Pressure of expectations can be felt from top to bottom of NFL teams
Lions coach Jim Schwartz and 49ers">49ers coach Jim Harbaugh may not be best buddies these days, but they do share one thing in common -- they and their 5-1 teams are far exceeding expectations so far this season.
Add in Buffalo and Cincinnati, both at 4-2, and these four squads are riding the best wave in sports -- when teams with low to modest expectations from their fans, media and perhaps even their own front offices and coaching staffs excite everyone with great starts.
While Detroit won its final four games last season, hinting at the improvement we've seen thus far, the 49ers, Bills and Bengals have seemingly come out of nowhere. You can say the same for the 4-2 Raiders and 3-2 Titans, both playing for new coaches.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the teams that go into a season with high expectations and fail to deliver. That's the worst situation to be in, and precipitates anguish in the city (expressed most immediately by loud booing from the home crowd) and grumbling on the team.
Topping that unpleasant list so far this season are the 2-4 Eagles, still in last place in the NFC East despite their much-needed win in Washington.
Co-leader thus far in the disappointment category (at least among its fans) is the team that, despite coming off a 6-10 season, always faces great expectations from its vast fanbase and very visible owner. That would be the Dallas Cowboys, fresh off their loss in New England. Most likely fearing another Tony Romo late-game interception that proved costly in losses to the Jets and Lions this season, coach Jason Garrett called three running plays with the Cowboys clinging to a tight lead instead of being aggressive, leading to a three-and-out and allowing Tom Brady to drive his team to the last-minute win. That decision-making earned Jerry Jones' public second-guessing.
The Eagles and Cowboys have a swing game looming at Philly in Week 8, and with a lot of playoff contenders remaining on each team's schedule, it won't be easy for either to negate their early-season woes.
As a team front office executive, I rode that rollercoaster of expectations every year, so I can feel your joy and pain, NFL over- and underachievers. All team execs, coaches and players do. It wasn't something that we discussed in staff meetings, but we all knew it was there. I witnessed the fan adulation and media praise when we either met or exceeded expectations. I also had to live with fan and media discontent and criticism when we didn't deliver on high expectations or, just as bad, did deliver when expectations were low.
In July 1999, Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams hired me as president and promptly told the media it was "playoffs or pink slips" for coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Floyd Reese after three straight 8-8 seasons for the Oilers-turned-Titans. So while Titans fans didn't expect much, the owner held the opposite view, and I figured he had brought me in to be his axe-man.
Even those of us in the Titans organization who were optimists by nature were tested when quarterback Steve McNair was injured in a close season-opening win over a bad Cincinnati team, but backup Neil O'Donnell did a great job until McNair's return seven games into the season. We finished the regular season 13-3, beat Buffalo in the Music City Miracle playoff game, then won as road underdogs in Indy and Jacksonville to go to Super Bowl XXXIV, where we lost to the Rams on the game's memorable final play.
I'll always remember a happy Super Bowl week in Atlanta leading up to game day, and the widest grins were on the faces of the coach and GM who knew they had escaped the owner's guillotine.
The worm turned on us the following season when we were preseason Super Bowl favorites, had another 13-3 season and earned the AFC's top seed. Our fans naturally assumed we'd get back to the Super Bowl and win it this time, but we were upset at home in the divisional round by our arch-rival Ravens. Talk about the air going out of the balloon -- both throughout our home market and within the organization.
The following season our Titans again had high expectations, but the team suffered through an injury-filled 7-9 season. We dealt with fan and media criticism as our depth was questioned and we felt the pressure big-time in the front office as we staggered to an 0-3 start. We had lots of meetings with our coaches, GM and player personnel people to discuss how we could get back on track and specifically how we could patch up a decimated secondary (we couldn't at that point).
Expectations really sank when we started the 2002 season 1-4 (with the boos coming loud and clear in a Week 5 home loss to the Redskins, which was awful to listen to from our management box). But Jeff Fisher kept pushing, and the team went on a 10-1 run that earned another AFC South title. After a playoff win over the Steelers, the season ended with an AFC title game loss in Oakland.
In 1998, as Vikings GM, there were moderate expectations for a team coming off a 9-7 season with a playoff win. But those expectations skyrocketed with a 15-1 regular season. Everyone in Minnesota was making Super Bowl plans -- including those of us in the front office who had to do our advance planning. What followed was the toughest loss of my career. A 10-point favorite in the NFC championship game, that Vikings team, led by Randall Cunningham and the dynamic receiver duo of Cris Carter and rookie Randy Moss, lost in overtime to Atlanta after leading by 13 points in the first half and by seven points late.
But back to 2011. As for off-the-charts expectations this year, look to lone unbeaten Green Bay, who has to repeat as Super Bowl champs for Cheesehead Nation to consider this season a success -- no easy feat as recent NFL history shows. Those same Packers snuck in the playoffs as a No. 6 seed last season only to go on a historic Super Bowl run that made them the toast of Titletown.
So I can relate to your joy, San Francisco, Detroit, Buffalo and Cincinnati. But beware, because like with my experiences and those of the Packers, once you exceed expectations the meter only keeps rising. It's a challenge for the leaders of the organization -- execs, coaches and leaders among the players -- to block out the distractions and keep everyone focused on the goals of division title, playoffs and home-field advantage.
And I can feel your pain -- Philadelphia and Dallas -- because not delivering on high expectations is the worst experience as the pressure keeps mounting. There is time to turn your seasons around, but it will definitely test your mettle.