Why Your Favorite Team Loses In The Playoffs
Regarding Exhaustion, Endurance, and Excellence
I’ve loved some heart-breakingly great (and also just demonstrably outstanding) sports franchises in my life. Clearly, I’m a glutton for punishment. However, I’ve learned some lessons from them.
In 1983, I believed that the Washington Football Team would be back-to-back Super Bowl winners. Throughout the 1990s, I believed that the Buffalo Bills would be more than just four-time American Football Conference champions, and that the Seattle Supersonics would be more than just four-time Pacific Division champions in the National Basketball Association. And, until last night, I believed that the Washington Wizards could pull the upset and win the Davey O’Brien trophy as champions of the NBA. Thus, it’s rather easy to see that more than anything else I know about sports, having an accurate understanding of how and why teams lose in the playoffs is foremost in my mind at all times. Thus, here’s a breakdown of why, save heinous injury or just not being very talented, your favorite team (and oftentimes mine) lose when it matters most.
The 1992–1993 University of Michigan Wolverines featured the “Fab Five,” a group of heralded freshman recruits-turned-pop culture icons who were in their second season of turning the collective universe on its head. In retrospect, aside from winning 86% of their games and being the first seed in the West Region in the 1992–1993 NCAA tournament, there were many more mentally and physically exhausting things happening with this team, namely with the player pictured above, team superstar Chris Webber, but with others as well.
- Between 1988 and 1993, Ed Martin, a University of Michigan booster, illegally gave Chris Webber about $280,000, including allegedly paying his off-campus apartment rent, plus providing him with spending money, jewelry, clothing, and a stereo. This means that every time you step on a court, it could easily be, if caught by the NCAA, your last time stepping on a court.
- As well, on October 4, 1992, Jalen Rose, Michigan’s starting point guard and the team’s offensive and defensive catalyst, was present with friends in a home being raided for drugs. The four men were charged with and issued citations for “Loitering where drugs are kept or stored,” a misdemeanor offense with a $500 dollar fine and up to 90 days in jail. For the rest of the season, Rose was tormented by chants of “crack house” and “Just Say No,” while his coach Steve Fisher told the press that Rose was a “solid citizen who shouldn’t have been there.”
Chris Webber played competitive basketball for 25 years, though likely none were as scrutinized as the two years that he played at the University of Michigan. In two years he played in 70 basketball games that inarguably redefined the sport he was playing for the modern age. During said time he was engaging in illegal activities, was surrounded by fellow teammates engaging in illegal activities, had an author writing a book about him, while he was doing things that were against the law interviewing him often, plus was trying to defeat teams that had somewhere in the range of 50 players who would go onto being drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft. Throw in ridiculous things as well like say, meeting Muhammad Ali and discovering that he’s a huge fan as well as say, having every rapper and teenager in the world copying your swag, and it’s a lot.
Put pressure on that guy (who yes, at that time, is 20 years old) when there’s less than ten seconds left in the 1993 NCAA Championship game, and certainly, it’s entirely possible, that because he’s well, exhausted, he’s going to call a timeout. Given that he’s been through this kind of hell, well, the fact that Michigan had no timeouts left, and that calling a timeout when there are no timeouts left is a technical foul in college (and that UNC would shoot free throws AND gain possession of the ball), probably slipped his mind.
Sometimes a game, as well as a loss, is about a lot more than the points that are on the board.
It’s not enough to prepare to play for the allotted number of games listed on a regular season schedule at the highest level possible to be incredibly successful. For example, if you also add in playing seven game series in all four rounds of the playoffs, an NBA season could be 110 games long. Similarly, to play at a championship level, the NFL season is 19 games long, and the NHL is also potentially 110 games in length. For perspective, let’s also add in the example of global soccer titans Manchester United who, in 1998–1999 won the Premier League, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League (aka the “treble”). In speaking to their likely astounding level of fitness, one year the team played 70 matches, and impressively won 33 consecutive matches, losing five overall in the season.
Better yet, regarding endurance, contemplate the pop cultural and social stress of excellence. In doing so, consider the story of Michael Jordan, whose level of mental toughness and endurance is astounding. In 1993, Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to the NBA Championship while also leading the league in scoring and steals per game, and averaging a NBA Finals record of 41 points per game. He did all of this while in the throes of dealing with a compulsive gambling addiction that led to him losing millions of dollars, sometimes in the course of just one night.
As well, couple this with the fact that Jordan was also in the midst of having a 56,000 square foot mansion built, being the father of two children under the age of six, plus being a brand spokesman for upwards of a dozen brands at a time. One of these brands included Nike, which, interestingly enough, in 1993, failed to meet their earning estimates. In the midst of all of that, he still piloted the team to a championship that finished a seven-year run where he achieved seven scoring titles and three championships.
Preparing to handle this isn’t easy. Complex notes that modern era NBA titan Stephen Curry develops his footwork by doing weekly Zumba classes in the offseason, while also putting himself through intense ball-handling drill sessions and core workouts. As well, a thirty-minute video regarding 2009 Super Bowl winning quarterback Drew Brees’ offseason workout includes discussion of things like “elevating tissue temperature,” as well as also featuring elements of crossfit training and footwork development. Gone are the days of just lifting weights, running, or even more dynamic types of physical endurance training. This is a whole other level of thing.
