As the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens revel in their thrilling road victories this past Sunday, and the Harbowl hype shifts into hyperdrive, it’s worth taking a look at the preparation challenges facing the teams in Super Bowl XLVII.
As a coach and a team, what you need to keep in mind about the Super Bowl is that it’s not simply the biggest game of the year. It’s also the most atypical.
It’s not merely on the day of the game when things are different — odd warm-up period (with the teams spending longer in the locker room after final warm-ups, because of the super-sized pregame pageantry), odd start time (6:29 p.m. ET), oddly extended halftime (nearly a half-hour between the second and third quarters) and 10,000 flash bulbs going off with every kick, pass and catch, because fans paying $1,000 and up per ticket want to remember and record every moment.
All of that is out of the ordinary, but, believe me, the weirdness starts long before Super Sunday. Football teams are, by nature, creatures of habit. And both teams will be thrown out of their weekly rhythms this week and next. I heard someone mention recently that the two-week gap between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl is like another bye week. But it’s not.
The two weeks of preparation for the Super Bowl is like nothing you have ever done before as a coach. The first week is anything but a normal bye week, and the week leading up to the game is anything but a normal workweek. You try to keep some semblance of order, and both coaches will spend a great deal of time telling everyone that "we will just do what we have been doing.” In some ways, that’s wishful thinking. In other ways, it’s just impossible.
You have to begin with the fact that no matter how you structure it, there is only so much that either team will be able to get accomplished once they get down in New Orleans. Between the media demands (included the gargantuan, oft-mocked, often surreal Media Day next Tuesday), the family and friends that are coming to the game, and the sheer, palpable energy and buzz that exists in the Super Bowl city, trying to conduct any focused and substantive practices is extremely difficult. This is why the week before teams leave for the Super Bowl venue can be vitally important.
When we went to Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, Fla., we did it — just like this year’s Ravens — having played three playoff games. We desperately needed the bye week to rest up, recharge and heal. We used the first three days simply to get organized. We gave the players all three days off the practice field. Our administrative staff immediately took on the thankless and complex job of organizing travel and logistics for the players and their families. We told the players to get all their ticket requests taken care of in those first three days and then to leave it alone.
The coaches, of course, spent the entire time game-planning for the game itself. I had asked around to some other coaches, like Bill Walsh and Dan Reeves, and there was a clear consensus from those who had done it before to get the game plan set that first week, install it, and then do not mess with it. This was good advice.
Coaches are tinkerers by nature, and if you give them the time, they’ll often tweak, adjust, tweak, adjust . . . and then wind up very nearly right back where they started (or, even worse, overthinking it to the point that they get away from what the team does best). In either instance, all the unnecessary changes and adjustments only serve to confuse the players and make them uncertain about the task ahead.
Once we had the game plan set and the players returned for practice on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, we did little more than meet and have what amounted to walk-through practices to install the plan. Our plan was to be mentally able to play that game that first Sunday, then use the time during the second week in Tampa to get back into the physical flow of the game. We actually put the pads on for a practice that second week, which was unheard of for us, that late in the season.
Once we got into the Super Bowl city, the meetings were little more than reaffirming the game plan, making sure everyone was on the same page, and spending a little more time familiarizing the players with their opponents, going more in-depth with the opponent’s scouting report. This way, the team was confident and relaxed about the week’s work, and totally familiarized with the game plan.
We used the time in Tampa to get back in our rhythm physically and try, to the greatest extent possible, to treat that immense game just like any other game. Saying it doesn’t make it so, but planning ahead and getting your work done the first week sure does help.