The linear mind will say that it's better to win when playing a great game than when playing a highly inconsistent game littered with huge second-half mistakes.
The linear mind will say that it's better to pound the opposition into submission than to be the recipient of a lucky break.
The linear, rational human mind will reflexively conclude that it's always preferable to dominate and be flawless, if the other option is to struggle, suffer lapses, and escape because the other coach couldn't manage the clock or timeouts.
Yet, that's part of what's great about sports: This theater of events, this cauldron of competition, is so wild and unpredictable -- and so governed by emotion -- that when 19- and 20-year-olds are involved, the best outcomes can be the ones which emerged from chaos and failure.
Think about this from Ken Niumatalolo's point of view after Navy escaped with a 28-24 win over Connecticut on Saturday in Annapolis.
1) Can teach his special teams unit about the mechanics of placekicking, something which has bitten the Midshipmen at various points this decade.
2) Can tell his field goal block unit to play the fake (instead of going for the block) with a 14-point lead or other specific scoreboard situations which demand guarding against a fake. Seven-point lead? Play the fake. A 10-point lead? Go for the block. A four-point lead? Play the fake, A three-point lead? Go for the block.
3) Can remind his running backs about ball security, so that the long fumble return which made the second half such an adventure will not recur.
He can do each of those things -- not just one or two, but all of them -- in the context and aftermath of a conference win.
Think about the above statements: How many times does a team make the large-scale mistakes Navy made on Saturday -- all three of them -- and still win? Army could not survive the length-of-the-field fumble return Navy made several years ago. Navy somehow survived this episode against UConn. Navy could not survive botched placekicks in recent years under Niumatalolo; it survived this.
Navy made horrible mistakes, and still won. Niumatalolo gets to instill discipline into his players, but not at the cost of a loss. This team -- with its new quarterback and other points of uncertainty -- immediately got a taste of what happens when it doesn't tend to details. It's really the perfect scenario in Week 2 -- not necessarily in Week 10, but certainly in Week 2.
Navy, with tougher opponents ahead, might not have been overconfident about what it could achieve had it beaten UConn 35-7 or by a similar score. However, the Midshipmen might not have been fully aware of their limitations and their weaknesses going into the tougher part of their schedule. This way, Navy has received a splash of water, a jolt which should promote greater care and precision heading into the rest of the season. Navy was resilient enough to make that goal-line stand, but it then needed UConn to help out by calling a run and then not lining up for the next snap.
This reality -- doing enough good things to win, but needing the opponent to help out -- makes Saturday's game reminiscent of the 2008 season, when Niumatalolo was just starting out as the head coach in Annapolis. Niumatalolo was learning how to be the man responsible for the whole Navy program, not just a part of it as Paul Johnson's trusted assistant. In that 2008 season, Navy won these kinds of "teachable moment" games so many times.
* Russ Pospisil making the memorable interception against Rutgers, in a game which never felt comfortable
* Blocking not one, but two, punts for touchdown to beat Air Force in Colorado Springs
* Coming from 20 points down to beat Temple in overtime
Part of the lesson -- and the happiness -- of this story is that Navy finds a way to be on the right side of 50-50 games more often than not. That's partly luck, but it's partly coaching. (It might not always mean Niumatalolo is better, but it always means he's NOT worse, which is its own virtue in coaching.)
The other essential aspect of this comparison to 2008 is that ever since that first season, Niumatalolo has gotten better and better at teaching and coaching his players (and his assistants -- don't forget that).
Very precisely, winning sloppy games -- games that were closer than they needed to be, games which felt like defeats near the end -- has served Navy football quite well in the Niumatalolo era.
Was a 35-7 win over UConn exactly what this team needed?
One can make the case, though, that Saturday's actual turn of events will serve this team better in the long run. The 2008 season and the unfolding of the Niumatalolo era offer compelling reasons.