Why I Root for the Patriots

The last time I didn’t root for the Patriots in a Super Bowl was 2002.

I didn’t know then that they’d be in it eight more times with the same coach and the same quarterback over the next seventeen years. If I did, I would have been pulling for them then too. That’s contrary to the trend, I know. That year I rooted for the team I thought was the most remarkable at the time. The 2002 Kurt Warner led Rams were the “greatest show on turf”. They were fast and dynamic and they were changing the game before our eyes.

That’s what I root for.

That thing that is most remarkable.


On Sunday I rooted for the Patriots to win their 6th Super Bowl in the last seventeen years. No one else I know, outside of Patriots fans, was rooting for them. The true Pats fans have no choice. We humans choose our political affiliations and our sports teams between the ages of nine and fourteen. And once locked in, they almost never change no matter what evidence is introduced to the environment.

My wife tried to hate the Chargers for moving to L.A. She lasted until opening kickoff.

That those two preferences–sports team and political allegiance– lodge themselves into the same irrational parts of our brains is telling. I have a bit of a soft spot for my childhood heroes, the Dallas Cowboys. But I’ve always found myself inherently rooting for whatever team is doing something remarkable.

The same can be said for my politics, by the way.

Few teams evoke the type of vitriol the Patriots do, with their smug quarterback and his supermodel wife and the old curmudgeon head coach who never smiles and doesn’t suffer stupid sideline reporter questions. There’s charges of cheating and deflating footballs. Their politics are dicey. There’s plenty of reasons not to like them. Yet I do. For one reason.

I’m never going to see this level of excellence again, in football at least, in my lifetime.

Belichick and Brady have played in more Super Bowls than the bottom 11 teams in the league have combined in the 53 years the NFL has been playing them. They’ve won more than the bottom 18 teams combined. In a league of frequent injuries, salary caps and free agency, that record is absurd. There are things about the way the world works that can be learned from how they’ve done it. And so I hope they keep doing it.

I’m not one for hero worship. They’re just men playing a game after all. I don’t want my kids to grow up to be them. Their performance says little of their character or morals. But saying that it’s just football misses the point too. Because football is a highly competitive, highly complex system involving actors with misaligned objectives. And so is much of the world around us. If you care enough to wonder why they achieve such a consistent, positive outcome, you might see a few things.

Here’s five that come to mind:

Execution is king. Talent helps. Strategy is important. But execution is the multiplier. If you watch the Patriots play, and you know what to look for, the variance between what’s supposed to be done by their players and what is actually done by their players is extremely low. The instances when the variance is high, is when the other team’s athleticism or talent has actively prevented them from executing what the Patriots want to. Which means, in sports talk, that the Pats rarely, if ever, beat themselves. You have to beat them. That’s the power of execution.

Strong link strategies dictate weak link responses. One of the most common observations in the business or military worlds that I’ve worked in, is that it’s more effective to concentrate energy in your strengths than to distribute resources to shore up weaknesses. The Patriots apply this as a core principle.

On Defense, they focus their strategy on stopping the other team’s best offensive players, not defending against all outcomes. They dare their opponent to try to beat them with what they don’t do well.

On offense, they focus on whatever the other team’s defense can’t stop, and they do it relentlessly until it’s stopped. Both strategies evoke a response from the other team that doesn’t allow them to flex their strengths. Which most teams simply can’t win without doing against an experienced team that makes few mistakes.

Flexibility is underrated. I’ve watched the Patriots win a Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback who didn’t look like he could throw the ball more than ten yards downfield. I’ve seen them win low scoring games with suffocating defenses. I’ve seen them win by throwing the ball 60 times a game. I’ve seen them re-introduce a two-tight end offense when no one had seen it in decades. Sunday, they played with run two running backs in the backfield like it was 1991. Generally, teams find a great quarterback and maybe some surrounding talent and ride out a few years of winning with that strategy. The Pats have re-invented themselves at least 5 times that I can count and been better than everyone else each time.

Disruption leads to dominance. The Patriots study the trends and figure out what no one is doing anymore and they do it. In doing so, they make teams play differently against them then they have to against the other 31 teams. At the end of the year they’ve played a season the same way against teams that only play one that way once. And so they’re understandably better at it. The Greek poet Archilochus wrote in a classic poem and oft used business school trope that the fox knows many solutions and the hedgehog knows one big thing. The genius of the Patriots are that they are both fox and hedgehog at the same time. Their one big idea is that they have no one big idea. They win a million ways as a rule.

The players matter. Maybe not the way you think though. One of the funniest things anyone can see on the internet is Tom Brady’s 2000 draft combine performance set to music. He’s awkward, skinny and un-athletic and went in the sixth (that’s late) round of the draft. Sunday’s Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelmen went in the seventh (the last) round. One in five Patriots players weren’t even drafted at all but instead joined after as free agents; the NFL version of college walk-ons.

