Group Psychology and Teamwork: The Similarities Between Team Antonio and Team Steelers

I hope those of you who couldn’t care less about Dancing With the Stars and feel Antonio Brown is wasting his time will bear with me for a moment, because something happened in last week’s episode which got me to thinking about a lot of stuff football fans say (and believe) which is perhaps meaningless. Or perhaps it is meaningful, but not because of what we think.

I refer to expressions like “they play down to their opponent,” “they came out flat”, and other such phrases which seem to be at least somewhat analytical in nature. But when you parse them out, they often turn out to be a sort of disguised tautology, because the statement is only being made because of the result and is based upon the perception of the viewer.

If the Steelers play the 2016 equivalent of the Cleveland Browns, (and that team might well still be the Browns) and they win the game by three points, then we will hear the constant refrain that they “played down to their opponent” or “came out flat.” If they lose by three points to, say, the Bengals, or the once-again-quarterbacked-by-Tom-Brady Patriots, the perception will likely be different. But is the perception correct, or merely perceived in this way because of the assumed prowess of the opponent?

I have written at length about the razor-thin edge that separates the best and the worst teams, and why the saying “any given Sunday” is so apt. The question here is, is there anything in what one might term “team psychology” to justify (or perhaps to better explain) such expressions?

To explore this question, let’s return to Antonio Brown. Here’s what he had to say to his professional dance partner, who had been caught on camera speculating that one of the other male “stars” was likely to be the winner of the competition:

“…we have a team, we should be encouraging, we should have each other’s back. Last week I kinda felt like, like you kinda downed our team.”

Sharna apologized, but Antonio broke in and said “Maybe you just felt like you were just being honest, but I just feel like if we’re a team, we should believe in our team, regardless if you switch sides. Even if you believe someone else is going to win, you should never show that. This is our team, we should be hungry to win it.”

First, let’s look at what he isn’t saying. He isn’t saying Sharna, his coach, shouldn’t be critical or get on him about details or any of those things. He is speaking not about the process but the mindset. And strangely enough, I believe it has a bearing both on the ways we choose to explain why our team lost, and on how likely this year’s draft picks are to succeed in the NFL.

Why do I say that? I think there is reasonable evidence to support the idea that the team who drafts a player has an effect on how well they play. For example, Cleveland has a reputation as a graveyard for quarterbacks. How many different coaching staffs have contributed to this reputation, and how many failed quarterbacks does this statement represent?

The answer is, a lot. Since 1999 the Browns have drafted or signed via free agency the following quarterbacks. [I’m leaving off anyone who didn’t ever play any significant amount of snaps, and their number is legion]:

  • Tim Couch: Round 1, Pick 1, 1999 draft; 1999-2003
  • Doug Pederson: FA, 2000
  • Kelly Holcomb: FA, 2001-2004
  • Jeff Garcia: FA, 2004
  • Luke McCown: Round 4, Pick 106, 2004 draft; 2004
  • Trent Dilfer: FA, 2005
  • Charlie Frye: Round 3, Pick 67, 2005 draft; 2005-2006 [He actually played a bit and was cut in 2007]
  • Derek Anderson: FA, 2006-2009
  • Brady Quinn: Round 1, Pick 22, 2007 draft; 2008-2009
  • Ken Dorsey: FA, 2008
  • Colt McCoy: Round 3, Pick 85, 2010 draft; 2010-2012
  • Jake Dehomme: FA, 2010
  • Seneca Wallace: FA, 2010-2011
  • Brandon Weeden: Round 1, Pick 22, 2012 draft; 2012-2013
  • Jason Campbell: FA, 2013
  • Brian Hoyer: FA, 2013-2015
  • Johnny Manziel: Round 1, Pick 22, 2014 draft, 2014-2015
  • Connor Shaw: UDFA, 2014: 2014
  • Josh McCown: FA, 2015
  • Austin Davis: FA, 2015

Here are the head coaches and offensive coordinators since 1999. I tried to find the QB coaches as well but mostly couldn’t.

