Avoid running the prevent defense
Issue 125: Why playing to "not lose" is a flawed mindset
Today is Week 18—the final week of the NFL regular season. We enjoyed some Futbol during the World Cup and now it's back to Fútbol Americano. I'm a fan of all sports. Growing up, I played basketball (my first love), track and field (minus the field part), and also played football. The physicality and athleticism of football are merely one aspect of the game I am a fan of. It's also a very strategic game of X's and O's.
I love metaphors and try not to overdo them with the military and sports ones. That said, your company is basically a football team—the diversity of positions, responsibilities, and coordination involved to run a great offense or have a suffocating defense. Football is a sport that requires all units to do their job in order to win (cross-department collaboration). Hopefully, throughout reading this, these concepts will resonate regardless of your depth of knowledge in this sport.
Let's assume you know the basic concept of the game of football. It takes place on a 100-yard field. Two teams have 60 minutes (broken into four quarters) to score in four 15-minute quarters. There are three ways to score: a touchdown (bringing the ball into the endzone), a field goal (successfully kicking the ball through the goal post), or safety (downing the opposing team in their own endzone).
Unlike other sports like basketball and soccer, the possession of the ball does not change rapidly. It’s more turn-based like chess or Civilization. Teams comprise a 52-man roster of three units: offense, defense, and special teams (kicking and punting teams). When a team has possession of the football to move it to the endzone, they have four attempts to make progress in 10-yard increments (resulting in a “first down”). If the team does not gain the 10 yards on the 4th down, they typically elect to punt the football, surrendering their possession but kicking the ball to assure a better position on the field.
Teams have unique styles of offense and defense. Whether it's high school, college, and the NFL, teams have types of offenses and defenses they run. Some offenses might be very conservative and traditional, pounding the football up the middle with brute force. Others are aggressive about throwing the ball down the field constantly. It’s truly fascinating to study them!
There is a litany of different types of iconic offense styles:
The Oakland Raidersvertical offense in the 60s
Dallas Cowboys Run and Shoot
The San Francisco 49ers' slow and steady West Coast Offense
There are a diverse set of styles played on defense as well, and teams may elect to run different schemes based on specific game situations. One of the most famous defensive schemes is called the Prevent Defense. When the winning team has a substantial lead, the opposing team must be aggressive in their playcalling before time runs out. This often results in deeper passes down the field to score. The Prevent Defense is a scheme that intentionally positions defenders further downfield to, you guessed it, prevent the deep play. The strategy is conceding shorter gains to avoid the big space.
The Prevent Defense makes a ton of sense in theory. However, what often happens is after giving up yardage, the opposing team builds momentum. It only takes one missed tackle or bad play for them to go the distance. After many instances like this, suddenly the game is close, or worst yet, they take the lead.
The great John Madden once said, "All a prevent defense does is prevent you from winning."
All too often, this happens to companies, teams, and entrepreneurs. You find successes where you get a significant lead from competitors. Along the way, new threats to your business and if you stay content, others start chipping away so much that they catch up with you.
Having a Prevent Defense mindset is getting too far ahead of the big picture and result in conceding the small details or important aspects you once paid attention to, and that erodes over time. Many football teams elect to continue running their regular schemes, even when having a big lead. They make adjustments to maintain the lead and de-risk, but stay the course with how they continue playing the game. Doing this is what got you the big lead in the first place.
Avoid premature celebration. Getting comfortable with a lead is the number one way to allow the opposition to get back into the game. Maintaining a lead is just as challenging, if not more, than gaining it. The opposing team can get back in the game when the leading team has the mindset that giving up points is okay, and there is plenty of padding until there isn't anymore.
The best defense is the continued excellence of what you’re doing. Find ways to adjust as needed, but don’t abandon the things that work well and got you there.
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