Thought Leadership Blog

The HRS Thought Leadership Blog delivers validated findings, visionary perspectives and op/ed commentaries related to HR, Leadership, Organizational Development and Employment Law. To enjoy the full volume of available articles, please enter topic keywords in the search box to explore our body of work. Articles are regularly presented by the HRS team and guest experts.


Super Bowl LII: What Leaders Can Learn from Super Bowl Coaches

Wow. What a game it was last night. Super Bowl LII had just about everything you could ask for from a football perspective; 21 different individual-game Super Bowl records were either set or tied. The offenses combined for an astronomical amount of yards (1,151 to be exact), Special Teams combined to set both the record for most combined field goals made and most kicks missed in a single Super Bowl, The Patriots punted a record-tying zero times during the whole game, and the defenses (contrary to the yardage and points racked up) made some big plays of their own. It was an amazing game, and it was incredibly fun to watch and follow.

So why am I writing about it as part of our company’s business blog? What relevance does a game like football have to business? Football is a game where you have a set salary cap to attract your talent, sign them to contracts, and compete against other organizations in a direct head-to-head competition in order to achieve results. Businesses, well, typically have the opposite of all those things, to put it plainly. There is, however, one aspect of the game of football (or any sport for that matter) that can actually apply to business and make for a relevant article:

The coaches.

Football head coaches are in charge of setting the overall strategy to plot their team’s success, and they then train their team on the execution of how to execute that strategy; they chart their players progress and performance, hold them accountable, and reward and/or discipline them based upon both on-the-job and off-the-job results.

This sure sounds like a business leader to me.

In a game where the attention frequently focuses on the execution of the individual players on the field (especially the quarterbacks), I decided to take a deeper look into the decisions each head coach (and their coordinators) made as they looked to achieve their ultimate goal. I sure have to say, this was a lot more fun than expected, and I think I found some great pieces of insight that we, as business leaders, can all take away from their decision making.

Before we dive in, let’s just take a moment to understand that the key to appreciating the following piece is all about understanding that this WAS a masterfully coached game. Obviously, it’s easy to say that about Belichick and his staff, and I’d think it should be easy to accept that Doug Pederson did equally as good of a job (if not better) since his team came out on top.

My goal here is to analyze some key plays and decisions that, I think, dictated the flow of the game and had a huge impact on the ending outcome.


1. Eagles convert a 3rd and 12, 1st Quarter, Opening Drive of the Game
This play was big for several reasons, especially when you take it in context with the fact that the Eagles opened the game with 3 straight passing plays for Nick Foles. In a game (or an entire postseason, if you will) when the entire watching world expected the Eagles to play ball control and protect their backup quarterback as the best way to win the game, Doug Pederson decided to come out and do the opposite. It sure looked like the Patriots were expecting them to run the ball, as well, deciding to play simple coverage and not bring any extra pressure during the first three passing plays of the drive, and the result was that the Eagles got out to the 49-yard line. After two stalled plays, however, the Eagles faced a 3rd and 12, and the Patriots decided this was the time to send pressure and hassle the backup. What happened? The OL picked up the blitz, Foles stood tall and he found Torrey Smith down the middle for a first down.

Never mind the end outcome of this drive (stalling in the red zone and settling for a field goal), this play, and this drive, were huge for the Eagles and Nick Foles. Early on, Nick Foles was able to get comfortable and into a rhythm, finding success and being able to respond no matter what challenges (defensive scheme) were facing him. I think it’s likely that, if the Eagles came out and ran the ball to start the game and found themselves in a similar situation without those early passing plays, there’s a much lower chance that Foles converts this big 3rd down.

Lesson: Trust your talent. Show confidence in them and put them in a position to succeed as opposed to avoiding the situations in which they may fail.


2. Foles passes left to Agholor on 1st down for a 7-yard gain, 1st Quarter
It’s the first play of the subsequent Eagles drive after the Patriots tie the game at 3-3 with a long drive of their own. Doug Pederson, sticking to his guns, decides to continue his passing game approach to get his team into the rhythm he wants to set. Admittedly, this first play wasn’t a show stopper, but what it represents, and what it opened the door to, is.

Foles hits Agholor on a shallow crossing route for a few yards, but Agholor then breaks a tackle and picks up an additional 2-3 yards, bringing up a 2nd and short. Since it’s 2nd and short, the Eagles have the ability to call a running play. The Patriots crash the box in an attempt to stuff them and force a 3rd down, but Blount runs right and gets the 1st down. The next play, Foles takes the snap and find Alshon Jeffrey, deep left, for a long touchdown.

