From the Bleachers: The Power of the Situation in the NFL
As I write this column two weeks into the winter quarter, I find myself to be infinitely smarter than I was when I arrived on a frigid Sunday two weeks earlier. Why, you ask? Because, after taking two weeks of social psychology, I have solved the most fundamental debate facing NFL fans.
In 2006, a study in the journal Psychological Science compared American media coverage of gold-medal winning athletes to Japanese Olympic accounts. The results showed that the American media tended to describe the athletes’ performances in terms of their unique abilities and talents, whereas the Japanese media focused far more on situational factors such as the athlete’s family, upbringing or socially important others. The study also exemplified how American athletes can credit their successes to unique talent rather than acknowledge situational factors.
An infinite amount of factors go into the outcome of a single play in football, let alone who wins a game, who makes the playoffs or who wins the championship. Yet many humans have self-serving biases and tend to credit themselves more than they should for their successes. After the 2014 NFC Championship, in which Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman tipped a pass intended for 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, Sherman said that “when you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that is the result you are going to get.” But if Malcolm Smith wasn’t there to intercept the deflected pass, the 49ers would have had three more chances to score, and Sherman might not have been viewed so favorably.
Basically, it’s natural for people to overestimate the role of the individual in the group accomplishment of a Super Bowl championship. Rings are great, but they’re overrated. If you don’t believe me, read Chapter 4 of Pearson’s “Social Psychology” textbook. Go ahead! I’ll give you my login credentials if you want to enlighten yourself.
Each team has 53 active players, 10 practice squad players, 15 to 20 coaches and a multitude of other actors like doctors, executives, nutrition consultants and agents. Yet when we talk about championships in football, it almost always seems to come back to the quarterback. Tom Brady is considered the greatest quarterback of all time because he has won six championships. But a plethora of other factors went into those championships — many of which had nothing to do with Brady.
Let’s say that Walt Coleman never reversed the infamous “Tuck Rule” no-call and instead, the Patriots lost Brady’s first playoff game way back in 2002. Would the Patriots have ever emerged to be the dynasty they are today (although the Tennessee Titans might have something to say about that)? Would the Patriots have kept Brady — who would have only scored 10 points in a home playoff game — as the starter over Drew Bledsoe for the next season? Would the scrappy sixth-round pick out of Michigan have stuck around?
To answer that, I’m going to draw upon another one of my course concepts from econometrics: You fundamentally cannot observe the counterfactual. Now, that’s a lot of five-syllable words for a football guy like myself to digest in one gulp, but the essence of that statement is that we will never know what would have happened. If Brady were drafted by Cleveland instead of New England or if Bill Belichick had never decided to coach the Patriots, Brady might have found himself behind a desk at Merrill Lynch at the age of 27 instead of fitting himself for a third Super Bowl ring. Some stock broker definitely got the raw end of that deal.
It’s not practical to live in such a fantasy world, but it’s hard for me to accept that Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time when so many variables are involved in his six championships. Having a top-eight scoring defense in all six of his championship seasons certainly helped. Belichick certainly played a role as well. Being in the AFC East, which has been weak for the vast majority of Brady’s career, couldn’t have hurt.
On the other hand, Aaron Rodgers is often considered to be more talented than Brady. Brady himself said that Rodgers would throw for 7,000 yards every season if he were New England’s quarterback. But thanks to Brady’s old backup and the San Francisco 49ers, Rodgers finds himself watching the Super Bowl from his couch for the ninth straight season.
What if the Packers had won the coin flip in overtime of the 2015 NFC Championship game against Seattle or the 2016 NFC Divisional game against Arizona? Maybe Rodgers would’ve scored an opening-drive touchdown the same way that his opponents did in both games, and maybe he would have won another ring or two in the process. What if he had a more innovative head coach than Mike McCarthy? What if he had a defense that didn’t rank 15th or worse in yardage per game in each of the last seven seasons?
This season, Rodgers has an offensive-minded head coach in Matt LaFleur, a top-flight wide receiver in Davante Adams and a top-10 scoring defense. The result was a 13-3 regular season and an appearance in the NFL’s final four. Yet at the end of the day, it was Jimmy Garoppolo — who threw eight (eight!) passes in the game — and company getting the better of Rodgers while journeyman Ryan Tannehill’s Titans bowed out of the playoffs in the same round as the two-time NFL MVP.
Garoppolo will face another elite quarterback in the Super Bowl, one by the name of Kermit the Frog Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes, the NFL MVP last season, is looking for his first ring in his second full season. His career will be an incredibly interesting case study for the debate of individual talent versus championships. Mahomes has the natural talent to be the greatest quarterback the league has ever seen and win an extraordinary amount of championships ... if the situational factors work out in his favor.
Last year, Mahomes carried a defense ranked second-to-last in yardage to the doorstep of Super Bowl LIII. In last year’s AFC Championship, he had four drives in the fourth quarter after closing the third quarter with a touchdown. Mahomes scored touchdowns on two drives and marched the Chiefs down the field for a last-second field goal on the fourth drive, but the coin toss gods didn’t want the young quarterback to taste championship glory so early. He didn’t get a chance to touch the ball in overtime and could only watch helplessly as Rex Burkhead trotted into the end zone for the game-winning score.
This year, Mahomes is backed by the league’s seventh-best scoring defense. But even that defense surrendered 31 points in the Divisional Round, requiring a Herculean effort from the ketchup-loving gunslinger for the Chiefs to advance. Thanks to two special teams miscues, four drops and a couple of defensive breakdowns, Mahomes found his team down 24-0 even though he was playing well. He deserves all the credit in the world for willing his team to 51 points in the final three quarters, but credit also goes to a brilliant Mecole Hardman kickoff return, a failed Texans fake punt, a fumble on a kickoff return and the reliable hands of Travis Kelce.
Football is a funny game, with the end goal of hoisting a Lombardi Trophy largely determined by random factors out of the players’ control. Mahomes might play the game of his life in Super Bowl LIV and still come up short, or he might flounder on the big stage but emerge victorious thanks to a few miscues from Tom Brady 2.0. Mahomes and Garoppolo should be judged on how they perform under the bright Miami lights, but not purely on a win-loss basis. Thanks to the first couple weeks of sophomore winter, I am now 100 percent sure that there’s more to a quarterback than the number of rings on his finger.