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Play Harder, Not Smarter
On Super Bowl LVII and the tension between strategy and sportsmanship
Millions of kids have dreamed of being where Jerick McKinnon found himself. The score was tied with under two minutes left in the Super Bowl when Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes handed the ball off in the red zone. McKinnon zagged to his left, created an open lane near the sideline, and was mere yards away from scoring what would likely have been the championship-winning touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Then he slid into the sod two yards shy of the goal line.
It was a smart, legal football move. There are no innuendos suggesting conspiracy or foul play. You can hear broadcaster Greg Olsen openly rooting for him to stop short of the end zone: “He’s gotta get down, he’s gotta get down!” Had McKinnon run a few more feet, Kansas City would have taken the lead, but the Eagles would have gotten the ball back with about 100 seconds left on the clock — enough time to potentially march back down the field and re-tie the game before the end of regulation. McKinnon skidding short of the pylon allowed Kansas City to let the clock wind down as much as possible before they kicked the decisive field goal. The eight seconds left on the play-clock by the time Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts came back out were not enough for them to score, and a team whose name I prefer not to dignify by typing it out won their second Super Bowl in the last four years.1
This play was maddening to watch — and not just because we were hoping to join the crowds mobbing the streets of Philadelphia after a Birds win, or because I’m sick of my favorite teams losing big games to Kansas City. In a sport where players famously crow about fighting for every inch, in a league comprised of some of the best athletes on the planet, in the last two minutes of the goddamn Super Bowl, McKinnon made the intentional decision not to score a touchdown when given the opportunity. From a football-strategy perspective, it was very clearly the correct call. As a fan of the game, it just wasn’t right.
One of the greatest challenges facing modern sports leagues is the increasing misalignment between what’s understood to be smart strategy and what makes for an entertaining product. While this phenomenon stems from a multitude of factors, it closely parallels the rise of analytics in sports. Front offices and coaches in the post-Moneyball era have access to better data on which to base their decisions and are more willing to eschew tradition in search of a competitive edge. Over nearly a decade of working for MLB teams in some capacity, my professional recommendations were based on what I thought would most help us win, not what would best showcase the action of the game.
Sometimes the tradeoff between tactics and excitement is a direct one. To shift our focus to baseball (pun intended), one commonly cited example of this is defensive positioning. By moving a fielder from their normal spot on the field to somewhere the batter is more likely to hit the ball, the pitcher’s team may turn a crowd-energizing base hit or a diving catch into a mundane groundout. Or mid-inning pitching changes. You can’t fault a manager for seeking a better matchup in a crucial situation, but nothing takes the tension out of a big moment like cutting to commercial while the new reliever warms up. In the NBA, close games can be excruciating to watch at the end, when it becomes paradoxically smart (while remaining flagrantly unsportsmanlike) for the trailing team to commit fouls to stop the clock.
Other aesthetic changes that some fans complain about are merely downstream effects from teams changing what they value. A walk isn’t as exciting to see as a single, but it’s often just as beneficial. Baserunning has become much more conservative in the modern game as teams prioritize hitting ability and power over speed, and the relative risks and rewards of trying to steal a base are better understood. It is broadly accepted that strikeouts are a stronger skill indicator for pitchers than for hitters at the big-league level — it’s not good for a batter to strike out, but doing so often is sometimes a tradeoff of hitting for power. These mismatched incentives have sent league strikeout rates skyrocketing, meaning the game features fewer balls in play than ever before.
The beholder is left to decide if and where these trends distinguish themselves from the normal fluctuations and evolutions that baseball has undergone for more than a century. It probably won’t surprise you that I think sports leagues should generally be sparing in responding to tactical trends with rule changes.2 The ability to anticipate where the ball is most likely to be hit is a fair competitive advantage, just as the skill to spray line drives all over the field to counter such a strategy is. (Not that MLB’s new positioning rules are likely to make much of a difference anyway.) If a team decides to go all-in on the modern bullpen approach of having relievers throw at maximum effort in short spurts, the Commissioner’s Office is not obligated to mitigate the risk they take on of running out of pitchers in an extra-inning game.
