The game was almost over, and Tom Brady's team was up by 17. Conventional wisdom said this would be the time to run out the clock.

Instead, Brady kept throwing the ball. The reason why is eye-opening--and it contains a key lesson on how to motivate and inspire teams to achieve your goals.

I know people have strong feelings about Brady. It's part of why I've written so much about him over the years, including my 87-page e-book (free): Tom Brady Always Wins: 10 Success Lessons From the GOAT.

Because even if you're not a Brady fan--even if you don't care about football--the last-minute lesson from his most recent game is worth paying attention to.

Here's the background. Brady joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season, after 20 years with the New England Patriots, during which he won six Super Bowls.

The big looming question all season has been whether Brady was so successful because he was with the Patriots, or if the Patriots were so successful because they had Brady.

So far, he's done very well. The Buccaneers have their first playoff game in 13 years coming up on Saturday, against the Washington Football Team--while Brady's former teammates on the Patriots will be watching on television.

It was last week, however, in the waning moments of their final regular season game against the Atlanta Falcons, that Brady's play calling for the Buccaneers looked kind of odd--at least, until you realize why he was doing it.

In short, it all had to do with contracts, incentives, and objectives, as Luke Easterling of USA Today Sports explained. 

It was largely about Brady's teammate, wide receiver Antonio Brown, whom Brady eagerly recruited to the Buccaneers this year, and who Brady knew stood to make a $250,000 bonus under his contract if he had 45 receptions for the season.

Coming into the game, Brown had 34 catches, but Brady threw to him for eight completions during the main part of the game -- which still left him three short of 45.

So, in those last few minutes -- two minutes of garbage time at the end of a game, when common sense said keep the ball on the ground and run out the clock, so you can secure the win -- Brady did the opposite: three short, meaningless passes to Brown, so he could get the bonus.

  • 2:14 to go. Brady throws a three-yard pass to Brown.
  • 2:05 to go. Brady throws to Brown again: six yards.
  • 2:01 to go. Brady throws another two-yard pass to Brown.

Then, with the statistical milestone secured, Brady kneeled on the next three plays, running out the clock and ending the game.

There was something financially in it for Brady, too, although maybe not quite as definitive. Brady entered the game as the fifth-rated passing quarterback in the NFL, and if he stayed in fifth place or above for the season, he'd pull in another $562,000 bonus for himself.

So each short, easy pass to Brown also padded Brady's stats. In the end, it worked. The Buccaneers won the game. Brady and Brown hit their numbers, and everyone got paid.

However, I'm not so sure it's a quite the outcome you'd want, if you look at this from a business standpoint, or if you're otherwise trying to motivate people to achieve a goal.

Let's put it this way. If you own a football team, or you play professional football, your key goal should always be to win football games. It shouldn't be to run up statistics -- numbers that might indicate players performed well, but that can also be manipulated.

Imagine you run a telemarketing company, and you pay people by the number of calls they make, rather than how many products they sell. You'd be encouraging them to spend hours on the calls, but not necessarily to pursue profitable sales. 

Or imagine a boss who judges employees by how many hours they sit at their desks or in front of their computers, as opposed to how much value they create for the company.

It's easy to become a slave to metrics, rather than making metrics work for you.

Now, I'm not advocating that you shouldn't have incentives for employees, or that the Buccaneers shouldn't have built those targets into Brown's and Brady's contracts.

They can make sense. They're quantifiable and measurable. And by looking out for his teammate, Brady showed leadership and loyalty that pays dividends in other ways.

The problem is when tactical metrics substitute for your true, strategic goals. Not to take the metaphor too far--but the big lesson is to keep both your eye and your team's eyes on the ball.

And, hopefully, motivate them to rack up the kinds of wins that truly matter.