the scoreboard, Philadelphia outplayed San Francisco on Sunday and still lost. In addition to the missed field goals, there was a Philadelphia fumble late in the game. The loose ball could have bounced out of bounds or into the hands of a Philadelphia player. Instead, it went right to a 49er, who scooped it up to seal the game.
            Beyond the bounce-of-the-ball type of luck, there’s the whole question of personnel luck. In 1979 the Dallas Cowboys had a chance to draft Joe Montana. He was at the top of their list when their turn came late in the second round, but they decided they were set at quarterback and went for another player. Bill Walsh of the 49ers drafted Montana, and working together, they both went on to the Hall of Fame.
            If Montana had gone to Dallas, or if he had suffered a career-ending injury in his early years, how different would things have been? My guess is that Walsh would have ended up in the same league as Marty Schottenheimer, a good coach and a consistent winner who ended his career without a championship. Unless, of course, he got lucky and found himself another Montana in a future draft.
            And what if Montana hadn’t been lucky in his teammates? It’s customary among sportswriters and commentators to hold it against a quarterback if he doesn’t “win the big one.” There’s probably no argument in sports more wrongheaded. Quarterbacks don’t win championships, though they make a major contribution, but teams do.
            Show me a team that won a Super Bowl, and I’ll show you a team that almost certainly had a Hall of Fame-bound defensive player. Montana played for teams that had Ronnie Lott and Fred Dean on the defensive side of the ball. His Hall-of-Fame successor Steve Young ran up the best passing-efficiency numbers in the history of the game but won only one Super Bowl, in 1995. Anybody remember the name of the defensive player who joined San Francisco for that one season only? It was Deion Sanders, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame earlier this year.
            As it goes for football (and other sports), so it goes for war and life. Whenever Napoleon was reviewing officers for promotion, there was one question he always asked his generals about the candidate: “Is he lucky?”
            Napoleon knew.