NFL Leans Towards the Luck spectrum

Fewer games in a NFL season means that luck can play a large role in a team’s success

The average viewers across all 272 NFL regular-season games is about 17.1 million, so it’s no surprise that Americans love football. Every game’s outcome is vital for a team’s goal of achieving the playoffs, thanks to the new 17 regular-season game format that was introduced in March of 2021. While fans may boast about a NFL team being the best, a myriad of reasons can contradict the statement, thanks to luck. Factors that are based on luck, like a team’s schedule, players on the field, penalties/coin flip, and time to score all contribute to a team winning or losing the game. Football has a myriad of luck factors when compared to other sports like the NBA.

Every NFL team has 17 regular-season games, and depending on the conference and division a team is in can depict a team’s success in the NFL. Creating an NFL schedule for each team is a complex operation, as the NFL has a complex formula for scheduling. For example, each NFL team has 6 games against their divisional opponents, 4 games within the same conference- NFC or AFC, 4 games against teams from a different conference, 2 games from its remaining conference, and 1 random team that is not in the same conference. Compared to the NBA, every team has 82 regular-season games and at least 1 game against all the other NBA teams.

In the NFL, there is a limited amount of games a team can play, meaning a small sample size that can measure skill. An all veteran team like the Tennessee Titans, can dominate against their easy divisions with rookies, due to the limited games in the NFL. In the AFC South, both the Texans and the Jaguars have rookie quarterbacks: David Mills for the Texans and Trevor Lawerance for the Jaguars. Ryan Tannerhill, the quarterback for the Titans and Derrick Henry, the running back for the Titans are both veterans that can dominate their divisional opponents with ease. For example, the Titans crushed the Jaguars 20-0 on December 12th, 2021. The Titans having the easiest division compared to all other divisions, helped them climb to the number 1 seed for the 2021 season in the AFC, which meant they could skip the Wild Card round in the playoffs. If the Titans were moved to the NFC West, which is loaded with teams with a PCT of <.500 in the 2021 season, then the Titans would have had a harder time clinching a playoff spot. It’s all about luck where a team is placed in a division, whereas the NBA leans towards skill as each team’s division doesn’t really matter, since they go against every team in the league at least once. In general, the more games a team plays the better sample size that can measure a team’s skill set, whereas the less games a team plays, it creates a worse sample size that doesn’t measure skill and instead focuses on luck.

Different sports have a different amount of players on and off the field. For example, every team in the NBA has 5 players on the court, and 15 players in total. On the other hand, every team in the NFL has 11 players on the field, and 53 players in total. While it can be boring to see the same players play without any player substitution, the fewer players that are in a game the more skill that can be observed by spectators, for each player has a greater effect on the game’s outcome. More players in the game means more player interaction, meaning some players might have an easy role or a difficult role. For example, a quarterback might be throwing a long pass or handing out the ball to the running back and doing nothing afterwards. A comical example of a quarterback doing absolutely nothing was the Bills and Patriots game on December 6th, 2021, where Patriots QB Mac Jones only threw the ball 3 times. Other than the 3 throws Jones handed the ball to his running backs astonishingly 46 times. Mac Jones basically did nothing, meaning there was no skill that can be observed. The only skills that can be observed are the Patriots running backs: Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson, which basically carried the team to victory on December 6th, 2021. It was just luck that the 2 running backs were able to remain healthy after an absurd amount of time on the field with the ball. While a NFL game might focus on the flashy players, like the wide receivers or the quarterback, the NBA solely focuses on the whole team’s skill sets. Since basketball players have to constantly pass the ball around if one player messes up on one play, then the whole team has to take the consequence.

Moreover, NBA players are forced to take multiple shots, meaning everyone can observe how an NBA player shoots during intense pressure. NBA players have to play offense and defense, whereas the NFL has specific roles for both offense and defense. It’s difficult to measure an NFL receiver skill set, since a QB has multiple options to throw. Fun fact, the worst offensive play that literally involves 0 skill is a Hail Mary, since any receiver or defensive player can gather around in a circle to see who can catch first.

While we need referees to monitor and judge a game, some penalties/coin flips can decide the fate of a team’s record, and no skill can overturn the outcome of a referee’s decision making. NFL officials were throwing more flags in the 2021 season: 13.88 per game, compared to the previous season of just 13.14 per game. More flags means there’s more mistakes that can arise from a penalty issued. An unfortunate game that led the Saints to lose to the Rams in the 2019 Divisional Round was due to a missed pass interference call. The Saints were about to score a touchdown, but they kicked a field goal instead, since a missed pass interference call caused them not to get a fresh down. The Saints would have had a higher chance winning against the Rams if the refs called pass interference. Moreover, flipping a coin to see who can receive ball possession in NFL overtime is ludicrous, and it’s all based on luck. A team’s playoff fate can be decided by one coin flip, like the Chiefs and Bills Divisional Game in January of 2022. The Bills lost the coin flip in overtime, so the Chiefs obtained the ball, and scored on the first drive. The Bills lost the game, and controversy sparked over NFL overtime rules and the coin flip.

Speaking of time to score, the more pressure a player has to score, the more skill that can be observed from the player. In the NBA, the shot clock is 24 seconds, meaning players have to constantly shoot. Conversely, a QB in the NFL has unlimited time to score. Some QB’s might let the clock burn if they’re winning, so that they can remove any time from the other team’s offense from scoring. In that case, an offense will have little trials to score, meaning skill is not observed. If there was a time constraint in the NFL on an offensive drive, then the offense will be incentivized to make more plays. From there, more trials can be gathered, meaning skill can be examined. No one can judge a player by 1 trial, so implementing a time constraint can actuate an offense to make plays.

All in all, fans watch their favorite team play just to relax and have fun, but football adds even more excitement due to the luck factor. As the famous saying goes, anything can happen on “Any Given Sunday”, which means that there is a high level of unpredictability to watching each and every game!