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Innovation Blog

Super Bowl Leadership:  Deeds, Not Just Words

By Shlomo Maital

Sean Payton   

   Sports legends are full of stories about inspiring half-time speeches by coaches, that energize his players and lead to victory.   The most famous is Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne’s “win one for the gipper” speech.

      George Gipp was a Notre Dame football All-American player, a star, who died tragically at age 25 of a strep throat infection.  Today, he would have been treated with antibiotics routinely.  Rockne asked his players to win the game in memory of “The Gipper”.  They did. The speech was immortalized by a B-movie actor named Ronald Reagan, in the film biography of Rockne.   Reagan went on to become U.S. President.

     In this year’s Super Bowl NFL championship football game  played in Miami, New Orleans coach did not make a stirring speech at half time, even though his team trailed Indianapolis 10-6 and looked outplayed and defeated.  Instead he made a risky decision. Here is how the press  (NY Daily News) described it:

Sean Payton coached one of the most aggressive games in Super Bowl history against Peyton Manning and the Colts and succeeded with perhaps the riskiest coaching decision ever in the championship game, an onside kick by a rookie punter to start the second half.

   Payton came to New Orleans after the Katrina disaster, in which the New Orleans SuperDome was used to house many thousands of homeless refugees, and was badly damaged.  For at least a season, his team could not play their home games at home.  They were once the worst team in the NFL, known by their fans as the New Orleans “aint’s” (rather than the Saints).  It became a fad to wear paper bags over your head (to signal the need for anonymity, as someone dumb enough to root for the team).  He rebuilt the team, bringing in a visionary quarterback named Drew Brees, who was motivated like Payton by the need to raise New Orleans’ morale.

     At the start of the second half, with New Orleans trailing 10-6,  Payton chose to do  an “onside kick”.  This means that instead of New Orleans’ kicker kicking the ball deep into the opponents’ end zone, he kicked it (as a strategic surprise) very short, bouncing the ball of the helmet of a Colts player, and then having the ball recovered by New Orleans, giving them possession. 

   This was a hugely risky decision.  Most onside kicks fail.  If this one had failed, Colts would have had huge momentum.  They would have gotten the ball close to midfield, and may well have marched downfield to score,  boosting their lead to 17-6. 

   Why did Payton do this?  As a powerful signal to his team: We’re here to win, we’re going to do everything possible to win, I’m willing to put my own neck on the line with a decision that, if it fails, will have me tarred and feathered.  And if I want to win so much, well, perhaps so should you. 

    His actions spoke louder than his words.  His players got the message. They outplayed the Colts in the second half by a wide margin and ended up winning 31-17.  It was a remarkable shift in the momentum of the game,  caused in large part by an inspired coach.

  And– by the way.   The team had practiced onside kicks intensively for two whole weeks before the game.  Innovation?  Sure — but, make sure you know what you are doing.  




Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
February 2010
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