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Game Theory Cannot Rationalize Seattle’s Super Bowl Loss

A number of finance and economic writers have come out rationalizing Pete Carroll’s controversial play call in the Super Bowl which ended up being intercepted by the Patriots and leading to the loss.  The arguments all use Game Theory to argue that a pass play increased the odds of winning by increasing the randomness of the possible outcomes. In essence, you should try to fool the other coach by considering what his strategy will be. But this isn’t at all what Pete Carroll was trying to do and he knew he didn’t need to outguess the opposition.

Carroll explained his call after the game. With 26 seconds left and just 1 timeout the Seahawks did not want to waste a timeout, but also didn’t want to leave the Patriots with any time left and a chance to score. Carroll was emphatic that they would score on 3rd or 4th down with a run play. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind whether they could score. He didn’t need to outguess Bill Belichick. The numbers tell the story behind Carroll’s thinking there:

  • Seattle was 2nd in the league in converting on power situations (via Harvard Sports).
  • The Patriots were dead last in the NFL in stopping power situations (via Harvard Sports).
  • Teams in a 2nd and 1 with 26 seconds left will score 94% of the time (via Pro Football Reference).

This had nothing to do with Game Theory or trying to outguess the other coach. Pete Carroll had the New England Patriots dead in the water. He knew that there was virtually no chance that the Pats could stop one of the best offensive lines in the NFL with the best running back in the NFL.

So what got into Pete Carroll’s mind? Well, Tom Brady did. Carroll’s team had just scored at the end of the second half in a 30 second drive that led to a touchdown. Carroll wanted to use all of the clock because he knew he’d only be up by 3 points. He didn’t want to leave the ball in Tom Brady’s hands for one more drive leading to a potential game tying field goal. But this was a totally irrational thought process. The Patriots would have had less than 20 seconds to move the ball if Lynch had scored on 2nd down. And the Pats would have had to move the ball about 37 yards (assuming a touch back) to where Stephen Gostkowski would kick a 60 yard field goal (not unheard of for him, but highly improbable).  The odds of this resulting in points:

  • 0.7%.

So, what happened here was that Pete Carroll let Tom Brady get into his head. And this resulted in an irrational decision to throw a slant pass into a crowded backfield. As Steve Young said after the game, this was a terrible play call given the low probabilities of scoring and the high probabilities of a tip ball, deflection or interception. With their backs against the goal line and expecting a run the defense had lined up unusually tight. And Wilson dropped back into a shotgun formation which several New England players recognized as a potential pick route situation.

In essence, Carroll did exactly what the Game Theorists wanted – he inserted the probability of a pass play into the minds of the defense. And in doing so he tipped off the D-Backs to the potential that they might run one of their goal line pick plays. And as soon as the ball was snapped Malcolm Butler recognized the slant play and was able to jump the route. Inserting the idea of randomness actually increased the odds of the interception because the defenders altered their thinking. Seattle would have been better off in this situation lining up in a run situation and then using play action. This would have been random without the shotgun formation which tipped off the players in advance to the high probability of a pass.

It all makes me wonder if Carroll wasn’t suffering from a severe case of recency bias. The brilliance of his own 2nd quarter play calling might have very well led him to believe that Tom Brady and the Patriots would score on their own last second drive. And in the rush to protect against the improbable, he called an improbable pass play.  No amount of theorizing can rationalize it.

* The author was a very bad linebacker and defensive lineman in a previous life.