THE RISK OF RED-LINING: ARMY-NAVY 2013
Tennis analysts could tell you all about something called “red-lining,” which is exactly what Army must do this Saturday in Philadelphia against Navy.
When a talented but inconsistent tennis player faces one of the heavyweights in the sport – a female player staring at Serena Williams on the other side of the net, or a male player confronting Rafael Nadal – it quickly becomes apparent that the underdog must make one of two choices: Die a slow and certain death, or try to win and risk a quick death in the process. It’s this latter option which, if taken, describes red-lining, the practice of implementing a high-risk, high-reward strategy in order to take a sporting competition outside its normal parameters.
Percentage-based competition flies out the window in a red-lined world. This approach does not try to make sport an endurance contest or a test of wills. Red-lining tennis players go for extreme winners and severe angles as soon as they get a chance to hit a short ball or any ball they feel they can crush to quickly end a point. Serena and Nadal are too strong, too fast, too good to be dominated in extended rallies. They’re going to win endurance contests and wars of attrition. The wisdom of red-lining is found in the realization that elite athletes don’t wear down in extended competitions – they’re used to pulling through, finding solutions, and sorting things out. If you’re going to pull off an upset as a clear and decided underdog, you’re generally going to have to cast percentages aside and take all sorts of risks, trusting in your ability to execute at a very high level on enough occasions to win. You don’t have to strike gold on every risk you take, but you do need to be almost perfect in the situations that demand excellence. In tennis, that red-lining strategy has to be able to hold up on break points (for or against), when the pressure of the moment reaches a higher level. Nerves, focus, confidence, clarity – these competing elements must be harnessed so that an athlete can attain mastery when it’s needed the most.
Take everything that’s been said about tennis players and apply it to the province of pigskin for the Army Black Knights. They’re the focus of the 114th meeting with the Navy Midshipmen, because it’s up to them to – as Don Draper of Mad Men would say – “change the conversation.” It’s up to Rich Ellerson, the coach who has felt the heat in West Point this season, to come up with a line of attack that can confuse Navy on both sides of the ball. It’s up to Army’s players and coaches to not merely deliver a great effort, but a high-risk one at that.
Let’s underscore this point: Conventional tactics aren’t likely to work against Navy and Ken Niumatalolo; they haven’t for the past 11 seasons. The Black Knights, having given Hawaii its first and only win of the 2013 season, look ripe for the picking in the face of Navy’s surging offense. Yes, Navy might be rusty and bereft of momentum after having to cool its jets for three weeks. Then again, the Midshipmen were exhausted after their win in San Jose (against the San Jose State Spartans) on Nov. 22. The Men of Ken needed a break, and should be able to shrug off any first-quarter rust that might accumulate in this game. Army will need to be better than Navy for 60 minutes, not just the first 15, in order to prevail. (We’ve seen Army control first quarters against Navy the past decade and not come away with enough to show for it.)
If Army faces a fourth and two at its own 45-yard line on the first drive of the game, the percentages will tell Ellerson to punt and play defense. Against a weaker opponent or in a less significant regular season game, a punt would be recommended.
Not in this game. Not on this day. Army and Ellerson must learn to embrace the practice of red-lining.
It is true on many occasions that coaches and teams can take risks because they know they can trust their offense. In this case, the chain of logic is flip-flopped for Army: The Black Knights must take risks in order to BUILD TRUST in their offense. Great offenses take risks because they know they can handle the heat and get the job done. Offenses that are likely to fight uphill must conquer their fears and slay their big-moment demons in order to eventually become better and more productive. Ellerson’s decisions on Saturday need to give Army every possible chance of keeping the ball, so that Keenan Reynolds doesn’t get his mitts on the pigskin for more than 20 or 22 minutes.
There’s a reason why high-risk strategies don’t work: Percentages usually win out. However, one game – one day – doesn’t have to fit the usual pattern. Elite tennis players and other top athletes become great because they learn to take an opponent’s best shot and find ways to outlast that stretch of time in which the underdog makes every improbable play. When a tennis player red-lines, he or she might only be able to do so for 10 or 15 minutes, not a full match. As soon as the high-risk shots start to miss, the heavyweight then takes over. This is usually how competitions flow in sports.
But what if the underdog doesn’t stop missing? What if the shots keep going in? What if the level of confidence builds as the competition continues, instead of ebbing away?
This is what Army is pursuing on Saturday. This is the mindset the Black Knights have to have against the clearly superior Midshipmen. Is Rich Ellerson willing to trust his offense in a supreme game of “keep-away”? We’ll get our answer at kickoff time in the City of Brotherly Love.