I’ve been watching The Last Dance on ESPN. It’s the ten-part documentary about Michael Jordan’s career. It’s a great collection of behind-the-scenes film over Jordan’s years with the Bulls, with plenty of candid comments from Jordan and others about his personality. After watching one of the recent episodes, I could see more clearly one of the central parts of Sean McDermott’s team-building philosophy.
Jordan is and was extraordinarily competitive. I’d heard about his competitiveness before, and it’s on full display in the show. He has a burning desire to win. He gambles, he competes in coin-tossing, he plays table tennis, he invents personal affronts to fire himself up. Everything is to win – for Jordan there is no other way to play.
Jordan came to understand that for his team to win championships at the highest level, the entire team had to practice and play with the same desire he had, and he made his team do it. Every day in practice, Jordan played hard, and he was in the face of his teammates to play hard, to play like his life depended on it. He demanded intense competitiveness of everyone: Scotty Pippen, Horace Grant, B. J. Armstrong, everyone.
Steve Kerr hadn’t been on the team when the Bulls did their first three-peat, and Jordan decided that Kerr didn’t know what it took to be a winner. Jordan began pushing him, harassing him in practice. Finally, Kerr lost it and punched Jordan in the chest, and Jordan punched Kerr in the eye. After practice Jordan admitted to Phil Jackson that he was wrong, and he called Kerr and apologized. After that, they were fine.
Jordan was merciless with Scott Burrell, who had enormous talent but wouldn’t, couldn’t play with the fire that would make him a great player. Jordan was merciless. Other players talk about how bad they felt for Burrell.
When asked whether he liked Jordan, B.J. Armstrong struggled. In the film, you can see how much fun they all had around each other, laughing and joking. They were great teammates. But in the end, Armstrong admitted that everyone was afraid of Jordan. You didn’t want him to target you.
What you can see on the show is that Jordan raised the level of play of the entire team by demanding competitive excellence. He was merciless, but he got away with it because he also was fun to be around and because he held himself to the same standards. There were plenty of times when his teammates thought he was a jerk, but they were willing to put up with it, because they knew he was making them all better.
What’s fascinating is to see how fierce competitiveness translated into championships. The Bulls played for years with unmatched intensity and commitment to excellence. They came at you with a killer instinct that Jordan demanded of the team.
Watching this display I could see for the first time why it is that Brandon Beane and McDermott value certain personal qualities above all else.
To win consistently, an NFL team has to play with the intensity and the competitiveness that the Bulls had in those years. They have to be determined to execute their jobs with ruthless efficiency under just about the most difficult circumstances imaginable, short of being in an actual battle. They have to play with excellence and non-stop ferocity.
NFL rosters are too big for one player to will the rest of team to play like that. In the NBA, a Jordan or a Magic or a Bird, by virtue of being the best player and the hardest worker on the team and if they have the right personality, can bring everyone else along with him. In the NFL, that isn’t possible. First, the leader pretty much has to be the QB, but the QB can’t be the most physically intense player on the team. His job is to avoid some of the contact that the other guys need to relish.
So, occasional leap over a linebacker notwithstanding, the QB isn’t playing the same game everyone else is. Second, no one has the personality to keep 40 different guys happy and willing to put up with the relentless demands of the lead dog. Third, although the QB may be the leader of the team, it’s hard for him to demand intensity from the defense. He just isn’t around them enough, and he doesn’t really understand the game they’re playing.
So, turn the clock back ten or fifteen years. A young Sean McDermott, working with the Eagles and later with the Panthers, is studying how to build a winner. That’s the amazing thing about McDermott – he’s been studying how to be a winner for a couple of decades. He can see that when teams succeed, one characteristic they always have is intense competitiveness. If they aren’t intensely competitive, when the chips are down, they lose. And they lose not just because they don’t have enough fight on the field; they lose because the competitiveness isn’t there every day on the practice field and in the position rooms and at the training table. They lose because they don’t want it bad enough to focus on doing what they need to do every day.
McDermott realized that the only way for an NFL team to have that intense competitiveness is to fill the roster with guys who already have it. He knew what that intensity looks and feels like, because it’s the intensity that successful wrestlers have. He has it. He knew from watching his wrestling teammates that the very best didn’t get their intensity from someone else; it’s inside them. And so, McDermott came to understand that a core principle to NFL success is to fill the team with guys who have it.
In Beane, McDermott has a GM who understands the same point. And that is why they have told us for three years now that they are looking for players who want to compete, who love to compete, who hate to lose and who are great teammates. They still need leaders, but the leaders can’t do the job on a football team unless the whole team burns with the desire to win, burns so much that they are willing to do what needs to be done, every day, to win on Sundays.
Beane and McDermott have now bought together a team full of guys with that fire in them and with the understanding that success comes from working together. These guys look around the locker room and see a bunch of other guys just like themselves. They all want it. They see it in their coach. They see it in their quarterback.
Editor’s babble: As usual, Mark nailed this. Sean McDermott’s brother said Sean was born with this competitive fire, that he was never a “normal” kid. It also explains why McDermott can study a player and in short order figure out whether or not they have the “right DNA” as McDermott puts it. You either have it or you don’t. And if you don’t, you’ll never be on a Bills roster as long as ‘McBeane’ are in charge. Thanks to Mark Korber for his terrific contributions to our blog. You can’t find Mark on Twitter, but you can find him posting on twobillsdrive.com’s Stadium Wall message board.