You Never Win Playing Not to Lose

Unless you are a Miami Dolphins or Las Vegas Raiders football fan, the December 26th game between these two teams was of little consequence. However, just as many other times in sports history, things that occur on the playing field can teach us lessons that go way beyond the game, which was precisely the case with this game. As we review this game’s happenings, think about why the Raiders’ head coach, John Gruden, made certain decisions and how we can apply this to decision-making in sales. As I tell the story, reflect on what he said, “I don’t regret it one bit,” Gruden said, “I just regret the results.” Then think about how you and I can make better decisions to achieve the best possible results.

I am not a Raiders fan, because as most of you know, I am from a farm in Kansas and, by default, a Kansas City Chiefs fan. Also, the Raiders are division rivals of the Chiefs in the AFC West. Taking all of that into consideration, I have always liked and respected John Gruden as a coach. But this story is about his (in my opinion) blunder at the end of this recent game and how it highlights a common misjudgment in human thinking, so it is worth reviewing. Gruden allowed one recent bad experience to shape his decision-making, which ultimately cost him this game and potentially a playoff berth. He defended his decision, but it was a blatant mistake if you saw the game and know the outcome. The terrible decision boiled down to playing not to lose instead of playing to win, which I believe is the wrong position to put any team in.

Just in case you missed the game or the highlights, here is what happened, the Dolphins with rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa were still in the hunt for a playoff berth (9 and 4 record) and so set out to defeat the Raiders, who with a 7 and 7 record also had a long-shot playoff hope. The Raiders had to win their last two games to advance to the playoffs, and some other teams needed to lose, but there was still some lingering hope.

Now that you have the background for the game, here is what happened: The game was remarkably close, mostly due to the tentative play of a rookie quarterback. The Dolphins were not scoring enough points to take control, and the game remained a tight contest from beginning to end. Then in the fourth quarter, the Dolphins made a significant change. The Dolphins head coach, Brian Flores, decided to switch from the rookie to the experienced backup quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick. With 16 years of experience, Fitzpatrick immediately took control and marched the Dolphins down the field and got them into scoring position. With just 4:01 to go in the fourth quarter, the Dolphins kicked a field goal tying the game 16 to 16. The Raiders immediately responded with an impressive 85-yard passing play from quarterback Derek Carr to wide receiver Nelson Agholor, making the score 16 to 22 in favor of the Raiders. Unfortunately, the Raider’s kicker, Daniel Carlson, missed the extra point. Next, Fitzpatrick returned to the field and, without any hesitation, threw the ball to running back Myles Gaskin for a 59-yard touchdown. With the extra point, the score was 23 to 22 in favor of the Dolphins. The play clock is now at 2:55 when Carr and the Raiders get the ball back. Carr marches his team down the field, and they are in scoring position when it happens – one of the most inexplicable plays I have ever witnessed in all my years watching football. On second down and goal, Raiders running back Josh Jacobs moves towards the end zone, slides, and stops himself from scoring a touchdown. Yes, you read it correctly; he did not score a touchdown – on purpose. Next, on third down, the Raiders run the clock down and kick a field goal, giving them a two-point advantage over the Dolphins (25 to 23). With only seconds remaining in the game, they kick the ball back to the Dolphins. Fitzpatrick returns to the field and hurls a 34-yard rainbow pass toward the sideline to his wide receiver Mack Hollins like something scripted from a movie. At that very minute, the Raider’s defender, during an attempt to sack Fitzpatrick, grabs him by the facemask resulting in an additional fifteen-yard penalty for the personal foul. With 18 seconds on the clock, Dolphin’s kicker, Jason Sanders, kicks a 44-yard field goal and wins the game. Final score, Dolphins 26, Raiders 25.

As I sat there, watching this incredible turn of events, I asked what would have happened if, moments earlier, the Raiders would have run it in and scored when they had an easy opportunity? They most likely would have won. So, the question is, why did John Gruden decide to have his Pro Bowl RB slide and not go into the end zone and score the touchdown? The answer is that weeks earlier, when playing the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs, Gruden’s team scored too quickly toward the end of a tight game, allowing quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs enough time to score again and win the game. This event changed Gruden’s approach and caused him to become more cautious and, in the case of the Raiders vs. Dolphins, to play not to lose instead of playing to win.

Could the same thing happen in business? Absolutely! In sales, we need to make sure that our processes are based on human behavior and not adjust a process just because something went wrong on one occasion with a sales presentation. To change your approach, you should document trends in live sales situations over the course of multiple presentations to prove that a specific outcome is likely and not base a decision on a one-time event. We want to learn from the past, but we do not want to let one event cause us to change course. In sales, we need a winning process, and we only want to adjust that process when we have obtained sufficient information from several situational occurrences, not just one. Remember, you always want to play to win, not merely to avoid losing.

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