Assuming the baseline athleticism of any NFL player, Belichick and his staff put a premium two things. What they call “football IQ” and coach-ability. Flexibility and execution require smart players who follow directions and buy into the system. There are transcendent talents all over league who could play for a hundred years and not win as much as Brady did. And he ran the 40 yard dash slower than I did.

I know it’s not popular to like the Patriots right now. And maybe it’s not great for the NFL that they’re winning every year. But it’s not unreasonable to appreciate what they do. If you lead teams or build things for a living, I’m pretty sure there’s some things to be learned from them. Execution, focusing on strengths, flexibility, talent standards and disruptive creativity have universal value. I’ve built teams in corporate America and for the U.S. Special Operations command and I’m not sure I can come up with better first principles.

Whether you can stomach Tom Brady’s Instagram account or not is a different issue. I just hope he keeps playing football some more.

I’m ready for number seven.


Thank You Peyton

It feels like I’ve been watching Peyton Manning play football for my whole life. I have really; at least the parts of my life that have mattered most.

I was in my last year at the Naval Academy in Annapolis when he was a rookie. I remember watching him in the ward room with my roommate on restriction. He beat the Bengals with three touchdown passes that day.

A few years later, I was on a ship halfway around the world on my first deployment. He threw two touchdowns in a season opening win in New York against the Jets.  A few miles away, the towers fell two days later. The next month, the Colts had a bye the day the war started when my ship launched the first strikes into Afghanistan. Our picture was on the front page of every paper in the world the next day.

Maybe he was watching us for a change.

In 2004, I didn’t see any football until November. I was deployed to a remote location with no television and no internet.  The week I returned he threw four touchdowns and beat the Vikings.

He won his only Super Bowl, in the rain, in 2006, the year my mom died. She loved Peyton. She was the mother of boys. And she loved that he still played with his brother.

A few years later I returned home from Iraq on emergency leave to be with my family after my son was diagnosed with autism. It was the first game I’d watched at home for what seemed like forever. We watched football together; my wife, my boys and me.

It’s what we did. It’s what we do.

Peyton threw three touchdown passes and beat the Texans.

A few months later, from a dusty mess hall in western Iraq I watched him throw a pick six that lost his team the Super Bowl.

Last year, a few years after I left the military world, I finally got to see him play in person.  I sat with my wife on a beautiful day in Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. His Broncos played my wife’s beloved Chargers.  We watched him throw ugly, wobbly balloon ball passes that floated and fluttered right into the hands of his receiver. Most of the life was gone from his once strong arm.

He limped off the field and into the locker room right before half time having injured his leg. He came back in the second half as he always did. His Broncos would win.

Tomorrow, Peyton is probably playing his last game.

The wreckage is bad; four neck surgeries, a bum leg, a bad foot and nerve damage in his arm that makes it hard to grip a football. There’s been a lot of mileage on him the last 18 years. I guess you could say the same thing for me.

For all of us.

For many, none of this matters. Football is just a game after all.  But for some of us, sometimes it feels like a lot more. I’m sure tomorrow, as I sit down with my wife and my boys one last time to watch Peyton play, it’s going to be one of those times.

Thanks for the memories Peyton.

The Case for American Football

Last year the NFL settled a massive $750M class action law suit with over 4,000 of its former players.  The claim against the NFL by the former players was that they had suffered neurological damage as a result of their injuries sustained playing football.  Additionally, the suit claimed that the NFL was aware of the risks associated with playing the sport yet mislead the players about them.  The direct result of the lawsuit was that former players diagnosed with neurological disorders can now receive financial compensation on a scale relative to the severity of their disorders and their age.  The indirect impact of the lawsuit and other high profile tragedies including retired NFL players is that families across America have become deeply concerned about the potential health impacts of letting their children play football.  As the focus on the medical risks of playing sharpens, correctly so, parents will hopefully be armed with the information to help them understand the risks involved in letting their children play.  What we don’t truly understand, is what is the risk if collectively, we all decide not to let them play.   When you take the time to consider what that would mean, you see that it goes far beyond the loss of our favorite source of weekend entertainment.

Why Football Matters

Before I wanted to be a college graduate or a naval officer or a father or a corporate leader, I wanted one thing.   I have never wanted anything more since; maybe as much, but never more.  That was to play linebacker for the Holy Spirit Spartans, my hometown high school football team.  As a kid, I looked up to the players on the state champion teams of the 80’s and 90’s as if they were pros.  I can still remember their numbers and positions.   None of them ever went on to play professionally.  Almost none went on to play big time college ball.  But that didn’t matter to me.  And I wasn’t alone. High school football where I grew up was a big deal.  The Friday night games were packed and the atmosphere was electric.   If you weren’t playing in the games, you were attending them.  My brothers played.  My father played.  His father played.  Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 8.55.28 PMIt’s just what you did.  It still is and that matters.  It matters because high school football is one of the things that binds many communities together.  It’s one of the things that makes us feel more permanent in a location; less transient.  Now, it is possible, in time, for some other phenomenon to take the place of football and play the same role in our culture, even in the most hardcore regions.  It’s just hard to imagine what it would be or how long it would take.  If football dies, at least for the immediate future, this part of our local communities dies with it.

