Before going all in on football nearly 20 years ago, after realizing that there was a way to make money (eventually) by writing and talking about the sport, I paid plenty of attention to other sports, too, including basketball.
In the ’80s and ’90s, the NBA was a major draw for me, despite my father’s lifelong belief that watching anything more than the last four minutes of a basketball game is a waste of time. So The Last Dance provided a great reminder of an era in which far less time was spent obsessing over the news and rumors and transactions of the NFL offseason and far more time was devoted to enjoying the sports that actually were, you know, playing games.
While the documentary focused heavily, and appropriately, on Michael Jordan, the genius of coach Phil Jackson periodically came through. One particular moment from the final episode made me think of the controlled chaos of the closing seconds of Super Bowl XLIX.
After Jordan read the Utah offense and snuck behind Karl Malone to steal the ball as the clock was ticking in the final minute of Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals and the Bulls trailed by a point, Jackson didn’t call a timeout.
“If we could do something without them talking about it, working against a set defense, we’d rather go with a live-ball situation,” Jackson said.
So Jordan dribbled the ball up the court, the Bulls settled into their offense, his teammates knew that Jordan would take the last shot (Scottie Pippen said his plan for the play was to “get the hell out the way,” and Dennis Rodman knew that Jordan “is not gonna pass this f–king ball”), the Jazz had one player defending Jordan, he drove, he pushed (a little), he stepped back, and he hit the championship shot.
Most coaches would have yielded to the knee-jerk of the moment, calling the timeout. Jackson was able to process the situation and to do the unconventional thing, with a trophy on the line.
It reminded me of the final moments of Super Bowl XLIX. After Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse made a “he did what?”-style catch to put the ball on the New England five with 1:06 to play, the Seahawks opted to run. Tailback Marshawn Lynch made it to the one, with the clock ticking and the Patriots holding two time outs. Surely, Patriots coach Bill Belichick would call one of his two remaining time outs.
He didn’t, forcing the Seahawks to call their next play without the benefit of time to talking about it.
“I thought about the timeout,” Belichick later said, “and when I looked over there, I don’t know, something just didn’t look right. [Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia] said, ‘Do you want the timeout?’ . . . I said, ‘No, just play goal line.'”
Belichick’s senses, the product of a lifetime in coaching, spoke to him in that moment. And to the extent he perceived chaos coming from the other sideline, the dysfunction (possibly stoked by Belichick not calling a timeout and giving Seattle time to talk it over) would prompt the Seahawks to grab for the closest and easiest crutch. And when the offense sent out a multiple-receiver package, that happened to be the same formation and decision that Patriots human computer Ernie Adams had spotted while studying the Seahawks’ goal-line tendencies. It was a play that the Patriots had practiced and prepared for, and it was a well to which the Seahawks were going without an opportunity for talking about it.
Like Jackson in the ’98 NBA Finals, Belichick did the unconventional thing, trusting that his players would respond better to the curveball than the opponent would. It underscores the value of a coach keeping a cool head even in the most stressful of situations, and of ensuring that his own team has the ability to roll with whatever happens, without getting flustered or confused or hesitant or in any way affected by an unexpected turn of events.
For more, we’ll have to wait for the inevitable 10-part documentary on the New England football dynasty.