The reality of high-level competition

When I was young, I never understood why elite athletes could not perform at a high level all the time. I expected my favorite athletes to have great days every time they competed.

Then I started competing…

I eventually made an Olympic team representing the United States, but my progress from beginner to expert was hardly linear. Reflecting fondly upon my successes, I frequently overlook the days that I floundered and failed to meet my expectations.

They were many…

Yesterday, the Cowboys had a day like that.

After every competition, I reflected upon what worked, what did not, and what might work in the future. I had a choice after every bad day: quit, or work harder so I would not have to deal with the frustration and disappointment that accompanies underperforming.

I doubt the Cowboys will quit.

They shouldn’t. Look at the following list of games:

Year Date Score
2008 Dec 21st PIT 14 TEN 31
2007 Sep 16th GB 35 NYG 13
2007 Nove 25th MIN 41 NYG 17
2006 Dec 10th IND 17 JAC 44
2005 Nov 28th PIT 7 IND 26
2004 Oct 31st NE 20 PIT 34
2003 Sep 7th NE 0 BUF 31
2001 Oct 7th NE 10 MIA 30
1997 Dec 15th DEN 17 SF 34
1996 Nov 18th GB 6 DAL 21
1995 Nov 12th SF 38 DAL 20
1994 Oct 2nd PHI 40 SF 8

Every losing team on that list came up short by at least 15 points. The losing teams also went on to win the Super Bowl at the end of that regular season.

By no means am I implying that the Cowboys will be a Super Bowl championship team in February, but as the results above show, one bad day does not rule out a championship run. The 2007 Giants lost two games by more than 21 points and still got hot (and lucky) at the right time to win the Super Bowl.

Even the great Tom Brady was beaten 31-0 by Buffalo before winning his second of three Super Bowls. Add Peyton Manning to that list: his Colts were blitzed by 27 points in 2006, but managed to pull things together and win a Super Bowl.

It’s just one game. One REALLY bad game, but still just one game, nonetheless. It happens.

Watching the Cowboys last night, I realized that there were five things that could have been happening:

  • The Philadelphia Eagles were the better team.
  • The Philadelphia Eagles played their greatest game.
  • The Philadelphia Eagles’ coaches figured out the Dallas Cowboys’ schemes.
  • The Dallas Cowboys played horribly.
  • Situations outside of the control of both teams led to the result (e.g., injuries, officiating, weather, and so forth).

As with most things, it was probably a combination of those possibilities. Notice how effort was not one of the variables. Also take note that the first three options give credit to the hated Eagles for doing something right.

From personal experience, I always found that when I got waxed, it had to do more with what my opponent was doing right rather than what I was doing wrong. I hold this simple fact to be one of the underlying truths in sports. Athletes that think it is all about their performance inevitably hit ceilings that prevent them from excelling.

If I were to rate the options listed above, I would give the third option (Eagles figured out the Cowboys) as the biggest reason that Dallas lost big. Of all of the reasons listed, this is the easiest to correct. Rob Ryan even admitted as much by stating that he did not reconfigure his defense enough to offset what Philadelphia was attacking.

A superior Philadelphia game plan made Dallas look slow to the ball. Having the speediest linebacker go out with an injury just exacerbated the problem. Losing a Pro Bowl punter, a starting cornerback, and a Pro Bowl nose tackle just made the loss look worse.

Last night the Eagles were the better team. Congratulations to their organization on their decisive victory. The onus for improvement is now on the Cowboys. By focusing on the proper issues that led to a loss last night, the Cowboys coaches could have Dallas better prepared for success down the road.

Playing well in the playoffs, after all, is really all that matters. Just take another look at that first list above, and remember that the Cowboys lost 24-0 to Philadelphia on Sept 15th, 1991 in Dallas and gave up 11 sacks. The Cowboys went on to beat the Bears in the playoffs that season, as well as the Eagles in Philadelphia (25-13).

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