In a Tale of Two Cities, the great English novelist Charles Dickens wrote that “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and his description of Victorian London could also have described Sunday’s NFL game featuring the Jacksonville Jaguars versus the Los Angeles Chargers.
For the Chargers, the first half was certainly the best of times as the team scored 27 points and held their opponent to a single touchdown. Los Angeles was greatly aided by their opponents, the “worst of times” Jaguars, whose quarterback Trevor Lawrence picked out no fewer than four receivers—albeit players wearing the other team’s jersey. By halftime, the score line was 27-7, and while the inexperienced fan could be forgiven for believing that the game was in the bag, experience has taught us that woe be unto the team that believed the same thing.
And, indeed, when the teams took the field after halftime, the Los Angles Chargers’ woes began. Yes, the same players took the field wearing the same numbers on their jerseys and the same helmets, but what was going on inside those helmets—i.e., mindset—had, more or less, swapped places. Jacksonville came out and calmly executed play after play. The Jaguars began connecting on key passes and began whittling down the score until, late in the fourth quarter, they pulled to within three points of Los Angeles.
In the meantime, Los Angles was clearly losing its edge and as the players felt momentum pulling out of the station without them, they grew frustrated, threw their helmets in impotent frustration at seeing their fine first-half efforts rendered meaningless and incurred costly penalties as a result. When it rains points in Jacksonville, it pours, and by the final minute of the game, the home side trailed 30-28 and, with seconds on the clock, found themselves within field goal range. The Jaguars successfully kicked the field goal with no time left on the clock and celebrated as the kicker Riley Patterson was given a hero’s hoisting by his teammates who celebrated the best of times in a 31-30 victory.
What happened to the mighty Chargers to make them fall so far so fast?
The answer is that the margin between winning and losing, excelling and squandering, is always much finer than we imagine. When we look at the halftime score, we see 27-7; but each of those points was earned one play at a time, one block, tackle and pass at a time. In the second half, every instant the Chargers lost their focus and commitment to perform with urgency wound up forfeiting that lost time to their competition.
Of course, sometimes our competition doesn’t take advantage of the lapse in concentration and effort to seize the moment, but who in their right mind would count on that occurring as part of a game plan or winning formula? Surely, the better plan when you’re playing at the highest level is to assume that no lead is safe, no advantage insurmountable and thus no amount of continued effort too much. Surely the better plan would be to keep the pedal to the metal until the final whistle?
One of my favorite quotes comes from retired U.S. Brigadier General Bernard Banks—who has offered many pearls of wisdom to me over the years—when he said, “remember, the enemy always gets a vote, too.” He was referring to the fact that in any competitive environment, such as sports, business or even battle, success has to be earned against an opponent who has very different ideas about the outcomes he or she wants to see.
If the Chargers had been able to peer into their adversaries’ minds, they would not have seen the words, “it’s all over.” No, they would have seen, “you’re never out of it” emblazoned in neon lights. We know this because Lawrence said those very words in the postgame interview, along with another little gem. When asked how he remained so calm and methodical in the second half despite the long road he and his teammates faced to get back in it, he shared the message he gave in the huddle as he went on to throw four touchdown passes.
“You’re never out of it… There are no 27-point plays,” he told them. “It’s going to be one play at a time, again and again and again.” That, he reiterated in the postgame interview, “was our mindset.”
The phrase “you’re never out of it” worked for the guys getting their butts kicked; if the guys who were doing the butt kicking had followed the lesson as well, maybe it would be they, instead of Lawrence, celebrating the best of times with the fans at Waffle House?