When considering the upcoming season, some central principles from developmental psychology can be used to provide insight into how the season may unfold. This post is intended to serve as an introduction to some of these theories and principles as they apply to the Cardinals in the 2012 and upcoming 2013 season. So, what does developmental psychology have to say about the 2012 vs. the 2013 Arizona Cardinals?
To begin, lets' consider the processes that developmental psychologists say contribute to long-term outcomes, in this case an NFL season. These processes can be broadly grouped into those concerning the environment (e.g., opponents on the team's schedule), the team (e.g., quality of players at each position), and the team's collective actions (e.g., cohesiveness, work ethic, confidence, and play on the field). What's more, these processes are interrelated with one another, meaning as one factor changes it causes changes in the other factors.
To illustrate how this framework can help us understand the 2012 season and possibly predict the 2013 season, lets briefly consider two of the most influential games of the 2012 season, week 1 vs the Seahawks and week 6 against the Bills. As many fans remember, the 2012 season started off big time with the team riding the red wave to a 4-0 start. Although the birth of this streak can arguably be traced to the end of the 2011 season, let us revisit game 1 of the 2012 season. This pivotal game started the hope and optimism that would culminate in a delightfully unexpected 4 and 0 start.
As we examine the Cardinals 2012 season opener, lets apply some developmental psychology principles in particular the three broad factors we outlined earlier (environment, team, and team's collective actions) and see if we can gain some information about how these factors relate to the game's outcome. First, considering the environment, two factors are particularly relevant, the opponent and where the game is being played. The Cardinals were hosting the the visiting Seahawks in week 1 of the 2012 season. Being at home against an ultimately good, but at the time still-developing team provided the Cardinals with a slightly favorable environment for their week 1 clash against the rival Seahawks.
However, remember that nothing exists in isolation, so let us now turn to the second factor, the team itself. As would become increasingly apparent through the season, the team's talent base was heavily tilted toward the defensive side of the ball. Remember D'Anthony Batiste, the 30+ year old journeyman with 4 career starts (at guard) prior to opening the season at left tackle? Probably nothing further needs to be said about the talent level on the offensive side of the ball, but add in Bobby Massie on the other side of the line making his first career start protecting John Skelton at QB, and from a talent perspective the offense clearly had limited chances to make a positive impact on the game. On the defensive side of things, dominance was beginning to emerge with an elite player at each level of the defense. Although many factors go into determining a team's talent and the environmental conditions of any given game, thankfully, Vegas provides an easy way to boil everything down into a single number, the spread. In week 1, the Cardinals were slight underdogs, paying out $1.21 to every dollar bet on them to win the game (+121). Thus the game conditions expected the Cardinals to lose a close game.
Now, that we have briefly discussed the environment and team going into game 1 of the 2012 season, lets discuss the game itself, with attention to these factors, and in particular how they related with the team's collective actions to determine the game's outcome. To do this, it is helpful to briefly consider the concept of person-environment fit, or the mesh between individuals (or team) and their surroundings. This can most readily be applied to a game situation as the fit between a team's strengths (and the opposing team's weaknesses) and the game-plan or system implemented by the coaching staff. First, on the defensive side of the ball, Ray Horton had accumulated a year on the job, through which he was able to greatly increase the cohesiveness between the complex "LeBeau" system he brought over from the Steelers and the players he had to work. Famously proclaming that the Cardinals would blitz on the first play of the 2012 season, Horton brought the pressure, implementing a system that fit his players well and allowed the defense as a whole to dominate for most of the game. On the offensive side of the ball, Arizona's infamous post-Warner search for a QB may be more of a reflection of Whisenhunt's inability to completely abandon the offensive system that Warner ran to near perfection during the Cardinals recent, but bitterly distant, glory days. In short, Whisenhunt's inflexibility corrupted the goodness-of-fit between his 2012 opening day starter (John Skelton) and the game plan Skelton was entrusted with executing. This mismatch predictably resulted in the Cardinals inability to sustain any kind of offensive momentum... until Skelton went down. In came Kolb, who for all his negatives, probably fit the system a bit better than Skelton did. In addition, Kolb had an additional motivation, or in other words came into the game with a chip on his shoulder. Kolb wasted no time and near flawlessly executed the pass-heavy game plan allowing the Cardinals offense to score enough points to hold off the Seahawks and claim victory.
