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How Literature and the NFL Shed Light on Innovation

Baltimore Ravens Coach John Harbaugh complained that Patriots Coach Bill Belichick used deceptive tactics in a playoff game last weekend, after a novel, efficiently executed series of third-quarter plays disoriented the Ravens defense and helped power the Patriots to AFC championship game. But the complaint is short on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson and overlarded with Edgar Allan Poe.

Everything about the Patriots resounds with innovation, resourcefulness and the persistence celebrated by Longfellow and Emerson.

In “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Longfellow expressly celebrates those virtues achieving independence against a stronger adversary:

“In the books you have read,

How the British Regulars fired and fled,

–How the farmers gave them ball for ball,

From behind each fence and farmyard-wall,

Chasing the red-coats down the lane,

Then crossing the fields to emerge again

Under the trees at the turn of the road,

And only pausing to fire and load.”

Individual and organization, player and team, succeed when all embrace innovation, as Emerson says in “Self-Reliance”: “Power…resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state…. This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes; for that forever degrades the past…. [A] man or a company of men, plastic and permeable to principles, by the law of nature must overpower and ride all cities, nations, kings, rich men, poets, who are not.”

The Patriots’ clever disguise of which players were eligible receivers and which ineligible presented a new way of reading, a fresh legibility executing so quickly that the Ravens could not read the play until it had transpired.

The play was simply another of Belichick’s irrepressible innovations. A decade or so ago, in two Super Bowls, linebacker Mike Vrabel deployed on offense and caught touchdown passes in both games.

Ravens Coach John Harbaugh’s choice of words after last week’s deception captures his frustration. “It’s a substitution type of a trick type of thing,” Harbaugh told journalists. “They don’t give you a chance to make the proper substitutions…. It’s not something that anybody’s ever done before…. They…announce the ineligible player, and then Tom Brady would take them to the line right away and snap the ball before we had a chance to figure out who was lined up where. That was the deception part of it.” A complaint got nowhere with the league. Celerity trumped incumbent legibility.

In effect, Coach Harbaugh is perseverating Poe.

Poe portends as much in the team’s namesake, the poem “The Raven”:

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!-prophet still, if bird or devil!-

Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,

Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted-

On this home by Horror haunted-tell me truly, I implore-

Is there—is there balm in Gilead?-tell me-tell me, I implore!”

Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Of course, no one is saying “nevermore” about the Ravens or the coach, whose team did well in a competitive game and won a Super Bowl but two years ago.

But immersive reading in Emerson and Longfellow charts the Colts’ best shot prepping for the AFC championship game against the Patriots. Colts coaches and players would find few other drills as efficient or effective as they get ready to challenge New England champs.

Comprehension of Emerson’s and Longfellow’s insights shows how to innovate in a highly competitive game.