Monday, November 24, 2008

McNabb Must Produce Now for His Own Good

By Scott Lowe
API Management & Marketing
Brett Favre wanted to play and forced Green Bay's hand. The time had come. When everything went down between Favre and the Packers it wasn't clear as to whether either side really handled the situation correctly, but the end result suited everyone.

Favre got his wish. He's playing and has resurrected the Jets. Aaron Rodgers, while not yet Brett Favre, clearly was ready to play at the NFL level. The best part of the outcome was that everything played out prior to the season, giving both players the opportunity to have successful years.

Two weeks ago when Donovan McNabb made his oft-replayed annual foot-in-the-mouth comment -- this time a befuddling admission that he didn't know NFL games could end in a tie -- I had a feeling in my gut that he just wanted out of Philadelphia. I mean we all know that McNabb is good for at least one head-shaker of a comment every season. But the man who was booed simply for being a No. 1 draft pick, after so many years in the City of Brotherly Hate, had to know that his comment was going to raise the ire of Philadelphia's fantatical following.

More glaring, however, was that the admission just didn't add up. McNabb openly questioned what would happen in the playoffs if a game ended in a tie just a few short years after his team faced an opponent who had won a playoff game the previous week in double OT. I'm just guessing that at some point McNabb watched that game -- either as it unfolded or in the film room during his weekly preparation. Elite athletes have unbelievable memories when it comes to their sport; they just don't forget details like that.

It is my opinion that McNabb actually is smarter than he is made out to be -- that he simply had enough and was throwing in the towel on the season and his career in Philadelphia. He knew how the fans would react and that his teammates most likely were tired of his act. Famours for placing the blame on others to begin with, McNabb had his finger on the pulse of the locker room and knew that he had lost all control of the team. If he played his cards right after those comments it would take one more subpar outing before he would be benched. It would be easier to watch from the sidelines than get booed the rest of the season, and his body could rest up for a potentially huge free-agent contract in Chicago, Detroit or Minnesota next season.

To go out on the field and play when it had become clear that his teammates no longer wanted to go to war for him and knowing that the support of the fans had been waning for weeks could be career suicide -- especially with that big potential free agent deal looming. That's right, one unbelievable comment and one more lousy performance -- against a top-rated defense away from the hostile home crowd -- and the rest of the season could be observed from the safety of the sidelines. Actually, it took only one half of a game for the load to be lifted from McNabb's shoulders. Or did it?

Many people have debated whether Andy Reid handled McNabb's benching the right way -- whether he treated the man who had enabled him to become the league's longest-tenured coach and to enjoy more success at the Eagles' helm than any other Philly coach in history properly. I would argue that McNabb had let his coach, the man who has stood behind him despite injuries, a consistent decline in play and yearly distractions, down in a big way. Reid's decision was a human reaction by someone who felt betrayed. He had been let down by someone who he had gone to bat for time and again, and he reacted as any of us might. How can you blame him?

After the game a stoic McNabb told the media that he didn't know if he would start the next game. There was no emotion one way or the other. No anger. No disgust. No sign of hurt. Of course he says that he wants to be the starter and that he deserves to be the starter -- at least publicly. But does he really mean it? He certainly doesn't act like someone who wants to play. Coaches always say that they want a player to react with anger and emotion when they are benched. If they don't respond that way, chances are that the fire inside that is necessary to be successful has been extinguished.

After the unceremonious benching in Baltimore, McNabb had to think that he was going to get his wish and watch the rest of the season while holding a clipboard safely on the sidelines. Well, Reid has called his bluff by announcing that McNabb will indeed start this week. Perhaps this is a challenge to McNabb to see if he really does want to play. Certainly if he comes out and is terrible again and shows little emotion on or off the field, there will be little doubt that he has given up on the season and his time in Philly. Maybe Reid is thinking that if McNabb truly is looking for a way out of town next year that he will have to come out and attempt to lead the team the best way he knows how. After all, if he doesn't, won't his market value take a hit, and isn't that quite possibly what motivates him at this point?

It seems like all of this would be easier if people just treated each other with respect and confronted issues in person. Unfortunately, we live in a technology-driven world in which it is easier to throw a tantrum via an email, write a nasty blog or send a sarcastic text than to walk into someone's office and have a man-to-man conversation.

In Favre's case, that situation almost got ugly for both sides as the Packers put an unbelievable amount of pressure on their young quarterback and Favre ran the risk of ruining his reputation in Green Bay, looking like a manipulator and playing out his career for a bad team. In the end everything worked out for both sides, and Favre now looks like a genius.

The Eagles are in an unusual sitation as their star quarterback and the most successful coach in team history seem to be playing mind games with one another. It seems as though Reid's latest maneuver puts McNabb in a Catch-22. On the other hand, by not having confronted his situation head-on, McNabb finds himself in a position where he must produce -- not only for his team's future, but for his own as well.

