I’m sure there is some lesson about commitment in most any Super Bowl, but I think sports commenter Colin Cowherd (@ColinCowherd) gets at something special in his observation about Super Bowl LII, which you can find in this video on YouTube.
I’ll describe the key point, but if you have a few minutes and want to take it in, Cowherd makes his point with style. From 0:00 to 2:47 will do the job.
Before going to substance, I want to declare my conflicts of non-interest. I’m neither a fan of the Eagles nor of the Patriots. I’m not much of a football fan, except that I do now hope the Broncos get Foles for next year. Further, I didn’t care about who would win this game until it was going; and once it was, I started rooting for the Eagles. I’ll cop to that.
What Cowherd Observed
Commitment is about making a choice to give up other choices. It’s about deciding. Clear decisions anchor commitments, and the timing of those clear decisions often matters. In contrast, sliding through key moments is letting stuff happen to you, and it can result in losing options before making a choice. I’m usually making these points about marriage and family, but they apply to everything important. Cowherd gets at what is one of the most important insights about commitment that Galena Rhoades and I are often highlighting.
Cowherd focuses on the Eagles decision to go for it on fourth down, trailing by one point, with 5:40 left on the clock. Teams usually punt in that circumstance, and I thought the Eagles would do just that in the hopes of stopping New England and getting the ball back. (There’s a growing thought around the NFL that teams should usually be going for it on 4th-and-1, by the way, but that’s not been the convention. It might start to be.) My youngest son thought they would go for it. He was right, and he’s the one who got me to watch Cowherd give his analysis.
Of that moment, on 4th-and-1, Cowherd says, “That decision wasn’t made there.”
I think he’s exactly right. Cowherd observed that the Eagles didn’t even call a time-out to think about it, and on a play that he believes is one of the gutsiest calls in Super Bowl history. Instead, the Eagles already knew what they were going to do. In fact, they’d made a similarly bold 4th-and-1 conversion in the first half, when the Eagles’ quarterback Nick Foles became the receiver for a touchdown. I’ve watched enough football to know that if you are going for it on 4th-and-1, you are usually trying a brute force attempt, not some utterly surprising trick play.
Here’s the good part. Cowherd attributes the Eagles’ game play to a decision made two weeks before by the Philadelphia coaches in a meeting. A decision that was talked about, thought about, and that guided the Eagles minds and motivation over the past couple weeks. They had pre-decided to go for it, all the time, every time. It’s fair for you to think I have now become totally mired in sport’s cliché drivel. You know, “they left it all on the field.” “They came to play.” “They dug deep.” Could be, but I think Cowherd’s right to imply that this is not that. Or, at the least, I’m going to suggest it’s more than that.
As Cowherd notes, The Patriots have a history of getting behind and then coming back and destroying the other team, often in a final drive at the end of the game. It’s kind of a brand. They’ve turned the tide more often than you’re ever going to see something like detergent commercials in Super Bowl games.
New England is a widely disliked team for a number of reasons, and I think the biggest reason goes beyond a few notable, naughty behaviors. It’s not just balls that get deflated around New England. It’s teams. It’s cities. I think what people feel about the Patriots is archetypal. New England represents the relentless challenges of life that too often wear us down and wipe us out. They crush our dreams as time is running out. That’s who the Eagles were playing, and that is important here.
Cowherd observes that the Eagles had decided, two weeks before, this:
“We’re not going to be Atlanta. We’re not going to outplay New England and lose.”
“We’re not going to be Jacksonville. We’re not going to outplay New England and lose.”
“We’re not going to be Pittsburgh. We’re not going to outplay New England and lose.”
The Eagles had pre-decided they were going to play this game with a highly disciplined abandon. They ran some risky plays. They kept pushing hard even when ahead. The Eagles weren’t waiting for the Patriots to happen to them in the usual way of life.
Why isn’t this a typical sport’s cliché? Because of the timing of the key decision.
Timing is a Lot of Things
Timing may not be everything, but timing is a lot of things. Before my metaphorical final drive (the next section of this piece), two quick points about timing and commitment from my area of theory and research: One point is about the timing of parental commitment and babies and the other is about the timing of commitment relative to living together.
When a couple is having a child, it matters a great deal whether or not they had decided before conception if they were doing life together. A couple can decide after a baby is on the way to build a life together, but that’s a decision being made on fourth down, during a time-out, in the middle of the pressure of the big game. A decision about the future is best made when the future is not already here.
When a couple moves in together, it matters whether or not they’ve already decided they are committed to the future, beforehand. Living together makes it harder to break up, and a lot of people don’t see this until they are deep into the game and behind on the scoreboard. As our research has shown, those who marry, or who have at least gotten engaged, before moving in together tend to do better once married. Does that mean the other couples are doomed? Surely not. It’s an edge, an advantage. Nothing is a slam dunk (oops, wrong sport!). Anyway, the point is the same as the one above about babies. It helps when the big decision about the future was made before the two people were already constrained by their situation. When it comes to consequential moments that can be life-altering, it’s best if you can say, “That decision wasn’t made there.”
This Gets It
There are a lot of times in life where you are going to fail because you’ve not decided ahead of the critical moment what you are about and what you are committed to doing. I don’t mean you can anticipate everything that will happen. You can’t. Sometimes, you need to change something in your pre-decided plan. Sometimes, you need to call an audible or else you’ll get mauled.
I also don’t mean to suggest that clear commitments at the right time for the right reason always insulate you from loss. None of us knows how the game is going to play out, including in our relationships. It is a fact recently demonstrated that you can play out your game plan, executed relatively well, produce 505 yards of offense—and still lose.
But in the main, those who have decided beforehand what they are going after, and how deeply they are committed to achieving it, will come out ahead, whether it is in marriage or work or anything else that matters. Why? Because you are not chronically trying to decide—in the moment—what would have been better decided beforehand. That: “I’m doing this.”
Scott M. Stanley is a research professor at the University of Denver and fellow of the Institute for Family Studies.