The Real Over/Under: Over-Analysis, Underperformance

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.

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.

Casey Rabach is a smart and sure-handed center. Badly misfiring a shotgun snap that was recovered by the Rams is completely out of character. Pete Kendall is another astute lineman; catching a batted ball, trying to advance it inside the red zone with the first half expiring, fumbling and having it returned for a touchdown to give the Rams a lead at the half was unfathomable. (Zorn can concoct a drill for most anything, but concedes that a play like that might never be able to be duplicated in practice.)

During halftime, some players thought back to the message delivered by Jackson and Gray, wondering if they were getting sucked into the same spiral. "All the plays start to manifest, and it drew some similarities to what they told us," linebacker Khary Campbell said.

On defense, twice the Redskins jumped a passing route, anticipating where Marc Bulger was going with the ball, but safety LaRon Landry and linebacker London Fletcher touched the errant passes but did not catch them.

"It was a little weird type of feeling as to how the game was going," Fletcher said. "And then on the very same play -- they ran the very same play -- and we both dropped the same interception. It was like, man, weird things happen."

Zorn focused on the offsides, false starts and illegal formation penalties that stalled some drives, and made the turnovers loom even larger. That, to him, is more readily correctable, and indicative of a deeper mental flaw.

"Those concentration things, that's really irritating," Zorn said. "We had a couple of really good plays we couldn't execute, just flat-out no plays because of lack of concentration. That's inexcusable. I don't think you can come up with a reason for all the little perfect-storm situations. But, gosh, we could definitely address those [penalties]."

The instant reaction to the quirky defeat, as put forth by Clinton Portis, would be to chalk the loss up to overconfidence, to looking ahead and seeing an imminent 7-1 record. On this, he has few allies.

"I don't think we saw ourselves as an elite team strutting our stuff, walking in saying, 'We are so awesome,' " Zorn said.

Teammates pointed to a strong week of practice and film study. Some, like Rock Cartwright, agreed the offense did not play at the tempo Zorn expects, but believe they were plenty motivated and moved the ball well. "We played as hard as we can play," Cooley said.

Playing smarter is the goal now. The Redskins were a helter-skelter outfit for four years under Joe Gibbs, performing at their peak only in difficult situations, often flinching when on the verge of real success. That's a character flaw they must overcome now, because the Browns, coming off a blowout of the Super Bowl champion Giants after an expectations-busting start to their season, may be even less forgiving than the Rams.

"Good teams say, 'Hey, it doesn't matter who we're playing, we've got to go put teams away,' " Gray said. "And I think we're in that learning mode of being a good team, and hopefully there's not too many hard lessons we've got to learn, because I know we can be a good team. The thing we've got to do is keep pressing on."

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