Creativity and the Superbowl

Will we see creativity on the field in tomorrow night’s Superbowl football game, between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens?

In one sense, of course there will be creativity–after all, no one knows what the outcome of the game will be. If coaches choose predictable plays, then the other team can anticipate them; you can’t win without being surprising and unpredictable. In every play, each player responds with movements that are highly attuned to the moves of the opposing players. In that sense, each play is a form of collective improvisation–highly constrained, of course, but still it’s improvised and creative.

In Friday’s Wall Street Journal,* Matthew Futterman argues that players have been taking more and more responsibility for game management from the coaches. As a result, we see “a more wide-open, improvisational game” because “the role of an NFL player is shifting at the team level.” And Futterman says:

The NFL is shifting from a league where coaches dictate most of the action, to one of constant improvisation, where even rookies, such as Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, are taking on an unprecedented level of responsibility for managing games.

NFL football is following the rest of the U.S. economy in moving towards collaboration and improvisation. This is a historic shift, one that I describe in my 2007 book Group Genius. In my book, I argue that basketball is the U.S. sport where improvisation is most important. And it’s great that football is becoming more collaborative and more improvisational; it’s one of the reasons I’m enjoying football so much more in recent years.

When you watch the game Sunday night, look for the small improvisations on the field, the ones that happen in every play, the ones that the announcers never comment on–because they’re just a standard part of the game. Look for the quarterback and the receivers to change their routes in response to the defensive moves. Look for a surprising play call, one that surprises even the announcers. Look for creativity!

*Matthew Futterman, “Power shifts to the players.” Wall Street Journal, Friday Feb 1. 2013, p. D4.