Phase 2- Enlightened Pathfinding – “Is it Strategic or Operational, or Both?”-02.13.18

by Peter A. Arthur-Smith, Leadership Solutions, Inc.®

“A game is not won until it is lost,” David Pleat, Soccer Player and Manager.

Back at the end of the 2016-17 football season, when the New England Patriots was victorious over the Atlanta Falcons, we reviewed the Patriots’ game strategy. Again, at the beginning of the current 2017-18 season, we reviewed its likely team strategy; if it was going to repeat its success. This included a requirement for a top to bottom review that would put it on an even better path because likely Superbowl contenders would step-up their game, too. It would require a review of its entire game strategy and tactics, its team, its coaching staff, and its leadership. No stone should be left unturned.


There is no doubt that so many companies or organizations that experience a successful year, are inclined to become complacent and not carry out that top to bottom review of their forthcoming strategy and operational tactics, their people organization, and their entire leadership team every year. Too often they assume that everything will be okay – they are invincible. NOTE: They are required to audit their financial health every year, especially if they are a public organization, because they are required to do so.


In the Patriots’ case, led by an astute and successful businessman, Robert K. Kraft, it knew that going for its third Superbowl victory in four years would be especially challenging. Its super quarterback, Tom Brady, would be 40 years old and was destined to not to play in the team’s first three games of the season owing to a “Deflategate” disciplinary penalty. Its core team was not getting any younger. It also had to learn the lessons of their potential defeat at the hands of the Falcons a year earlier; especially based upon the first half of that February 2017 Superbowl game.


Almost by the book, the team stumbled without Brady at the beginning of its 2017-18 season by losing two out of three games: its tactics failed. However, once he returned, it settled into its game-operational-tactical mode for the rest of its scheduled season: slipping up only once more against the Miami Dolphins – maybe the warmth and sunshine were too much for players after competing in the ice and snow of New England J With its gameplan, talent and team play, it rose to the top of its division 13-3. Now it had to play a surging Jacksonville Jaguars for the AFC division championship.


It was about to face a really tough competitor. It needed a top-notch Division championship strategy. A monkey-wrench was thrown into its gameplan days before, when Brady received a bad thumb injury – during game practice – on his throwing hand. Bill Belichick, the Patriots’ coach, had to be at his coaching best in the circumstances. You could see him hurriedly going through his tactical gameplan as the game quickly swung against the Patriots in the first half. Did he have back-up contingencies? Was he expecting the dominating performance by the Jaguars for much of the first two quarters? At least his team pulled back the score to a deficit of 14-10 before half time – within striking distance.


Although Jacksonville really turned-on the play screws during that first half, with its tremendous talent, athleticism and running-of-the ball; the team displayed one potential flaw…much the same way that the Falcons did in their defeat nearly 12 months earlier.  The Jaguars’ coach should have dialed-down the amount of heroic dancing by individuals every time his players made a winning play. As a team, it gave the appearance that “the game was won before it was lost.”  It made it appear that the Jaguar team was built on a bunch of immature, individual talent rather than strong team play.


Fortunately the Patriots had experienced such a model with the Falcons a year earlier and it motivated its players to draw more closely together tactically as a team. You could spot Brady on the sidelines pacing in front of his offensive team-members to rally them once more. Surely and steadily the Patriots started to assert themselves on the game increasingly toward the end of the first half, but quite relentlessly in the second half.  This forced the Jaguars to make increasing numbers of tactical mistakes and fouls. Some of its players also became worn-out; evidenced by players leaving with “injuries” before the game was over…likely psychological injuries?


The Patriots eventually won 24-20. It was a display once more of tactical teamwork over individual showmanship. Individual Patriot players did not seem to hog the limelight and Brady was the first to attribute the win to his team mates rather than anything he had done. He praised how they closed ranks and refused to be beaten, even if their star receiver, Rob Gronkowski, had to leave the field during the first half owing to a suspected head injury. A Jaguar player was severely penalized for his helmet attack with a 15 yard penalty.


The Falcons didn’t fare quite as well this year because they were knocked out by the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional play-offs. And so, on the same day as the Patriot-Jaguar game, the Eagles were left to rout its NFC champion-ship competitor – the Minnesota Vikings – 38-7. Now the scene was set for the 52nd Superbowl in early February, 2018. Who would prevail? Both sides appear to believe in teamwork. So would it be strategy, tactics, team talent, team leadership or coaching superiority – or even Mother-luck – that would produce the next Superbowl champs? One big thing the Patriots would have to handle before getting there would be the torrent of negative slights and innuendo by sports writers, who either hated a successful team or were just trying to ginny-up interest before this critical game.


It’s amazing how successful teams become pariahs, so their leaders need to develop a pre-Superbowl strategy to help their players cope with the negative onslaught. Belichick would need to call on every coaching strategy and operational tactic to help carry his team through. Other than die-hard Patriot fans, the rest of the world would be rooting against his team. The Superbowl day arrived and the leadership test began – Strategy or game tactics, or both?


Once the game was underway, the Eagles started with a devastating drive for goal. It seemed to prick the Patriots’ self-confidence of assuming they would prevail. The Eagles were relentless, as were the Jaguars and Falcons in prior decisive games, although clues about the Patriots lack of tactical readiness showed in missing a field goal and touchdown conversion early on – 4 points lost. It was followed by Brady fumbling a breakaway run. And the Eagles weren’t giving up as they executed their tactical plays brilliantly. They appeared more mentally prepared with their players on a mission.


Although the Patriots threatened in the second half to pull it out of the bag with a score of 33-32, they weren’t sufficiently equipped to turn a game for the third time – ala the Falcons last year and the Jaguars this year – of relentless competitive pressure. Even though the Eagles showed signs early on of individual showmanship; that gradually disappeared as the Patriots fought back and forced them into playing as a team.  And so the Eagles strategy of extra fitness, skill and relentless pressure prevailed 41-33.


The Eagles’ quarterback, Nick Foles, also showed a lot of leadership with many successful throws and coolness under pressure. Brady almost produced magic at the end with a tremendous Hail-Mary throw but the Eagles were ready to thwart him. Clearly it requires both a winning strategy and operational tactics to win a decisive situation.


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