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.

 

Is a cold-weather Super Bowl the worst thing ever?

You’d think so, if you listen to sports media.  ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski hates it (and did even before it was cool), ESPN radio hosts like Colin Cowherd have weighed in against it as well.  Fox’s Terry Bradshaw isn’t a fan, either.

Why are the protests against a cold-weather Super Bowl so loud?  Despite what they may say about the weather affecting the game itself or the fans at MetLife Stadium, these folks have a personal reason: They’re covering the game, and spending a week in New Jersey in the winter sucks.  Of course they want the Super Bowl in a warm weather city; spending a week in Miami in January and getting paid for it is good work if you can get it.

But the audience that has made the Super Bowl a cultural event – and not just a game – is the Super Bowl Party audience, the people who treat the game as a reason to gorge on buffalo wings with friends while discussing the commercials.  The weather wouldn’t matter beyond possibly making the game entertaining.  The NFL knows where it’s bread is buttered.

Incidentally, Hampton Stevens of the Atlantic thinks it’s a great idea, evoking memories of the “Ice Bowl.”  Stevens probably won’t be at the game.

The weather media says it’s probably going to be nasty out there.

This menu is a national security concern

Before last night’s game, President Obama told Bill O’Reilly that the Fox News commentator was invited to the White House Super Bowl party.  He didn’t mention the menu, which sounds delicious:

Here, according to the White House, is the menu for Sunday’s party: “Bratwurst, Kielbasa, Cheeseburgers, Deep Dish Pizza, Buffalo Wings, German Potato Salad, Twice Baked Potatoes, Snyders Potato Chips and Pretzels, Chips and Dips, Salad, Ice Cream. Beverages including the following beers: Hinterland Pale Ale & Amber Ale (Wisconsin), Yuengling Lager and Light (Pennsylvania), White House Honey Ale.”

Yummy.  Oh, and by the way, here’s the link to First Lady Michelle Obama’s obesity initiative, a program where she tells you what to feed your children.

NFL Players getting off message

From the coverage of the worst All-Star Game of any of the major sports, the Pro-Bowl, comes this nugget from game MVP DeAngelo Hall:

MVP DeAngelo Hall had one of his team’s five interceptions and returned a fumble 34 yards for a touchdown to help the NFC match a Pro Bowl scoring record in a 55-41 victory over turnover-prone AFC. He gets a new Cadillac for his efforts.

“I was just about to buy another SUV,” the Redskins cornerback said, “so to come out here and grab one for free, I like that.”

Yes, he really did brag that he was thinking about buying “another SUV” – not a “new” SUV, but another, as in addition to whatever car or cars he currently has in his fleet.

Clearly, Hall is missing a either a sense of context or the spirit of brotherhood with his fellow union members (and possibly both).

Even the normally-overkilled Super Bowl coverage seems to be overshadowed by news that the NFL labor situation may devolve in the same type of players-versus-ownership animus that has cost significant playing time – and even championships – in each of the other sports over the past 20 years.  Matt Hasselbeck and Antonio Cromartie got into a much-hyped war of tweets over the potential lockout.  (The football world remains shocked that a member of the normally stoic and reserved New York Jets got into such a verbal spat with a fellow player.)

The NFL Player’s Association needs to get their members on the same page or risk losing the important PR war that comes with high-profile CBA negotiations.  One cornerback lashing out at the situation and another openly wondering how to arrange his fleet of cars won’t help it score points with fans.

I watch the internet for the Super Bowl ads

Super Bowl ads are as big a tradition as the game itself, but this year the ads that aren’t going to be ad seem to be making an even bigger splash.

PETA has famously had an advocacy ad banned because it was deemed too racy. NBC bounced a pro-life ad because they apparently don’t allow advocacy ads. And Miller’s one-second beer ads will last a second but appear only on local NBC affiliates – not on the national broadcast. Each of these gimmicky ads might have been overlooked with simpler standard commercials; each’s unique reason for not being part of the big game broadcast is newsworthy enough to draw attention from internet users. I’d bet their cost-per-viewer is much cheaper now, too.

NBC’s Super Bowl ads are going for $3 million for 30 seconds, but as of Wednesday they had not sold all the advertising space available. The idea of a Super Bowl ad means so much more than 30 seconds of highly viewed TV time now though, that even an end-run around the actual game can have viral value for a smart, budget-conscious marketer.

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