A Second Helping of…Momentum

Note: Each Monday we take a look at a player the Broncos used in a new, creative, or interesting way from the previous day’s game.  This week we’re getting a second plate of not a player, but how momentum affected the Broncos yesterday.

If you’ve ever played any sport at even the lowest of competitive levels, you’ve felt the power of momentum.

When the sea of momentum changes against you, it’s palpable;  you feel it throughout your body.  Suddenly, there goes your mind.

Once your mind goes, strange things happen—records are even set in the process.

After reviewing the first three drives on tape last night, I kept returning to this concept of momentum—not on purpose, mind you.  I kept wanting to blame specific players.  I kept wanting to blame Josh McDaniels.  But I kept coming back to momentum.

This is not to say that during the first part of the game, there wasn’t blame to go around.  You can find plenty.  In fact, let’s dole some out right now:

1) DJ Williams.  He bit on a play fake, and before he realized what was happening, Zach Miller was 15 yards behind him for an easy touchdown.
2) Kyle Orton.  He did nothing but stare down his receiver at the sticks in zone coverage.  In zone coverage, cornerbacks read the quarterback’s eyes.  The result was a quick pick-six.
3) Josh McDaniels.  He came out with a Tebow package reverse call when what the Broncos needed to do was calm down and establish the running game.  The result was a strange play for 1 yard and a fumble.
4) Demaryius Thomas.  He was the committer of said fumble.

So there you have it, four fingers deserving of blame—right off the bat.  However, since I’ve got a thumb too, I’d like to discuss momentum, and how it contributed to this loss.

Does Momentum Exist?

First, I should point out that the concept of momentum is really not up for debate—scientifically speaking.  There have been plenty of papers written on the subject, and generally, there is agreement from the statisticians that momentum and streakiness do not exist from a numbers point of view.  Wayne Winston, in his excellent book Mathletics devotes an entire chapter—full of statistical models—to disproving momentum.  The Wall Street Journal also dismissed the notion in this article from 2007.  Thus, as a stats guy, I shouldn’t even mention momentum.

But as a former athlete, my experience tells me differently.  When a few things don’t go your way, it snowballs in your head.  Once it’s in your head, it travels to your limbs.  And you tense up.  In baseball, pitchers talk often—more often than you might realize—about not “getting into your own dome.”  Momentum changes not only open the door to the chambers of one’s own mind, they knock down the doors with an axe.  As sports psychologist Patrick Cohn says, from this USA Today article:

“You stop playing the game you played to be in that position. And the moment you switch to trying not to screw up, you go from a very offensive mind-set to a very defensive mind-set. If you’re focusing too much on the outcome, it’s difficult to play freely. And now they’re worried more about the consequences and what’s going to happen than what they need to do right now.”

Momentum and the Broncos

I believe this is essentially what happened to the Broncos after the Demaryius Thomas fumble—possibly even a possession earlier.  In an effort not to continue the deluge, the entire team switched their mindset.  After all, within a matter of 6 minutes and two seconds, they were down 21 points.  Game plan?  They hardly had time to execute one.  This is what I saw on tape:

1) The body language from the defense changed from aggressive to sluggish, and the Raiders were easily able to score to make it 21-0.
2) Josh McDaniels looked shell-shocked on the sidelines.
3) On 3rd- and 4th down in the subsequent drive, a lack of mental execution.

Nick Miller, wide receiver for the Raiders, put it this way:

“I wouldn’t say they stopped playing, but you know they had that feeling of ‘Oh, wow, how do we get this over with?’ “

Tommie Kelly wasn’t nearly as subtle:

“In the first quarter, they didn’t want no more. For real…I saw it in their eyes. I’ve been on the other side, so trust me, I know what it looks like. They didn’t know what was going on. And they didn’t recover.”

But aren’t these professionals?  Aren’t they supposed to be immune to this sort of thing?  Isn’t Josh McDaniels’ leadership supposed to stop the flood?

Yes, yes, and yes.  Momentum is not an excuse for yesterday’s letdown.  Heads should roll if the Broncos use this as a springboard to a 4-12 or a 5-11 season.

But, psychologically, momentum is hard to overcome—even for professionals.  It’s only human, after all, to stare into the abyss in disbelief as the worst team of the last decade drops three touchdowns on you faster than a blitzkrieg.  Raiders fans can’t even perform a low-jack outside of the Coliseum this fast.   

Does momentum exist?  I can’t prove it.  But it sure as hell felt like it yesterday.

If you like to see The Dude slack off 24/7, you can always find him on Facebook and Twitter. Or you can email him at: tjthedudejohnson@gmail.com.  He assumes you are following It’s All Over, Fat Man! on Facebook and Twitter, but if you are not, that’s nihilistic.

I’m glad we had this talk.  Now, vaya con Dios, Brah.

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Second Helpings