Why the benefits of playing to win, not just to not lose, outweigh the risks, as the Green Bay Packers found out three years ago.
Complete this sentence, as you’ve heard it: “When you play not to lose…”
I’ve heard it completed: “you lose.” So the full saying is, “When you play not to lose, you lose.”
And from my observation, that’s true more often than not.
Of course, that’s not always the case; there are doubtless times when the “playing not to lose” approach works (where the team taking the conservative “playing not to lose” approach does win).
Yet, there’s no way to know for sure whether taking the opposite approach (being aggressive) would have also resulted in a victory or not.
And the opposite is also true, of course. It’s impossible to know whether the result would have been the same or different had you pursued the other approach when you are aggressive, either.
And then again, there are “hybrid” approaches, where you’re neither being completely conservative nor totally aggressive.
Let’s not complicate the discussion too much, though – I’m talking about taking a predominantly aggressive versus a predominantly conservative approach here.
Aggressive or conservative?
So, to be (generally) conservative or to be aggressive, that is the question.
Another old saying is, “No guts, no glory.” Think of the final scene in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Butch and Sundance go out in a blaze of glory. They lose. They die. But would they have felt better, or worse, had they hid under the bed and waited to be discovered, dragged out, and hanged?
In another scene from that movie, Butch and Sundance are being chased and face the options of either waiting to be captured (and doubtless killed) or risking their lives by jumping off a cliff into a raging river. They jump. They survive.
Again, though, even with the final, fatal shootout in mind, it’s my belief that it’s not just more satisfying to “go for the gusto,” but it’s also more often that not the shrewd thing to do.
You will win more often by being proactive/aggressive than you will being conservative, or passive (playing not to lose).
I believe this applies to everything in life, not just football, but let’s talk about football, and specifically about two things: An actual incident from the not-too-distant past when being conservative may very well have cost the Packers a Super Bowl appearance, and a strategy for more success on offense by being gutsy/aggressive on 4th down.
Peppers pickled the Packers playoffs
In the fourth quarter of a playoff game in early 2015 against the Seattle Seahawks (following the 2014 season), safety Morgan Burnett intercepted a pass.
Euphoria briefly reigned in Packer Nation, for the Packers were ahead 19-7, and now had the ball with limited time on the clock. The Seahawks would have to score two touchdowns in those last five minutes and keep the Packers off the board in order to come back and win.
Not likely, right? Burnett should go down to eliminate the possibility of fumbling and giving the ball right back to Seattle?
That would be playing it safe, conservative. Playing not to lose.
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That’s what long-in-the-tooth veteran Julius Peppers told Burnett to do. Burnett complied.
As most of us painfully recall, the Seahawks went on to win the game and represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Would the outcome of that game have been different had Burnett made what he could out of the return, rather than “giving himself up?”
We’ll never know. Quite possibly it would have been, though. Actually, it’s likely Burnett would have gotten the Packers at least into field goal range, and he might even have scored. He did have “room to roam.”
And had Burnett scored, it would have put the Seahawks in a hole so deep they would have thought it was a bottomless pit.
Peppers was a great player for the Packers, no doubt about that, and I’m glad the Packers had him on their team, but that was not his finest hour. That was not his best decision.
But, of course, it’s not all on Peppers. Burnett didn’t have to listen to him. But Burnett was a relatively young player, whereas Peppers had been in the NFL since Burnett was barely a teenager, so it’s easy to understand why Burnett acquiesced to the voice of experience.
Had the Packers been playing to win rather than playing not to lose on that play, they may very well have at least played in the Super Bowl that year.
Now for the other thing.
Go for it on fourth down
The one play in football that most clearly personifies the “playing not to lose” mindset, or approach, is the punt.
In fact, “to punt” has come to signify in common parlance to basically turtle up and do nothing.
Afraid of the other team having good field position, a team that opts to punt willingly gives their opponent the ball outright, without further fight, ceding them control and betting against their own chances of getting a first down.
Now I’m not saying you should ALWAYS “go for it” on fourth down and NEVER punt. I’m not (that) crazy.
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But there are many benefits that come from going for it much more often than history and tradition would indicate is feasible or reasonable.
Some of these benefits are:
1) You’re changing the rules of the game in your favor – you now have four downs instead of three to get the first down.
2) You’re wearing out the opposing defense (defenses get tuckered out quicker than offenses do), giving yourself a decided advantage. Remember Vince Lombardi’s maxim about that: “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”
3) Your players are more excited, more energized, have more fun, are looser, and enjoy heightened camaraderie when coaches “open things up.”
4) You’re ensuring that your punter has a “live” leg, because he doesn’t punt as often.
It’s true, there are definitely situations that make going for it ill-advised, such as fourth-and-17 from the 3-yard line, but in less extreme scenarios, the risk/reward of going for it on fourth down would seem to come out on the reward side often enough to at least seriously consider it.
Granted, another scenario where only a complete doofus would go for it is if time is running out, you’re in easy field goal range, and tied or down by 1-3 points. But I’m talking mainly about the choice between going for a first down vs. punting here – not red zone situations.
But even in that first case (fourth-and-17), you may as well go for it if there are only a few seconds left in the game (to try to score if you’re behind, or run out the clock if you’re ahead – but if you do that, make sure you hold on to the rock)
On a side but related note, fake punts/trick plays can also work, and keep the other team on their heels. So even when you line up in punt formation, don’t always punt. Give the other team something to worry about/be distracted by.
So in conclusion, I say:
1) Don’t hit the deck in a situation like Burnett was in; don’t trade likely points for the small chance of losing a fumble.
2) More often than not, go for it on fourth down. Your kicker should swing his leg more often than your punter does.