Bill Belichick Knows Game Theory

I thought Connor’s post yesterday was interesting in the way it took a game theoretic approach to the last play of Sunday’s Super Bowl. So, sorry if you were looking for something other than football, but you will have to give us a break just for this week. I wanted to look at the strategy choices of the team that won the game on the last play rather than the team who has been scrutinized so heavily this entire week.

Every play in football is an instance of game theory. Teams are trying to keep their opponents off guard by changing and disguising their strategy. If teams start to show certain tendencies in particular situations, other teams will key in on those strategies and take advantage. This specific play was a very interesting example of this as I believe the Patriots influenced the play call made by the Seahawks by loading up players on the line of scrimmage (picture below). This led the Seahawks to believe that the Patriots were keying in the run. I was clued in to this when Pete Carroll after the game said something along the lines of: “They were in their goal line package, and we didn’t like our chances running the ball.” This could also be due to Marshawn Lynch’s 25% conversion rate throughout the season in that same situation.

I think that Belichick knew if he sent the signal that they were preparing to stop the run by using a heavy goal line package, the Seahawks were likely to throw the ball here on 2nd & Goal. Furthermore, I think the Patriots knew what play the Seahawks tend to run in these situations (the interceptor, Malcolm Butler, discussed practicing defending that exact play during the week). You see in the picture above there are actually 5 Patriots in a position to defend a throw, even thought it looks like they are prepared to rush 7.

This could also provide an answer to why Belichick didn’t call a timeout. If he calls a timeout in this situation, he gives the Seahawks freedom to run any 3 plays in their playbook in the time left on the clock. By letting the clock run, he forces the Seahawks to consider throwing in this situation, as being stopped running the ball here would force them to either get back up to the line and run a play quickly out of the no-huddle on 3rd, or to call a time-out and be forced to throw on 3rd to avoid the clock running out. This strategy by Belichick seemed to influence the Seattle coaching staff to throw the ball at least once in the next three plays, which was something I think he was comfortable defending.

The Patriots are known for their vigilant preparation for every situation. I think their knowledge of how the Seahawks generally handle that situation allowed them to influence them in a particular direction with their pre-snap formation. Although I may be wrong, the way Pete Carroll talked about the play-call leads me to believe they were influenced to throw the ball by the Patriots formation, leading to the game-winning interception by Malcolm Butler.

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