Head Coaches:

  • Chris Palmer: 1999-2000
  • Butch Davis: 2001-2004
  • Terry Robiskie: 2004
  • Romeo Crennel: 2005-2008
  • Eric Mangini: 2009-2010
  • Pat Shurmur: 2011-2012
  • Rob Chudzinski: 2013
  • Mike Pettine: 2014-2015

Offensive Coordinators:

  • Tony Sparano: 1999  (His title was “Offensive Quality Control”
  • Pete Carmichael: 2000
  • Bruce Arians: 2001-2003
  • Terry Robiskie: 2004 (was temporarily promoted to replace Butch Davis, who was forced to resign when the team was 3-8)
  • Rob Chudzinski: 2004 (took over from Robiskie); 2007-2008
  • Maurice Carthon: 2005-2006 [resignation mid-season, probably under duress]
  • Jeff Davidson: 2006
  • Brian Daboll: 2009-2010
  • 2011—no offensive coordinator, as Pat Shurmur called offensive plays
  • Brad Childress: 2012
  • Norv Turner: 2013
  • Kyle Shanahan: 2014
  • John Defilippo: 2015

So what’s the deal? You would think that the Browns, just by chance if nothing else, would have hit on a good quarterback at least once. But apparently they didn’t. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that only one of those quarterbacks was taken in the top of the first round, and Tim Couch did at least manage to play for five years before they (and everyone else) gave up on him. But it isn’t like they haven’t had the opportunity to draft a really good quarterback. They famously passed on Ben Roethlisberger. And there were others as well, as you might suspect

So the next question is, what would have happened had they taken one of the better quarterbacks? It isn’t reasonable to assume they would give up on Couch much before they did, but what about after that? In 2004 they didn’t have a chance at either Philip Rivers or Eli Manning, as they were picking at No. 6. In 2005 they missed Alex Smith, who went at No. 1—they were picking at No. 3—but they could have had Aaron Rodgers, who wasn’t chosen until No. 24.

In 2006 they were picking at No. 13, and there were no QBs taken in the first round after Jay Cutler at No. 11. In 2007 they drafted the only QB in the first round taken after No. 1 (JaMarcus Russell) in Brady Quinn, after picking Joe Thomas at No. 3. (They traded away their 2008 first-round pick to do so.) I won’t go on—you get the idea. The big question is, would Aaron Rodgers have turned into the stud QB he did had Cleveland drafted him? And if not, why? The people the Brown hired as Offensive Coordinators were often quite impressive. There’s a lot of well-known names on the coordinator list, including Bruce Arians, Ben Roethlisberger’s quarterback whisperer.

Perhaps the problem is how many names are on the above lists. It’s pretty difficult to get very good at anything if the system is constantly changing out from under you. But where I’m trying to go, in my usual long-winded way, is to speculate as to whether there is some sort of group psychology in effect here. And this has much broader implications than whether RGIII is going to work out for Hue Jackson and his new staff.

One could certainly look at recent history and say Pittsburgh is a graveyard for defensive backs. Is this mainly attributable to the relatively low draft position in which they were taken? Is it the coaching? All the same questions one considers about Cleveland are in play here, except for two—the overall success of the team, and the stability of the top end of the franchise.

There has, of course, been a great deal of speculation recently that the Steelers somehow have a blind spot when it comes to defensive back evaluation. There may be something to that, as it isn’t by any means all late-round picks who haven’t panned out. I’m guessing it is a combination of factors. And perhaps one of those is germane to Team Antonio.

Is it in fact true that you have to believe you can accomplish something to do so? Antonio certainly seemed to think so. What does the literature say?

I’m not a psychologist, either, and as a result I wouldn’t exactly know, but I can look stuff up. I found one recent paper by Kurt Lewin which made the following striking claim:

…our knowledge about the psychology of success and failure is meager.

This was more focused towards the individual response to success and failure. But given the recent spate of articles suggesting failure is a necessary precursor to success, that’s an interesting claim. As far as sports (and consequently group) psychology goes, studies in the 1970s which don’t appear to have been refuted by more recent work were summed up in the abstract of a 1980 paper by Diane Gill:

Two laboratory experiments were conducted to investigate success/failure attributions within competing groups. In both studies, attributions to the own team or to opponents were egocentric in that members of winning teams assigned responsibility for success primarily to their own team whereas members of losing teams assigned responsibility for the loss primarily to the opponents. Within-team attributions, however, revealed a reverse-egocentric pattern. Members of winning teams assigned primary responsibility to their teammates, and losing team members accepted primary responsibility for the loss themselves. Attribution patterns, which were consistent across both studies and for both males and females, were interpreted as reflecting a team-enhancing strategy or norm.

