Do Trap Games Exist, and if so is Sunday’s Steelers—Chiefs Game One?
The first time I realized I had become a true Steelers fan was at the of the 2009 five-game losing streak, when they lost to Cleveland. My husband is a sweet man, and since he knew I was watching the game he checked on the score from time to time as he worked at his computer. After the ignominious affair came to a merciful end, he walked into the kitchen and said “I see they can’t even beat the Browns.” To his shock and mine, I began stomping around the kitchen, slamming cupboard doors, as I yelled at him for his entirely unnecessary comment.
This was one of the first times I heard the term “Trap Game.” A team who should be better is put away by a team who should be worse. The infamous 2011 Steelers-Chargers game was declared to be a trap game. The Chargers had to fly to Pittsburgh, play a game at mid-morning according to their body clock, and do so with an offensive line which was in tatters. We all know how that came out.
The Steelers went to Tennessee several years ago. They were supposed to beat the Titans easily. They didn’t beat them at all.
Through the ensuing years I have heard a number of games solemnly declared to be trap games. Often this assessment was made before the actual game began, so one couldn’t accuse the solemn declarer to be utilizing hindsight. But I’ve always wondered if they are real.
After all, the entire National Football League is structured to level the playing field as much as possible. Free agency and relatively short rookie contracts have made sure that no one can afford to create a dynasty team such as the 1970s Steelers. Poor performance is rewarded with the pick of the best young players. There are, under these circumstances, naturally going to be down years.
The Steelers have just gone through one of the down parts of the cycle. They did it in about as painless a way as possible, but they did it. I’ve seen and heard speculation that this is what currently ails the Ravens. After having a cheap quarterback for years, they had to sign him to a monster contract. They lost their aging stars, and have had to let a number of promising young players walk when they hit free agency.
Obviously some coaches and front offices deal with this more successfully than others. The Patriots, as much as I hate to admit it, seem to be one of the few teams who are never affected, at least much, by this. Since 2001 they have only missed the playoffs twice, in 2002 and 2008. They have only lost in the first round of the playoffs once, in 2009. I guess 2008-09 was their dip. It’s no wonder everyone assumes they are cheating, especially when they rub all of our noses in it from time to time.
So sometimes I think so-called “trap games” are just a case in which fan expectations haven’t caught up to reality quite yet, whether that reality is from multiple injuries, the afore-mentioned cycles, or what have you.
Furthermore, when you look at the success rate of the people predicting game scores (talk radio hosts, beat writers, etc.) it seems to me they are often not much better than what you would get from a coin flip, even in terms of just a win or a loss, much less getting the score anywhere close. And these are people who study sports for a living.
Or consider how much money and effort Vegas puts into analyzing every possible detail of the upcoming games. It seems surprising how often they get fooled. I’ll bet they lost a lot of money on the Steelers/Cardinals game last week. (That would be another interesting thing to look into, but I’m not going there at the moment.)
So let’s define first what a trap game is. I think it is reasonable to say it is a game in which one team appears to have a clear advantage over the other. These can be of various sorts. One example of an advantage for one team is being the home team for Sunday’s game. Arrowhead Stadium is famously rabid and loud, and not nearly as easy to take over by towel-waving Steeler fans as, say, Qualcomm Stadium. After all, people who live in San Diego mostly go to the beach. They have no need for football there. Football is a game for non-temperate climates.
And when I say Arrowhead Stadium is loud, I mean it. Sports Illustrated reported last September that Kansas City Chiefs fans broke the Seattle Seahawks fans’ record of having the loudest outdoor stadium by creating 142.2 decibels worth of noise at Arrowhead Stadium for a Monday night football game.
So just how loud is 142.2 decibels? Loud enough to destroy your hearing, that’s how loud. (So if you are a Terrible Towel-waving Steelers fan going to the game, wear ear plugs.) 110 decibels is the normal human pain threshold. (And decibels increase logarithmically, not linearly.) 120 decibels is equivalent to a thunderclap or a chainsaw. 140 decibels is equivalent to being on an aircraft carrier deck. The Steelers’ only hope for hearing anything is the Chiefs’ record—maybe people have gotten indifferent. Probably not, though. Chiefs fans are used to suffering. Furthermore, they probably smell blood in the water, with the Steelers down to their third quarterback. Little do they know, it’s Jones. Slow walkin’ Jones, slow talkin’ Jones. Lonely, lanky (Landry) Jones.
I think at this point in the Steelers’ season it’s pretty hard to say anything is a trap game, because that implies a level of superiority we don’t yet know this team possesses under the current circumstances. They possess heart, they play for each other (even given the occasional temper tantrums from a wide receiver we all love whose stats are flagging), they find unexpected ways to win, and all that.
But Mike Tomlin called them “fragile” at Tuesday’s press conference, and that is a fair assessment. They have, according to ESPN’s ranking released today, had more total starts missed so far this season than any other teams but the Redskins and the Packers. Most of those were by core players. And this doesn’t count the suspensions which sidelined Bell and Bryant, two of the best players on the team.
And yet with all of this fragility and with second and third string players getting meaningful snaps, especially at the quarterback position, the Steelers Live team were talking yesterday about whether this was a trap game. I somehow don’t think that is even a meaningful term in regards to this team. Every win is a gift by these lovely men to their fans. Every loss was only to be expected under the circumstances. We all agreed the reason the Ravens loss was so disheartening was it appeared, against all odds, that the Steelers could actually have won it.
So I guess the question is, is there a sufficient level of confidence that it could bleed over into complacency against the Chiefs? It’s hard for me to imagine this. Every week brings a new challenge, a new set of injuries, new uncertainties. As the Steelers Live team concluded, the Steelers would probably be too busy just trying to get through the game to let any such mental effects take over.
But just to get this out of the way, here’s some actual research. It is admittedly getting on for 10 years old. But I think it is just as relevant now as when it was done. The Pro Football Prospectus author wrote:
[W]e’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.
Interestingly, one of the coaches who was better than the overall record in “trap” games was Andy Reid (then with the Eagles, of course.)
So is this a trap game in the sense above? Definitely. The Steelers are well above 500, although much of it has been done with hairpins, duct tape, and spit. The Chiefs, at 1-5, are as far below .500 as you can get without have lost all your games. Last week the Steelers played the 4-1 Cardinals. Next week they play the 6-0 Bengals (who will still be unbeaten because they have a bye week.)
The research indicates that the “trap game” is a non-factor. Maybe this isn’t the case for the Steelers. But for this particular Steelers team, under these particular circumstances, there ain’t no way.
They may or may not win the game. If you check out the opponent preview coming out tomorrow morning you will see lots of stuff indicating this Chiefs team ought to have a better record than they do, just because of their defense. Frankly, it would be no shame to lose to them in their own stadium. Obviously I hope the Men of Steel-coated polystyrene (that was the most fragile thing I could think of) will be able to keep bending without breaking. But whatever happens, I believe we will see yet another gritty effort on Sunday. May it result in a win…