You can learn a lot from football. Here are two examples from the recently finished Vikings-Saints game of things that appeared random (and cost the game), but were not. One of these things teaches us about systems, and the other teaches us about mindsets.
The Vikings fumbled something like 5 times in this game. It’s easy to look at fumbles as mishaps — something that the team does to itself. And this is sometimes the case. But often fumbles are caused. That was the case with many of the Vikings fumbles tonight. They weren’t accidents, but were the result of the Saints knocking the ball loose.
The Saints weren’t doing this because it happened to occur to them now and then. It was an intentional strategy on their part. They intentionally, consistently, and aggressively went after the football to try to cause fumbles and take it away. Which points to a system–an intentional and ongoing set of behaviors designed to accomplish a goal.
Every team tries to create take-aways. But the Saints were especially good at it tonight. Consequently, it was interesting to hear the announcers mention before the game that the Saints’ defensive coordinator has a very specific guiding philosophy: turn the game into a street fight.
He doesn’t mean that in a bad sense, in the sense of engaging in unfair play. Rather, the meaning is to be aggressive and play a very physical game. Part of this seems to be placing high emphasis in creating turnovers.
From what I can gather from a distance, then, it appears to me that we have evidence here of a really good system. First, the defensive coordinator has a guiding philosophy–which is always an advantage because it gives focus and clarity to direct action toward what is most important. Second, he fleshes this philosophy out in specific behaviors (such as: continually try to knock the ball out). Third, it seems likely that he continually emphasizes and reinforces his philosophy to the defense–for, if he didn’t, it’s likely that it would not be on their radar to that extent.
Here’s the upshot: things that appeared random and spontaneous (in this case, fumbles) were actually the result of a well-conceived, well-implemented system. The specific fumbles that occurred were not (and could not have been) planned; but the fact that they happened was rather the outcome of a well executed strategy (and some failure on the Vikings to anticipate the Saints’ level of focus on creating fumbles), without which they likely wouldn’t have happened at all.
When Favre threw the interception on the Vikings’ final drive, the interception was not a random throw. It was not a bolt out of the blue. Certainly Favre didn’t intend to throw an interception, but the two actions that he took which led to the interception came right out of his standard pattern of play–his mindsets.
First, before throwing it came about that there was about 10 yards of open field in front of him. He could have kept running and got that ten yards, and seemed to contemplate doing so (which would have set the Vikings up well for the field goal). But instead, he threw the ball. Why?
I would argue that it was because of an ingrained mindset. He didn’t make a 50-50 decision in the moment, evaluating the options completely afresh. He passed because he appears to have a mindset which strongly inclines him to passing in those situations over running.
I’m inferring this because that’s the pattern he’s exhibited all year. One time he was even 4 yards past the line of scrimmage when he passed the ball, which doesn’t make sense without a strongly ingrained tendency to pass even when there is clear room to pick up decent yards by running.
There is nothing wrong with this preference. He probably developed it because he is so good at passing. It makes sense, and part of what makes someone an expert is precisely that they have developed patterns such as this.
So Favre’s choice to pass rather than just keep running with the ball was not random, and not something that came out of the blue in the moment, with no background.
Second, this particular pass was thrown across the field. As the announcers said afterward, this breaks the cardinal rule of passing. You never throw the ball across the field. However, I’ve seen Favre do this before. It looks like he doesn’t necessarily accept that rule fully. He probably agrees with it and typically acts in accord with it, but in certain situations has a tendency to throw across the field anyway. So this throw across the field was not random, either.
Both of the choices Favre made, consequently, appear to have had their roots in mindsets that were developed over an entire career of almost 20 years. This means that the outcome of the game (to the extent that these decisions affected it — and they weren’t the only thing that could have gone better) was not simply decided in the moment. It was the outcome a pre-existing framework of thought — some of which was probably developed intentionally, and some of which probably developed naturally through experience.
The point is this: Things that appear to have been decided spontaneously are often actually stemming from pre-existing systems and mindsets that have been a long time in the making. This, of course, is why teams practice.
What it shows us is that, in our lives and organizations, we should be intentional to put in place systems and mindsets that will make it easier and more likely for people to make the most effective choices.
Favre did a fantastic job all season and in this game. His final pass was not a failure; it simply shows that none of us are perfect. No systems or mindsets that we create or encourage ever will be. But we should be cognizant to the role that systems and mindsets play, and seek to make sure they are working for the organization as much as we possibly can.