Neither Mike Tomlin nor Bill Belichick Possess the 'C.Y.A.' Gene

I had hoped to get this up prior to the Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 8 matchup with the New England Patriots, but alas, didn't happen. Better late than never though. 

Stephen J. Dubner is the co-author of Freakonomics and a passionate lifelong Steelers Fan who is now working on a Football Freakonomics for the NFL Network. Take a look at this NFL Video [ Link to Freakonomic's Icing the Kicker Video ] on "icing the kicker". Interestingly enough, statistics gathered over the last four years indicate that "icing the kicker" actually benefits the kicker, especially on attempts longer than 49 yards out. 

Why?

Robbie Gould, Chicago Bears kicker thinks there are two main reasons. The first is straight forward: why give a professional kicker a mulligan? Makes no sense? Second, the more time a kicker has to assess wind and turf conditions the better the results. If you think about it, why would an extra 40 seconds disrupt an NFL kicker whose entire career is is based on nothing but waiting for high-pressure situations? Gould sums it up perfectly "I don't even think about it if you miss 'em you're not going to have a job very long...two steps back, two to the left, hopefully it goes through...same routine every time."

Sebastian Janikowski of the Oakland Raiders was the first kicker to officially receive the 'ice' treatment."  It occurred in the 2nd Week of the 2007 season at Mile High Stadium vs. the Broncos. The fact that Denver Coach Mike Shanahan deployed the tactic on Janikowski should have given pause to the many copy-cat coaches that blindly followed his lead. 

Why?

Well, Janikowski is an extreme outlier when it comes to football and his personal life, at least when compared to his fellow kickers. Janikowski boots it 75 yards with accuracy which seems super-human but his love of drink and drug (GHB possession, DUI, attempted bribery & bar assaults) are his weakness and the one thing getting in the way of his full potential. When Denver "iced" him he was probably more worried about the party after the game than getting "iced."

That's not to say he didn't care about making the kick, only that  being an airhead and having a cocky personality (Jeff Reed) is sometimes the best defense against feeling the pressure in stressful situations. Look closely at Janikowski's reaction after missing the 52 yard kick in OT he looks like an actor from a Greek tragedy not someone who looks that upset. I honestly don't believe Janikowski even knows what "icing" means nor does he care, he just kicked and let the late Al Davis handle the rest. Perfect Raider that Sebastian.

Janikowski probably missed because it just wasn't his day and icing had nothing to do with it. It was a 52 yard kick so statistics say "icing" should have helped him. Prior to the timeout, he connected on the "iced" attempt so the mulligan should have been a cakewalk.  Not to mention, most kickers love Denver because the ball literally flies a mile thru the light air, oddly enough, this year Janikowski connected from 63 yards out just before halftime against Denver in Week One.  Sebastian is definitely not the guy to base your theories on, everything about him goes against the grain. "Icing" appeared to work in early 2007 and it's been copied enough to become conventional wisdom. Does the phrase "the blind leading the blind" come into mind?

So why would any coach be stupid enough to "ice the kicker?"  Well the answer is "Cover your Ass." Don't stick out from the pack because it affects your job security. Makes sense, who wants to be second-guessed for a meaningless tactic when they can just call a timeout and avoid the fan outrage. Fans could care less if it works statistically they only care about winning and that means doing anything and everything regardless of whether it works or not. 

Most coaches don't want to stick-out in case something goes wrong. The first question fielded in the media room will invariably be "why didn't you ice the kicker?" Good luck trying to call on statistics to support your decision; what reporters are really asking is "was this loss your fault, if not then who?"  They want someone to blame, they want a "fall guy."  Many coaches are already walking on eggshells and cannot afford to give their Owner one more reason to pull the trigger. Job security reigns supreme, Cover Your Ass! 

