“Here are the six reasons everyone thinks we can’t win,” Dungy told his Buccaneers after becoming head coach in 1996. It was months before the season started and everyone was sitting in the locker room. Dungy started listing the theories they had all read in the newspapers or heard on the radio: The team’s management was messed up. Their new coach was untested. The players were spoiled. The city didn’t care. Key players were injured. They didn’t have the talent they needed.
“Those are the supposed reasons,” Dungy said. “Now here is a fact: Nobody is going to outwork us.”
Dungy’s strategy, he explained, was to shift the team’s behaviors until their performances were automatic. He didn’t believe the Buccaneers needed the thickest playbook. He didn’t think they had to memorize hundreds of formations. They just had to learn a few key moves and get them right every time.
However, perfection is hard to achieve in football. “Every play in football—every play—someone messes up,” said Herm Edwards, one of Dungy’s assistant coaches in Tampa Bay. “Most of the time, it’s not physical. It’s mental.” Players mess up when they start thinking too much or secondguessing their plays. What Dungy wanted was to take all that decision making out of their game.
And to do that, he needed them to recognize their existing habits and accept new routines.
He started by watching how his team already played.
“Let’s work on the Under Defense,” Dungy shouted at a morning practice one day. “Number fifty-five, what’s your read.”
“I’m watching the running back and guard,” said Derrick Brooks, an outside linebacker.
“What precisely are you looking at? Where are your eyes?”
“I’m looking at the movement of the guard,” said Brooks. “I’m watching the QB’s legs and hips after he gets the ball. And I’m looking for gaps in the line, to see if they’re gonna pass and if the QB is going to throw to my side or away.”
In football, these visual cues are known as “keys,” and they’re critical to every play. Dungy’s innovation was to use these keys as cues for reworked habits. He knew that, sometimes, Brooks hesitated a moment too long at the start of a play. There were so many things for him to think about—is the guard stepping out of formation? Does the running back’s foot indicate he’s preparing for a running or passing play?—that sometimes he slowed down.
Dungy’s goal was to free Brooks’s mind from all that analysis. Like Alcoholics Anonymous, he used the same cues that Brooks was already accustomed to, but gave him different routines that, eventually, occurred automatically.
“I want you to use those same keys,” Dungy told Brooks. “But at first, focus only on the running back. That’s it. Do it without thinking. Once you’re in position, then start looking for the QB.”
This was a relatively modest shift—Brooks’s eyes went to the same cues, but rather than looking multiple places at once, Dungy put them in a sequence and told him, ahead of time, the choice to make when he saw each key. The brilliance of this system was that it removed the need for decision making. It allowed Brooks to move faster, because everything was a reaction—and eventually a habit—rather than a choice.
Dungy gave every player similar instructions, and practiced the formations over and over. It took almost a year for Dungy’s habits to take hold. The team lost early, easy games. Sports columnists asked why the Bucs were wasting so much time on psychological quackery.
But slowly, they began to improve. Eventually, the patterns became so familiar to players that they unfolded automatically when the team took the field. In Dungy’s second season as coach, the Bucs won their first five games and went to the play-offs for the first time in fifteen years. In 1999, they won the division championship.
Dungy’s coaching style started drawing national attention. The sports media fell in love with his soft-spoken demeanor, religious piety, and the importance he placed on balancing work and family. Newspaper stories described how he brought his sons, Eric and Jamie, to the stadium so they could hang out during practice. They did their homework in his office and picked up towels in the locker room. It seemed like, finally, success had arrived.
In 2000, the Bucs made it to the play-offs again, and then again in 2001. Fans now filled the stadium every week. Sportscasters talked about the team as Super Bowl contenders. It was all becoming real.
But even as the Bucs became a powerhouse, a troubling problem emerged. They often played tight, disciplined games. However, during crucial, highstress moments, everything would fall apart.
In 1999, after racking up six wins in a row at the end of the season, the Bucs blew the conference championship against the St. Louis Rams. In 2000, they were one game away from the Super Bowl when they disintegrated against the Philadelphia Eagles, losing 21 to 3. The next year, the same thing happened again, and the Bucs lost to the Eagles, 31 to 9, blowing their chance of advancing.
“We would practice, and everything would come together and then we’d get to a big game and it was like the training disappeared,” Dungy told me. “Afterward, my players would say, ‘Well, it was a critical play and I went back to what I knew,’ or ‘I felt like I had to step it up.’ What they were really saying was they trusted our system most of the time, but when everything was on the line, that belief broke down.”
At the conclusion of the 2001 season, after the Bucs had missed the Super Bowl for the second straight year, the team’s general manager asked Dungy to come to his house. He parked near a huge oak tree, walked inside, and thirty seconds later was fired.
The Bucs would go on to win the Super Bowl the next year using Dungy’s formations and players, and by relying on the habits he had shaped. He would watch on television as the coach who replaced him lifted up the Lombardi trophy. But by then, he would already be far away.
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