Staring down fear, the Ravens smiled on
With all his bravado and fearlessness, his cool under pressure, when all was said and done quarterback Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens caught a huge wave of success phobia displayed by their first playoff opponent, the Denver Broncos and rode it all the way to a win in Super Bowl XLVII. I believe it was the golfer Jack Nicklaus who used to say “More tournaments are lost than are won,” meaning that—in one form or another— a player will often simply give the victory away. Before the Ravens won it, the Broncos— the number-one seed in their conference— lost it. Heavy lies the head that potentially wears the victor’s crown.
Take nothing away from the Ravens and Flacco who took advantage of an opponent’s lapse, but as former all-pro safety Rodney Harrison said about their first playoff win against Denver, “If you’re Denver’s [safety] Rahim Moore, how do you let Jacoby Jones get behind you in that situation?” Specifically with 41 seconds to go and no timeouts with Flacco and the Ravens on their own 30-yard line trailing the Broncos 35-28, how do you get beat on a go route if you’re the last line of defense? You get beat on an old school-yard play, “Everybody go deep.” Four fly patterns by the four Raven wide receivers straight down the field.
Flacco spots Moore’s risky behavior
Here’s how Moore did it with a combination of mental lapses which did him in. First he had deep responsibility on speedy wide-out Jones lined up wide right—providing support for cornerback Tony Carter. When Flacco came to the line of scrimmage and surveyed the scene he saw exactly what he was hoping for— a sign of weakness in the Bronco defense, a sign of retreat if you will. Rahim Moore was leaning in too close to the line of scrimmage unlike the other two safeties in a three-deep defender set. With his two burners out the widest on each side, Flacco would have hoped for the weakness in the defense to be on one of those two guys, receivers who could really make you pay—take it all the way on one play. Moore presented him with that chink in the Bronco armor.
But Moore didn’t stop with being a little out of position conceding some ground to Jones, he also stared into the backfield far too long after the play started instead of immediately back-pedaling into position. He wasn’t concentrating on his job. After the snap, when Flacco scanned the field to see which receiver might be open, he wasn’t too surprised to see Jones with a step behind his man and to find that Moore was late coming over for support. That was Flacco’s shot and he took it—from his own 20-yard line.
But pressured by the pass rush of linebacker Von Miller who nearly hit his arm, Flacco had to float the ball on a higher trajectory than usual from his own 25. With the ball hanging in the air for 55 yards all the way to the Bronco 20, Moore comes to the rescue and for some strange reason slowed down. When he finally arrived he mistimed his leap prematurely and awkwardly as the ball dropped into the waiting arms of Jacoby Jones who then waltzed into the end zone. Overtime, baby—but the Broncos were shortly done.
Even Raven backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor had spotted Moore’s egregious error from the sidelines: “The safety did a bad job tracking the ball. You could see he was out of position.”
A pot full of mental error— the fear of success in review
Let’s go back over Moore’s series of errors: playing too shallow, slow getting into the play, slowing down as he approached his man, and finally mistiming his jump— leaping too early. His last move suggests that secretly he was anxious which interfered with his judgment, his concentration and lastly his physical speed. To say the play came down to a veritable pot full of mental errors would be an understatement. Even Flacco admitted that he had had “some luck” on his desperation heave. And that “luck” was Moore’s self-sabotage. Why did he choose this moment to self-destruct? Consider the stage was big, too big for him at that moment and he was exiting left.
Harrison blamed Moore’s lapses on hubris, on Moore forgetting situational— read “team”— football and instead thinking how he could intercept the ball to claim the role of “final hero.” Harrison told Sports Illustrated, “Moore wanted to be the guy who made the interception and won the game. Everybody wants to be the hero.”
The overlooked but familiar idea of success retreat had claimed another victim. Overdoing can be its cover. Read: consciously I want to be a hero but deep down I want to lose—maybe punish myself for being selfish. The bottom line was that Moore’s behavior said, “I didn’t fear losing enough, I feared success if the truth be told.” He did a lot of things to assure he would not succeed.
Peyton Manning’s struggles with success
While Moore’s failure only sent the game into overtime, Peyton Manning had his own struggles with success which then showed up. It wasn’t long before Manning coughed up the game for the Broncos by throwing an interception—the worst pass he had thrown since his crucial interception near the end of Super Bowl XLIV three years ago, an errant toss that also assured his team’s loss back then.
Sometimes people can have their fill of success— or their family’s success— and unconsciously decide that it’s simply someone else’s turn. Don’t underestimate the fact that Manning was coming back from a serious injury, a concern which can wreak havoc deep in the recesses of our mind when it comes to reaching the pinnacle of success.
And Junior Seau joins the crowd
Rodney Harrison observed how success sabotage— similar to Rashim Moore’s blunder— showed up in Super Bowl XLII. From his safety position with the Patriots at a crucial point late in the game he recognized the mismatch of 6’4” Giant receiver Plaxico Burress on a 5’9” corner Ellis Hobbs in solo coverage. The defensive coordinator had called an all-out blitz and Harrison was screaming at middle linebacker Junior Seau to check out of the call. But as Harrison said, “Junior being Junior” just wanted to blitz— and Eli Manning just wanted to win. Manning threw an easy 17-yard fade for a touchdown to Burress in the end zone corner. Seau suffered from the same overdoing hero impulse that apparently haunted Moore— and another player blind to true success bit the dust.
In one last look back, when we realize the phenomenal quick-read ability of a quarterback’s unconscious mind, we can see in the blink of an eye that on the play involving Moore— on which the playoff turned—Flacco would have read Moore’s risky out-of-position body language as a message, “Try me.” Moore was signaling not only self-centeredness but carelessness and danger, and Flacco was more than willing to oblige him. Without that risk Jones would have never gotten behind him, and the Ravens would never have gotten to the Super Bowl. You could call it “a game of inches”—a familiar baseball reference—but more often than we realize, the big games turn on the smallest choices.
There’s a lot more to handling the hot potato of success than we ever imagined.