Innovation vs. fear on the fifty-yard line.

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Today, Bear and Evan over at Orange Yeti (Orange Coat's blog) point us to a Slate piece by Josh Levin on the difference in style between College football and the NFL...

... Or should I say smart, innovative, nimble companies and their conservative corporate counterparts?

"Not only are college coaches more imaginative than their pro counterparts, they're also less defensive. Fake punts and fourth-down conversion attempts, acceptable gambles in the college game, are considered needlessly chancy by the majority of NFL coaches."

Okay... I know. At first glance, that seems a bit harsh if you transpose it to the business world, and a little short-sighted given a notable minority of very large companies who have learned to think and act like mavericks again. So don't take any of this as absolutism. It isn't.

That being said, the parallels between non-corporate and traditional corporate cultures as a whole are hard to miss, and looking at them from this perspective might teach us a thing or two.

Here are my favorite parts:

"College football's distinctive offenses have arisen partly out of necessity. Since talent is distributed much less evenly in college than in the NFL, many coaches at lower-tier programs come up with novel schemes in order to compete with better-stocked opponents. In college football, innovation filters upward—smart, successful coaches at smaller schools (like one-time Bowling Green head man Urban Meyer) get promoted up the chain and bring their schemes to the sport's top programs. The college football rulebook also helps foster creativity. The wider hash marks in NCAA football—which give speedy runners like West Virginia's Steve Slaton additional acreage to outflank defenders laterally—encourage coaches to conjure impressive-looking, run-oriented schemes that wouldn't work in the NFL.

"The relative predominance of imaginative play-calling in the NCAA, though, says less about college football than it does about the culture of the NFL. A pro-football coach's first instinct is self-preservation. NFL head-coaching jobs are such a rare commodity that it's foolish to fritter one away by trying something different. Besides, if a coach resorts to too much trickery, isn't he admitting he's not good enough to take on his opponents straight up?

"One would think that the economics of the NFL would argue strongly for innovation by bad teams. The Titans present one such case study—the upside gains of deploying a nontraditional quarterback like Vince Young are so enormous that it's worth the risk that he won't hack it. It's far more common, though, that NFL teams try to mold a unique talent like Young or the Falcons' Michael Vick into conventional quarterbacks—or, in the case of a guy like Tommie Frazier, not give him a chance at all. The social forces of the NFL, it seems, can be stronger than the economic ones.

"(...) In a recent piece in ESPN the Magazine, Michael Lewis argues that NFL coaches' seemingly irrational fear of going for fourth-down conversions has to do with self-preservation. "Go for it on fourth down more often than any other coach, and you not only set yourself apart from your peers, but you call into question their intelligence," Lewis writes. "If your decision doesn't pay off—if you go for it routinely and your team fails—you'll stand accused of malpractice." By doing the same thing as every other guy with a clipboard, NFL coaches inoculate themselves from criticism."
See? Told ya.

Have a great weekend, everyone. :)

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