***I originally wrote this during the week following the Super Bowl, but I forgot to publish it. No changes made other than the asterisked part up here.***
I read this article on ESPN.com where Kyle Shanahan, the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers football team is being asked about his play calling during the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl. At the time, he was the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator.
Shanahan is considered an aggressive play caller. His play calling helped give the Falcons a 28-3 lead through three quarters. As the fourth quarter began winding down, the New England Patriots were mounting a comeback. With a bit over 4 minutes left and in field goal range, Atlanta attempted to pass three times. The first attempt led to a 12 yard sack. The second incurred a holding penalty. The third attempt was incomplete. With the sack, the Falcons were no longer in field goal range and ending up punting. New England took advantage and eventually tied the game followed by winning during overtime.
The main criticism of Shanahan is that if he would have ran the ball each play, time would come keep running and then kick a field goal, the probability would be high of an Atlanta victory.
I want to break down some of his quotes (in red) from the interview in this article and look at how it applies to leadership.
I thought I called plays in that game the way I had the entire year.
There is a lot here.
Shanahan thought he called plays as he had all year. Let’s give him the benefit of doubt and say he did. The Falcons had the number 1 offense this year. Some of that can be accounted for in that they played in a weak division where an 11-5 record allowed them to advance in the playoffs. That means they won 2.2 games for every 1 loss. To be fair, their losses had more to do with the defense (which was not Shanahan’s responsibility) than the offense (which was). But it did fit the trend. During the playoffs (and through the end of the 3rd quarter in the Super Bowl), the trend held. Atlanta had won 2 playoff games and actually most of the 3rd before losing over the final quarter and overtime.
Doesn’t mean I’m always right. Doesn’t mean they’re always going to work.
Well, hindsight is a beautiful thing, isn’t it? After the fact we definitely know, right? Well, we don’t “definitely” know. It rarely happens, but let’s say that Atlanta did what everyone said would work and it did. They kick a field goal and are up by 19 with approximately 3 minutes left. Though improbable, it is not impossible for the Patriots to still have come back and won. The game had an aura to it that made it distinct from every other Super Bowl I have seen. The data supports this as this was the first Super Bowl with overtime involved.
If Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan escaped from the sack and through a touchdown, the Patriots would have been worse off. Playing the percentages in life is just as risky as not playing the percentages. It feels safer, but there are no guarantees on what is and is not going to work. 99% completion means at least 1 time out of every 100 is incomplete. But we all know that percentages are only applied after the fact. Percentages are always descriptive and if used as prescriptive, it should be done with no guarantees.
I did what I thought was right, but whatever happens, if you do what you thought was right and you believed in that because of the preparation you had, then you should be able to live with the consequences.
Honestly, it is statements like these that make me think Shanahan will do alright in his first head coaching gig. He accepts responsibility for his actions. That is huge for leadership. If leadership is influence, then knowing how we influence is important. Accepting responsibility for our decisions both good and bad let those who follow know the kind of people we are.