Business Lessons from the Football Field

Tom Peters

The National Football League playoffs keep tens of millions of fans glued to the tube from Christmas weekend almost to Ground Hog Day. During commercials and exercise jogs to the refrigerator, we should keep a few football lessons in mind that can be applied to business.

1. BALANCE PREVAILS. Think of marketers as quarterbacks. They grab the glory and coordinate the show. But they are seldom enough to carry the club alone. Dan Marino of Miami passed for 44 touchdowns and 4,746 yards this season, but that did not get the Dolphins to the playoffs. The offensive key in football is balance—between the passing game and the running game. Running backs Joe Morris of the New York Giants, Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears, and George Rogers of the Washington Redskins have complemented each team’s passing attack. In business, clever marketing plans, inadequately supported by neglected and second-rate sales and service forces, are the downfall of most strategies.

2. DON’T FORGET THE GANG ON THE PRODUCTION LINE! The factory has taken a back seat in American business, and as a result American business is taking a back seat to much of the world. The NFL’s top franchises over the last two decades—Miami, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Oakland/Los Angeles, Washington, and Chicago—have all been blue-collar teams. Blocking, tackling, great special teams, and innovativeness in defense rather than offense have highlighted the best. Love your nose tackles, love your production crew.

3. DIFFERENT MANAGEMENT STYLES CAN WORK. But they must be followed with absolute consistency. Go back ten years and remember Dallas’s dapper Tom Landry, calm and collected on one sideline, and LA Raider Coach John Madden on the other side, with his shirttail flapping and face florid. Among today’s top coaches are Chicago’s mean Mike Ditka and “The Professor,” San Francisco’s Bill Walsh. Despite these four fine coaches’ disparate styles and systems, they have a few things in common: consistency and an abiding belief in their program that they transmit to the players. Most any style or system can work if every player—from unsung center to flashy halfback—understands the logic and believes in its efficacy. In baseball, fiery Billy Martin has turned around many teams in just 30 days, by transmitting his belief in them passionately and consistently. In business, the key is not which management style is the best one; it’s picking a reasonably sound course and convincing all 25 or 250,000 workers that your ship is an exciting one to sail on.

4. INNOVATE FAST. In 1984 and 1985 the former Chicago defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan introduced the so-called four-six defense that features constant blitzing. Within weeks all 27 other teams were designing plays to adapt to it offensively and were installing some version of it defensively. Within a year, drafting (recruiting) patterns emphasized tougher and more mobile quarterbacks who could cope with the four-six. Business must learn this brand of fast adaptation, or else.

5. RECRUITING “THE BEST” IS NOT ENOUGH. The NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had the first pick overall in the collegiate draft in six of their franchise’s twelve years of existence. That’s as unprecedented as is Tampa’s record of on-the-field ineptitude. The recruitment of “great people” on paper is not enough for a winning team in football or in business.

6. WHEN THINGS GO WRONG, AXE THE LEADERS, NOT THE TROOPS. A cornerstone of Japanese success is that managers take the blame and take the first and deepest pay cuts when performance falters. Not so in U.S. business. Recently deposed Electronic Data Systems chairman H. Ross Perot’s final bone of contention with EDS parent General Motors was over nonpayment of bonuses to United Auto Workers, while executive bonuses continued in the face of pitiful performance. Poor performance in the NFL costs the coach his job long before the centers or the linebackers go. Moreover, when the coach departs, virtually all his dozen or so assistant coaches go with him as a matter of course. In fact with rare exception, we never even hear of the assistant coaches, in stark contrast to the glorification of their business counterparts, the oh-so numerous vice presidents.

The last two points are, sadly, nagging consistencies between business and the NFL:

7. SUCCESS BREEDS COMPLACENCY. The great American business success of 1946 to 1973 led to sloppiness on all dimensions. New, lean, and aggressive competitors are supplanting us. In the NFL, few Super Bowl champions repeat as titleholders. Success is a difficult hurdle to overcome—on any playing field.

8. THE TOP DOG RIDES OUT TOO MANY STORMS OF HIS OWN MAKING. Coaches and assistant coaches take the rap for a lousy record; there’s usually some merit to their dismissal. But, despite the repeated poor performance of the same handful of franchises, it’s about as hard to oust an incompetent NFL owner as it is to unseat an incompetent corporate chairman. Accountability at the very top remains a thorny issue in business and football. Yet the long-term strength of both endeavors taken as a whole depends addressing this problem.

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