Another lackluster performance followed by an emotionless press conference is going to make people around the league wonder if he has lost some of his skill and his will to play the game. That is not good for business -- on or off the field.

Reid, on the other hand, has nothing to lose. If McNabb plays great and the team wins, he handled the situation perfectly. If McNabb continues his lackluster play, no one can say that the coach didn't give the superstar who had produced so much for him a fair shake.

The sad thing is that by the time everyone is done playing mind games a season might be lost. This situation easily could have been solved weeks ago with a simple face-to-face conversation -- a great lesson from which all of us can learn.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Stop Playing Not to Lose

By Scott Lowe
API Management & Marketing

Virtually every coach I ever played for as a kid talked about playing to win instead of "playing not to lose." College and professional coaches give it lip service every day. So why, why, why do so few college and professional coaches actually practice what they preach?

Maybe it's the money involved and maybe it's the pressure. Or maybe the money and pressure are so intertwined as to be perceived as one in the same. Whater the reason, more games are lost playing "not to lose" than are lost by "playing to win," and many times the coaching staff is the culprit.

The main offenders seem to be college and professional football coaches - apparently the inventers of the universally maligned (at least among football fans) prevent defense that so many have said actually prevents winning. The latest glaring example occurred yesterday in Texas Tech's thrilling, collosal upset of top-ranked Texas, which fell after finally pulling in front by one with 1:39 remaining in the fourth quarter. At that point Texas Tech had blown a 16-point third-quarter lead by sitting back and trying not to surrender the big play.

A logical person might think that Texas would have learned from its opponent's mistake, but upon further review, you couldn't expect a coach to learn something that hundreds of other college and pro coaches have failed to discover through the years. Instead, the Longhorns tried to avoid giving up the big play as well, allowing the Red Raiders to advance all the way to the end zone for the victory in just six plays and 1:38.

Prior to that fateful drive, Texas had held Texas Tech to just three points during the game's previous 20 minutes as opposed to the 29 the Longhors surrendered in the game's opening 37 minutes. Then, all of the sudden, the Red Raiders caught lightning in a bottle and sprinted all the way down the field field for the winning score? No. Apparently Texas Tech played "not to lose" for 20 minutes and found themselves down by a point with 1:39 left. Then Texas decided to play "not to lose" and found itself on the short end of an upset.

This is not an isolated situation. Every week in the NFL there are four or five games in which a team's defense is dominant for three quarters and then the coaches decide to call off the dogs with a 10-point or two-touchdown lead in the final stanza. They are trying to avoid giving up the big play, instead content to allow huge chunks of yards over the middle of the field and lightning-quick 80-yard scoring drives. Inevitably these teams end up losing or watching anxiously as their opponents line up for a potential game-tying field goal or drive deep into the red zone.

Wouldn't it be better to maintain your aggressive game plan and give up an 80-yard bomb that leaves enough time on the clock for you to cruise down the field against your opponent's prevent defense than to die a slower, excruciating death as the other team marches down the field to victory?

If I'm coaching a team that has been dominant for three quarters of a game and I continue with that plan and somehow get beaten in the end, I can stand and face the music knowing that I gave my team the best chance to win - that I didn't hand my opponent the opportunity to steal an undeserved victory. If the team beats me outright, the victory is earned, but if my counterparts come back because I left the door open and gave them hope, to me that's harder to justify.

Coaches are always going to address the media as a computer technician might talk to you or me about a technological malfunction that we have no hope of understanding. They'll discuss playing the percentages and the fact that the other team is a group of professionals that doesn't quit and that none of the reporters ever played the game at that level. Of course, there's no way that these non-athletes would understand.

Having never played or coached the game, I don't pretend to have any concept of the planning and scheming that goes into creating a pro or college football team's game plan. But I have been around sports long enough as an athlete, coach and member of college and professional organizations to understand the human element that is involved.

If my coach develops an attacking, aggressive game plan and we are dominant for three quarters of the game before suddenly shifting our philosophy 180 degrees, two things are going to happen to me as a player. First, I'm going to analyze the conservative nature of the coach's decsion and be so afraid to make a costly mistake that my ability to play with anywhere near the level of tenacity and aggression necessary to make even the most basic of plays will be diminished substantially. And second, if the other team does make the game close, it's going to be very hard for me to return to the same level - emotionally and physically - at which I played before the coach backed off.

Coaches often refer to teams or players who don't have that "killer instinct" to jump on opponents when they are down and squash their hopes of even making the game close. In fact, personnel decisions often are made with character traits such as those in mind. It seems to me, however, that these coaches might want to look in the mirror and analyze the message they send on a weekly basis before judging their players in that manner.