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In the NFL, momentum is a myth, but confidence is real

Fans watching a game and broadcasters in the booth call it momentum, but as NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz explains, it’s something entirely different for the players on the field.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Kansas City Chiefs Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

During the flow of a game, or a season, people often talk about momentum shifting positively or negatively. It can happen rather quickly. A team is struggling, a play happens, and boom, different team. But that’s confidence at play, not momentum.

I’ve never thought to myself on the field “well, here comes the momentum.” NFLers are a confident bunch. We wouldn’t have made it this far without knowing we’re great and extremely talented. But that confidence can waver in the face of adversity. It’s human nature. Offense, defense, and special teams can struggle individually or collectively.

We can look at confidence in a macro way. If the Panthers make the field goal against the Broncos week 1, their season would be different. They would have gone into Denver and exorcised their Super Bowl demons. However, they lost the game and have looked like a shell of the team from 2015.

I want to look at confidence on a micro level. Small plays or series in a game that move the needle for teams.

When you’re struggling as a unit during the game and you’re sitting on the bench steaming over the lack of production, you’re hoping your teammates can give you an opening, a spark, to get back on the field and make things happen.

“Defense, just make a stop, we can do it.”

“We just need the ball back and we got this.”

A turnover is an excellent way for confidence on the whole team to jump.

An example from Week 7 is the Giants-Rams game in London. The Giants are down 10-3, the Rams have moved the ball at will. Case Keenum throws a pass over the middle. It’s tipped and Landon Collins has an incredible run to the end zone. This play sparked the entire Giants team, but mostly the defense. The offense is still feeling the sting of struggle until they get back on the field.

Here’s the best example from last week of a small play, a drop, that changed the entire tone of the game.

The Kansas City Chiefs are at home, playing the worst defense in the league. Entering the game, the Saints had allowed an average of more than 33 points a game. There’s an argument to make the Saints should have won the game without costly and stupid mistakes.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs are up 24-14 and they are marching down the field. The Saints offense is sitting on the sidelines hoping to get another chance to score points, but probably has zero confidence the defense will get that stop.

It’s third-and-6, at the Saints 39-yard line with 12:53 left in the game. The Chiefs have a bunch to the top and one tight end detached at the bottom of the formation. The Saints are in man coverage.

This is perfect for the Chiefs. They release the back to the boundary, and it draws the man coverage linebacker to create a good throwing window. The tight end, Demetrius Harris, is running a quick slant. It’s a staple of the West Coast offense. He can use his big body to shield himself from the defender to make the catch. It’s set up perfectly, but Harris drops the ball.

This drop might not seem like a big deal at first. However, it’s just the tiny window the Saints need to get their best unit, the offense, back on the field.

After a Chiefs punt, the Saints start at their own 33 and promptly march down the field. They’re going to score until Mark Ingram fumbles at the 1-yard line. Chiefs get it back, gain just 18 yards, punt again.

The Saints offense, full of confidence that they can move the ball and score, go 80 yards for a touchdown in three minutes. They’re behind 24-21. They fail to recover the onside kick and the Chiefs end up taking the game, 27-21. Since that third-down drop, the Saints offense outgained the chiefs 176 yards to 42.

Confidence is the most important mental factor in the ability of a NFL player. If you believe you can do it, if you believe you are good, then you will play well. But in the face of adversity, you must overcome that dip in your confidence so you can find a way to make plays and win games. And it’s often the little stuff that make the biggest difference.