Run the Ball!

I will admit, that being someone who was born and raised in Seattle, this weekend’s football game was a little upsetting. I lived through the disappointment that the Mariners of the early oughts brought with them when they lost, twice in a row, to the Yankees, forever cementing them (and possibly the entire state) as some kind of evil empire in my young mind. So it will likely come as no surprise that around 6:30 pm on Sunday I had all kinds of colorful language for Pete Carroll, Darrell Bevell and pretty much anything I saw when Russell Wilson, with seconds to go on the game clock, threw that ball, one foot away from the goal line, only to see it intercepted. It wasn’t helpful either, when, while listening to Pete Carroll’s press-conference hearing him say that he’d thrown the ball ‘to waste a play.’

It wasn’t long until the vast majority of the media began talking about how that play was the worst call in Pete Carroll’s history, if not in the entire history of Super Bowls. However, there are a number of dissenters in this analysis, one of my favorites coming from Benjamin Morris, who writes for fivethirtyeight.

In this analysis, Ben breaks down the game theory going on between head coaches Pete Carroll of the Seahawks and Bill Belichick of the patriots that played out in the final minute of that game. He points out that league-wide, the vast majority of passes into the end zone from the 1-yard line ended in touchdowns. In fact, the only interception thrown into the endzone this entire season was the throw from the super bowl. When breaking down the actual probabilities of winning the game utilizing a variety of plays under both favorable and unfavorable assumptions, he found that while running in the ball under favorable running conditions (an 80% success rate) would have gained a .3% chance of winning the game, whereas passing, under favorable passing conditions increased the chances of the Seahawks winning by 3%. This spread of assumptions makes the choice to throw the ball into the end zone much more reasonable than it seemed at the time.

For the patriots, though, Belichick letting the time run out rather than calling a timeout on the Seahawks drive cost the Patriots a 2.1% chance of winning the game overall, and only under the assumption that the Seahawks would have turned the ball over, something that is far from guaranteed (although it did happen,) would that choice result in a higher probability of winning the game.

This just illustrates how probabilities and quality of choices are defined internally by the most recent results. Though, not two plays earlier, Bill Belichick made a terrible blunder in judgment and the Seahawks’ play was likely the correct one (or at least could be argued that it was,) the general opinion does not reflect the probabilities. Because the overall score and result of the choices came out in the patriot’s favor, Pete’s Carroll’s choice will be forever remembered as some great mistake when in fact it truly wasn’t.

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