So why did I choose the Agholor play instead of the Jeffrey touchdown? To look at that, let’s go in reverse. The Jeffrey touchdown may not have been an option had the Eagles not been able to convert on the previous play with the Blount run to the right. The Patriots, possibly still convinced the Eagles were eventually going to stick to the running game, made the decision to play the run on defense and try to take that away, leaving the deep throw available as the defenders played shallow. Now, let’s back it up further and ask what would have happened if Agholor hadn’t broken that tackle and picked up those extra yards. Would the Eagles have still called a run play on a 2nd and 5 or 6? More importantly, would the Patriots have crashed the box to try and stop the run if it were that situation instead of a 2nd and 3? My guess to both questions is, “probably not.”

Lesson: Sometimes it’s an above average effort by an individual member of your team that opens the door for something greater. Maybe you don’t realize it at first, but it’s important to always acknowledge that a single accomplishment, no matter how big or small, can open doors that you cannot assume would have otherwise been there. Pay attention to what your team is doing, and again, trust your talent. Recognition is key.


3. Coaching Decision: Malcolm Jenkins on James White
While not a play, it was certainly a big coaching decision that affected the flow of this game. Everyone, including the announcers, assumed that the Eagles would play their best Safety Cover Man on Rob Gronkowski. That would be conventional wisdom, right? Well, Doug Pederson and his staff saw an opportunity for something that wasn’t conventional wisdom and what they believed was even better. They stuck Malcolm Jenkins on James White, arguably the biggest difference maker in last year’s Super Bowl comeback, as one of their keys to their defensive scheme.

Lesson: A lot of time, we as business owners are so concerned about filling one particular need or hole in our business that we often stick to conventional wisdom and try to make things work in the most obvious way possible; sometimes this works, and sometimes the outcome fails because we’re trying to take the most “circle-like” square we have and fit it into a round hole. Know the strengths of your team and play to those strengths; don’t always try to make your team play to the strengths of your strategy or operations.


4. Coaching Decision: Malcolm Butler doesn’t play
Yes, I’m finally getting to something that the Patriots did; lest I make it about a question that a lot of people are scratching their heads over (don’t worry, Patriots fans – this isn’t a Doug Pederson love article. In fact, the next three points are about positives for your team).

A lot of business owners react differently when it comes to an issue with one of their top performers, and I personally find it safe to say that leaders are split down the middle between whether they will take the approach to treat a star player like everyone else or to give them the “special treatment” and let them get away with more because of the overall good it does for the team and the organization.

We may not yet know why Malcolm Butler was benched, but we can surmise that Belichick is on the side of treating everyone equally and believing that no one person is greater than the team (having previously directly stated that last part).

Lesson: While it may be possible that the game would have been different had Butler played, I do not for a second doubt Belichick’s decision to bench him. Maybe it’s because it’s hard to question Bill at this point in his illustrious career, but he presumably did the right thing here. If a star performer does something wrong and needs to be reprimanded, the scenario of you taking action is that star performer’s fault, not yours. The star performer is the one who let their team down by doing something wrong, not you.


5. Brady finds Hogan deep right for 43 yards on 2nd and 10, 2nd Quarter
To this point in the game, the Eagles base defense with their Wide-9 technique (defensive ends split out wider than usual) was largely working on the Patriots. Yes, they had already racked up a bunch of yards, but they were also only held to two field goals (and a missed third one). This play was huge, not just from a yardage total, but also because it was the Patriots direct answer to the Wide-9.

Brady had an extra second (or two) to look down the field because the Pats had both Gronk and the Running Back chip the ends on their way out into their routes (sic, slow them down with a momentary block). This wound up being huge because the Patriots were able to scheme, through chip blocks and play action, to take away the biggest threat which was facing them. For the rest of the game, it’s important to note that the Wide-9 didn’t stop working, it’s just that the Patriots found ways to work around it (foreshadowing – this remedy only worked when it was a legitimate threat to the Eagles). This also wound up being huge because James White ran for a touchdown on the very next play. Eagles 15, Patriots 12.

Lesson: Take what the defense gives you. Okay, that’s not actually business advice. The closest thing like that to business analysis would likely by a SWOT analysis. The best business minds know how to take in information in the moment, analyze the situation, and deploy a remedy. Jeff Bezos, as an example, states that you need to become comfortable with making decisions with only about 70% of the information available.


6. Following Halftime, it’s Gronk Time
The Patriots are down by 10 points and getting the ball to start the half. There’s no sugar coating what they did to cut the lead down; they fed Gronk. Look, I’ll keep this brief. Sometimes you just need to go with what works.

Lesson: Use your best asset(s). As a business, strategy and overcoming adversity is a huge part of the game, but you can’t forget what it is that you do best and what your competitive advantage is. In the biggest moments, “with the game in the balance,” it can be a great time to go with your strength.


