There are a lot of cliches out there and the world of sports has more than its share. That said, there are times when an idea, no matter how time worn, rings true. Beyond that, there are times when this idea is more appropriate, more “true” than at others.
One such concept in heavy rotation in New England of late is “One at a time”.
With the Red Sox down 3-0 to the hated Yankees in the ALCS in 2004, they couldn’t worry about winning four games to win the series. There is no swing of the bat, no pitch, no throw from the outfield, no double-play turned that would dig them out of that hole. They could only take care of the game in front of them. This batter. This at-bat. This pitch. This swing. This catch. This throw. Slowly but surely, small successes built, transferring the psychological pressure from the trailing team that needs to succeed to the front-runner now charged with not failing.
The Patriots have been dealing with this kind of pressure all season. Reporters started asking the question about running the table after the second week of the season. The second week? Before the NFL expanded the regular season from 14 to 16 games, what is now Week Two would have been the final preseason contest. And yet, the idea was out there and needed to be dealt with. The only way to handle it is to take one game at a time - and Belichick and the players have beaten that drum all season. You can’t go 16-0, or 19-0 all at once. You can only go 1-0 in a given game and then, with preparation, skill and luck, do it again.
In a sense, appreciating that kind of streak is like figuring the odds on the results of flipping a coin. If you asked someone to contemplate the odds of getting “heads” 19 times in a row, it would seem overwhelming. (If you asked a stats geek, they would say 2^19, assuming a fair coin.) But if you look at each coin as its own flip, the odds after 18 successful flips are the same as each of the others. 50-50.
The same basic concept applies to moving a brick wall, eating an elephant or taking a journey of a thousand miles. One brick at a time. One bite at a time. One step at a time.
Which brings us to this year’s Terriers.
Their early season results put them in an unfamiliar position. Normally a resident of the nation’s Top Teams polls, the Terriers dropped from sight – not even among those receiving votes. To be fair, their early play didn’t warrant inclusion.
Add in the prospect of players missing games due to injuries, to suspension and to international play and things looked bleak. It would have been easy for players, coaches and fans to write off the season and start thinking about next year.
As I’m not in the locker room, I can’t speak for the players or coaches, and I won’t presume to speak for other fans. For me, at some point, I made the choice to handle the situation the best way I knew how - one game at a time.
So instead of my normal preoccupation with relative ranking and post-season positioning, with PWR and TUC and RPI (I’ve been known to calculate projected RPI manually based on hypothetical outcomes late in the season), I simply watch the game in front of me and appreciate it for its own merit. Then I let it go.
I don’t care what other leagues are doing, because it has no bearing on saving the next shot. I don’t know who next week’s opponent is because it doesn’t finish checking that puck-carrier into the boards. I don’t know what other games are going on in the league because it doesn’t put the puck in our opponent’s net. I don’t dwell on the fact that we went winless in our first five games and I don’t get too excited that we’re unbeaten in our last five league games. Win, lose or draw, there’s no point in “coulda-woulda-shoulda”.
I enjoy the simple things again - the things that don’t show up in the box score. Seeing third line players come off the bench with a purpose is appreciated as much as the first line burying a one-timer from the other side of the crease. Watching a defender tap the puck from an onrushing forward and take the body at the same time is as satisfying as a solid save with the rebound directed to the corner.
Since my change in perspective, I’ve also been rewarded by a team that seems to have adopted the same viewpoint. Maybe it’s my own bias, but they seem to be taking care of the little things with more focus, and better results, than earlier in the season.
So from now until the last whistle blows and the team clears out their lockers, whenever that might be.
One game at a time. One period at a time. One shift at a time. One check at a time. One shot at a time. One save at a time. One goal at a time. Hopefully, one win at a time.
Then on to the next game to do it again.