Sunday, June 11, 2017

Responding to Defeat

In the last week, I came across, two articles about how teams responded to mistakes that led to defeat in the championship round:

It certainly seems that the Warriors have done a better job of responding to this mistake than the Seahawks have. The Warriors are on the verge of winning the championship, and the Seahawks have been on a slow decline since. But why? Some possible reasons:

  • Team Culture Because Steve Kerr espouses political opinions that are popular among sports commentators and supports his players in doing the same, (and also because his team is so successful), he is currently the darling of that community. The thrust of Lowe's article is that because the Warriors have a team culture based on compassion and letting its players be individuals, they were resilient to this type of setback. Ok, but...

    If there's a Steve Kerr of the NFL, it's Pete Carroll. Nobody gives his players a longer leash, and in fact Kerr sought out Caroll as a mentor. So I'm not sure it's all about letting the players be themselves.

    Also, the most successful organization in the NFL is led by Trump buddies Robert Kraft and Bill Belichik.
  • The offseason As Lowe notes, in the offseason following Green's error, the Warriors added Kevin Durant, one of the five best players in the league. After their defeat, the Seahawks got a year older. They did add Jimmy Graham, but he has often been injured, and came at the cost of key offensive linemen. It's a lot easier to forget about the past when the future looks awesome.
  • Branding While Green's error was egregious, it was in line with his character as a player and what he brought to the team. His job was to bring in energy, emotional intensity, and stand up for his teammates. In this instance, he took it a step too far.

    The Seahawks' mistake, on the other hand, was out of line with their brand as a football team built on defense and a bruising running attack. They were going away from what the other players saw as making them great. The opportunity to win on their strengths was taken away from them.
  • Finality The consequence of Green's mistake was that he was suspended for Game 5. The Warriors could have still won Game 5 without him, or Games 6 or 7 with him. There was a chance to overcome this mistake; they didn't do it.

    For the Seahawks, the interception gave the Patriots the ball with less than a minute to go in the game, essentially ending the game. There was no overcoming it.
  • Intention In this piece, I've been referring to "Green's" mistake as well as the "Seahawks." That's because the Seahawks error was mainly the choice of play calls which many in the organization had a hand in, as well as the interception itself, whereas for the Warriors, it was a sudden impulse from one player. That's probably easier to bounce back from.
  • The Story The Warriors lost to the Cavaliers, who were led by other-worldly performances by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, bringing the city of Cleveland its first championship in memory. The Seahawks lost to the Patriots, who are organizationally savvy and led by the brilliant Tom Brady, but are also kind of a default champion. This was the year of Deflategate, and I don't think anyone would pick that year's team as the best of the Brady-Belichik era.

    The story was that Cavaliers won their championship, and that the Seahawks lost theirs.
  • Popularity and Resentment Draymond Green is probably the most popular guy on the Warriors. He does the dirty work that enable the other Warriors to do what makes them great. And as noted above, his punch was taking what his teammates appreciate about him so much. Also, Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut, who were unable to contribute much in the series, were let go to make room for Durant, so there were scapegoats available.

    I'm not sure the same is true of Russell Wilson. Yes, he's a winner, and his teammates certainly appreciate how he helps them succeed. But I kind of suspect his goody-two-shoes no-time-to-sleep act can grate a bit. If the Seahawks were the Mecury 7 astronauts, Wilson would definitely be John Glenn.

    Bigger than that, over the past several years, the team has gradually come to be defined more by Russell Wilson, and less by the defense and running game, and this game was probably the center of gravity.  The Seahawks were in the Super Bowl because Wilson had led an unlikely comeback in the NFC championship game against the Packers. They were in this situation because the defense had allowed the Patriots to score two fourth quarter touchdowns. Had the pass found its target, it would have been Wilson's victory, and I'm not sure the team was excited about that.
  • Football vs. Basketball While it's true that succeeding in basketball required players to sacrifice for the good of the team (hence Bill Simmons writing an 800 page book based on that theme), the sacrifices for football players on a successful team are more immediate, visceral and profound. It's probably not an exaggeration to measure it in years of life lost.

    In particular for the Seahawks, Richard Sherman will likely never be regarded the same way as shut down corners like Darrell Revis and Champ Bailey. He is part of a successful system in the Seahawks secondary, and it's not clear whether he, Earl Thomas, or Kam Chancellor is the most crucial part of it.

    To make those type of sacrifices, and then be deprived of victory by a mistake, must be an embittering experience.
So, what does this mean? A number of these factors are outside of a team's control, especially after the fact. So I'm not sure there's many lessons here for other teams looking to bounce back from key mistakes, like the Atlanta Falcons as Lombardi suggests.

So what's the prognosis? Well, the Falcons have some of these factors going for them, and others against them. They didn't sign the NFL equivalent of Kevin Durant, but their key mistake (keep throwing with a big lead in the 4th quarter) was consistent with their identity as a team.

I think the larger lesson is that I'm not sure it's possible to create a team culture to inoculate yourself from the effects of a bad mistake. If I could summarize what the Seahawks problem was, it is that they were unclear about their identity. The defensive players believed they were a team based on defense on ball control; their decision to throw from the 1 yard line revealed that the coaches believed differently.

So, my lesson on recovering from a mistake, or more precisely on how to avoid mistakes that haunt you is:
  • Be clear about your identity and core principles as a team.
  • Act consistent with those principles.
A mistake that is consistent with your shared identity can be forgiven and recovered from; one that goes against your identity, or reveals a dissonance, will be more difficult.
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