On Tilt: The Psychology of Lovie Smith’s Texas Hold ‘em Showdown Against the Packers
In poker there is a psychological phenomenon called tilt; basically tilt occurs when player becomes too emotionally invested in the hands that he plays. Usually this occurs after losing a big hand, and instead of taking it as “losing the battle but not the war” the player adopts a more aggressive and less optimal strategy in order to make up for the loss.
Unfortunately this almost always backfires, being on tilt often results in making bad decisions; which then loses more hands, which then snowballs until players make incredibly stupid decisions on the chance that one hand can bring them back.
What does this have to do with football? Lovie Smith went on tilt with the Chicago Bears against the Green Bay Packers and lost, and it might cost them more than just this game. (If you know nothing about Texas Hold’em I recommend checking out this wiki article or none of this allegory is going to make sense)
The Deal: Lovie Smith gets dealt a pretty bad hand, his team has already qualified for the playoffs and with the Atlanta win against Carolina in the morning, they are also locked into the 2nd seed in the NFC, essentially making the Packers game a meaningless one.
The only reason to even play is that the Packers happen to be the bitter rivals of the Bears, and knocking them out of the playoffs would be a little bit of vindication after getting swept by the Packers last year.
However, the risk of hurting a player is quite high (see Wes Welker last year), and common sense dictates that regardless of the emotional victory beating the Packers would be, the starters should be pulled quickly to avoid getting stuck in a bad position.
The Bet: Love Smith announces publicly that his starters will play a significant part of the game, even though it means nothing to them. In my opinion this was a bluff, ironically more for his own team than for the Packers. The Packers had to win in order to qualify for the playoffs so it really didn’t matter who they had to play. For the Bears, if the starters thought that they had to be ready for a full game then perhaps they would be more driven and focused during the week and during the game.
Of course this is basically psychologically impossible; just like playing with fake money will never be the same as betting real money, the fact that losing the game meant nothing means that that the players wouldn’t care if they did lose, regardless of how much bluffing was done by the coaching staff.
The Flop: Things are turning out fairly well for the Bear during the 1st half; the Packers have failed to put any points on the board and the offense is doing a pretty good job keeping Jay Cutler upright and moving the ball, albeit without putting points up on the board either.
At this point, the wise decision would have been to fold, or in football terms pull the starters. They’ve proven that they can handle the vaunted Packer’s offense and the while the offense hasn’t done much they also haven’t done terrible.
The only factor keeping Smith from pulling his starters is the score, at 3-0 the game is still very much in the air and he wants to win it, had either team started to pull away I’m convinced that the starters would have been pulled as well.
The Turn: The 3rd quarter is where the game starts to shift to the Packer’s favor. The Packers get a huge pass play from Greg Jennings to the 1 yard line and while they don’t end up scoring a touchdown, they do manage to tie the game with a field goal.
Jay Cutler starts to get antsy (2 sacks in the 3rd quarter) and ends up throwing an interception in the end zone to strong safety Charlie Peprah. Again at this point, Lovie Smith should have sensed that the team had proven all that it needed to prove and that the game was starting to go downhill, but with the score tied at 3-3 his desire to win overrules common sense to pull the starters.
The River: Things start really going bad for the Bears, the Packers score the only touchdown of the day and regain a semblance of a running threat, which they had lost during the middle of the game.
Unfortunately, Lovie Smith has already committed too much into the game already and pulling his starters in the 4th quarter with only a touchdown to tie would be suicide for the team’s morale so he’s now forced to let them stay on the field and try to win the game.
Lovie Smith then decides to abandon the running game, despite the fact that leading rusher Matt Forte is averaging 6.1 yards per carry. A desperate pass attack leads the Packers to call all out blitzes with Jay Cutler ending up being sacked a total of 6 times and pressured and knocked down countless time more. With Jay Cutler rattled, he proceeds to start making desperation throws, which culminated in a interception by free safety Nick Collins to end the game with a Packers victory.
The Showdown: So in the end, despite the best efforts of the Bears to sweep the division, they allow the Packers to sneak into the playoffs, which by itself is a psychological defeat. Instead of giving themselves a psychological “out” by pulling their starters, now they have to contend that they’re best were not able to beat the best of the Packers.
Had they put in backups and lost the game they could have always blamed the loss to the fact that it was 1st stringers playing against 2nd and 3rd stringers and been no more psychologically damaged than before.
The Aftermath: So what does Lovie Smith now do? The media was finally recognizing the Bears as a good team and after the loss all of a sudden they are back claiming that the Bears aren’t really that good and have serious issues, most notably in the offensive line and the secondary.
Does Smith try to overcompensate for his lack of blocking by pulling in running backs and tight ends to provide extra blockers? Does he shy away from the long passing plays since he is afraid that he will get his quarterback killed if he has to wait so long for a play to develop?
On the defensive side of the ball, the Packers were taking shots at the deep ball the entire game and had the Packers been a little more effective they could have easily scored another 3 touchdowns. Does Smith decide to try to limit the deep pass by playing more cover-2 or cover-3 shell and sacrifice blitzing? Or does he do nothing and hope that other teams can’t take advantage of what the Packers did?
So in the end, Lovie Smith let his emotions get the best of him. Common sense dictated that in a meaningless game starters should have been pulled out after they get warmed up, but his drive to beat the Packers ended up being his own undoing.
It was the same emotion that forced him to keep his players in when it was obvious that they should have just lost the game of no consquence and moved on. Instead its Lovie Smith’s emotion that has to answer to a loss that didn’t have to damage the morale of the team. Does Smith decide to let his emotions get the best of him in two weeks?——————
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.