Do you ever feel like an underdog when making financial decisions?
The story of the 2001 NFL season cast a heavy underdog as the main character.
The previous year had marked a fresh start for one team, featuring a new, well-respected head coach. This coach had made a name for himself as a defensive mastermind. But as the primary decision-maker, he had a mixed track record. And in that first year, he struggled to lead his new team to more than a few wins.
The 2001 season, though, began to show what was possible. After an initial losing streak, the team won four out of five games. They later pulled off six consecutive victories to end the regular season. Then two dramatic playoff wins sent them to the Super Bowl.
In this final game of the year, the team would play the dynamic St. Louis Rams. Earlier in the season, the Rams – with a fast, complex offense and the league’s best record – had “handled them easily.” As a result, the head coach faced a set of challenging tradeoffs in this unlikely re-match.
How could he stop the Rams’ offense? He had already failed once to use his defensive ideas to slow them down. Another such failure would cost him a rare opportunity. Most head coaches don’t get more than one shot at a Super Bowl trophy.
The team was the New England Patriots. The coach was Bill Belichick. And he needed to make a crucial decision about his team’s next steps.
The St. Louis Rams offense during that 2001 season earned the nickname “The Greatest Show on Turf.” Their skill and athleticism was overwhelming, giving their opponents no clear path for how to succeed.
In his book, The Education of a Coach, David Halberstam wrote:
[Quarterback Kurt Warner’s] touch seemed almost magical: The ball always seemed to arrive just where it was supposed to be just when it was supposed to get there, and he had wonderful receivers …some of them shockingly fast, men who could run brilliant routes and seemed wired to Warner by some kind of extrasensory perception, so that he could throw to spots where they would miraculously arrive at just the right instant. The Rams had, in addition, a great running back, Marshall Faulk, always dangerous, a player with speed and balance and power, who posed an extra threat because he was such a marvelous receiver… He made the rest of the offense more dangerous, and they in turn, with the defense’s need to concentrate on them, made him even more dangerous.
Of the teams’ first match-up, Halberstam said, “The Rams had been completely in charge of the tempo of the game.” He added that, near “the end of the game… the Rams had controlled the ball almost leisurely as if they were toying with the Patriots.”
“Afterward,” Halberstam noted, “Belichick believed that he had coached badly.” And, “Looking back on the regular season, Belichick decided that he had been preoccupied with too many other things, that his game plan had been flawed, and that the Rams had handled it all too easily.”
Ultimately, the Rams’ many offensive options created significant uncertainty for opposing coaches. And that uncertainty drove coaches to make short-sighted, ineffective decisions.
Making financial decisions can feel like trying to stop The Greatest Show on Turf. What should we even focus on?
In some cases, we may think we can excel at every small detail at the same time. But then we just end up doing very little well. We might, for example, try to spread our savings around every type of investment account. But any small progress in our our retirement, college, and health care accounts comes without intention. Without a plan, we typically don’t achieve our financial goals on our preferred timeline.
In other cases, we may take a risky, complex approach to avoid actually facing our financial tradeoffs. We might try to beat the stock market through reckless investment decisions. We might try to borrow money from retirement accounts to scrape together enough funds for a down payment. Or we might chase tax breaks that prevent us from aligning our money with our priorities and values. The complexity these choices entail often hides traps that can lead to devastating setbacks.
Finally, we also devote too much energy to external forces. How lucky can we get with stock market returns this month? Will the Federal Reserve change interest rates this quarter? Is this the year that housing prices will crash? Making predictions or betting on uncertain outcomes just distract us from what we can control and change.
What did Bill Belichick decide to focus on?
Simplicity characterized Belichick’s approach on February 3, 2002. He recognized that he couldn’t stop every player on the Rams offense. He also rejected any temptation to use complexity as a way to avoid difficult choices. And he ignored the variables – the weather, the playing surface, his team’s injuries – that he couldn’t control.
Instead, he committed to focusing solely on the most important thing. On only one player, in fact. Halberstam explains:
All offenses had their needs, and at the core of the Rams offense was Marshall Faulk, so great a football player that he could control a game if you did not control him. The Rams might be a team without a predictable set of tendencies, but there were going to be times when they went to Faulk, and these were going to be the critical moments of the game; if the Patriots could stop him on these critical plays, they could probably stop a Rams drive.
The game plan was to key on him and wear him down on every play. They were going to hit him every time he had the ball and hit him every time he didn’t have the ball.
And so that week… was given over to practicing how to stop Faulk. …The first and most important thing they were going to do, he said, was to know where Marshall Faulk was at all times. …And so all week the scout team lined up and ran Rams plays, and a player would imitate Faulk, and there would be Belichick standing behind his defense and yelling out, “Where is he? Where is he?” It was that way all week long, with that constant yell before every practice play: “Where is he?”
The New England Patriots upset the St. Louis Rams that day, 20-17. Marshall Faulk gained only 76 yards. According to Halberstam, NFL analyst and former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski called it “the best coaching job I’ve ever seen. Not just that season, not in a Super Bowl… but in 29 years of playing and watching football.”
With high-stakes decisions in life, simplicity can feel lazy. And counterintuitive.
But when we face daunting financial tradeoffs, we usually need to acknowledge that we can’t do everything at once. When uncertainty about our financial future stresses us out, we don’t benefit from hiding behind complexity. And when we feel like the underdog, we most often need to focus on what we can control in that moment.
With money, simplicity is sophisticated.
And even enough to shut down the Greatest Show on Turf.
Hi, I’m Kevin. I’m a financial advisor in Washington, DC. I’m also the founder of Illumint, an independent financial planning company in the District that specializes in financial planning for Millennials like you. I empower our generation with the confidence to invest an inheritance, financial gift, or extra savings. If you’re new to Financially Well, welcome – you now have access to the leading finance podcast for Millennials. I encourage you to read, watch, or listen to the ideas I’ve shared about making your money work for you. And then when you’re ready, please send me your thoughts & questions!
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