Yet there is ample precedent for a league to clamp down on erstwhile-legal behavior that distracts from the athletes’ actual play. Take the infield fly rule. As notoriously convoluted as it is and as controversially as it is sometimes applied, it succeeds in removing unnecessary gamesmanship from pop-ups with runners on base. Baseball is better off for not letting routine pop flies get deked into double plays. Performance-enhancing drugs were (sloppily and initially toothlessly) banned, and maybe one day catcher-framing will be too. Or, returning to the NFL, consider intentional grounding. It would be smart for the quarterback to throw an uncompetitive pass under pressure rather than take a sack, but that’s not how football is supposed to be played.
The best rule changes aren’t the ones meant to adjust the balance between offense and defense. They’re the ones that make the on-field product better.
The space where strategy and aesthetics come into conflict most-uncomfortably is when (what is presented as) the smart move coincides with (what appears to be) not trying your hardest on the field. On a macro scale, this often manifests in rebuilding, the process of stockpiling young talent with an eye towards competing for a championship a few years down the line. Going a step further is tanking, when a team actually prefers to finish at the bottom of the standings so they can improve their draft position. “Load management,” designating regular rest days for star players to keep them fresh over a long season, is not a novel concept, but it is a new term to the sports lexicon, befitting its increased prevalence. An MLB team bringing in a position player to pitch while they are winning is effectively saying they care about keeping their bullpen fresh for the next day than minimizing their odds of blowing the lead; doing so when losing is a sign of acknowledging that the game is out of reach.
For sports where the game ends when time runs out, the team in position to win is expected to milk out the clock. In football, this commonly means running the ball instead of throwing it (incomplete passes stop the clock) and taking as long as possible to start a play. Many games end with the quarterback simply kneeling in place instead trying to score points. There’s even a school of thought that says it’s good for the opposing team to take the lead midway through the fourth quarter, because it gives you time to make a comeback before the end of the game — I said as much when Kansas City got to the red zone at the end of the Super Bowl, and given how lackadaisically the Eagles tried to stop McKinnon from scoring, I assume they agreed. (Insert your joke about how little that differed from Philadelphia’s defensive effort during the rest of the game here.)
McKinnon’s slide was fully in keeping with these traditions. As a matter of principle, it was no more unsportsmanlike than going through a rebuilding phase, or kneeling on the final play of the game, or letting the ball lie on the floor to kill the clock, as is now in vogue in the NBA. My other NFL team, the Cleveland Browns, lost a game earlier this season because running back Nick Chubb scored instead of stopping short of the goal line.3 (And because, in a decision almost as idiotic as it was morally grotesque, they were intentionally playing with a backup quarterback after cashing in all their chips for a player who they knew would miss much of the season serving a suspension for sexual assault.) But as a spectator, there was something offensive about watching the final two minutes of the biggest game of the year and seeing a player give up the championship-winning touchdown he had probably been dreaming of for his whole life because not scoring was the smarter play.
I don’t fault McKinnon for giving his team the best position to take home the Lombardi Trophy. I don’t think it’s a player or coach’s job to prioritize entertainment value over winning to eschew a legal strategy. I don’t know if it’s even possible for a sport that operates on a clock to police the gamesmanship over time without inviting a host of other issues. What I do know is that, instead of the (mostly) canceled party on Broad Street, my enduring memory of the end of Super Bowl LVII will be watching in disbelief in one of the biggest moments in all of sports as Jerick McKinnon decided that he did not want to score — followed by the jarring epiphany that strategic diving has become so normalized that no one seems bothered by the concept of clinching a championship by choosing not to score a touchdown.
McKinnon’s slide should have been a wakeup call for our sports culture: There are too many incentives for teams to intentionally fumble.4 The encroachment of anticompetitive gamesmanship to the point where a player literally takes a dive in such a huge moment should be deemed an illegal shift in sports strategy. Unsportsmanlike conduct ought to result in a flag, not a banner.
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As my dear friend Nancy wrote a few years ago, appropriative team names are harmful even if they’re not intended to be racist.
I have argued for many years that the perception of the game’s worsening aesthetics is due in some part to the vanguards of the sport refusing to shut up about how much better things were Back in Their Day.
A pretty good summation of the differences between my two teams: The Eagles lost when someone else made the right call, the Browns lost when they made the wrong one themselves.
Figuratively speaking. I don’t think anyone has found a literal advantage in fumbling — yet.