Is playoff defeat a necessary evil?
Experts opine on whether teams must experience adversity in order to win
There is one NFL player who speaks for many when he talks about the notion that a player or a team can learn something by losing in the playoffs. The mere thought prompted running back Willis McGahee to do a double take.
"Did I learn anything from losing a playoff game?" the veteran Cleveland Browns running back asked rhetorically. "I learned not to lose in the playoffs."
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Flippant? Maybe, but accurate for many. McGahee said he still thinks how close the Baltimore Ravens team he played for came to beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2008 AFC Championship Game. And he said he still has not gotten over it five years later.
That is life in the NFL playoffs, where only one team and one quarterback and one coach will come out unscathed. But the perception of many will be molded and re-molded based on the way the postseason plays out.
So it will be this postseason for Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton, who all seek their first postseason victory. And for Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson as they try to build on their wins last season. And for Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, who haven't won the Super Bowl since the 2004 and 2006 seasons, respectively.
But to most players and coaches, playoff failure is not a precursor to success. It's merely a loss in the biggest game of the season.
Elway understands that reality as well as anyone. For years, he was labeled as the guy who couldn't win the big game. But when the Broncos gave him a running game with Terrell Davis, his fortunes changed and he won two championships. Losing didn't prompt the improvement; fortifying the team did.
"It should be great incentive," Elway said of playoff defeat. "But you have to learn from it and really look at yourself. You can't be afraid or unwilling to really look at yourself."
A loss in the playoffs can indeed provide incentive. Jimmy Johnson's Dallas Cowboys were blown out by the Detroit Lions in the 1991 postseason, the first playoff appearance of the Troy Aikman-Emmitt Smith-Michael Irvin era. Fueled by their simmering anger at the loss, the Cowboys won the next two and three of the next four Super Bowls.
To say that success was spurred by one defeat, however, diminishes the talent, will and heart on those Cowboys teams. Still, if there is one thing that comes from a playoff loss, it's the experience a player gains -- provided he uses it the right way.
That singular point of emphasis is stressed by longtime Penn State sports psychologist David Yukelson.
"Learning is what competition is about," said Yukelson, a past president and fellow in the Association of Applied Sports Psychology. "Fans are about wins and losses, and I get it. But really being in that situation gives you the experience of knowing what you need to do the next time. The speed of the game, how to play against an opponent, the weather, how to handle pressure. By being in that experience you can use what you learned -- if you're motivated the right way."
That means a player is motivated neither to forget nor to wallow, but to garner whatever wisdom he can from defeat. Yukelson tries to get inside players' and coaches' heads to make sure they are programmed and pointed the right way, win or lose.
"You can't control the wins and losses; there are too many variables," Yukelson said. "But you can control the effort you give, and you can also control the composure and the focus you put toward a goal."
The NBA is rife with stories of players and teams that seemingly had to lose before they won. The Bad Boy Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s lost five times in the playoffs before finally breaking down the wall to win the championship. The Chicago Bulls, with Michael Jordan, had to break down the same wall to get past the Pistons. The Utah Jazz could not break through the wall, nor could Charles Barkley. Shaquille O'Neal didn't win a championship until his eighth pro season, and LeBron James didn't win a title until his ninth.
Although pro football is a much different sport, a player's reputation is often similarly based on perception. Dallas' Tony Romo fights a losing image because he's 1-6 in elimination games and hasn't been to the playoffs since 2009. Romo's career record as a starter in the regular season is 63-45 (.583). But since that last playoff appearance, the Cowboys are 25-28 with him taking the snaps.
"It's hard to separate him from what's going on with the entire team, but I'm getting concerned about Romo," said Brian Billick, who coached Baltimore to a Super Bowl title and now works as an analyst for Fox and the NFL Network.
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Perception can be fickle -- and cruel. Brady is considered the ultimate winner, but he has lost the last game he has played the past seven times he went to the postseason. Nobody would ever question Peyton Manning's ability to win, but he has been one-and-done in the playoffs in eight of his 12 appearances.
The entire notion of using the word "loser" regarding a player, team or coach who reaches the playoffs angers many of those in the game.
"Nonsense, completely absurd," bellowed longtime Bills, Panthers and Colts executive Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst. "You've got to win 10 games just to get into the playoffs. That's a great season. That idea is cooked up by people who have never been competitors."
