What It Takes to Win: Management Lessons from the NFL’s Final Four

While I enjoy watching sports for the competitions themselves, I also believe there lessons we can learn from them. In particular, as I’ve progressed in my career, and have had the opportunity to take leadership roles in various initiatives, I’ve paid more and more attention to how successful teams and individuals operate off the field. There are some excellent books that cover the management styles of teams or individuals (I recommend starting with Moneyball, The Extra 2%, The Education of a Coach, and the Soccernomics chapter on Olympique Lyon’s approach to the transfer market).

Like many people, I’m looking forward to the NFL’s Championship Sunday tomorrow. There are four strong, interesting teams competing for spots in the Super Bowl. They’ve all taken different roads to success, but they all have things they can teach us. Here are some of the key lessons I think we can take away from each team:

New England Patriots
Strong, Stable Leadership is Key
Head Coach Bill Belichick joined the club in 1999, and Quarterback Tom Brady took over as the starter midway through 2001. Since then, neither has relinquished his spot, and their stability has led the Patriots to 3 Super Bowls, another appearance in the final. In that time, they’ve only missed the playoffs twice (one of those years, Brady was knocked out for the season in the first game).

The Belichick-Brady partnership has transcended turnover on and off the field, and allowed the team to persevere through some bad drafts in the middle of the 2000s, and loss of other key personnel. For any organization, strong leadership is key to success in an ever-changing environment.

It’s Important to Adapt
In the early 2000s, New England built their teams around defense, focusing on ball control (running, short passes) while on offense. Later, as Brady matured, they shifted to a more aggressive passing style – still throwing short but adding a greater focus on the deep ball. Whatever the impetus, the Patriots were not content to assume what had worked in the past would work again in the future. Lots of organizations, after periods of success, are content to rest on their laurels, and that’s where they usually fall behind.

(Football-specific digression: because they won 3 Super Bowls from 2001-04, and have won none – and only appeared in one since – it’s easy to write off the past several years as a less successful approach. This is where luck and the law of averages come in. The Patriots won those 3 Super Bowls by 3 points each, 2 of them on the last play of the game. They made the first one by getting a controversial – albeit correct – call on the famous Tuck Rule play to go their way. Since then, the Super Bowl they lost was by 3 points in a game that could have gone either way. No Helmet Catch (which I refuse to look up and link to because of the bad memories), or if Brady’s bomb to Moss a few plays after NYG went ahead is a few inches closer to his target, and they might win). Also, they lost a close AFC Championship game to Indianapolis – after holding a huge halftime lead – the previous season, and had they moved on, would have been heavily favoured to beat Chicago. Point is, they probably should have about 3 Super Bowl wins in this era, but a few breaks or lucky/unlucky bounces is the reason they all came early on, not later).

Don’t Be Afraid to Take a Chance on Talented People with Problems…
Through the years, Belichick has taken on talented players with off-field issues. Some, like Rodney Harrison and Corey Dillon, contributed to championship teams. Others, like Randy Moss, had good runs of success before becoming headaches. And some, like OchoCinco and Albert Haynesworth, haven’t contributed much.

…But Have a Short Leash, and Don’t Be Afraid to Cut Ties
While Harrison enjoyed a long tenure, Moss had a great first year, but less than 2 years later, the Pats cut ties in the middle of a season once he became a distraction. And OchoCinco and Haynesworth rarely played this past season. It’s one thing to take a chance, but it’s critical to know when to let go, and to not feel compelled to keep giving them more chances.

Baltimore Ravens
Create an Identity, and Keep it Strong
Gang Tackle

The talent on offense has come and gone, but the D has been the Ravens’ identity for 15 years. Think of the team, and you think of charismatic, ferocious leader Ray Lewis, hard-hitting, ball-hawk free safety Ed Reed, or any number of big, bruising lineman and linebackers that have suited up in purple over the years.

The Ravens play defense, they hit, and they’ll make you hurt. Can you sum up your organization (and it’s identity) that succinctly?

Also, does your organization have a leader who dances to ‘Hot in Herre’ by Nelly to finish the pre-game intros?

Always Recruit New Talent, and Don’t Be Afraid to Let People Go
Every team in the NFL, due to the salary cap, sees a lot of turnover, the key is how they respond. Baltimore has turned over its roster several times (except for their core leaders), and rarely misses a beat due to the excellent work they do uncovering talent in the draft. This is particularly relevant for non-profits or small organizations on fixed budgets (like salary cap-limited NFL teams), who will likely lose talent to higher-paying competitors. Strong work identifying young, up and coming replacements can ensure continued success.

San Francisco Giants 49ers
Talent Needs an Environment Where it Can Succeed
After being drafted first overall, Alex Smith has struggled for much of his career. Many, including myself, wrote him off. But can you place the blame entirely on a quarterback who went through 3 head coaches, and 7 offensive coordinators in his first 7 seasons? Young talent needs to be nurtured, and under head coach (and former QB) Jim Harbaugh, San Fran is finally starting to see the fruits of Smith’s potential.

A Leadership Change Can Bring Quick Results
The aforementioned Harbaugh took over as head coach this season, and with few major moves, doubled the team’s win total from 2010. A successful leader like Harbaugh can rally people and get a lot more out of them with few other changes.

New York Giants
Build On Your Strengths
For the past number of years, the Giants’ strong point has been their ferocious pass rush, and they keep building on it. Justin Tuck was drafted when Osi Umenyora and Michael Strahan were well-entrenched as the starting defensive ends. When Strahan retired, Jason Pierre-Paul and Chris Canty were brought in not long afterwards, despite the line not appearing to be a major need. This talented, deep group of pass rush continues to fuel much of the team’s success, giving it a competitive advantage in almost every game.

If You Want Talent, Go the Extra Mile to Get It
Drafting 4th overall in 2004, the Giants had no chance at consensus first overall choice Eli Manning. But when he expressed refusal to play in San Diego (who drafted him), the Giants swooped in, trading that pick, an additional one, and next year’s first rounder to get Eli. A steep price, considering they took a QB for San Diego (Phillip Rivers) in that spot (also, Ben Roethlisberger went 7 picks later), but the Giants targeted Eli, and did what they had to in order to acquire him.

Don’t Panic in Times of Trouble
The Giants are one of the most mercurial teams I’ve ever followed, in any sport. In any given week, it looks like they could either quit on their coach, Tom Coughlin, or beat any team they face. Despite this, management has stuck with the coach despite conflicts, and some collapses on the field. With one Super Bowl win to his record, and a team playing like a favourite to win a second this year, it appears to be the right choice.

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3 Responses

  1. You forgot to mention that the Patriots have built through the draft. A lot of teams pay lip service to building through the draft, but then trade away all their picks when a big name becomes available. The Carson Palmer mega-trade of this year is a good example. The Patriots have drafted 14 pro-bowlers since 2000, a good many of them in later rounds: Brady, Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Asante Samuel, Dan Koppen, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Matt Cassel, Stephen Gostkowski, Brandon Meriweather, Jerod Mayo, Matthew Slater, Devin McCourty, and Rob Gronkowski.

    • True, all four teams playing today have done well in the draft. The Pats’ record in recent years is shakier, so I didn’t feel like it was one of the top things I could highlight for them.

  2. […] I’m wont to do, I find lessons from sports that we can all implement in our work, no matter what type of […]

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