Going for it

In any sport, the pivotal moments of a game can come long before the deciding play.

Super Bowl LII fit that description. The Philadelphia Eagles officially become NFL champions when New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s final pass fell incomplete. But the gutsy play calling by Eagles coach Doug Pederson early in the game put them in the position to win.

With 38 seconds left in the first half, and leading by three points, the Eagles faced fourth-and-goal from just inside the New England Patriots’ two-yard-line. The conventional call – going for an easy field goal – probably would have meant a six-point lead heading into halftime. Not too shabby, right?

If you didn’t see it live, you’ve surely seen the highlight by now (assuming you care about football): Pederson went for the touchdown – and with a trick play, to boot.

It worked.

It wasn’t the play itself which won the game, of course. It gave the Eagles a 22-12 halftime lead, but a crazy second half but Pederson’s willingness to gamble demonstrated the aggressive strategy the Eagles would deploy all the way to the final whistle.

Contrast this with the AFC championship game a couple weeks ago. With just under a minute left before halftime, New England had scored to pull within four points. On the other sideline, the Jacksonville Jaguars had just watched their “commanding” 14-3 tighten to 14-10. There were 55 seconds left in the half, the Jags had two timeouts, and a kicker with enough range to make a 54-yard field goal later in the game.

But instead of trying to answer New England’s touchdown and reclaim some momentum, Jacksonville simply ran out the clock, waving a white flag on the first half rather than risking a turnover. They ran into the locker room satisfied with a halftime lead – any halftime lead – against the defending champions (who had, incidentally, become champions by erasing a 25-point deficit in last year’s Super Bowl).

The Jags kicked two long field goals in the second half; otherwise, their predictable, conservative play calling lead to four punts. Predictably, the Patriots stormed back. The final score, 24-20, suggests that another field goal at the end of the first half wouldn’t have helped the Jaguars’ cause.

Sure, that math works out, but the bigger point is the strategic error: When they got an early lead, Jacksonville stopped playing to win and started playing to “not lose.”

And they lost.

Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots can be accused of many things, but neither satisfaction nor timidity is among them. Belichick called for a few trick plays of his own in Super Bowl LII. They didn’t work, but would that prevent him from calling those same plays in Super Bowl LIII? Doubtful.  If he had it to do over again, would he have told his defense to let the New York Giants score a go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes of Super Bowl XLVI to conserve more time for his offense? Probably. Belichick’s willingness to push the envelope has been a major factor in his well-documented success.

Pederson and the Eagles succeeded where the Jaguars failed by coaching the same way Belichick does: staying smartly aggressive. No wins a championship by running up a big lead and hoping the other team can’t catch up. That lesson transcends football, too. Sears pioneered direct-to-consumer sales; now the company circles the drain as Amazon experiments with innovative ways to give customers what they want. Instead of presenting an original vision for America, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign slogan – “Stronger Together” – played off of the loud, often offensive rhetoric of her opponent. On the other side of the coin, note how much Coca-Cola spends on advertising and branding to remind you that their soda is more than just soda.

Like Rocky squaring off against Apollo, Doug Pederson stepped into the ring against Bill Belichick determined to give his maximum effort, win or lose. When he got into the flow of the game, he stayed true to that philosophy, especially when it meant taking a risk.

The risk paid off – and now, Doug Peterson may not have to pay for his own cheese steaks ever again.



$#!% Ed Rendell says

Outgoing Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell was displeased by the cancellation of the Sunday night Eagles-Vikings game:

“My biggest beef is that this is part of what’s happened in this country,” Rendell said.

“We’ve become a nation of wusses. The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything,” he added. “If this was in China do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.”

Because, as we all know, Asians are good at math, right?  While the Governor talks off the cuff somewhat frequently – especially now that he probably isn’t facing re-election, it’s somewhat incredulous that no one is complaining about that calculus remark, isn’t it? It’s a good thing he didn’t go with any of these rejected lines:

  • “If this was in Ireland, people would have been stumbling down to the stadium, taking occasional breaks to urinate in the snow, and singing ‘Fields of Athenry’ the whole way down.”
  • “If this was in Germany, people would be goose-stepping down to the stadium, taking over the Polish section of Philadelphia on the way down.”
  • “If this was in China, people would have been marching down to the stadium, doing calculus, because the murderous Communist regime would beat them to death if they didn’t.”

Still, the Chinese stereotyping wasn’t the dumbest thing about Rendell said.  For that, you have to consider that, in the Governor’s mind, cancelling a football game symbolizes a nation lacking in backbone.

See, if I were looking for an example of a lack of discipline, I might pick having a state government that’s $8.4 billion in debt, or a state debt tally that grew 39% during its current governor’s eight-year term.  In fairness, the governor that approved all that spending isn’t necessarily a wus; maybe he’s just bad at math.

Too bad he isn’t Chinese.

Obama’s play action

The big story at the infrequently traveled intersection of sports and politics this week is the President’s congratulatory phone call to Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie about installing renewable energy equipment at Lincoln Financial Field.  During their discussion, they also mentioned quarterback Michael Vick, which seems to be drawing more attention.

There’s no word yet on whether the President will be calling the other team just north of DC on I-95, the Baltimore Ravens.  While the gave Vick a second chance, the Ravens have taken in wide receiver Donte’ Stallworth, who served a month for DUI manslaughter.  They have also stuck by linebacker Ray Lewis, who beat the rap on murder charges by rolling on his accomplices and went on to have an excellent career and win a Superbowl.  (By the way, did you know that a group of ravens is actually called a murder?)  On the other hand, Obama might be slow getting there – after all, the Eagles really gave Vick his second chance about a year and a half ago.

So why make this call now?

A possible explanation is to give his enemies something to talk about, and allow them to use a slow news cycle to work themselves into a lather about something that is, essentially, a non-issue.  Coming after a productive lame duck session, this could permit the administration to take a high road while its opponents chatter about Vick and dogfighting.  It would be the messaging equivalent of a draw or a play action pass – tricking the opposition into being out of position.

Of course, this isn’t a football game, but electoral politics – and voters don’t largely pay attention.  Riding a winning streak as the President is, why expose your administration to negative messages by wading into issues that people actually care about?

Joanne Bamberger of AOL’s Politics Daily points out that Pennsylvania’s electoral votes will be in serious play in 2012, and suggests Obama is building good will now.  That certainly makes sense, but 2012 is still a long way away, and making nice with fickle Eagles fans now won’t necessarily pay dividends in 22 months.  Heck, if Vick throws four interceptions in a playoff game, or isn’t playing with the Eagles next year, those comments may do nothing in 22 months. Much more important to Obama, as Bamberger alludes, is Lurie’s checkbook – which, when not being used to pay rehabilitating NFL players, makes large donations to Democrat presidential candidates.  And keep in mind that Lurie, and not the administration, made the details of the conversation public.

It is most likely that the President did not intend for the conversation to be public – not that it was secret, but just that it wasn’t intended as a public statement.  And, in that private conversation – which was, remember, also about renewable energy – the President took some time to blow even more smoke up the rear end of a potential donor.

It must have worked – otherwise, Lurie wouldn’t be so proud about spilling the beans.