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.

 

 

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“Choking” vs. “Getting Beat”

What a Super Bowl, huh? You don’t see 25-point comebacks every day, expecially in a game where both teams are supposed to be cool under fire. Most of the postgame talk, rightly, has covered the Patriots. But what a heartbreaker for Atlanta, made that much worse because the team choked away such a big lead.

And yes, this was a choke.

To start with, it’s worth noting that not every big comeback is a choke. A “choke” happens when the team with a big lead gets tight, gets out of their game plan, and gives the game back to the underdog. For example, the 2007 Patriots didn’t choke when they lost to the Giants, they played their game and got beaten by David Tyree’s helmet. Did Scott Norwood choke when he missed that field goal in Super Bowl XXIV? Maybe. But he also came into that kick one out of five on field goal attempts of 40 or more yards on grass, so he wasn’t exactly in a spot where he had succeeded before. The 1986 Red Sox didn’t necessarily choke as a team, but manager John McNamara sure did when deviated from his usual game plan of sending in a sub for his gimpy-legged first baseman.

Back to the Falcons.

You know the story by now: America watched Atlanta run up a big lead. Predictably, the Patriots clawed their way back in. They even got a little lucky when New England’s Trey Flowers scored a strip sack fumble recovery on an unblocked blind side rush. The Pats promptly scored and were within a single score, after being down 25 points.

Even at this point, you can’t fault  the Falcons – sometimes the protection doesn’t work, and Matt Ryan never saw Flowers. These things happen.

The choke happened on the next possession. When Atlanta’s next drive reached the New England 22 yard line, they didn’t run the ball two more times and settle for a field goal attempt. A sack, a holding penalty, and an incomplete pass later, the Falcons were punting.

This morning, America wonders why the Falcons didn’t run the ball, and it’s a valid question. If Matt Bryant could have made the 40-yard field goal (or even one a little bit longer) then why not drive down the clock and take the points? The panicked failures in play calling and execution gave the Patriots the ball back with 3:38 and trailing by eight; had the Falcons stayed within their game plan they could have kicked off with 2:30 or so left in the game and an 11-point lead. (Even if Bryant had missed the field goal, the Patriots would have had to worry about the clock as much as the yardage on their final drive.)

The Atlanta Falcons choked. It only in the space of three plays, where they went away from the offensive balance that had got them there, when they tried too hard for a touchdown when a field goal would have meant ticker tape instead of “what ifs.” The Falcons coaches and players let the game get away from them for three measly plays.

It’s not much, but sometimes that’s all it takes.

 

Why the NFL loves Deflategate

ESPN’s Steven Wulf recounts a non-controversy Major League Baseball faced in the early 1990’s, when they tried to enforce regulations about glove sizes. Wulf points out that MLB handled the situation quietly and without fanfare, in contrast to how the NFL seemingly flubbed and fumbled their way through Deflategate. Had the NFL handled Tom Brady’s appeal better, he theorizes, we might not have been talking about it for the past couple of weeks.

But would the NFL really want a situation like that – where people aren’t talking about the league?

It may not have been the actual strategy, but things worked out pretty well for the NFL. Sports media spent the back half of July talking about the league. Fans had something to debate and discuss among themselves. And the controversy wasn’t initiade by someone smacking a woman or a kid.

For all their bluster, the Patriots come out of this pretty well, to. They’ll have a chance to rest their 38-year-old quarterback for a quarter of the season, but have him ready to go for the playoffs. They’ll also get an extended look at backup Jimmy Garappolo so they can figure out how talented he is and what kind of draft picks they’ll trade him for.

For the league that thrives on constant attention and chatter, what could be worse than handling a situation like this quietly?