The lesson is that it’s better to start on defense when you know you’re going to get to take your shot. And the lesson is applicable well beyond the NFL’s new overtime rules.

As most of you know, the San Francisco 49ers’ won the toss at the beginning of overtime in last night’s Superbowl. They scored a field goal. Then the Kansas City Chiefs scored a touchdown to win.

Here’s the issue. There are four possible outcomes for the first team to play offense in overtime:

  1. They score a touchdown. They could win at the end of the other team’s possession (unless they kick for one extra point and the other team makes a two-point conversion)
  2. They score a field goal. They could win or lose.
  3. They don’t score. They could lose and can’t win.
  4. The other team scores a defensive touchdown or safety. They lose.

Then, when the other team takes over on offense, most likely with as good as or better field position than the first team, they know what they have to do to win and can adjust their approach and risk tolerance to the different situations. This gives them an advantage over the first team to play offense.

We saw that last night. Apparently, 49ers coach, Kyle Shanahan, was playing for the third possession. Chief’s coach Andy Reid knew his team had to score when they got the ball. He knew he was never going to punt. Every series was four downs. And it mattered. And he knew a touchdown would win and a field goal would restart the same process.

Application beyond the NFL

Let’s look to the Marines’ MDCP 1 Warfighting for some definitions. It defines:

Offense as taking the initiative. This is generally the preferred approach as you can dictate terms.

Defense as a response with a negative aim: blocking or counterattacking to seize the initiative.

Original 49ers

The original 49ers came to California during the 1849 gold rush. They were on offense. Some made spectacular fortunes. Some lost everything.

Others played defense first. They waited for the 49ers to come to them and then supplied them with the tools and clothing they’d need for their work. This had a steadier, more predictable risk/reward tradeoff but created real value. Witness one guy named Levi Strauss who created heavy cotton trousers that could stand up to the work – blue jeans.


In most negotiations, you’re better off responding than initiating. If you let the others give their terms first you can react by accepting if their terms are better than what you had in mind or countering with your terms. It takes out the risk of your starting either too high or too low.

Puritan/Wesson Oil

Puritan Cooking Oil’s main competitor, Wesson Oil, ran a print advertisement with some false claims.

The Puritan team did nothing.

They waited for Wesson to pay to produce a TV ad with the same message. As soon as it aired once, Puritan challenged the claims (and won.)

This set Wesson back a few months and made them waste all their production money.

Over the next two years, Puritan grew +50%.


As described in more detail in an earlier article, when Sorrento Cheese moved to expand nationally, Pollio waited until Sorrento had paid the slotting fees required for a national expansion, dropped a national coupon and launched its national advertising.

Then Pollio pulled all its advertising and promotional spending from every market except New York and redeployed all their resources into New York – Pollio’s main market and Sorrento’s most profitable market.

Within a couple of weeks, Pollio had gained 10 share points in New York and Sorrento had lost 10 share points. This cut out all of Sorrento’s profitability, causing them to cancel all their national advertising and promotion.

But only sometimes

The marines are right, it’s better to be on offense and take the initiative. Certainly, in a sudden-death playoff, you want to take the first shot. But sometimes, like last night’s Superbowl, negotiating, Puritan or Pollio there’s an advantage to responding first before you take the initiative.

The main point is that you should be deliberate about when you choose to go on offense first and when it’s better to start on defense to set up a better counter-attack.