What is the power of expectation, in the hands of a coach?
How do the expectations of a head coach and his staff—and of the endless, chattering audience outside the football team’s headquarters—shape the product that we see on the field in the most important games?
The media makes a cottage industry of dissecting athletes’ psychology, but the simple truth is, there’s so much we don’t know—and can never know, without the athlete’s cooperation—about their motivations, beliefs and expectations.
From the outside, though, we can infer patterns. We can look at statistics and decipher hidden codes and fit trends onto irregular lines, using the blunt instrument of data to divine deeper truths. My guess here is more intuitive than calculated, but if I’m right, the colossal failure that was the 37-20 loss to the New York Giants in January was not an isolated incident. It is the most drastic example of a trend that has dogged Green Bay throughout, and long before, the Mike McCarthy era: when the most is expected of them, the Packers play like crap. When they are expected to handily defeat an opponent, they falter and fail. When they are underdogs, they succeed brilliantly.
Let me try to put this in concrete terms. In 2007, the Packers and Cowboys each had a 10-1 record when they met in Week 13. In Dallas, on Thursday Night Football, against Brett Favre’s oldest and worst rival—it was by far the biggest game of the McCarthy era to date. And how did the Packers respond? Favre threw two interceptions in the first five possessions, Aaron Rodgers’ rally fell short and the Cowboys ran away with the game.
In Game 1 of the 2007 playoffs, Green Bay essentially spotted the Seahawks a 14-0 lead after Ryan Grant fumbled on the first two Packers possessions. Although the Packers rallied to win in a blowout, the early turnovers were incredibly un-McCarthy football. And as heavy favorites in the NFC Championship, against a Giants team widely considered to be a weaker foe than the Cowboys, Plaxico Burress repeatedly trashed Al Harris and Brandon Jacobs trashed the entire Packers front seven. After making it to overtime by virtue of two missed Lawrence Tynes field goals, a Favre interception ended the Packers’ year.
In 2009, the Packers blew out a Cardinals team that had rested its key starters in Week 17, 33-7. Confident and cocky heading into the playoff rematch, they were embarrassed next week in a 51-45 shootout. A Rodgers interception on the Packers’ first offensive play, and a Donald Driver fumble on their third, staked the Cardinals to an early 17-0 lead; only by virtue of an amazing Rodgers comeback did Green Bay even make it to overtime. And in 2011, Rodgers and Co. misfired on play after play and committed four turnovers in an embarrassing defeat at the hands of New York.
I’m not trying to take anything away from the Packers’ foes in these games. Kurt Warner played one of the best single games in NFL history in that ’09 barnburner, and the Giants were clearly the better team in ’07. They certainly whupped the Packers in ’11 as well, although that iteration of Green Bay played well below its potential in the playoffs. But that’s kind of my entire point, you see? The Packers play poorly in big games when the expectations are high.
Instead of rising to the occasion, they descend to mediocrity, especially early in the game. When they are supposed to advance deep into the playoffs, they are quickly ejected. When there are no expectations, the pressure’s off and they win playoff games. It makes me wonder if Green Bay’s catastrophically injury-filled, expectation-deflating 2010 regular season was a blessing in disguise; with Super Bowl talk running rampant in minicamps that year, would the Packers have even made it to the NFC Championship without a huge kick in the ass?
I think that expectation is a powerful force in a NFL locker room. I think that whether or not the Packers read their own press clippings, as the phrase goes, they lose focus and concentration when they think they’re supposed to win. And that has contributed to some devastating playoff losses for the Packers and for their fans in the past few years. This isn’t just a McCarthy problem; Mike Holmgren’s 1997 team was (infamously) a 13 1/2 point favorite over the Broncos in the Super Bowl and lost 31-24. Mike Sherman’s 2004 squad was supposed to cream the 8-8 Vikings at Lambeau Field; instead they were humiliated by Randy Moss and Co. There’s no shame in losing to an equal or superior team, but the Packers just can’t seem to get it done when they’re expected to do so.
Maybe that’s a referendum on the expectations we have for the Packers instead of the team’s performance. Sometimes, you just get outplayed by a superior foe. And very often, it seems to me, outside forces—sportsbooks, journalists, TV talking heads—assign a level of greatness to teams that reality can’t deliver. But these days it’s impossible to separate football, the game, from football, the cloud of hype and blather surrounding the game. And as an outsider, I guess it’s hard to tell a loss to a team that turned out to be better than the experts thought from a good old-fashioned choke.
It’s all in the viewpoint, really; if you’re a Seahawks fan, Marshawn Lynch’s incredible touchdown run in the '10 wild-card round was one of the great plays in NFL history and a triumph of individual effort. If you’re a Packers fan, LeGarrette Blount’s ramble through the Packers secondary last year—a very similar play—was a catastrophe of missed tackles that never should have lasted five yards. Sometimes, you have to give the other guy credit. But it still seems to me that the Packers have a habit of choking when everyone expects them to win. Coming off a 15-2 season and a division title, the Packers will receive plenty of hype this offseason as favorites to play in Super Bowl XLVII. If history is any guide, that could wind up being a major problem.