Playing Well Enough To Lose

Losing is never fun, and it's rarely desirable, but the loss registered by the Army football team this past Saturday in Oxford, Ohio, was the worst kind of loss a team can suffer. Thank goodness Navy wasn't the opponent.


You might recall the classic 1984 baseball movie The Natural, in which the fictional New York Knights are immersed in a typical early-season losing streak. (The parallel with the Army Black Knights isn't meant to be intentional, but now that you think about it, the linkage works on a metaphorical level.) The manager of the team, played by Wilford Brimley, hires a sports psychologist with a thick European accent to speak to the team. The psychologist, in a dry and flat-toned academic voice bereft of any sense of feeling or contextual understanding, says, "Losing… is a disease." The sound of scientific mumbo-jumbo irritates Roy Hobbs (played by Robert Redford) to no end, largely because Hobbs hasn't been given a chance to show what he can do. This particular sports psychologist comes across as absurd within the context of the movie; the source of the Knights' redemption wasn't psychology, but a commitment to better performance. However, the lingering idea retains its value and truthfulness: Losing actually can become a disease.

Losing isn't always a disease, but it definitely can become one, and it's definitely become a malady for Army this season. This terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad day at Yager Stadium against Miami University proves that the self-confidence of 2010 has left the building in 2011. The gutsy triumph over Northwestern and the 39-point shellacking of Tulane certainly raised hopes in West Point, but with half a season now in the books, it's hard to dispute the notion that those games are aberrations more than representative moments, exceptions rather than the rule.

When is losing a disease? This Miami nightmare is the classic case study, the prototypical portrait, of a team that does everything but win, a team that is "playing well enough to lose." That's when losing has become absorbed into the bloodstream, causing seasons to go awry and miss their expected bowl-game destinations.

When a team plays just well enough to lose, the idea behind the phrase is this: On a granular level, a team achieves many good things. It establishes its ability to perform well. It attains a competitive advantage. It proves how good it can be when it plays to the height of its capabilities. However, when winning time comes calling, the same group that accomplished so much in the first three quarters is suddenly paralyzed, unable to replicate the excellence which created the fourth-quarter lead in the first place. So what if 45 minutes were productive? The full 60-minute canvas produced nothing more than a loss to a Mid-American Conference opponent, and not just any MAC opponent, but a team that entered Saturday's game with an 0-4 record. Army is continuing to ring up more than 400 yards of offense in these MAC road games, but the Black Knights are now 0-3 against the conference, which is no better than tenth among the 11 leagues that comprise the Football Bowl Subdivision. Losing to Northern Illinois? That was expected. Losing to Ball State wasn't expected, but the Cardinals had been overachieving through the first month of the season. Fine – let's accept that game and treat it as a bad day at the office.

There are no such explanations or rationalizations for getting clipped by the untiring yet not-very-formidable RedHawks. There's nowhere for coach Rich Ellerson or his staff to hide. The Black Knights have acquired competitive bacteria that is breaking down this team's immunity to disaster. Army immunized itself in 2010, claiming the winnable games on its schedule and knocking off downmarket opponents before stunning SMU in the Armed Forces Bowl. Now, however, a new and virulent strain has this pigskin patient in need of substantial treatment and intervention.

Exactly why is this loss in its own category? Why is this defeat different from other MAC setbacks in 2011? Why can't this debacle not be explained away with cool and easy logic, with valid reasons pertaining to growing pains or talented foes giving it their best shot? Let's get to work.
Unlike the other MAC losses to Northern Illinois and Ball State, this one didn't emerge after claiming a 28-14 third quarter lead. This MAC setback didn't accompany a brilliant passing performance from Trent Steelman, an 8-for-8, 124-yard display of quality which gave the Black Knights a dose of balance that had proven to be so elusive. This stomach punch of an afternoon might have technically occurred against the defending MAC champion, but this is definitely not the same club that climbed to the top of the heap in the Mid-American Conference last season. Without former coach Michael Haywood, Miami stumbled through a winless September under new boss Don Treadwell. Moreover, Miami made a subpar Cincinnati Bearcat defense look brilliant on Oct. 1. Cincinnati's defense hemorrhaged in 2010, but a week ago, the Bearcats blanked Miami in a 27-0 laugher. Army's defense – so resolute against the talent of San Diego State and the size of Northwestern – allowed 14 fourth-quarter points to the RedHawks and more than 500 yards from start to finish. What does this all mean at the end of the day – the marked improvement in the passing game, the emergence of a balanced offense, and the 14-point third quarter lead? It all means a 2-4 record; it means that Army is playing just well enough to lose.

Losing is a disease in West Point. A bowl bid is extremely unlikely unless something very drastic happens in the next two months.

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