Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Random Thought: The 1994 San Francisco 49ers

The NFL Network is running this great documentary series of the top 20 Super Bowl teams called America's Game. I'm a huge NFL nut, so this has been great viewing for me, mostly while on the treadmill (I'm multi-tasker, what can I say). I still have a few to catch up on off my Tivo, but my favorite so far has been #17 on that list, the 1994 San Francisco 49ers.

I started my IT career in the Bay Area in June of 1993. Prior to that, I had never left Southern California for more than 7 days in my whole life and was conditioned to dislike all NoCal teams as a result of the various sports rivalries. The America's Game episode on that 1994 49er team starts at about this same time. Legend Joe Montana was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs that off season, leaving Steve Young as the starting quarterback trying to make fans forget the guy who led the team to 4 Super Bowls. At the time, because I wasn't a huge fan of the team and didn't have an allegiance to either guy, I felt like I had a less biased opinion of the situation than the people around me in Silicon Valley. It was odd to me that they hated their own quarterback so much despite the fact he already had a league MVP trophy. Because of all that, I felt like I had some insight to this particular team on the countdown.

The best part about the episode is Steve Young's surprising candor and passion. He tackles "the Joe topic" head on in the interview portions of the show that are inter cut with highlights of that season (and voiced over by Bruce Willis). I remember pretty vividly how the local media reacted to Joe being shown the door and their immense dislike of Young as a statistical machine who couldn't win the big one (very similar to how Peyton Manning is portrayed nationally, we'll see how things play out tomorrow, though). In hindsight, Young goes into detail about how he understood the criticism and the comparisons. The 49ers had lost two straight NFC Championship games to the Dallas Cowboys under Young's leadership, so the pressure was really on for that 1994 team, especially given the defense they assembled that year through the new free agency system that still exists in the NFL today.

Early in the season, the 49ers won a couple of games but were being blown out at home by the Philadelphia Eagles. In the middle of an offensive series, head coach George Seifert pulled Young from the game to save him from injury. That act would change their whole season in unanticipated ways.

Young explains in detail that, to him, it was as if Seifert were pointing the finger directly at him and saying, "You, you're the reason we're losing." While that was not Seifert's intent, it is an important lesson in perception. Seifert really was trying to save his star from injury, but the way he chose to do it embarrassed Young.

Fortunately for Seifert, this provided an inadvertent spark. Young became livid on the sideline after being benched, which can be clearly seen from the footage of the game. In his interview segment, Young explained that he was fired up so much he was looking for a fistfight. He was humiliated to the point where he wanted to punch his boss and didn't care if anybody knew about it. It was a side to Youngs competitiveness that his teammates had never seen before and after that incident, they followed him with a dedication they hadn't before.

Young says that at first, that puzzled and irritated him that it took something like that for his teammates to believe in him. But, he said he realized that perception is reality and before he showed them that side to him, the perception was that he wasn't fierce enough to come through when it counted. Once he showed them that, they supported him enthusiastically throughout the rest of the season. That 49er team went on to win the Super Bowl, in which Steve Young broke Joe Montana's Super Bowl record for TD passes in a single game and was named MVP.

There are two important lessons from this documentary. Seifert failed to realize how his actions would be taken by his star player in that game against the Eagles. He didn't appreciate what it would be like to be Steve Young and be benched in that situation and because he didn't think that through, their relationship suffered. This can happen to you and has happened to me.

George got lucky, though, because his mistake helped Young's leadership grow. The other lesson is exactly what Young said, perception is reality. It doesn't matter how you really are, it matters how people perceive you. Unless you give them data that suggests that perception is wrong, it won't change and others actions towards you won't change either. Think about that when it is time for your performance evaluation.

Incidentally, although the panel that came up with these rankings forgot more about football while you read this than I'll ever know, I find it criminal that the 1972 Miami Dolphins and not the 1985 Chicago Bears were named the #1 team in this countdown. That Dolphin team went undefeated, but had the easiest schedule of any team that has ever appeared in a Super Bowl. That Bear team struck fear in the hearts of their opponents. They lost only 1 game that year, a late season Monday Night Football loss at Miami with every member of the 1972 team in attendance. That 1985 Dolphin team would go onto the AFC Championship game, so they were no slouch, and playing at home in a nationally televised game with franchise pride on the line. Needless to say, that loss is forgivable to that '85 Bears team.

And I'm a New Orleans Saints fan saying that (my wife grew up in Leesville, Louisiana) whose still bitter over the recent NFC Championship game.


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posted by Pete Johnson @ 7:14 PM   2 comments


At 8:36 PM, Blogger Elton said...

I just wanted to stop by and thank you for your comment. It was probably the most insightful comment I've ever received!

Is it just me, or is it curious that Java is perceived as so much more secure than PHP? Granted, Java goes to great lengths to make sure you can't get away with stupid stuff like going out of an array's bounds, but I can't help but wonder why it is that there are more popular hacks for PHP than for Java? Hackers tend to flock to the most popular technologies, and I always thought that Java was bigger than PHP.

I joined up with a web team that's building a site from the bottom up in Ruby, should be fun (I hope!).

At 9:44 PM, Blogger Pete Johnson said...

Hey Elton, thanks for the very kind words. I hope Super Bowl Sunday treated you well in Austin. I'm not sure if you'll see this here or not, so I'll post a reference to this back at your blog. For anybody else reading this, see Elton's recent entry that includes a PHP vs Java vs Ruby snippet.

You could probably find plenty of people to passionately debate the security issue of PHP on Slashdot or any number of other places, but to me it comes down to how they chose to build in the dynamic loading structures into PHP. Java took great care in what you do with the classloader, but in PHP things are a bit looser and easier to hack as a result.

You are correct, though, hackers tend to flock to the most popular technologies. They also tend to flock to technologies that are easy to hack (see: any Windows operating system ever).

I'd be interested to hear your experiences with Ruby. Drop me an email when you have something to tell and I hope you become a regular watcher of my space here.



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