Leadership Fail: Lessons From The Worst Super Bowl Play Ever - InformationWeek

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2/2/2015
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David Wagner
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Leadership Fail: Lessons From The Worst Super Bowl Play Ever

The biggest coaching mistake in Super Bowl history gives us a lesson in how to handle failure in our own IT organizations.

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After more than a decade of writing about leadership, I posted an article yesterday about the great leaders at the Super Bowl, and one of those leaders is now responsible for the biggest coaching mistake in football history. Now I'm forced to ask the question: What happens when good leaders go bad?

Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, the man I called a great leader yesterday, is compounding his mistake but not truly owning it, and it may cost him his team’s trust.

For non-football fans, let me sum this up as succinctly as possible. The Seattle Seahawks were behind with two minutes to go in Super Bowl XLIX. Because of a miraculous catch, the Seahawks found themselves with only one yard to go for the game-winning touchdown, and a little over 20 seconds to get there. They have the best running back in the game for making short yardage plays into touchdowns. The man's nickname is "Beast Mode." Instead of handing it to this beast of a man three times, so that on at least one occasion he might fall forward and end up in the end zone, they threw the ball and it was intercepted, allowing the New England Patriots to win.

[ What else can IT learn from Super Bowl XLIX?. Read 3 Cyber Security Lessons From Super Bowl XLIX. ]

To put this into tech leadership terms, it's akin to Tim Cook saying, "Despite great sales, I'm going to discontinue the iPhone and iPad and start selling servers." This was a leader turning away from his greatest strength to instead use a dangerous strategy when the entire game was on the line. Is there a management book out there that has ever said: "At the most important moments, a manager should turn away from his team's greatest strengths"? Again, without trying to fill this with football talk, you must be wondering if there was a good reason. Maybe they were trying to surprise the other team, right?

Well, yes. Clearly, they had a reason. But here are the things that can happen if you run the ball:

  1. You can be tackled before scoring and try again.
  2. You can score a touchdown and put yourself in the lead with about 20 seconds to go in the game.
  3. You can fumble, but the man you are handing the ball to is not known for that.
  4. What happens if you throw? Let’s save that for a second, but clearly the risk is higher.

The No. 1 factor in facing failure is "owning it." Fessing up to the mistake and showing how you are going to fix it has always been the management 101 way of fixing a mistake. It is about rebuilding trust. Is Carroll owning it? Sort of.

Pete Carroll owned the fact that he approved the play. Carroll is quoted by ESPN saying, "I made the decision. I said 'throw the ball.' "

But the excuse that comes after it is bizarre. In media reports, Carroll and his assistants claimed that with 26 seconds on the clock, they wanted to run more time down on the clock so the Patriots couldn’t get the ball back and score. Fine. Though 26 seconds isn't much time, it is enough time for a miracle. But let's get back to what happens if you throw the ball:

  1. You can catch the ball and score a touchdown.
  2. The pass can go uncaught. In that case, the clock stops. Time is frozen. Time is not frozen on a running play.
  3. You lose the ball on an interception.

If you really wanted to run time off the clock, even a six-year-old Pop Warner league football player knows that passing will not do that. There is no situation in which time is taken off the clock there. Earlier in the game, the Seahawks threw a pass that NBC estimated took 1.78 seconds to get from the snap to leaving quarterback Russell Wilson’s hand. The deciding play itself lasted only 6 seconds because, when it was intercepted, the play continued. Had it been caught for a touchdown, the Patriots would have had roughly 23 seconds to score. Had it been dropped, it would have taken 2 to 3 seconds total off the clock. If the goal was to actually take time off the clock, a run play is the only play that makes any sense.

So Carroll owned the mistake, but not the thinking behind it. He was quoted on ESPN saying one of the craziest things you’ll ever hear: "We were going to run the ball in to win the game, but not on that play. I didn't want to waste a run play on their goal-line guys. It was a clear thought, but it didn't work out right."

A clear thought? Really? With the Super Bowl on the line, you were going to purposely call a play that would take 2 to 3 seconds, at most, off the clock. A play that was not intended to score a touchdown, believing you had a 100% chance to score on the next play? This is either an attempt to save face, or a mistake showing he's been getting lucky up to now.

In other words, Carroll isn't owning the mistake because he still hasn't admitted the mistake. He has taken blame, but that's not the same thing. Blame is when you accept responsibility. Owning the mistake is when you know what the mistake was, explain it clearly, and present a plan for fixing it next time.

Granted, it isn't even 24 hours later, but by delaying the inevitable, accepting blame for a decision even a child understands was wrong, Carroll is failing to be the leader I thought he was just yesterday. If we’re going to learn from his successes, we also need to learn from his failures.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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StaceyE
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StaceyE,
User Rank: Ninja
2/28/2015 | 11:52:04 AM
Re: Gray area: a football play equals leadership
@ Charlie

I agree with you completely! One bad play will not define the Seahawks...at least it shouldn't.

But hey, I am just here so I don't get fined. ;)
StaceyE
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StaceyE,
User Rank: Ninja
2/28/2015 | 11:48:10 AM
Re: Leadership: Where the rubber meets the road.....
I agree, Coach Carroll should have just admitted he made a bad call. He is human, and as we all know humans are notorious for making mistakes. For him to stand by the play and still say he thought he made the right call amazes me. Hindsight is supposed to be 20/20...isn't it?

