Sunday, January 25, 2015

Can Tom Brady Read the Media as well as He Can Read a Defense?

When a quarterback steps up to the line before the ball is snapped, he is the team’s chief communicator. He is the chief signal caller.  As such, his focus is not on the center, the ball, his own line or his receivers.  His teammates know what they are supposed to do, where they are supposed to be and when.

Rather, the quarterback’s focus is on the other side of the line, the defense. The unknowns, the things he cannot control but must anticipate.  He reads linebackers and safeties to see where they are positioned, where they are leaning, how their bodies may be slightly turned.  He looks into their eyes.  It’s the mental part of the game before the ball is snapped.

Many a quarterback will tell you that success is as often as not determined in these moments before the ball is snapped.

This is what New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady does very well.  He doesn’t watch his team.  His expectations have already been communicated to his teammates before this.  They know what is expected.

Instead, he scans the field for weaknesses, vulnerabilities, opportunities.

It’s important to remember this when watching the news unfold surrounding the New England Patriots’ latest communications crisis - “deflategate.”

When Brady, in his press conference last week, said he didn’t tamper with footballs, and he didn’t know what happened to them when he went back into the locker room before the game, that may have been factually true. As factually true as how he doesn’t know where his receivers are when his focus is on reading a defense before the snap.  But that’s not the full story.

What he does know is to assume things are where they need to be, and will be there when and how he needs them.  Rarely is it the case when he and his teammates are not on the same page.  Very rarely is there miscommunication between the quarterback and his team.

So, when Brady pleads ignorance on the specifics of what happened to 11 of 12 footballs in that AFC Championship game, he’s only addressing his direct involvement.  He’s not addressing issues like his specific expectations of those footballs, how those expectations have been communicated, and how the organization may work to meet his expectations.

In Brady’s press conference, he seemed to contradict himself.  He said he couldn’t tell if the footballs were under-inflated or not, yet in that same press conference, he stated he likes the balls at a very specific weight that was within NFL rules.  It would seem that if you know what you like with such specificity it would be hard not to tell the difference on game day.

In the same news conference, Brady skirted the whole issue of how he communicated his expectations to the team’s equipment managers.  He pleaded ignorance on who may have had custody of the footballs in his absence, and what was done to them when out of his sight.

This doesn’t sound right to others who have played quarterback in the NFL.

Hall of Fame quarterback and Fox Sports announcer Troy Aikman said it’s obvious Brady knew what was going on.

Former NFL quarterback Mark Brunell was another Brady doubter and got into a tremendous level of detail on how he vetted footballs before games.

Chris Simms, a former NFL quarterback and son of Phil Simms, the New York Giants’ Super Bowl-winning QB, found Brady's claims a bit incredulous as well.

So, what lessons are there for PR? 

It means that when your organization or certain members of your organization find themselves on the hot seat, there can be a temptation to tell only part of the story for a certain amount of time, hoping a controversy goes away.  PR consultants call this the strategy of appeasement, and ultimately it doesn't work.

Or to put it in football terms, this could be a strategy of trying to run out the clock.  As we sit here, interest in the Super Bowl is rising.  All this week, Patriots’ press conferences will be packed. This story alone will drive interest in the Super Bowl like hasn’t been seen in a while.

Whether fans watch the game for the football, the commercials, the spectacle itself, or if this issue draws another level of viewers, the NFL and its advertisers stand to benefit from millions of new eye balls.  But that’s just for the short term.

In the long run, the NFL knows that it must protect the integrity of the game.  It must do so to preserve and grow what it’s built.  It understands what hinges on that integrity, from the explosion of Fantasy Football across the country (and the millions of dollars that flow as a result), to the other economies that are driven by a healthy NFL.  There is simply too much at stake.

I doubt the NFL, the Patriots or even Head Coach Bill Belichick would make serious sacrifices to save the reputation of one player, even if that player is Tom Brady.

So for this week, the NFL will conduct a comprehensive investigation that will be completed sometime after the Super Bowl hangover wears off.  Probably at a time of year when people are paying the least amount of attention to football.

But if you’re in Tom Brady’s shoes, at some point, you may find yourself looking back at last week, at that press conference, and wondering if it was right to follow a PR strategy that had more to do with what he thought that people would accept, rather than just lay out the full story.  

When Brady spoke at his press conference last week, he looked across the line, only this time instead of peering into the eyes of linebackers, he was looking into camera lenses and the stares of curious journalists, some of whom because they weren’t sports reporters, may have been new to him.

As good as he is at reading defenses is he as talented at reading the media?  Because in the news cycle there is no final whistle when time runs out. For Brady, this story probably won't go away soon enough.

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