This is one of the reasons that technology vendors like IBM are so hard to replace. You probably have heard the phrase "no one ever gets fired for buying IBM." This is 100% true, if you buy servers from Fugazy Computer Ltd. for 50% off IBM List Price but the haywire gene pops up you are a goner. But, if you buy IBM Computers and the project goes up in flames your job will not be in jeopardy if you use the following phrase: "hey it's not my fault I bought IBM." This is another key concept in corporate America: Deflection of Blame ("DOB"). It helps tremendously if you have a recently terminated "fall guy" to shovel all your crap on while you build a power base. You can blame almost anything on that guy, some have even tried to blame their eight-year secretary affairs albeit with very limited success.

Our perception of reality is often distorted and the NFL is no exception. I liken it to the Matrix when Morpheus offers Neo a red pill to escape to the "real world" or the blue pill and remain blissfully ignorant. As you know, Neo takes the red pill because it's not much of a movie if he chooses blue. And very much like Neo choosing the red pill, it is very hard to achieve huge success without going all-in and losing the CYA gene.  

Recently the NFL Network presented Bill Belichick: A Football Life and there were many admirable leadership traits but nothing resembling CYA. As you may remember, Bill created a huge controversy in the 10th  week of the 2009 regular season when on the road against the Colts he went all-in on his own 28 facing a 4th & 2 with 2:11 remaining. Ex-coaches and the media vilified him, Tony Dungy said emphatically "you have to play the percentages and punt the ball."  You think Belichick cared what Dungy or anyone else said?  Not a chance, and that's what it takes to truly be exceptional. Belichick was inoculated long ago, the CYA gene was permanently blocked from his DNA.

In Belichick's case you need to go back prior to week 3 of 2009 when in a coaches meeting he says "all right let's be ready to go for it here on 4th down at some point...I want to make a point to the team...I want to put the pressure on them to see if we can pick it up." Later that week in Foxborough Stadium, Belichick pulls the trigger and is successful against the Falcons late in the 4th quarter with 4th & 1 on his own 25. In the media room following the win he says "short yardage in our own end... umh.. felt like we could get a yard...so, would have been plenty of criticism if we didn't."  In a player meeting later that week he says "all right now look, 4th and 1 on the 20 yard line, all right you can say a lot of things about me as a coach, ok, and I'm sure you do and so do a lot of other people, ok, but I'm just telling you guys something: one thing I'm not is scared...now are we going to go for it every time 4th down on our own 20 yard line, no I'm not saying that but I'm not afraid to go for it if you guys give me the confidence that we'll pick it up... but I'm telling you if we call this you better f*cking get it."

Now Belichick goes for it again against the Colts with a 4th & 2 with 2:11 on his own 28 leading by 6. He confers with Brady and tells him "all right look if it's a shitty look, if it's a shitty look." Brady interrupts "delay of game" and Belichick confirms "delay of game, ok."  We all know the outcome: Patriots fail to get the 1st down and Peyton Manning easily get the Colts into the end zone with 14 seconds left to win the game.

In the player's meeting that week, Belichik tells his team that there is some fallout and some are saying he doesn't have confidence in the team. He says that is ridiculous and total bullshit. He wanted to make sure his team knew that he thought it was their best chance to win and he would not apologize for it. He said as they leave make sure to read the sign on the door that says "ignore the noise" and then he ends with "it's the truth and I'll always tell you the truth." Here's the link to the video detailing the history of the Colt's 4th down gambit [ ILink to Bellichick video ]. If you want to see the whole piece and you have NFL Network I suggest you TIVO it and watch it a few times. You will pick up something new every time.

In this story I chose to analyze Belichick for a number of reasons, some here may say "I hate Belichick and I want to know nothing about that cheater!" Well, I would counter with this from Sun Tzu:

"Now the reason the enlightened prince and the wise general conquer the enemy whenever they move and their achievements surpass those of ordinary men is foreknowledge." 

Now it wouldn't surprise me at all if Tomlin & Co. have studied this video about Belichick closely because they are always looking for that edge that gives them insight into Belichick's mind. They are also taking anything they may learn with a grain of salt because knowing how tricky Belichick is who knows what his real intentions are. We can't know that but we do now know the following:

Brady and Belichick have an extremely close relationship as we see in the video when Brady completes Bill's thought by interceding with "delay of game."

