The Antifragility of Bad Teams

In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that “half of life has no name.” Taleb classifies this half of life as things that benefit from disorder, things that are the exact opposite of fragile — antifragile. He points out that robustness, the ability to handle shocks and stressors without being harmed, is not the same as antifragility; Things that are antifragile actually gain from disorder.

Take the human body for example. Injecting ourselves with a small amount of a disease gives us a blueprint on how to handle larger attacks. Bench pressing one hundred pounds makes us better equipped to lift 105 next time, and conversely, laying in bed all day will cause our bones and muscles to deteriorate. Small stressors are actually beneficial to us.

Recognizing where antifragility lies is important because it tells us how much variability something should be exposed to. The more something likes variability, the more antifragile it is; the more it gains from disorder.

Ron Woodroof capitalizes on antifragility in Dallas Buyers Club. Woodroof saw AIDS patients helplessly dying at the hands of the FDA, who stubbornly tested a seemingly ineffective drug called AZT in long, clinical trials while ignoring riskier and less tested drugs that had improved Woodroof’s health, who was also suffering from AIDS. Woodroof understood that terminally ill patients stood more to gain than to lose from the high volatility of non-FDA approved drugs because the patients would die anyway if they didn’t at least try something.

Just as terminally ill patients have much more to gain than they do to lose from disorder, some NFL teams may be in similar positions.

There are two clear instances in which NFL teams are antifragile and should input as much variability into the game as possible.

The first case is pretty obvious and well recognized by the league: when a team is losing. In these positions we see teams air it out more, go for it on fourth down, attempt onside kicks, and go for two point conversions. But there is a second category of antifragile teams that is largely ignored.

The second group consists of teams that are flat out inferior to their opponent. Take the Dolphins for example. It is evident at this point that playing traditional football is a losing battle for Miami, and an 0-16 season does not seem out of reach.

But what if they, like teams losing in the fourth quarter, purposefully created plays with extremely high variability? Onside kicks, two point conversions, long passes, fourth down attempts, fake punts, fake field goals, laterals downfield, double reverses, running back passes, flea flickers, hook and ladders…

Each of these plays increases the volatility in the game, but each one of them is seldom employed by underdogs. The only example that comes to mind is the Eagles’ 2017 playoff run. Philadelphia were underdogs in each of their playoff games, but they were able to pull off upsets due to the aggressive coaching style of Doug Pederson, who recognized the antifragility of his team. Most notably, Pederson called the “Philly Special” in the Super Bowl, one of the most volatile plays one could imagine. A trick, direct snap to the running back, followed by a pitch to a tight end, who then threw a pass to the quarterback of all players. Oh yeah, and it was fourth and goal.

Inferior teams should be more like Doug Pederson and look to exploit their own antifragility. Maybe they are unwilling to admit that they’re in such a position, but accepting this uncomfortable truth could be the ticket to success for many teams staring down a seemingly unwinnable matchup.

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