On Sports, Culture, and the Desire for Meaningful Change
For a while now, I’ve been trying to sort out why I think that our political system works in the broken-feeling way that it does. After all, it’s a system dominated by highly intelligent, successful well-meaning people on both sides. There are disagreements over issues, sure. But they often seem tribal and arbitrary, using complicated logistical gymnastics to back into the required philosophical underpinnings. I’ve been using my space here to think out loud on these subjects.
Despite what we tell ourselves I have long considered that, for most of us, our attachment to political party and dogma is more akin with our love of a sports team than the results of rational thought. Because of this, Ryan’s musings on football tactics here led my mind down the rabbit holes that are the NFL and NBA. And I couldn’t help but think about the strategies I have loved most in both sports, the No-Huddle Standard Offense and the Triangle.
Some here will be too young to remember, but for a while in the late 80s and early 90s there was a very small, short-lived movement to take the no-huddle offense you see in the last two minutes of games – or teams like the Patriots or Colts periodically use in different situations – and just go flat out, high speed, batshit crazy with it for four straight quarters. Using it as an-all game strategy rather than a situational tactic is now dead, but it was the most entertaining brand of football I have ever seen an NFL team play.
The No-Huddle Standard Offense is exactly what its name implies. Teams run their offense without stopping to huddle and re-think what their next step is. In theory, while you lose the ability to analyze your next move, so does the defense – which can be to your advantage. And since a defense player, not knowing what the play is, has to move less efficiently than an offensive player fatigue should tip the balance in favor of the offense throughout the course of the game.
Sam Wyche ran this offense during the late 80s with the Cincinnati Bengals, and used it for four consecutive years. The results? One year – Wyche’s last – was a pretty dismal failure, where the club went 3-13. Another year they went 5.00 and just missed the playoffs. One year they made the playoffs but did not make the Super Bowl. One year they played in the Super Bowl and lost by a respectable 4 points to the then-dynastic 49ers. So while not exactly Steel Curtain numbers, it cannot be denied that these results are far, far better than most other teams achieve in any era – and are certainly better than the Bengals have been able to do since. After having lost to Wyche’s high-octane offense, Marv Levy copied the NHSO in Buffalo and got better results with it than Wyche did. In the period Levy used this offensive philosophy, he amassed a Bills win-loss record second only to the 49ers, and made it to the Super Bowl four consecutive years. (X-Files fans here will remember the classic scene where in a meeting of the shadow government that secretly runs our lives, the Smoking Man bitterly orders that the Buffalo Bills never win a Super Bowl championship while he is alive.)
So while the NHSO hasn’t won any Super Bowls, it did create results for two (let’s be honest) second tier teams that are far, far above what just about any other team was able to accomplish. If more teams were using it over a longer period of time, who’s to say it couldn’t capture a pile Vince Lombardis?
While we might have to extrapolate to guess how successful the NHSO might be, all we have to do with the Triangle is look at the scoreboard.
USC Coach Sam Barry originally conceived the core principles of Triangle in the 1930s, but the system we know today was developed, refined and perfected by NBA assistant coach Tex Winters. The system essentially rotates three perimeter players interchangeably around two more anchored post players, trying to either force a mismatch on the perimeter or get the ball to a post player close to the basket for a high percentage shot. Granted, its constant fluidity creates two potential problems for those that wish to implement it: First, it is harder to learn and so it takes time to perfect. Second, it requires a “star” player to take a backseat to the system, and will usually result in that player getting fewer shot attempts than he would in a system where plays are specifically drawn for him.
Only one NBA coach has had enough faith in the Triangle strategy to implement it for even one full year, and the results are staggering. In the past 20 years since Phil Jackson embraced Tex Winters’ Triangle, his teams have won 55% of all NBA Championships, and made it to at least the Conference Championship games 75% of the time. In the modern era of professional sports, no one even comes close to this level of success over this length of time.
So why don’t any NBA or NFL teams attempt to recreate the strategy that Jackson, Levy or Wyche have had such success with – even those teams that have such poor records that they have nothing to lose? It’s not as if what they did was any secret.
The answer, I think, is culture.
The primary reason I remember no one using the NHSO was the line “It’s not really football,” even as his or her team was really getting shellacked by it. I travel a lot, and in the thick of the NBA season listen to a lot of sports radio in different markets; I have yet to go anywhere outside of Chicago or L.A. and not hear fans and hosts alike knowingly agree that the Triangle “just doesn’t work.” I think these kinds of sentiments filter down from professional analysts, who in turn get them from assistant coaches in their market, who in turn get it from their head coaches. For them? It’s just not what they were taught and had reinforced over, and over, and over.
Like a lot of other highly exclusive vocations, professional coaching is at its heart a kind of “good ol’ boys” network. If you are an apostate of the culture, you rarely get a job as an assistant; if you are an assistant and develop theories outside the norm, you are rarely tapped to be a head coach. And if you do get to be head coach with a new vision but achieve anything less than a Phil Jackson level of success, the very first time things go wrong everyone declares “I told you so” and you are sacrificed to the alter of the good ol’ boys. A new NBA coach running a standard pick and roll offence might well have a losing record in November, and it will be attributed to the quality of players, or the need for time to get the “kinks” worked out, or any one of a dozen (usually accurate) reasons that request patience of the fan base. But if that same new coach comes out of the gate limping having installed the Triangle or some other apostate philosophy, it is proof positive that this new fangled sissy style was a sucker’s bet. And the same goes for the NHSO in the NFL.
In short, a professional sport’s mindset rarely changes not because there are no viable alternatives, but because on the whole a professional sport doesn’t want to change. And when you think about it, this makes sense.
If you were part of a closed, highly compensated system where you knew that even were you to be fired you would be immediately rehired at some other highly paid position in the same system, would you want a whole lot of change?
This is not to say that there is a conspiracy in the world of professional coaching. It’s just that in that kind of system, this kind of thinking develops organically. Human beings convince themselves that their own self-interest is really all about the team; they also convince themselves that those with new ideas are acting out of pure self-interest at the expense of the team. This hard-wired trap is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error, and is pretty universal – especially in systems that are more closed. The more closed minded the system, the more this type of Culture-over-Results thinking festers and is taken as gospel. In fact, not only is it taken as gospel but the system convinces itself that it has a results-only mindset.
Not surprisingly, I think this same dynamic gets in the way the way of meaningful change in our political systems. Right now, everything exists along a spectrum that exists in a R – to – L framework. I would argue this has less to do with the world at large than it does that’s what we who like politics are taught to argue about. Do we want to improve education? Maybe, but we rarely actually have discussions about how to improve education. Instead, we have conversations about More Government vs. Less Government wrapped up in words about education. Any attempt to not be on either side usually is a compromise between the two, situated somewhere along the center of that line. But discussing the ways that people of different ages learn, and tying that into what we know about brain development and different styles of cognitive learning? That not so much. That framework we work within isn’t necessarily reality; it’s just how we choose to frame reality.
Professional politics, national-media punditry and even the management of government – like professional coaching – are fairly closed, highly compensated systems and subsequently are good ol’ boys networks through and through.
But the question I find myself asking more and more these days is do they have to be?