Mistakes made between the whistles are wildly variable in degree and magnitude too. A poorly placed pass is a mistake that all quarterbacks will make, so the frequency of those misfires has to be controlled. Moreover, quarterbacks who misfire into the ground or out of bounds are making a potentially far smaller mistake than those who are misfiring into the chests of defensive backs. Dropped passes by wide receivers are also mistakes that are bound to happen, when they bound harmlessly to the ground their impact is minimized as opposed to being batted into the air and eventually the waiting hands of an opposing defender.
Playmakers change games and make headlines, but more often than not, the playmakers are able to capitalize on the mistakes of others. Ed Reed can only make an interception if a quarterback makes a mistake to compel it. The fact that he’s more likely to capitalize on those mistakes than his peers in the league makes him a playmaker and a star, but if opposing quarterbacks simply do what they’re supposed to do, Ed Reed or any safety’s impact is nullified.
The league surely has its stars, the rarest of the rare, the athletic wonders that somehow manage to stand out against a backdrop of elite professional athletes who simply pale in comparison. Those guys will sometimes make plays even when their opponents do everything right, but those players are rare and those instances rarer. By and large, a league that scrutinizes its athletes to the tune of hundredths of a second and tenths of a pound at its annual scouting combine has a predictable level of athletic parity. That would seem to magnify the importance of the mental side of the game. When matched up against their athletic peers the guys able to minimize their own mistakes and moreover identify and capitalize on the mistakes of their opponents will most often be successful.
Teams that count on their playmakers to make plays are far easier to solve than teams who count on all 22 players to simply not make mistakes. While game manager has become a toxic word associated with quarterbacks of modest accolades, I’m beginning to think that having game managers at every position is the ideal way to win in the NFL.
A couple of unscientific and naïve case studies:
Bill Bellichick’s Patriots might be the best example of both.
The 2001 version of the Patriots took the league by storm with the improbable Tom Brady holding down quarterbacking duties. During his humble beginnings Brady was efficient but far from spectacular. The Pats were easing him into the role and into his comfort level and somehow kept winning. By the end of the season, as journalists scrambled for accolades to heap on Brady the easy to identify yet tough to explain catalyst in the Pats’ dramatic turnaround, they all but apologized before drawing comparisons to Joe Montana the NFL’s all-time poster boy for unspectacular efficiency.
After the Patriots won it, they were still seen as one of the weakest Super Bowl winners of all time. As they backed it up with titles in 2003 and 2004 they became the epitome of a lunch pail team, one devoid of stars and instead stocked from top to bottom with humble, efficient plug and play components that simply didn’t mess up.
After 3 Super Bowls in 4 years there was no denying that Brady was more than just a game manager as he made plays when his team needed them the most…and besides, everyone was tired of heaping all of the praise on the surly Bellichick for the Patriots’ success, clearly this Brady kid had a lot to do with it too.
As Tom Brady became more and more of a rock star and as the Patriots began to count on him more and more to make plays rather than to simply not make mistakes, the Patriots also stopped winning Super Bowls. When the Patriots became a star driven offensive juggernaut in 2007 they stopped winning playoff games altogether after their Super Bowl flameout against the Giants. When the team became dependent on its stars to make plays it stopped winning when it counts.
The Peyton Manning era in Indianapolis was the polar opposite (possibly evidenced even better now in his absence). Manning was/is the rare star who could not only make big plays and eliminate his own mistakes; he also uses his prolific abilities to overcome the mistakes of the players around him. Still the Colts only won it all once during his otherwise legendary career so far and only when that 2006 team found a team formula supported by defense and a strong running game through the playoffs, minimizing their dependency on Manning to simply make plays.