Soccer icon Cristiano Ronaldo’s training philosophy is said to include “[working out] 3–4 hours a day on 5 days of a week. Moreover, he sleeps for at least 8 hours every night, which gives his body enough rest to recover after a day’s hard work.” As well, a classic era icon like Boston Celtics’ three-time NBA Champion Larry Bird would warm up more than two hours before tipoff of a game, shooting more than 300 practice shots, speeding up the routine and by the end of the workout even including rapid-fire shots. Sometimes Bird would shoot more than 300 shots, oftentimes “[shooting] until [he felt] good.”
And of course, yes, evidence of Lance Armstrong’s doping is oftentimes linked to his victories at the month long and 2200 mile Tour de France cycling race. However, important as well to note is that Armstrong and his coaches used visualization techniques to “imagine a set of circumstances and other racers at different stages of a competition, visualizing himself breaking away from key opponents or winning sprint finishes.”
Thus, in full, it’s important to note that if a team’s minds and bodies are not locked in at a heightened level of hyper long-term health, strength, and focus, then championship level success is impossible.
There’s something to be said about a commitment to winning as opposed to a “Commitment to Excellence.”
A “commitment to winning” is the type of thing that allows for the Buffalo Bills of the 1990s to amass a talent-laden franchise that include now Hall of Famers quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, wide receiver James Lofton, and defensive end Bruce Smith. ESPN notes that the 1990 Bills were “known as one of the best teams not to win the Super Bowl. Their 13–3 record is tied for the best in franchise history. They ranked first in scoring offense and sixth in scoring defense. Kelly led the NFL in passer rating, Thomas led in yards from scrimmage and Smith was voted defensive player of the year.”
A “commitment to winning” gets you to the big game. However, it’s in lacking a franchise level ethos defined by a “commitment to excellence” that allows for the Bills’ four consecutive Super Bowls to be debacles that included the following:
- The New York Giants to have possession of the football for more than 40 minutes
- The game against the Washington Football Team to include the Bills’ initial possession involving Thurman Thomas looking for his helmet on the sidelines.
- The Dallas Cowboys forcing nine Buffalo turnovers.
- The Dallas Cowboys outscoring the Buffalo Bills 24–0 in the second half of a rematch one year later.
Comparatively, a “Commitment to Excellence” takes a “commitment to winning” one note deeper and is what led to the Los Angeles Raiders’ 38–9 dismantling of the Washington Football Team in 1983’s Super Bowl XVIII.
The 1983 Washington Football Team’s offense set the then NFL scoring record with 541 points. Their defense set the record for takeaways with 61, and the team overall had a turnover ratio of +43, which means that Washington’s offense only turned the ball over to their opponents 18 times in 16 games. For comparison’s sake, this is more than twice the leading +/- number for the top NFL differential team in the past two NFL seasons COMBINED. All this being said, the Washington Football Team lost to the Los Angeles Raiders 38–9 in the Super Bowl that season. Why? Well, let’s study “Commitment to Excellence.”
For twenty years prior to 1983, then Los Angeles Raiders’ General Manager Al Davis had been preaching to anyone affiliated with the Raiders’ franchise that they had a “commitment to excellence.” This notion was attributed to a quote of Vince Lombardi, who said, “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.”
In the pursuit of said excellence, Davis smartly put together a team of players who arguably either had a very low or very high quality of life (some may even say representing a sometimes “criminal element” even), and thus, it can also be argued, had great reason to fully understand this team ethos. Regarding Davis’ magic regarding curating a franchise made in his vision of said excellence commitment, Bleacher Report notes, “Sometimes a person may need the perspective of someone from the outside to help them understand certain things, but it still comes back to that individual to do something about it.” 1983’s Raider stars definitely did something about Washington’s then unprecedented success and included the following:
- Marcus Allen, a once-in-a-generation running back who was argued by many to be the finest talent churned out by the University of California since OJ Simpson.
- Jim Plunkett, who, a decade after struggling with the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers, was benched by the Raiders, regained his job, and led the team to the Super Bowl.
- Lyle Alzado and Ted Hendricks. Alzado’s brother Peter once told ESPN that “[Lyle] used football as a way of expressing his anger at the world and at the way he grew up.” The nose tackle was a known steroid abuser and intense on field competitor (who later died from steroid abuse-related brain cancer). As for Hendricks, he was known as “The Mad Stork,” could do everything from block punts to sack the quarterback and more, plus was in his 14th and final season.
- Howie Long was in his third NFL season and had reached All-Pro status for the first time, and unlike many other Raiders, was, as writer Paul Zimmerman noted, a “275 pound choirboy,” with “[a]magnificent body [and] clean, chiseled good looks, [who] already [had]the Hollywood talent scouts buzzing.”
NFL.com notes the following about the Raiders “improbable” triumph”
“The Los Angeles Raiders dominated the Washington Redskins from the beginning in Super Bowl XVIII and achieved the most lopsided victory in Super Bowl history, surpassing Green Bay’s 35–10 win over Kansas City in Super Bowl I. In the third period, running back Marcus Allen, who rushed for a Super Bowl-record 191 yards on 20 carries, increased the Raiders’ lead to 35–9 on touchdown runs of five and 74 yards, the latter erasing the Super Bowl record of 58 yards set by Baltimore’s Tom Matte in Game III. Allen was named the game’s most valuable player. The 38 points scored by the Raiders were the highest total by a Super Bowl team.”
Creating a defining ethos by which a franchise can become unified is important. Ultimately, an ethos defined by excellence in all things, rather than a non-ethos related expectation of just winning games, is everything.