Belichick is also an exceptionally good communicator who targets his players and staff with a consistent and complete message. Communication is key whether you are running an NFL team or a Fortune 500 Company, without it the haywire gene is very likely to appear.

Belichick is an exceptionally good planner and he worked his staff and players for over seven weeks prior to the Colts 4th & 2 gambit.  It is a complete fallacy that Belichick came unglued or was just rolling the dice as many (including myself) thought after the Colts game. Could his plan have nothing to do with the 4th down gambit? Was his real plan to make sure his players understood they needed to "ignore the noise."  I leave that up to you to decide.

We all have heard stories of Coach Tomlin's preparedness and how he came to his interview with Mr. Art Rooney armed with a complete folio which included player analysis, personnel moves, game planning with multiple scenarios based on his ideas for the Steeler's future.

There are many more insights that you get from watching Bill Belichick: A Football Life and I seriously doubt there is a more complete show on the day-to-day inner workings of an NFL Team. Hard Knocks touches on it but coaches are holding back because they can't give away any secrets for the upcoming season. The Belichick video is from 2009 and any specific football intelligence is likely outdated but you can't change your personality overnight.

Bill's personality is laid bare in this video when you hear him in meetings or conferring privately with Tom Brady, it is clear he is brutally honest with himself, his coaching staff, his Owner and his players. No mincing words or PC bullshit at one point he tells the team last year we couldn't beat the good teams like the Steelers, Ravens and Colts  "I know it, you know it and they know it." 

Cover your ass is commonplace in corporate America but not at the top organizations or football teams. Steve Jobs is a good example, do you think he ever even considered CYA when he started Apple Computer? What about when he came back to save the nearly bankrupt Apple? Do you think he was covering his ass when he took over Pixar or brought out the ipod which led to itunes, iphone and ipad? If you tried to cover your ass with Steve Jobs he would fire you and then find the person who hired you and fire them too. Great leaders must have a vision and be willing to risk it all in order to succeed, taking huge risks for huge rewards is fine, CYA not so much.

The NFL is a copycat league and the original premise of "icing the kicker" was much better in 2007 when Coach Shanahan first used it against Sebastian Janikowski. Now everyone is doing it and the element of surprise has disappeared. Kickers soon learned to expect "icing" and figured ways around it if they felt affected. Maybe they found ways to simulate the experience or worked through it mentally with tantric yoga. Who knows? We do know that humans constantly adapt to changing conditions and the likely reason "icing the kicker" no longer works. Kickers are probably thinking come on dude, "2007 called and they want their strategy back, really?"

According to Dubner, the percentages are pretty close if you are trying to "ice the kicker" at less than 49 yards out so what's the harm in trying? If job security is on your mind you will "ice" all day every day. Maybe "icing the kicker" really works better on very cold days like -5 celcius? Who knows and it's not the point, I am sure both Belichick and Tomlin have analyzed the data and if they can find a discernible difference they will consider it in their decision.

As you probably know Coach Tomlin has many of the same traits as we see in the Belichick video, he is brutally honest, a great communicator, a great planner and he has zero interest in covering his ass. Coach Tomlin is also much younger which makes it harder to make radical moves like Belichick did against the Colts and Falcons. Most young coaches do not have the "goodwill" and "power base" that an older coach has built up, especially Belichick with his five rings.

On the other hand, it may simply not be a good strategy for Coach Tomlin because during his tenure the Steeler's defense has always been better than the Patriot's 2009 Defense. Belichick on that day had very little confidence his defense could stop Peyton Manning's two-minute drill. That may also be another reason Belichick didn't mind letting NFL Films detail this particular strategy because he may have decided to quit going for 1st downs deep in his own territory. Wouldn't it be ironic if he tried the same strategy at Heinz Field this Sunday and we stopped him? Wow, it would take huge balls to call that on the road against a great defense and knowing Ben is salivating on the sidelines. No way anyone could say "Belichick was just covering his ass."

"Keep your friends close and your enemies closer" 

I chose Belichick for this story partly because he is disgusted by anything to do with "cover your ass" but more importantly because of the phrase above.  

Any thoughts?

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