But the stronger the competitor, the tougher the loss is to take. In the playoffs, the suddenness of the ending hits like a Mack truck. One day a team is getting ready for the biggest game of the season, the next it's packing boxes and cleaning out lockers.
But it's also an inherent part of the profession. From the time players are kids, they have to learn how to deal with the worst side of competition other than injury. As they quickly learn, it's not the crisis that defines them, but the response.
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The sight of Billick after a loss in Baltimore in January 2004 sums up the attitude NFL teams seem to take about a playoff loss. Billick's team had gone 10-6 and lost a wild-card game to the Tennessee Titans. As he stood and dressed in his private locker room, he chatted as if he'd just watched a movie.
"You move on pretty quick, don't you?" Billick was asked. His answer: It burns, but what are you gonna do?
"You have to flip the switch, because there's so much to do," Billick said more recently. "That's probably a good thing. The disappointment gets over quick."
For a coach and general manager, defeat means the start of the offseason, with personnel decisions and immediate evaluations needed. There is no time to feel sorry for yourself, Billick said.
"You set the tone as a head coach," Billick said. "You can wallow in it, or you can move on. You can come in and curse everybody and put the loss right in front of their consciousness, but all you'll do is wear your organization out."
To Polian, one basic fact trumps all. "I don't know too many competitive people who wallow," he said.
In other words, when they lose, they address what they need to do to get better.
"Nobody needs or wants to lose, that's for sure," Polian said. "It's not something that you embrace, and it's not a goal. But that being said, coach [Don] Shula taught me a long time ago that every time you play, you have to take something positive from it."
Clearly a person who's wallowing in a loss won't be focused on making improvements. His mind is on the loss, the bad pass, the missed block or the missed tackle. Yukelson has a way to describe that approach in his work with athletes.
"I call it stinking thinking," he said. "It's overthinking. Trying to force a pass. Trying too hard. The composure is to flush it, so to speak, flush the bad play or just tell yourself, 'I just missed him. Work on letting go of that mistake."
Romo may suffer from "stinking thinking," where he tries too hard at certain times. But the way he approaches the situation also could affect him. How it's framed and how he assesses himself is vital, Yukelson said.
Yukelson will give players he works with a mental command that helps them get past the bad play. It might be a word used in the huddle -- the "break" from the quarterback, the buckling of a chinstrap or a deep breath before a play. That mental command signals to the player to forget what just happened and move on.
The same applies for moving on after a loss.
"If you're a true champion and motivated from the heart, not just from the external rewards and from the money, then you're going to do what you need to do," Yukelson said. "You're hungrier. If you have the opportunity you can't wait to get back."
Dalton, who has been to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons with the Bengals, said "You have to take advantage of every opportunity you get."
"I remember talking to Reg last year about what it takes to go through the playoffs," Luck said. "And we'll make sure we revisit those conversations."
Yukelson admitted much of what he discusses -- the importance of routine, of thinking play to play, of a coach creating the environment to win -- could sound like "flippant psychobabble," but he points to Pete Carroll, a coach who works hard and works his team hard but also has almost a playful routine at practice that helps players.
Carroll creates the routine for success, just like Bill Belichick in New England. Different styles, same results.
Routine, Yukelson said, is boring, but it's also vital. Yukelson points to Belichick's annual routine of saying that everyone starts a new season at the bottom and tries to climb their way up. Belichick says that regardless of the previous season's results. Then he gives his team a plan to win, a plan his players believe in.
"That's what it's about," Yukelson said. "It's boring. But it keeps focus. It's distraction control with the media. It's how you build and execute."
That focus, that drive is what matters.
"I've always felt like each season is its own deal," Manning said. "Maybe what happened the year before helps get you through the offseason, your OTAs, minicamp, training camp, but once you get into a new season, it's all about how you execute, prepare, do the work in that season.
"You'd like to think you get better at preparing, learn more about what you need to do and try to be better than you were the year before. It's more about learning what you need to do as a player, as a team to win.
"But no matter the motivation, it's always really going to come down to did you put the work in? Put the time in? And did you execute when it was time to play the game?''
The ones who do the best job of growing from defeat are the ones who bounce back.
Defeat isn't a prerequisite for winning, but it can fuel the desire to improve that leads to winning.
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