Monday, February 8, 2010

Lessons Learned From Super Bowl XLIV

Super Bowl XLIV turned out to be a competitive game between two excellent teams, featuring less scoring than one might have expected, and that was far closer than the final score of 31 – 17 indicates. One second it looked like we were headed towards overtime as soon as Peyton Manning engineered another routiine 4th quarter touchdown drive to tie the game, the next second Tracy Porter was racing towards victory for the New Orleans Saints with a game clinching interception securely in hand. Like many I considered the Colts favorites to win, but certainly not by overwhelming odds considering the impressive season enjoyed by the Saints and their remarkably accurate quarterback – Drew Brees. The outcome was a surprise to me, but a relatively mild one. I didn’t have a strong rooting interest in the contest either. Both teams had beaten my beloved New York Jets this season, the Colts most recently and more painfully since their victory knocked the Jets out of the playoffs just one game shy of the Super Bowl, but I can’t say I was really pulling for one team over the other. I simply hoped for an entertaining game, and that’s what I got. I’m happy for the citizens of New Orleans who have literally been through hell, not that a win by a football team will restore homes or lives, but it’s a nice feel good story all the same. Kudos to Drew Brees who has had a roller coaster career and life to date. He seems like a good guy who is deserving of his moment in the sun. As for Peyton Manning who handled himself with less class in defeat than might have been expected from a guy who comes off as ever so charming in his countless number of commercial spots, he has 4 MVP trophies and 1 Super Bowl ring and plenty of touchdown throws left in his career, so no tears are shed for him by yours truly.

In addition to it being a good game, I also found Super Bowl XLIV quite instructive. Metaphors about football are extremely overused, with an onslaught of comparisons to war and other life and death situations rather than simply being described as the boyhood game it is. I get caught up in the emotion as much as anyone else, for professional football is a breathtaking spectacle that exhilarates and inspires perhaps more than any other sporting event. But beyond being a thrilling televised event viewed by more people than had ever watched anything on the boob tube before, there were moments in this particular Super Bowl that offered significant life lessons for those who choose to view them that way.

Example # 1: Towards the end of the first half the Saints were near the goal line and faced with a crucial fourth down decision. They were down 10 – 3 at the time, meaning a touchdown would tie the game, a very short field goal would close the gap to 10 – 6. Many coaches would have taken the sure three points rather than taking the risk of coming up short, remaining behind by a touchdown, and handing momentum over to the Colts. Coach Sean Payton chose to go for the touchdown and the Saints were stopped, seemingly the worst case scenario. At the time I thought it was an awful decision, but in hindsight I see wisdom in it from a football standpoint and beyond. Strategy wise, if the Colts made a goal line stand and got the ball back in the shadow of their own endzone they would need to operate cautiously. Failing to pick up a few first downs from such precarious field position, they would have to punt and the Saints would get the ball back in a much more advantageous location. New Orleans would get a second shot at a field goal if simply able to move the chains a couple times, although a considerably longer attempt than the chip shot they turned down. This is precisely the sequence of events that took place. Had the Saints made a field goal the first opportunity around and then kicked off, the Colts would have had much better starting field position for the ensuing drive and enough time to get into scoring range themselves, thus negating the Saints field goal. The Colts may even have gone on a touchdown drive to end the first half, putting themselves up 17 – 6 and in firm command of the game. Therefore, what looked like a reckless gamble by the Saints was in fact a calculated risk with less chance of backfire than appeared to be the case at first glance.

Example # 2: The Saints decision to go for it on fourth and goal was somewhat risky, but starting off the second half with an onside kick was downright shocking. Typically we only see an onside kick precisely when we expect to, with a game down to its final minutes and the trailing team desperately needing to get the ball back before time runs out on them with their offense on the sidelines. An onside kick is not a common way to start the third quarter of any game, especially not a close one, not even a preseason game when teams are doing all kinds of stuff just to practice it, and definitely not in a Super Bowl. The broadcasters confirmed that there had never before been a non-4th quarter onside kick in a Super Bowl. If it fails, the Saints are practically handing points over to the Colts. As it turned out the plan worked to perfection. The Colts were taken off guard, the Saints recovered the ball and proceeded to take it down the field to score a touchdown and take the lead. All is well that ends well, but why take such an enormous chance? Perhaps because the risk was not as big as it first appeared. Peyton Manning showed when the Colts finally got the ball that he was fully capable and had every intention of leading a touchdown drive to start the second half. This very likely would have been the case if the Saints kicked off conventionally and the Colts had to go 80 yards, or if the Colts recovered the onside kick and had less than 50 yards to go. The only difference between these scenarios would have been that the longer of the two potential drives would have chewed up more clock than the shorter alternative, leaving Drew Brees on the sidelines for a greater period of time. Sean Payton wisely feared that if the Colts began the second half by scoring a touchdown, they would have gotten far enough ahead to remain in the lead for the rest of the game. The key to victory for the Saints was for them to score first in the third quarter, and since it was the Colts turn to get the ball, the Saints needed to somehow get it back from them right away. The probability of a Colts turnover on that drive was much lower than the probability of them failing to recover an offside kick that they had no reason to expect. So with the gift of hindsight I can now see that the seemingly crazy onside kick was actually the more judicious way to go, providing an opportunity for the Saints to be where they wanted to be at that point in the game rather than hopelessly behind.

Super Bowl XLIV was just a football game, not a battle in a war, not the means by which to salvage a city drowned by a hurricane and ineptitude and awful luck. But I didn’t simply enjoy watching, I also learned from it. I learned that often what looks like taking a brave risk is actually the enacting of thoughtful strategy which improves rather than reduces the odds of success. I learned that what looks like traveling the safe route may in fact be a way to guarantee failure. In life if you don’t take chances you often end up just sitting there waiting for opportunity to be handed to you, and it’s never guaranteed that fate will be so kind. Anais Nin once said “There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Have truer words ever been stated? Taking a shot and failing to pull it off always hurts considerably less than sitting back and wondering what might have been had you gone full out for glory. There is never a shortage of people who will mock our aspirations and tell us not to bother, because by pursuing them, all we’ll be doing is wasting time. But the way to truly waste time is letting it pass without attempting to realize your ambitions. Surrendering in advance of making an effort may be easy, but it isn’t cautious or conservative so much as it is self-destructive. We usually can rebound from failure, but often we cannot come back from failing to even try. Whatever risk there may be to blossom is worth taking. Playing it safe can be like not really playing at all.

I took one more life lesson from the Saints road to Super Bowl victory. Never underestimate the value of surprise. When your adversary has a pretty good idea what’s coming, such as Terry Porter’s suspicion that Peyton Manning would come back to his tried and true quick pass to Reggie Wayne on a slant pattern for a third down conversion attempt, then he/she is in good position to thwart it. But when you do the very last thing your adversary is expecting, rather than reckless it’s often plain smart. So I resolve after watching one hell of a football game to pattern my life much like the Saints’ game plan. I will take the risks that are most worth taking, err when I do on the side of confidence rather than caution, and never let them see me coming.

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