Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Inflection Point

In mathematics, an inflection point occurs when the second derivative of a function changes signs. In the world around us, an inflection point occurs when things begin to change—things accelerate or decelerate.

For example, a business you own might be making money, but an inflection point is reached when it makes more (or less) today than it did in the last period. Another example is found in motion like the motion of an automobile. A car might have been moving forward all along, but it reaches an inflection point when it accelerates or decelerates. It no longer moves forward at the same rate that it did.

A final example can be found in the outcome of games played by particular sports teams. A team with an overall losing record might enter a stretch where it loses fewer games than it did before.

Inflection points signify change, but are often difficult to recognize, especially from certain vantage points. A person on a street can see a car in the distance moving forward, but from a specific vantage point might not be able to tell whether it is speeding up or slowing down. Fans of a particular sports team might have no interest in recognizing an inflection point in an opposing team when the opponent is changing from a loser into a winner.

The Washington Redskins have failed to make the playoffs in every year but one since Joe Gibbs retired thirteen years ago, but they have reached and moved passed an inflection point. Some may argue that the inflection point was reached last January when Gibbs unexpectedly came back to coach and it's hard to disagree; the Redskins did, after all, lose fewer games after Gibbs took over in 2004 than they did the year before and no one should doubt Gibbs’s Hall-of-Fame credentials. But, although with a leader like Gibbs it was inevitable, I think the inflection point was reached some time in the second half of 2004 when Gibbs’s philosophy started to resonate with the players.

At the end of the day, the players have to translate their talent and their coaches’ philosophy into wins. The Redskins finished 2004 with three wins in their last five games and I think that was the inflection point for this team, especially when the two losses were by three points each and the games could have easily gone the other way. It was a lot like 1981, when the Redskins started 0 – 5 and finished with eight wins in their last eleven games. Game six of the 1981 season was the inflection point that signified the change in the team that led to a Super Bowl title in 1982.


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