Wound too tight

football-hand-smlIt’s five days since the Big Game in New Jersey and a sense of disbelief hangs over Denver like one of those dingy brown clouds. Fan expectations were so high that the fall to earth is that much more painful. This was it, they said, the year the Broncos would win the Super Bowl. All the parts were in place, the fans were told early and often by the newspaper, TV, radio, blogs, social media and the guy in line at the supermarket. Best quarterback having a record season, a next-man-up ethic to seamlessly replace the injured and an all-business attitude from the first day of training camp. Can’t miss, they said.

Throughout the two weeks of fully sponsored, non-stop hyperbole before the game on Feb. 2, reporters dutifully repeated every word uttered by every player, coach and ball boy connected with either team. Too bad for the media that players on both teams stuck with the script. Hardly a word was spoken to cause a ripple of controversy. But there was a clue, a few words here and there from a few players that foretold the complete and utter failure by the Broncos.

“The only thing more terrifying than playing against Peyton Manning is playing with him” said an article in the Wall Street Journal two days before the big game. Manning “terrified” teammates in the locker room and on the practice with relentless football pop quizzing and immediate call-out of their mistakes.

“I don’t think Denver had any idea of what you get in Peyton Manning,” said a former NFL quarterback turned radio analyst. “Equipment guys, trainers, video guys, coaches—everyone has to be on edge.”

Honing an entire team into a sharp edge usually means that when the time comes, everybody knows exactly what to do and when to do it. No matter what an opponent throws your way, the team anticipates and adapts. About the only wild card is when and how much a player is a affected by the adrenaline that comes with the territory.

And I’m sure there’s nothing like the jolt of adrenaline a player gets stepping on to the field for the biggest game of the year, and probably the biggest game of his life. The problem with adrenaline is that it has to be controlled or bad things can happen.

According to a Monday-morning quarterback at Forbes: “Sometimes, when the occasion is bigger than usual, you get too pumped, and then the effects of adrenaline can be deleterious. That’s what happened to Manning and the Broncos.  Too much adrenaline caused them to be jittery, to get tunnel vision and hearing, and to jump the gun.” Too true.

When the Broncos center snapped the ball over Manning’s head on the first play of the game, you could almost hear the gears, ratchets and springs of the tightly wound Broncos’ precision machinery go flying across the field with a loud “sproing.” For the rest of the game, the Broncos looked like a team that won just three games during the regular season instead of a team that set records and won all but three times.

The Seahawks on the other hand, played like they have all season – with intensity and speed. One of the little storylines that followed the Seahawks this season is summarized in this article from ESPN. In it, we learn that fourth-year coach Pete Carroll encourages regular meditation sessions for his players as a way to “visualize success” and that there are mandatory yoga classes for the entire team as part of their regular workouts. The results are apparent for this very non-traditional approach to coaching. And since nothing breeds imitation like success, figure that the going rate just went up for top-shelf meditation coaches.

In the meantime, the post mortem continues here in the Mile High City. It’s unlikely Broncos fans will recover until training camp in August.