Now, lets turn to what was perhaps the watershed game of the Cardinals 2012 campaign, week 6 at home against the Bills. Again, a quick and dirty number we can use to determine the environmental and team conditions going into the game is the spread. In week 7, the spread for the Cardinals to win the game was -244, meaning the Cardinals were heavy favorites to beat the visiting Bills. However, the game conditions only frame the battlefield; it is the team's collective actions that determine the outcome. Again lets apply psychological principles to help us understand how this game unfolded, but this time let us consider processes involved with a team's collective motivation and mindset.
Entering their week 7 home game, the Cardinals were 4-1, coming off a bye after their season opening unbeaten streak ended at the hands of the Rams. Despite the disappointing loss to the Rams two weeks prior, the team mindset was positive, and most of all confident that they could win any game they stepped onto the field to play. This winning attitude had developed through experience, notably the experience of winning 11 of their past 13 games, most of which came in close and low scoring contests that they found a way to win in the end. From a motivational perspective confidence is translated into an individual's (or in this case team's) belief that their actions will allow them to control and determine the outcome of the game.
An enhanced perception of being able to control the outcome of a desired goal (e.g., win the game) strongly reinforces the effort individuals devote to attaining the desired goal. However, it can backfire, producing the "playing-down-to-your-competition" phenomenon seen over and over again in professional sports. In effect what happens is teams become too confident in their ability to control the outcome of the game which in turn perpetuates a perception that sustained effort is not needed to win; instead the team's superior ability in combination with turning the effort on at the right time (e.g., when the games on the line) is perceived as enough to win the game. Thus, as happened with the Cardinals in this game, the team coasted through most of the game, not bringing or sustaining the effort required to take control of the game. When the team began to turn things around in the 4th quarter, Kolb went down and in came Skelton. All hope appeared lost, but Skelton somehow managed to find Fitz across the middle on 4th and 11 to setup Feely who miraculously tied the game from 61 yards out. Confidence quickly spiked as the Cardinals managed to get the ball back and setup Feely for a game winning chip shot. It appeared as though the Cardinals were going to find a way to win again, but Feely missed. Skelton, who despite completing two big throws at the end of regulation to setup Feely for his field goal attempts, never looked comfortable. Things continued to unravel for Skelton in overtime, culminating in his ill-fated interception that setup the game winning field goal for the Bills. The Cardinals won 1 game the remainder of the 2012 season.
Despite being watershed games of the 2012 season, what is also interesting about these two games is that the environmental and team conditions predicted outcomes that ended up being incorrect. As every one who bets knows, the favorite doesn't always win. Indeed, what is highlighted here is the role that the team's collective actions play in determining the outcome of a game. As these collective actions produce outcomes, a team's mindset and motivation change. The dynamic and continually developing nature of these factors (environment, team, and team's collective actions) are what determines a team's ultimate fate in any given season.
After illustrating how psychological principles can be applied to two pivotal games in the Cardinals 2012 season, lets briefly discuss some things that may influence their 2013 season. In short, what does developmental psychology have to say about the 2013 Cardinals? To begin, lets discuss the most notable change in the offseason, the coaching staff. Bruce Arians and his boys were brought in, with almost a complete change of staff. In addition, multiple roster changes occurred, culminating in the recent addition of Carson Palmer mean there will be at least 10 new opening day starters for the 2013 Cardinals. The change in staff and the change in players means a change in relationships, with the most notable being how Bruce Arians relates to his new team.
Considering relationships from a developmental psychology perspective, attachment theory provides some interesting insights into predicting how this relationship may unfold. Attachment theory grew out of trying to understand the parent-infant bond, and when applying this to Bruce Arians and the Cardinals roster, Arians takes the role of "parent" and the team's players collectively take the role of "infant." Now, by all accounts Arians is a players coach, meaning that he has an open, honest, and trusting relationship with his players. He sets high expectations, but provides the scaffolding and flexibility needed to allow his players to reach these expectations. According to attachment theory, this is a secure attachment style, and to the extent players buy into the system Arians is implementing, we can expect to see an enhanced commitment by the players and a collectively optimistic mindset regarding the team's chances for a successful 2013 campaign.
Despite the overall appealing nature of this expected team mindset, things can quickly turn if experiences leading up to and during the 2013 campaign turn out to not match expectations. Thus the question remains open as to the fate of the 2013 Cardinals, but by applying developmental psychology principles we can gain insight into the underlying processes that will ultimately lead us toward victory or regret come Sunday.