For Marcus Williams and Saints, did fear of mistake ultimately lead to failure?
New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams (43) rises from the turf and watches as Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) runs for the game winning touchdown on Sunday night at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
I had a lot of work to do yesterday afternoon and evening and so I decided to DVR the Saints@Vikings NFC divisional playoff and watch it later, ad free. I somehow managed to avoid learning the outcome until completing my work at midnight. Then, I settled down to run through as much as possible before I got sleepy.
I managed to get a bout halfway through the third quarter and finally dozed off with the Vikings up 17-0. Hey, it looked for all the world like a 24-3 game, right?
Very literally for me, another snoozer. Yeah, well, as Cosell used to say during the old Monday Night Football halftime highlights:
When I finally saw the big finish this morning with my coffee, I could think of nothing like it in NFL history other than possibly Franco Harris’ well-documented 1972 “Immaculate Reception” in Pittsburgh. Really, though, the first thing I thought of was another final play in another sport. But with the same root cause.
I asked a friend this afternoon if he could guess what it was. He got it on the first try:
Christian Laettner’s shot in The Greatest Game Ever.
Yes! I exclaimed, surprised. But why?
And this is the interesting part. This guy is a former longtime coach, mind you. He had guessed the game but could not isolate the reason. Was it something about the defense? No. Something about not guarding the in-bounds play equating to no pass rush? No!
There was one crystalline reason Stefon Diggs’ 61-yard catch-and-run on the game’s final play reminded me of Laettner’s catch-turn-and-shoot 26 years ago:
The defense played afraid.
Then, it dawned on me why my friend the coach wouldn’t see the reason. Of course, he wouldn’t. Coaches are the reason plays like that happen. Because they are constantly looking for ways it all can go wrong and warning what not to do.
They can’t help it. They’ve spent their lives watching every conceivable way a game can be blown. And those losses eat at them more than they cherish the wins.
So, they obsess over what can go wrong. They issue specific warnings and cautions like parents giving away their car keys: Don’t do this. Don’t do that. This could happen. I’ve seen it happen. And we don’t want it to happen. So, don’t do either this or that!
What does this accomplish? Often, it causes the players to so obsess over what not to do that they forget what to do.
So, I think it was with Marcus Williams, the promising rookie safety from Utah. He had enjoyed a very good season with 73 tackles and 4 picks. A simple 74th tackle and wrap-up of third-year former Maryland wideout Stefon Diggs on the final play in Minneapolis and the Saints were coming to Philadelphia for a crack at the Super Bowl.
Who knows what Saints head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen told the players before the final Vikings possession with :25 showing and especially the final play with :10? But I’d bet you part of the narrative was what not to do. Specifically: Don’t get flagged for pass interference.
It made perfect sense they would warn against such a call. The Saints’ secondary, particularly cornerback Ken Crawley, had been picking up flags all game for illegal contact, holding and interference.
But why did Williams duck and completely whiff on the tackle? FOX studio analyst Jimmy Johnson thought he was at least subconsciously and perhaps very consciously so afraid of interfering that he became semi-paralyzed in the middle of the play. So fearful of doing the wrong thing that he forgot to do anything. I think that’s a reasonable explanation.
To his eternal credit, the rookie faced reporters afterward and answered all the whys as best he knew how. The seed quote:
“It was my play to make. The ball was in the air. And I didn’t go attack it.”
Was he afraid of interference?
“I felt like I was a little early. But, at that point, I’ve just gotta make the tackle when he comes down.”
Just like Deron Feldhaus and John Pelphrey of Kentucky’s beloved “Unforgettables” on the final play of their excruciating loss to Duke in the 1992 NCAA East Regional final in Philadelphia. They were right there next to Laettner as Grant Hill’s 75-foot pass descended. They could have made a play on the ball. But they were afraid of fouling. Fearful of the reasonable action. Paralyzed into inaction.
One of my favorite parts of my favorite ESPN 30-for-30 documentary is a Sonny Vaccaro quote in Jonathan Hock’s wondrous story of Jim Valvano and N.C. State’s run to the 1983 NCAA men’s basketball championship, “Survive and Advance.” Vaccaro, the well-known sneaker camp flack and friend of the late Wolfpack coach, details the difference between Valvano approaching his team’s unlikely inclusion in the Final Four and just about every other coach in such a situation:
“Everyone else would be like, ‘We’re going to war! This is it! Our lives are on the line! Be quiet! Get to bed!’ That wasn’t him.”
No, it wasn’t. And never did a team play with less fear of failure and more joy in the quest than the Cardiac Pack in their harrowing 9-win, “Nine Lives” run through the ACC and NCAA tournaments when a loss in any of them would have ended their season.
Still, Valvano wasn’t perfect, either. He was a coach. And coaches are all the same in the way they tend to prepare for the worst, watch the sky and warn of potential landmines. But his gift was committing his players to action and never avoidance. Valvano teams very rarely played scared. They never played not to lose.
And even the best can succumb to such overbearing caution. First, because the difference between winning and losing can be a lot of money. And second, because they’ve experienced losing and want to avoid it at all cost – even at the expense of anticipating and relishing in the prospect of victory.
I’m speculating now. But rookies are more eager to please the coach and more likely to embrace his direction.
One of the simplest virtues of experience is a better filter. Knowing when to tune out advice, not to think too much and simply do what you know how to do.
It comes with time. For Marcus Williams, that time will unfortunately resume late next summer.
Marcus Williams explains what happened on Vikings’ game-winner
DAVID JONES: firstname.lastname@example.org