"The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual." - Vince Lombardi
There's a reason why Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy get paid big bucks to assemble and manage a real-life football team. If anyone could do it, they would. And if success with Madden's franchise mode was some sort of prerequisite for success doing the same in the real word, there'd be millions of fantastic GM/Head Coaches waiting for their chance to build a winner in the NFL.
But it isn't some mathematical formula. We don't put together that quarterback with the 95 rating, the running back with the 89 rating, and the wide receiver with the 91 rating and have an offense able to dominate every other team. These are human beings, not statistical anomalies. Simply adding up the sums of each of the parts do not equal the result on the playing field.
This begins delving into, for some, the uncomfortable parts of dissecting success on the football field, because it goes beyond the simple and observable functions of preparation, talent, timing, and execution. How the pieces actually fit and function together is far more difficult to objectively evaluate. It probably falls under the heading "Intangibles" when reading the weekly matchups, but it is so much more than that.
Synergy is the phenomenon that occurs when the end results of the team exceed the sum of its parts. It was something Bart Starr and Jerry Kramer repeatedly cited as the paradigm of the Lombardi Era: "We weren't the greatest players, but we were the greatest TEAM...spell that out, T-E-A-M...ever," said Kramer on one occasion.
And Lombardi is a great starting point, because synergy is something that starts and ends with the leadership of the team--and more often than not, that starts with the coach. Synergy is beyond just the important factors of talent, strength, and speed. It is not just the knowledge of your assignments and being able to execute them. It is knowing what the collective force of your team needs to accomplish, to be acutely aware of every strength and weakness, and to work as one collective unit to achieve goals, whether it be on one play or one entire season.
For example, Charles Woodson may be assigned to move up out of his safety position on a play to rush the quarterback. His success in that role does not just come from everyone executing their assignment, but being acutely aware of how their roles change to compliment one another. The other guys back in the secondary, now short-handed, not only cover the gap left by Woodson's assignment, but know what each other is going to do, on the fly as conditions change during the play, to compliment each other and turn that short-handedness into an advantage.
It's not just putting together good players and making them great. It's putting together good player and watching them make each other great. It's having everyone involved in making everyone else around them better, which as we know in the NFL, is not always the case (well, hello Randy Moss!).
Perhaps there is no finer example of synergy than the 2010 Green Bay Packers, who stumbled and bumbled their way to to an 8-6 record and looked all but out of the playoffs, before they turned around and strung together six wins in a row on their way to the unlikeliest of Super Bowl wins. Most Packer fans don't look a gift horse in the mouth, much less an unexpected Lombardi Trophy, but you can take the time to analyze and find there's plenty of synergy at work.
1) The number of players who weren't expected to make the team, much less play starring roles, were considerable. We patted ourselves on the back and told ourselves, "Next Man Up", knowing full well from 2005 and 2008 that decimating injuries don't normally make your team better. Folk heroes were born in those two months, from Sam Shields (who almost didn't make the final roster) to Howard Green, Andrew Quarless, Desmond Bishop, and James Starks. Players came out of nowhere and became parts of the cogs on the wheel.
2) The improbability of winning the Super Bowl as a sixth seed. Not only do you not get a bye week, you don't get a home game. Don't doubt how much the Packers had to put together perfect games, week after week, in order to keep advancing. Only the final-seed Steelers in 2005 had accomplished what the Packers did in 2010.
3) Stars became superstars. Aaron Rodgers came out from Brett Favre's shadow and into his own MVP-caliber persona. Clay Matthews and BJ Raji went from decent rookies to sophomore sensations. Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, and Donald Driver all could lay claim to being a #1 receiver with nearly any other club in the league.
But synergy can go both ways: in fact, I coined a term several years ago to describe what happens when the opposite occurs, when the sum is actually less than the sum of its parts. I called it nonergy. And you can make the case that we saw a lot of that over the previous five games the Packers played, compiling a 2-3 record with the vast majority of the same cast of characters that just a year earlier could do nothing wrong.
How can a defense that boasts Clay Matthews, Desmond Bishop, BJ Raji, Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, and Ryan Pickett be picked apart at home by Eli Manning? How can an offense with MVP Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Jordy nelson, Jermichael Finley, a solid offensive line, and the same James Starks that impressed us in the playoffs a year earlier look inept against Big Blue?
In this case, the sum of the parts should have delivered a competitive product on the field...certainly, other than a few critical injuries, this was essentially the same team. But it was missing something very important: a chip on its shoulder. If there is anything that has been true of a Mike McCarthy team over the years, it's that the Packers play best with their back against the wall. And when you're 15-1, its kind of hard to rally the troops to believe the world has written you off.
The first game of the season promised more of the same, a heart-wrenching loss to the 49ers that saw the same dilapidated defense giving Alex Smith time to set up a lawn chair in the pocket before throwing, and an offense that relied way too much on the efforts of one player's amazing abilities on an off day.
At no point during last season did the Packers have to deal with doubt and criticism like they did after the 49er game, and for good reason. Despite all the name talent bolstering both sides of the ball, this was a team that looked uninspired, and when a play was made, it seemed to be an effort of an individual, not the entire team coming together as one.
Last week on Cheesehead Radio, we had the opportunity to ask Matt Bowen of the National Football Post his experiences with teams not playing up to their potential, and he had plenty of examples for us. But, when I asked how a team could break out of such a mindset, to get that synergy back, his answer was almost prophetic.
"Force turnover on defense. Intercept the football. Hit the quarterback," said Bowen. "Get the ball on the ground. You know, maybe its a big play on special teams. Sometimes, guys, all it take is one play....that's all you have to do, and things will start clicking again."
What kind of play did the Packers need? The decision to pull a fake field goal on 4th and 26 was unprecedented, just like a team that would expect to win the Super Bowl as a sixth seed. But, when Tim Masthay pitched the ball to Tom Crabtree, not only picking up the first down but putting six points on the board, the ensuing swagger was palpable.
Prior to that momentum-changing turn of events at the end of the second quarter, the Packers offense had only generated 95 yards of offense and netted only three points. Afterwards, Aaron Rodgers and Cedric Benson didn't exactly light it up, but generated 217 yards and a touchdown over the rest of the game.
The defense, which had played well prior to that play (with three sacks), simply got even better. Afterwards, the D turned it up and suddenly found the big-play ability that had been the trademark of their 2010 run, intercepting Jay Cutler four times and sacking him another four times to finish out the game.
With all factions of the team hitting on all cylinders, the Bears were no match for the Packers. Finally, the Packers were again playing better than the sum of their parts.
Make no doubt about it: this team lives and dies on the Big Play. That's the great thing about synergy, though. One Big Play begets more and more Big Plays, and that's a heck of a lot more fun to watch.
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