What does this have to do with our new draft picks? Well, first of all, they are coming to a winning franchise with an excellent track record in the draft, at least if you ask the Washington Post, who ranked the Steelers No. 1 in overall draft success since 1996. (The article ran two weeks ago, so yes, it includes 2008…) If, as Antonio implies, you need to believe in yourself (or at least in your teammates) to have a chance of succeeding, this has to help.

If this is true, the converse is surely also true, and while I can’t imagine it entirely explains the enormous quarterback failure rate for the Browns, it at least gives a partial explanation. After all, not only the quarterback but all of the people taxed with assisting him are functioning under the same pall. And while they have had a number of excellent players during the past 18 years, football isn’t played in a vacuum, or more precisely, by individuals, independent of their teammates.

And if, as the above quote states, the members of a losing team are accepting primary responsibility for the failure of the team, the problem is self-perpetrating. It begins to make sense that a new coach coming into a culture of failure is going to have a very hard time turning this around.

On the other hand, I don’t believe the Steelers in the second decade of the 21st century have ever stopped believing that success, even the ultimate success of a seventh Lombardi, is impossible in any given year. Again, if the quote above accurately reflects the group psychology, the temptation to assign blame for a less-than-optimal season is easily put at the feet of a combination of injury and chance circumstances, from bad kickers to malevolent opponents.

This isn’t to say that individual players don’t take the responsibility for individual failures. Nor does it indicate that frustrations with other members of the team may sometimes surface. The unattributed comments by at least one of his teammates about LaMarr Woodley after the 2012 season demonstrate this:

“He was awful,” one teammate said of Woodley’s performance last season.

“He tells us he works out, but we didn’t see it. He wasn’t in shape. That has to be a reason why he was always hurt.”

This is very possibly a good bit of the reason why failure begets failure—that the search for an explanation ultimately starts to focus on teammates, and this naturally makes for a less-than-healthy locker room atmosphere.

It is also, of course, possible that a particular unit within the team may get down on itself. I’m thinking once again, of course, of the defensive backs. I’m not at all certain this explains anything in the particular case of the Steelers, though, because however well the secondary did or didn’t play, it seemed as if they had a “can do” attitude, although they acknowledged specific failures. It is certainly reasonable to speculate that the amount of talent in the unit was, overall, insufficient, especially when combined with circumstances such as, for example, the groin injury which Mike Mitchell had to manage during his entire 2014 season.

But if some of the secondary’s recent underperformance can be attributed to a sort of group assumption of the mantle of team failure, combined with a dearth of talent, the infusion of three first and second round picks should help to restore some swagger to the backfield.

When Clint Hurdle was hired as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2011, he came to an organization with the longest losing streak in professional sports. Rather than try to turn around the team, he focused on turning around the culture. It took a few years and a few key free agent acquisitions, particularly that of A.J. Burnett in 2012, who was perhaps the first successful major league player to actually want to join the Pirates in over 15 years, to change it, but Hurdle did, and the club now expects to succeed. (Perhaps not against the Cubs, though, which might explain the last couple of days…)

Carnell Lake was part of a very successful secondary, back in his playing days, and furthermore played both cornerback and safety with distinction. He’s seemingly being given a lot of talent to work with all of a sudden. While not all of them will necessarily work out, I believe we are going to see a defense this coming season which will look rather more menacing. And that’s surely good for everyone’s state of mind.

One comment

  • Wow, very interesting points. It would certainly make sense with a lot of teams around the league. Some teams just have a great history/culture that is able to sustain itself. The Steelers certainly didn’t enjoy sustained success until a culture-changer in Chuck Knoll was hired. We may have had a few years of bad seasons (as far as they go for us), but every peak has a corresponding valley. I would say the same for many of the more successful teams of today. Look back on the teams of the 1990/1980s that were the envy of the league, but are no longer: Miami, Dallas, San Francisco, etc. (yes, each team has had minor successes here and there). Miami no longer has Shula, Dallas no longer has Johnson, and Detroit no longer has Walsh. I truly believe it is the front office and coaching staff that establishes the culture more than the players themselves. If the players can see stability, sensibility, and the willingness to exceed, then they are likely more apt to perform.

    Liked by 1 person

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