Super Bowl 50 and the Winner’s X-Factor

By: Martin Grunburg

Recently, I’ve written a lot about The 3 P’s (Planning, Preparing and Practicing) related to performance — particularly under pressure. With yesterday’s Super Bowl 50 and the 114-million-plus viewers watching, the event is still very fresh in the minds of many.

With the benefit of hindsight we’re able to overlay many of the ideas in The Pressure Paradox to better understand the big game’s results: The Denver Broncos 24, and the Carolina Panthers 10.

The first question: “What if the Planning and Preparing and Practicing between the two competitors is essentially a wash?” That is, since they are both #1 seeds in their division and they have come this far, chances are good they are both exceptional when it comes to the 3 P’s.

It would be easy to make the argument that in ANY Super Bowl matchup you are going to have nearly identical and strong 3-P teams. So, the natural question is, what other criteria could one look to in order to distinguish the eventual winner?

In the case of yesterday’s Super Bowl, I’m not necessarily sure that the 3 P’s were entirely even. The Broncos (a 5.5-point underdog) might have had the slight edge in the planning department due to the first X-factor: experience.

In 2014, after a 12-4 season and losing in the Divisional Round of the playoffs to the Indianapolis Colts, the Broncos’ general manager, John Elway, made a handful of coaching changes, including bringing in a new head coach, Gary Kubiak, and a new defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips.

This year marked Kubiak’s seventh Super Bowl experience, including three as a player and three as an assistant coach. Add to that, General Manager John Elway is a two-time Super Bowl champion who had been to five Super Bowls as a player. Finally, although Wade Phillips had no prior Super Bowl experience, he’d had more than 20 years’ coaching experience and had just locked up the NFL Assistant Coach of the Year award. Wade has become renowned as a defensive “genius.” So, between Kubiak and Elway alone, there were 12 years of Super Bowl experience compared to just 1 on Carolina’s coaching staff: Head coach Ron Rivera played in a Super Bowl with the ’86 Chicago Bears.

Edge: Broncos. Experience equates to habituation (see link)

The next X-factor is “a magical story/person,” often referred to as the Cinderella Story the entire team (and sometimes a country) can rally behind. If you ever saw the movie Rudy, you know what I’m referring to. The Cinderella Story factor doesn’t always come into play, but when it does it’s powerful. Classic Cinderella Stories include Kurt Warner, a former fourth-string quarterback cut from the Green Bay Packers who was bagging groceries for $5.50 an hour in 1994. Another is the USA Men’s National Hockey Team vs. the Soviet Union (considered the best hockey team in the world at that point) and the ensuing Miracle on Ice. Cinderella Stories are easy to identify because they often turn into movies!

What was the Broncos’ Cinderella story? Well, it was hard to ignore the allure of an “old” Peyton Manning, in his 17th season, riding off into the sunset with a second championship ring in what would appear to be his final game and season. Manning, who holds nearly every quarterback record, was seeking one more significant one: 200 wins to tie him for 1st in all-time wins with Brett Favre. Now, you might not think that’s enough to rally a team (although it probably is), but let’s also throw in the fact that in week 10 of the 2015 season, the future Hall-of-Famer was benched by the head coach after posting a quarterback rating of 0.0, going 5-20 and throwing for just 35 yards.

The poor play was attributed to a foot injury, and Manning continued to recover through week 16. In week 17 he was listed as active — and for the first time in his career, a backup.

The starter Brock Osweiler faltered vs. the Chargers, and that created an opportunity for Manning to play in the second half and ultimately regain the starter role. If that isn’t enough excitement to get you rooting for the old man, consider that in 2011, Manning sat out the entire season rehabilitating from neck surgery. Most “experts” predicted he was done, saying it was far too risky to ever play again.

Edge: Broncos. Cinderella Story (in spades!)

Finally, we have the ol’ “chip on the shoulder.” This X-factor has some overlapping qualities with the Cinderella story; most Cinderella stories have something to prove. However, not all teams with something to prove are a Cinderella story. The Seattle Seahawks have a terrific chip on their shoulder, but nobody is going to say they are a Cinderella story. It’s almost like every Bourbon is a whiskey, but not every whiskey is a bourbon. Every Cinderella story has a chip on its shoulder, but not every “chip on their shoulder” situation is a Cinderella story.

Typically the underdog is the one with a chip on its shoulder — the team that doesn’t feel like it gets the attention it deserves, the team that has something to prove to the world. In the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, when everyone was talking about Cam Newton and the nearly perfect Carolina Panthers (just one loss the entire season), the Denver team was chomping at the bit. “Just wait, we’ll show the world who we are.”

In fact, Broncos safety TJ Ward had this to say to NFL writer Kevin Patra after the Broncos defeated the favored New England Patriots: “Go ahead. We feed off of that… Keep us as the underdog (against) whoever wins (the NFC Championship). Tell us how bad we are and how we can’t cover and stop ‘this person,’ and I bet we win the Super Bowl.”

Edge: Broncos. Chip on the Shoulder

Truth be told, I had the Carolina Panthers by a bunch. I almost always will bet on the underdog; however, this time around I got caught up in the hype surrounding Carolina. Next time, though, you can be sure I’ll do an X-factor analysis to see who might have the edge when the 3 P’s are a virtual dead heat.

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