7. Coaching Decision: Matt Patricia seen on sidelines in heated discussion with his players
This flashed on screen for a few seconds, but you could see Patriots Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia in a heated discussion with his players following another Eagles touchdown. Maybe he was instilling a sense of urgency, or maybe he was being perceived as “yelling.” Admittedly, I’m not sure. What I do know, however, is that the Patriots were looking for answers on defense, and it wasn’t necessarily their fault. Honestly, I was a huge fan of Nick Foles’ performance in last night’s game. He was phenomenal. He was beating the Patriots defense whether they played man or zone coverage, whether they brought pressure or even dropped extra men into coverage (like they did when he threw over the top of double coverage on the Corey Clement touchdown). He had an amazing game, but the Patriots needed answers if they were going to win.

Lesson: How do you respond to your team when adversity arises? Do you try and instill a sense of urgency, or even a sense of fear? Do you try to reassure and build confidence? It’s no big secret that how we respond in these situations is a lot of what defines us as leaders and how our team perceives us.


8. Patriots bring a Slot Corner Blitz on 1st down with the Eagles on the Patriots’ 24-yard line, 4th Quarter
I’m pretty sure I even blurted out an “Oh, interesting,” as this happened in real time and my family just stared at me blankly. I was so deep into my note taking as the game was coming to a close, and I’m pretty sure they all thought I was insane for not paying close attention to the moment. The thing is, though, that this made me pay so much closer attention to the game than I had ever thought and, believe it or not, I had fun doing it.

On to the play, this happened on the very last true offensive possession for the Eagles – where they ultimately scored the go-ahead touchdown and went up by 5. On this drive, something was brewing on the left side of the offensive line that you may or may not have noticed; James Harrison was consistently beating the Eagles left tackle. He was incredibly close to getting sacks multiple times on this drive, including the immediately preceding few plays leading up to this 1st and 10 on the Patriots 24-yard line.

The Eagles were driving, and the Patriots once again needed answers, but I scratched my head at this decision. After however many plays in a row of James Harrison almost getting home on only four men rushing, the Patriots decided to send a corner blitz to bring extra pressure. What happened? Foles hit Agholor in the flat from where the blitzing corner just came and picked up a first down. It’s hard to second-guess Belichick and Patricia, as some of the best defensive minds in football, but I still question it. You’re essentially in the red zone, and zones automatically get tighter down there (so it’s a little easier to play pass defense) and you could have stuck with that defense and tried with the four-man rush that was, largely, working.

Lesson: The Patriots overreacted to recent results on this play. I’ll admit, this one may be subjective, and I see a valid argument for those saying, “they needed to do something. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” I think there’s a valid takeaway for business leaders here, though, in that sometimes we can feel the pressure and overreact ourselves to recent developments. When you see an obstacle continuing to unfold and you need a solution, how many times do you change your strategy instead of staying the course on what is, perceivably, so close to working?


9. Eagles play Zone Defense on a 2nd and 2, 2:16 left in the game
And now we come to the biggest play of the game; the one that decided the outcome. Why did I describe this play as I did above? Because this decision was $%!^ing brilliant. That’s why.

For almost the entirety of the game, the Eagles were visually playing man coverage against the Pats. Even more importantly, the Eagles had shown man essentially every time that Brady sent the Running Back in motion (a common tactic that modern offenses uses to identify zone vs. man coverage). On this play, with 2:16 left in the game, the running back went in motion but no single player followed him. The Eagles were in zone.

Brady dropped back to pass and, likely, needed one extra second to digest the zone coverage that he hadn’t seen much of to that point. What did that one second mean? Remember how I said that the Eagles Wide-9 was largely working throughout the game?

Bingo. Sack-fumble.

The Wide-9 never stopped working; it was just that the Patriots were, again, using those chip blocks and play action to slow it down and give an extra second to Brady. On this play, however, when you need quick routes and the threat to run goes away so play action becomes null and void with the clock running down, the Wide-9 finally paid off, and it may all have been because they showed zone.

Lesson: Know your strengths, but adapt when necessary. Wait, isn’t this in direct contradiction to the last lesson presented? Yes, but that’s the point and also the biggest lesson to take here. As business leaders, inasmuch as we have to understand our strengths, strategize against challenges, lead our teams through adversity, and know when to not overreact, we also have to know when to react and to adapt. It’s an exceedingly difficult task, and one that most business leaders only learn through trial and error.

This is why I compiled this article; I wanted to get a glimpse of any such examples that I could take from such an easily digestible, and entertaining, form of media. I need some takeaways myself to see how some of the best minds in football responded to game flow and adversity, and I personally feel that I got some valuable insights out of these key plays. I hope that anyone reading this feels the same way.


Matthew Bare - Monday, February 05, 2018