It’s been over two weeks and here at Dandelion Chandelier we’re still talking about it: how on earth did Tom Brady and the Pats win Super Bowl LI?
Seriously: the magnitude of this victory is hard to over-state. 25 points behind at the half. Down 28-9 at the start of the fourth quarter. No Super Bowl team has ever dug itself out of a hole that deep until now: in fact, in the history of the NFL playoffs before this game, 93 teams had a lead of 19 or more points heading into the fourth quarter. Their record was 93-0. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, prior to this game, teams leading by 25 or more points at any time in any NFL game were 2,545-4-2 in the regular season and 102-2 in the postseason. Add it up and only six times in 2,655 games, or 0.2 percent of the time, has a team come back from a 25-point deficit to win a game. The Falcons’ win probability on ESPN was 99.6% with 9 minutes 44 seconds left in the game. It was the first over-time ever in Super Bowl history. This is a Black Swan, if ever there was one. Also the best possible outcome for a memorable Super Bowl party.
So how did the Pats pull it off? How do you motivate not just one person but an entire team to recover from that kind of deficit and win? Resilience is one thing – this seems like something else altogether. Like something warriors do in life-or-death situations.
For those of us who manage and lead teams of people, it’s a staggering achievement that demands some further analysis: what can we learn about competition, strategy and leadership from this game? Forget about that – what can we learn about life from this game? How does one summon that level of resolve and determination, and pass that on to the rest of the team? After surveying the members of the Sports Desk and conferring with the smartest person we know on the subject of football, we’ve come up with 10 life lessons learned:
Don’t let early mistakes prevent you from plotting a comeback. A core principle of both physics and Management 101 is that early wins are crucial to success. If a venture begins its early days with a couple of small victories, momentum is yours – and it’s powerful (a body in motion stays in motion). What’s less often discussed is what happens when you experience early losses. The Pats made two significant errors in the first half of Super Bowl LI: they fumbled the ball once, and quarterback Tom Brady threw an intercepted pass to the Falcons’ Robert Alford, who returned it 82 yards for a touch-down (suffice it to say, this was not a good moment for Brady – it was also unprecedented. He had never thrown a pic 6 in a Super Bowl, nor in a playoff game – not for 33 games, prior to this one). If those two things hadn’t happened, the score at the half would have been a much less intimidating 7-0. Of course the mistakes happened, and of course they count. But at the half in the Pats locker-room, we imagine that at least some of what was said was that a couple of dumb errors were not going to sink this team. That takes confidence and clear vision. And that’s something every one of us can learn to exhibit.
Practice, practice, practice. The game ended up being won in part by two-point plays. For casual followers of the game, it’s important to know that this is extremely rare in Super Bowl history. And it was also extremely rare for the Pats. During the entire season up to this game, they had executed exactly one 2-point play. Who would have thought that this would be a necessary skill? They did. In pre-game practices, they rehearsed two-point plays all week. The last time they practiced the maneuver, it failed. But in the game, it worked. The Pats twice successfully scored 2 points for extra points (once with running back James White and once with wide receiver Danny Amendola). For the third of the two point plays that they practiced, James White ran it for the touchdown in overtime. Lesson? You have no idea which skill you may need to call upon in a big game, so you need to practice all of them. A lot.
Know the rules of the game better than anyone else. There’s an obscure football rule that if one team punts and the receiving team catches the ball, that team has the option of either running the play or doing a “free kick” (it’s like a field goal, but even easier to execute). In the 4th quarter, with 15 seconds left on the clock and the score at 28-28, the Falcons punted. Before the punt, Pats head coach Bill Belichick called for a time-out. The on-air commentators couldn’t fully explain why. It later came out that before the play, Belichick had told wide receiver Julian Edelman to “fair catch” the Falcons punt. The time-out was to ensure that Edelman understood that he should catch the punt as a fair catch, and not try to return it, in order to give the Pats the option to free kick. He made the catch, and Belichick decided against the free kick. If he had taken that option, it might have ended the game right then and there. It was a very significant option for the team, and when the stakes are high, optionality is a highly valuable commodity. At the time, most people didn’t seem to understand that this choice was even available – it’s such a little-known rule that it took a day or so for people to figure it out. The point? With that level of excruciating pressure, the coach still knew that he had options and strategic choices – and he only knew that because he knew the rules. Cold. It may be better to be lucky than smart, but sometimes being smart is really helpful.
Know when to throw your playbook out. The Falcons had one real opportunity to shut the game down in the 4th quarter and go home victorious. With 4 minutes left in the game, after a truly incredible catch by Julio Jones, they were on the 22-yard line. The safe thing to do would have been to kick a field goal. Instead, the offensive coach decided to be more aggressive. It’s the way the team had been playing offense all season, it had brought them to the brink of a Super Bowl victory, and he was committed to sticking with the playbook that had worked. Except this time, it didn’t. The Falcons first ran for a 2-yard loss, then they dropped back to pass and saw their quarterback sacked, and then completed a pass but got a 10-yard penalty for holding. Those last two plays each cost them about 10 yards, pushing them out of field goal range. It’s easy to blame the offensive coach for calling the wrong play – but who among us doesn’t stick to what has always worked for us when the stakes are high? We’re almost always urged to be bold and seize the moment – sometimes it’s better to take the safe bet and call it a day.
