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The Real Over/Under: Over-Analysis, Underperformance

Redskins tight end Chris Cooley (47) fumbles it away against the Rams, one of an array of errors that led to Sunday's defeat. It's a matter of "performance focus," said a sports psychologist.
Redskins tight end Chris Cooley (47) fumbles it away against the Rams, one of an array of errors that led to Sunday's defeat. It's a matter of "performance focus," said a sports psychologist. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By Jason La Canfora
Saturday, October 18, 2008

Last week, with Washington abuzz over its football team and euphoria bubbling around Redskins Park, defensive backs coaches Jerry Gray and Steve Jackson cautioned their players. Gray and Jackson, teammates on a talented 1992 Houston Oilers club that failed to meet expectations, attempted to explain a common, yet nebulous NFL phenomenon: very good teams losing games they should win.

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And yet the Redskins, riding a four-game winning streak that included road triumphs over division rivals Dallas and Philadelphia, were beaten at home by the woeful St. Louis Rams. Another such effort this weekend could mean another upset loss at home, to the Cleveland Browns.

"I don't have an answer for why it happens," Jackson said. "We brought it up to the guys to say how it can happen. A bad kick here. A guy steps out of bounds and it's not called. A dropped interception here. Warren [Moon, Houston's Hall of Fame quarterback] throws an interception that's returned for a touchdown. A guy mishandles a snap. It's the exact same thing that happened here. There's no rhyme or reason for any of it. It just happens."

Jackson and Gray addressed the entire defense last Thursday, explaining how the Oilers let their season die on the frosted artificial turf of Buffalo's Rich Stadium in January 1993. They detailed the immense talent on their squad and how the Oilers had pummeled the Buffalo Bills, 27-3, in the regular-season finale, knocking star quarterback Jim Kelly out for the start of the playoffs.

A week later in the playoffs, Houston played the same Bills team and built a 35-3 lead in the third quarter, this time sending star running back Thurman Thomas to the sidelines. But then the Oilers blew it all with an array of interceptions, dropped interceptions, poor punts and kickoffs and lapses in concentration.

As Jackson and Gray watched the Redskins operate Sunday -- fumbling drives away, dropping easy interceptions -- they felt it all happening again.

"It's just a momentum thing," Jackson said. "You're always thinking that on the next play it's going to stop. 'Okay, we've got to recover. We've got to get things back on the right track.' And then the next thing you know, there's another one, and another guy messes up. Then you fix yours and another guy messes up his."

Jackson paused for a minute, a torrent of bad memories pouring forth, some very fresh and others that will never die. "There's nothing else you can say," he muttered. "I'm putting that behind me. On to Cleveland."

According to John F. Murray, a sport performance psychologist practicing in Florida, the Redskins' out-of-character turn last week was hardly unprecedented. It's repeated weekly, he said, pointing to Florida's loss to Ole Miss earlier this season, and underperformance can become contagious across all sports and at all levels. The mere on-field perception that mistakes are snowballing, as Jackson outlined, can become counterproductive.

"There's momentum at work, and there's also modeling," Murray said. "You watch your teammate mess up, and you mess up, because for whatever reason you're thinking too much. We need to turn off our brains most of the time to perform well -- not in terms of assignment or technique -- but when you're over-thinking or over-analyzing a situation you interfere with the performance focus.

"When you watch a lion go after his prey, he's not pondering it, he's jumping on it. Over-analysis is good off field when you're developing strategy and goals and getting yourself ready for an event, but once the event begins you should be on autopilot. Getting over-conscious is a precursor to choking. When we start to become aware and analyze our own behavior it's almost like being observed. Rather than stay in a non-self reflective moment, you start to over-analyze things so much you trip on yourself."

Coach Jim Zorn opted not to criticize individual players but repeated his disdain for penalties, demanding better "focus and concentration." He does, however, believe that a team that did not commit an offensive turnover in its first five games will not likely again commit three within a four-drive span, as his players did Sunday.

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