What Football Does

When it was my turn to play, football provided me with an invaluable experience that was absolutely critical to my development as a man.  Football is a tremendous commitment.  It’s the only sport that I know of where the practice to game ratio is so drastically lopsided.   You practice 5 to 6 times more than you actually play.  And the practices can be fun…but they’re hard.  And you have to do them or you can’t play. Not because of principle, but because it takes that much practice to actually get a team to do the basic functions required to compete.  Football requires commitment like few things a teenager can experience.  And commitment is a hard thing to teach in environments where it’s not required.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 4.32.22 PM Then there’s leadership. I learned more about leadership staring into ten sets of eyes in a huddle and calling a defense then I learned during four years at the Naval Academy. That’s not a knock on Navy.  It’s a credit to the experience of football.   Years later in some distant corner of the planet I would be laying somewhere too tired to take off my gear and body armor after a long, hard mission.   It sounds strange but it’s one of the most satisfying feelings in the world.  And it’s the same one I felt sitting exhausted on a long bus ride home, having left everything on the field in a high school football game.   Clearly football is not the only thing that can prepare you for that experience. But nothing presently does it on the scale that football does for American high school boys.

Why Football Works

1.1 million boys played high school football last year.  That is just shy of double the next most participated sport by high school boys in America, track and field.   Clearly the game’s popularity and tradition are part of that.  There’s something very different about football though that is actually at the root of its dominance in participation.  More kids play football, because they can.   It’s actually the mechanics of the game itself.  The roster limit of an NFL team is 53 players.  Major League Soccer is 30.  Major League Baseball is 25, NHL Hockey is 23 and NBA basketball is 12.   There’s a pretty obvious reason why the rosters are so big. There are 22 starting positions on a football team.  If you add in special teams, you throw in at least another 22 distinct roles that impact the game, more if you actually want to become more specialized.  Those 44 plus roles come in all different shapes, sizes and different athletic ability.

The average size of a college Division III offensive lineman is 6’1″, 266 pounds.  The average receiver is 5’11” 180 lbs.  The average running back 5’10, 190 lbs.  The average quarterback, 6’1, 190 lbs.  Kicker? 5’11”, 175 lbs.  You get the point, they come in almost all sizes.  Probably more importantly, these rolls have differing requirements of athleticism.  Some roles require speed and agility, some strength and power. The others are a sliding scale of both.   The trick to playing football is finding the right roll (remember, there’s 40 so there’s lots to choose from) and executing non-specific acts of athleticism within the framework of a heavily dependent team concept. What do I mean by non-specific acts of athleticism?  I mean things kids  generally know how to do or can be taught quickly, like running and tackling.  The opposite of that type of skill would be learning to hit a baseball. The only way to learn how to hit a baseball is to hit a baseball.  And if you haven’t done it before you get to high school, you won’t be able to play.  The other larger team sports like baseball and hockey are full of specific acts of athleticism.  Which means that football, at least when it comes to boys, is presently irreplaceable.

When you break down the numbers and logic behind who can participate, you might actually change your hypothesis about football’s role.  Football may not have so high a participation level because of it’s popularity within our culture.  It may be popular within our culture because of the high participation level it uniquely allows.  Which leads us to the last, and probably most significant point.  High school boys playing football spend about 15-17 hours a week in organized, supervised athletic engagements.  There are clearly risks associated with playing a contact sport, especially for those that go on to play as long as the pros do.   But when you take the time to look at it through the lens of at-risk, idle high school aged boys and compare it to the massive hole we would have to dig out of to engage with them to replace it, it’s pretty clear.  The answer to the question, what will happen if we don’t let them play is an outcome that we aren’t prepared to deal with on a much deeper level than we might think.

Beyond the utility of how football develops and builds our high school age boys, there’s one last thing.  Football is America.  And though America is more than football, there are fewer things that are woven into our culture as deeply. Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 8.59.30 PM I was overseas 14 years ago when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 took place.  Months later when I was on my way home, I found a rolled up Sports Illustrated issue on a couch in a hotel.  I opened it, and read about the week that football returned and for the first time in months, I felt like there was something left of the home that I left months earlier.  That’s the type of emotional connection that helps define a people, and it’s not easy to replace.   I hope that they continue to find ways to make the great game safer.  I hope that we continue to research so we can more clearly understand the risks to those who play it.  And I hope 50 years from now, our great game is still being played.  Because football matters.