Raw talent matters. Heading into this game, there was really no reason for the Pats not to win. Just based on prior performance during the season, they clearly had a better-balanced team on the field: while they had the #2 offense, and the Falcons were #1, the Pats had the #1 defense, and the Falcons were #27. And you know what they say about championships and defense. Part of what gave the Pats confidence and resilience must have been knowing that they had a huge amount of talent to deploy – even with their star tight end Rob Gronkowski on the I.R. with a back injury. There’s nothing like a great bench when you really need it.
Experience matters, too. It’s always heavily debated: does it matter if a team’s quarterback has been in the Super Bowl before? Statistically speaking, no. But what mattered in this game was whether or not some other key players had ever been in the big game before. The Falcons defense included four rookie players. They’re young, and fast – and inexperienced. In the end, the Falcons defense gave up 31 unanswered points – possibly because the newcomers just didn’t have as much muscle memory from prior Super Bowls. The Pats were older and slower than the Falcons, but they pulled it out. Other experiences that must have proved helpful? Tom Brady is a brilliant clutch player, and has been for a long time. In November 2013, against the Denver Broncos, he led the Pats back from a 24-0 deficit at the half to a 3-point win in overtime. He’s had 3rd and 4th-quarter comebacks against the Bills, the Chargers, the Colts, the Bears, the Raiders, and the Panthers. This is kind of his thing.
Well-informed on-boarding is mission-critical. Another key moment for the Falcons came in the 4th quarter when their running back Tevin Coleman left the game with an injured left ankle and Devonta Freeman took over. Looking at the game tapes, some commentators observed that it appears that Freeman was confused about exactly what play the team was running at a crucial moment. He’s seen gesticulating a bit as if in confusion – whatever was going on, he failed to block the Pats’ outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and that gave the Pats an opening just when they needed it. Freeman wasn’t an inexperienced team member by any means – he had 227 carries in 2016 to Coleman’s 118, and he had already scored a touchdown earlier in the game. The man’s clearly got game, but the fog of war can be impenetrable sometimes for even the best. It’s a good reminder: when newcomers or seasoned hands are rushed into place at a crucial moment, it’s key to ensure beforehand that they know the plotline as well as everyone else on the team.
If you want to win, set a sustainable pace. The consensus seems to be that part of the Falcons’ issue was that their defense just got tired. Their defensive backs had to keep up with the Pats receivers all over the field, and by the 3rd quarter, their fatigue was noticeable. On the NFL’s “Sound FX,” where you can listen to the conversations between the coach and some of the players – who wear mikes during the game – you can hear Pats head coach Belichick at half-time saying “they’re getting tired.” The Falcons were playing well, but they couldn’t keep it up. Early victories only count if they lead to ultimate victory.
Don’t be reluctant to rope-a-dope the competition. The flip side of that lesson is that there’s no shame in waiting your competitors out. As long as you can keep your powder dry, you can, like the Pats, let fatigue set in and then go in for the kill.
Never underestimate the power of Mom. It’s likely that no one will ever really know what motivated the Pats the most when they were down the furthest. Surely resentment of Commissioner Roger Goodell and the desire for revenge after the “Deflate-gate” matter was simmering beneath the surface the entire time. But surely part of it, too, was the pure emotion of the desire to honor their quarterback’s mother. Galynn Brady had never missed a game in which her son was playing, but all season she was absent from the stadium because she’s currently undergoing treatment for a serious health issue. She was in the stands for this game, though. Right before the Patriots took the field for overtime, Edelman said “Let’s go score and win this thing, baby.” “Let’s go win it all,” Brady responded. “For your mom. For your mom, bro,” Edelman then said. What’s in our hearts is at least as important as what is in our heads – people need a noble purpose. The Pats had one that day.
Now of course there are all kinds of actual facts and urban legends that some say account for the way this game played out. The regular-season MVP’s team never wins the Super Bowl. Defense wins championships. We would never dare to question this or any other assertion from a seasoned super fan. And of course, luck always plays a role (what would have happened if the Pats had not won the coin toss at the start of overtime?)
We’re just going to try to remember this game every time we feel discouraged, overwhelmed, out-matched or just mistake-prone. Any given Sunday, anyone can win. Even when they’re 25 points behind. Give Tom Brady back his jersey, scoundrel thief! This man and his team have earned it.
In the immortal words of Samuel L. Jackson, noted Falcons fan: See ‘ya next year.