 

It was a sad moment for me...I am a Seahawks fan and I had twenty cents riding on that game! Darn it!
anon1615577518
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anon1615577518,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/7/2015 | 8:26:43 AM
Timeout Issues
There is an additional angle to Pete Carroll's "worst play" call in the Super Bowl.  The Seahawks had stopped the clock at 26 seconds and they potentially had 3 more downs to get the ball into the endzone.  However, they only had one more remaining timeout at this point, so Carroll could only stop the clock after one more unsuccessful running play (assuming the play stopped in-bounds).  There had already been one running play (on first down) that one did not reach the endzone - this was Lynch running from the 5 yard line, where he gained nearly 4 and 1/2 yards to the be just 1/2 yard from the endzone.  That play required the use of Seattle's next to last timeout at the 26 second mark.  So they could have run the ball only once more WITH the guaranteed ability to stop the clock.  If there had been no gain on a 2nd down running play, let's say they used that last timeout.  Then, if there had been another no gain running play on 3rd down, what would happen next?  The answer is that the Super Bowl would most likely be over at this point, and no 3rd run attempt by Seatle on 4th down would even be possible (unless the Patroits had stopped the clock, and why would they with the lead and time expiring?). 

I believe that Pete Carroll had this very issue in mind and he decided that one passing attempt should be made in this final series of plays, because an incomplete pass would not require a timeout, meaning that their last timeout could be saved for use between 3rd and 4th down (assuming a run on 3rd down did not score, or reach the sideline).  This scenario (at least in theory) would preserve all 3 of Seatle's potential chances at the endzone - while there was no easy way that the Seahawks could have made 3 more running attempts at the endzone (this would require one additional timeout).  The non-easy way would have been for the Seahawks to somehow manage to squeeze-in a 3rd and final run attempt by using a Philadephia-like "hurry-up offense" approach after any failed running attempt on 3rd down.  Carroll's other main concern was to leave Tom Brady with little or no time to work another miracle comeback for New England in the final few seconds.

On the other hand, calling for a sudden gear-shift into "hurry-up offense" mode at such an ultra-tense moment in the final seconds of a Super Bowl might have been asking quite a lot of Seatle's 3rd year QB, and even Seatle's very best "hurry-up" performance might have still resulted in cutting it very close to losing their 4th down possibility and the game, since Seattle had been fairly slow between plays for most of the game.  As I recall, Seatle's sometimes languid style between plays had even been the cause of burning their first timeout of the 2nd half (i.e. a Seattle timeout used earlier in the half just to avoid a delay of game penalty).  I think that this effective limit on the Seahawks of only 2 more running plays is the reason that Pete Carroll used the slightly odd terminology about "wasting a down" in his post-game comments, with a pass that would either score the winning TD or stop the clock with an incompletion.  But he failed to mention another possibilty on that already infamous 2nd down pass play, a show-stopping interception.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Author
2/7/2015 | 12:34:54 AM
Re: Overthinking the clock
@Dave: Actually, I haven't played with that partner in months!  ;)

I was thinking about writing a piece about management lessons from bridge...but really one would be better served by reading Victor Mollo's books.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
2/5/2015 | 8:14:42 PM
Re: Overthinking the clock
@Joe- And that's why you still have a partnership. A good lesson in leadership form the bridge table. As someone who has never screwed the bidding and has been saddled with partners who always do, I can't relate. :)
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Author
2/5/2015 | 7:08:08 PM
Re: Overthinking the clock
Good points, Dave.

> at any rate, If the Seahawks were concerned about time at all with 26 seconds and three plays they failed to focus on the proper goal. The goal is moving the ball 1 yard.

Sometimes there's just no accounting for very bad decisions.  It reminds me of when I've made terrible mistakes at the bridge table.  I remember a confused, agitated partner asking me after a flawed auction, "What kind of bid was two diamonds?"  Without hesitation, I exasperatedly replied, "A wrong one."
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
2/4/2015 | 9:52:52 AM
Re: The football side
Sherman is an idiot, always complaining about something. He has history of not getting along with coaches, going to back to Stanford. It's to Carroll's credit he gets along with him as well as he does.

That play inside was a pick, there were no linebackers in the way. That DB just did fantastic job of recognizing pattern, avoiding pick and beating receiver to the spot. I don't think I've seen another pick all year on that pattern like that. I've seen DB's get their arms in from behind and pop ball up in air for someone else to intercept. To that degree, I agree with you it was much more risky than outside throw.

It will be interesting next year if you are correct about affecting chemistry they have there in Seattle. Their team is so young, they are still team to beat next year in NFC.
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
2/3/2015 | 7:06:52 PM
Re: Leadership: Where the rubber meets the road.....

@Dave    Oh I see.     I had heard the term before, but I didn't really appreciate it at the time .  I tend to think of it from a personal level but can appreciate it as a business philosophy as well.    

I am going to bring myself up to speed on the concept again, and try to understand were the foundation for this concept comes from.

Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
2/3/2015 | 6:31:14 PM
Re: Gray area: a football play equals leadership

@Charlie    All the elements of business decisions were present in this play.  I think David has done a good job of detailing the options - unfortunately whether we like it or not Sport does mimic  key aspects of society.

Right or wrong does even matter to me - but that one play represents many elements of business that "would be leaders" are faced with every day.   

No Guts No Glory ?   Having watched Pete throughout his career, it is probably safe to say some version of that motto was running through Pete's head.

Well , you have to be prepared to deal with either outcome - eerily similar to what one faces in business as well.

 

In other words , if you are swinging for the fences (you have to be able to accept) you will often strike out.

David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
2/3/2015 | 6:26:14 PM
Re: Leadership: Where the rubber meets the road.....
@Technocrati- When I worked for Sloan Management Review in a previous life, I worked with several management faculty who proudly displayed their belts from their Six Sigma training. I found the whole concept of belts to be hilarious for management. But in the process, it got me into learning about all sorts of various management philosophies. While I think some aspects of Japanese managment don't translate, Kaizen is one I think we should all think about more. 
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