During the third quarter of Sunday’s game, Jaguars fans witnessed the dreaded occurrence they’ve come to expect every week: the defensive meltdown. As Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell pounded through the middle of the Jaguars defense for 5-6 yards per carry, there was a palpable loss in Jaguar spirit. It started like a slow bleed, but with every six yard run, the flow got greater and greater and slowly sucked the spirits of Jaguar players and fans alike. The result? 17 points for the Jets from the time the run-induced gashing began. For the Jaguars? Three straight three-and-out drives that resulted in a total of -3 yards of offense.
For me, this brought up two points of discussion – the first of which I actually talked about last week – that the Jaguars have lost some of their identity and spirit with the increasingly poor play of the run defense and running game. The Jets game was actually a particularly interesting case because not only did the Jaguars failure to stop the run get them out of the game, but their ability to bounce back and run the ball and stop the run got them back into the game. Between the Jets’ two particularly run-gashing drives in the third and fourth quarter, the Jaguars ran the ball three times out of twelve plays for a total of six yards. From their first possession in the fourth quarter, the Jaguars ran the ball 5 times for 54 yards, 50 of which came on a huge drive that brought the Jaguars to within one score of the Jets. After that run-heavy Jaguar drive? The Jets ran the ball 7 times for 9 yards. The Jaguars, in some respects, truly do feed off running the ball and stopping the run. Of course, they also feed off playing well, which is something they haven’t done consistently or nearly enough over the course of the season.
That, actually, brings me to my next point. Like all teams, there are times when even the Jaguars flash significant talent. You might see Cecil Shorts make a huge catch and run, Justin Blackmon terrorize finesse defensive backs, Derek Cox completely blanket receivers, or Paul Posluzny track running backs despite blood hemorrhaging into his helmet. Shoot, even Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne look like Pro Bowl players at times (side bar: some of these times are more infrequent than others). The thing about these times is that often, they feed off each other. First, Shorts might make a huge third down catch, and then that might be followed by the offensive line opening up a huge hole for a 7 yard gain. Then, Gabbert/Henne might throw a beautiful pass over the middle to Marcedes Lewis, and all of a sudden, a team that looked incompetent on offense for two quarters is starting to look like they can’t be stopped. Now, the Jaguars never really looked like they couldn’t be stopped on Sunday, but they did show elements of this theme – they looked pretty stout against the run in the first half, then got gashed in the third quarter, and then finally looked stout when they needed it the most in the fourth quarter. Their running game followed the same trajectory. This idea of players feeding off of each other and overall team play feeding off big plays of individual players led me to the idea of momentum and how it’s affected the Jaguars this season.
The idea of momentum in sports is a popular one amongst players, the fans, and the media. You often hear of a player with “the hot hand” or a player that’s “in the zone” or a player that’s “on a cold streak”. You even hear about it affecting teams, via some sort of unclear summation of individual momenta ( like the “epic collapse” of the 2004 New York Yankees). But how valid really is the idea of momentum in sports? Does it actually hold true in most scenarios, or are we misled by the outliers of the sports world – when Kobe Bryant goes off for 81 points or when the Patriots run the table during the regular season, or when some no-name baseball player has the month of his life by hitting .450-25-12-25 (or more realistically, Trevor Plouffe’s .327-22-11-21 line this past June). These types of streaks happen, but how much of this is based on momentum as an underlying principle of sports versus the streaks being a natural outlier of random chance?
Momentum in sports is founded on the idea that present success builds on, and predicates, future success; similarly, present failures may predicate future failures. It has been a hotly debated issue in sports psychology for the past thirty years or so with the evidence still very much conflicting. In 1985, Thomas Gilvoch of Cornell University and his colleagues wrote the first truly pivotal research paper about momentum in basketball, and in the eyes of many, the first to debunk the myth of momentum in sports. Entitled, “The Hot Hand in Basketball: On the Misperception of Random Sequences”, Gilvoch and his colleagues examined statistical data of field goal shooting of the players on the Philadelphia 76ers, the free shooting of Boston Celtics players, and all shooting of Cornell basketball players. Gilvoch et all found that not only is there no correlation at all between past and future success (making a shot after making or missing one, two, or three shots), but that fans, players, and coaches believed that there was and were more likely to orchestrate a shot for a player that was “hot”. Furthermore, they found that players’ perceptions of their own “hot”-ness (“heat”?) or lack-there-of was a poor predictor of successful shooting. That is, a player that believed he was “hot” or “cold” still had a coin flip’s chance of actually predicting whether or not he would make his next shot.
On the other hand, there have been studies that suggest that momentum has at least some effect on player performance, but that it does not always result in a change in performance because a change in performance is actually a secondary effect based on other changes that momentum induces. This has been fleshed out as the “Multi-dimensional Model of Momentum in Sports”, which suggests that various factors (some of which may or may not be due to chance), affect whether an event that can produce positive or negative momentum actually induces a change in immediate outcome (a made basket, or a big third down conversion, or whatever the outcome you’re measuring is). In football, certain triggers associated with momentum have been identified including opponents’ weakness (such as having Mark Sanchez as their quarterback), opponent’s mistakes (such as starting Mark Sanchez as their quarterback), refereeing decisions (such as a huge reversal on a challenged play), encouragement (such as increased crowd noise or praise from teammates after a good play), and so on. Certain outcomes are associated with momentum – outcomes that are both positive and negative. A potential positive outcome is perceived confidence (for instance after Gabbert/Henne throw a couple nice completions). This could become a negative outcome, however, as momentum can also lead to doing things not normally attempted (such as Gabbert/Henne trying to thread the needle in double coverage).
You may look at all the close losses the Jaguars have had this year and point to them as evidence that negative momentum over the course of the year has been at play. You may even point to those losses and suggest that getting a few wins at the end of the season is more important than getting the first (versus the second or third) pick in the draft this year in order to build momentum and a positive foundation going into next year. Or, you may be on the other end of the spectrum, and believe that our losses at the end of games are a function of youth and inexperience, or simply lesser talent. Regardless of your belief, the one thing that we can all agree in is that the way to succeed in the NFL and in sports in general is overcoming momentum, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative. Momentum, in and of itself, is a transient concept. The streak, whether hot or cold, is bound to end. Some streaks last half a game, like when Mark Brunell broke the record for most consecutive passes completed in a single game (22). Other streaks can last a whole year, like Chris Johnson’s 2,500+ total yards in a single season or the year the Patriots went 17-0. The biggest difficulty with momentum is translating it into long-term success, and not letting momentum, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative, change the way you play the game. Quarterbacks can’t let the confidence that positive momentum gives them lead them into throwing off their back foot or into double coverage. Linebackers can’t let the negative momentum of being gashed in the run game compel them to “try to do too much” and get caught overpursuing. The true value of momentum, in the long-term, is to teach players, coaches, and teams how to deal with it – how to deal with the effects and play within the boundaries of momentum so that over time, they are able to execute regardless of what kind of momentum they face.
– Zain Gowani