Playing to Win

I don’t watch many football games on television anymore, but I did catch the last few minutes of some of the NFL playoff games. I also watched most of the Super Bowl between the Patriots and Eagles.

What struck me most was how some things have managed to remain the same in a sport that has changed dramatically. One of the most important aspects that hasn’t changed is that character still decides the outcome of most games.

I have often said that an NFL game is a microcosm of life. There’s an ebb and flow to every game, with each team experiencing its share of adversity. These adversities include such things as fumbles, interceptions, bad calls by the officials, injuries, and “shanked” punts.

The teams are so evenly matched that the main determinant in separating the winners from the losers is how well players and coaches handle adversity. Responding positively to it is a sign of character, a term talked about incessantly by coaches, players, sportscasters, and fans alike.

The flip side to dealing effectively with adversity is how well players and coaches take advantage of opportunities. The great teams throughout history — the Packers in the sixties, the Steelers in the seventies, and the Forty Niners in the eighties — had a knack for converting opponents’ mistakes into scores, usually touchdowns.

But, most important of all, great teams play to win, while also-rans generally play not to lose. You can almost feel the fear of a team that doesn’t really believe it can win in the clutch — when it has the lead and the clock is winding down.

There were a number of cases of the playing-not-to-lose mentality in the recent NFL playoffs. But the two classics that come to mind are the games the Jets played against the Chargers in Round 1 and the Steelers in Round 2.

Against the Chargers, San Diego had the game won until it suddenly implemented Marty Schottenheimer’s play-not-to-lose philosophy. Result: They lost a game they seemed to have completely under control. It was vintage Schottenheimer.

I’ve watched Marty Schottenheimer coach at Cleveland, Kansas City, Washington, and now San Diego. He’s an excellent coach who fits into that select group of men who can turn a team around quickly, but never make it to the Super Bowl.

Why? Because these coaches play not to lose. Their mindset rubs off on the players, who can sense their coach’s fear. Such coaches don’t have the gun-slinging mentality of a Bill Walsh or Dick Vermeil.

So, what did Herman Edwards, coach of the Jets, do the week after he was handed a win by play-it-close-to-the-vest Marty Schottenheimer? Incredibly, he turned right around against Pittsburgh and mimicked Schottenheimer’s mistake of a week earlier — only worse.

In the closing minutes of the game, all the Jets needed to do was complete a 10-yard pass and kick a chip-shot field goal. Instead, they opted for three yards and a cloud of dust, failed to advance the ball toward the Steelers’ goal line, and ended up kicking a longer-than-necessary field goal that missed by inches.

Miraculously, they got the ball back again, but still refused to pass. Instead, Coach Edwards played not to lose by running the ball . . . and running the ball . . . and (yawn) running the ball again.

This demonstrated an embarrassing lack of confidence on the part of Edwards — especially in his great young quarterback, Chad Pennington. As a result, place kicker Doug Brien missed badly on a 43-yard field goal attempt on the last play of the game, and Pittsburgh went on to win in overtime

Now, let’s take a look at a team that has won three Super Bowls in four years — the New England Patriots. Their mini-dynasty is not an accident. Coach Bill Belichick is the ultimate riverboat gambler. In an age of fearful coaches, Belichick plays to win.

In Super Bowl XXXIX, when the Patriots had a first and goal on the Eagles’ three-yard line, Belichick had Tom Brady (gasp!) pass. Result: Touchdown! It shouldn’t have surprised anyone who had seen the Patriots play before. They did the exact same thing in Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII.

In their first Super Bowl win three years ago over the Rams, the Patriots got the ball on their own 20-yard line with less than two minutes to go. The announcer commented that they would undoubtedly run out the clock and try to win in overtime.

But the announcer didn’t understand Bill Belichick’s approach to life. Belichick plays to win. Tom Brady quickly passed the Patriots down the field and set up a game-winning field goal by the robotic Adam Vinatieri.

Joe Montana and John Elway performed this kind of ice-water routine on a regular basis throughout the eighties and nineties. And today, it’s become Tom Brady’s trademark.

The great coaches and quarterbacks throughout history have defied conventional wisdom, just as the most successful businesspeople defy conventional wisdom in the business world. Those who go against the grain of conventional wisdom demonstrate that they are playing to win rather than not to lose.

In fact, the legendary Johnny Unitas once said he didn’t believe in the conventional wisdom that you need to establish the run in order to open up the passing game. He believed you should establish the passing game first, which, in turn, opens up the running game. This bold, aggressive approach to the game is enough to cause conservative coaches to develop shingles.

As I said, pro football is a microcosm of life. If you approach the game of business, or the bigger game of life, with the mindset of just trying not to lose, you probably are going to lose. But if you play to win, the odds are that you will. Not all the time, of course, but most of the time.

What happens if you take a bold approach to life and end up losing? You get hurt, of course. But, hey . . . that’s “life.” If there were no risk involved, everyone would be bold. When you think big and bold, you’re telling the world that you believe in yourself so much that you’re not afraid to take risks.

Fortunately, when you lose, there’s a marvelous antidote that’s been around for thousands of years: Simply pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and start over again. It’s true in football; it’s true in business; and it’s true in everyday life.

Robert Kiyosaki, author of “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” put it well when he said, “Winners are not afraid of losing. But losers are. Failure is part of the process of success. People who avoid failure also avoid success.”

The irony is that the more you play not to lose, the better your chances of losing. That’s because playing not to lose — timidity — puts you on the defensive. Playing not to lose is not much different than playing to lose.

I recall seeing film producer David Brown on a talk show years ago, after he had produced some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters with partner Richard Zanuck. These included such films as “The Sting,” “Jaws,” “Cocoon,” “The Verdict,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” and “The Sugarland Express.”

But life wasn’t always so good for Brown. He explained to the audience that he had been fired from his job at one of the studios when he was in his fifties, and he was at the bottom financially.

So what did he do? The day he was fired, he went home and put on his finest suit, neatly placed an expensive silk handkerchief in his breast pocket, then dined at one of Hollywood’s power restaurants — with a beautiful woman, of course.

Brown’s point was to emphasize how important it is to be bold and take the offensive when you’re down. At the time of this television interview, he was 75 years old, and had already begun three new careers — including producing his first Broadway play.

It’s important to recognize that playing to win does not always make one popular. The two boldest presidents of the past hundred years were (and are) Franklin D. Roosevelt and George W. Bush.

Against great opposition, Roosevelt led the U.S. into World War II and, at the same time, took big, bold action that led to today’s welfare state. Against great opposition, Bush has taken the fight to terrorism worldwide and, at the same time, is taking big, bold action to dismantle the welfare state.

Politics aside, Roosevelt played to win in his time and Bush is playing to win today. But there’s a price for everything in life. Roughly half of the American populace hated Roosevelt during his tenure in office and roughly half of the American populace hates George Bush today.

The moral: Taking big, bold action — being proactive and taking risks — is guaranteed to make a lot of people dislike you. But, as the saying goes, if you want to be loved, get a dog. Being aggressive and proactive is the path to greatness, not love.

With that in mind, don’t expect to be popular with everyone if you aspire to great success. When you think big and take bold action, it makes a lot of people nervous. But that’s their problem, not yours. Your job is to play to win.