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February 2, 2015 » 11:35 pm

Super Bowl Collaboration Lessons: Data, Preparation, and Accountability

The New England Patriots won its fourth Super Bowl last night, beating the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 in a thrilling contest and a crazy finish. I normally root against all Boston sports teams, but I made an exception this year, because Tom Brady is of my generation, and I can’t be mad when an old guy wins.

(If you’re not interested in football, skip ahead to my takeaways.)

For those of you who didn’t see the game, the ending was exciting and… surprising. New England was up by four points with about two minutes left, when Seahawks quarterback, Russell Wilson, threw a long pass to unheralded receiver Jermaine Kearse. The Patriots undrafted, rookie cornerback, Malcolm Butler, made an unbelievable play on the ball that should have effectively ended the game.

Except that miraculously, the ball hit Kearse’s leg as he was falling on the ground, and Kearse somehow managed to catch the ball on his back. The Seahawks had a first down five yards away from the end zone, and, with the best power running back in the game, Marshawn Lynch, they seemed destined to steal this game from the Patriots. Sure enough, Lynch got the ball on the next play and rumbled his way to the one-yard line with a minute to spare.

To understand what happened next, you have to understand how clock management works in the NFL. The Seahawks had one minute and three chances to move the ball one yard and win the game. The clock would run down continuously unless one of two things happened: the Seahawks threw an incomplete pass or one of the teams called a timeout. (Technically, they could also stop the clock by running out of bounds, but that was unlikely scenario given their field position.) The Seahawks only had one timeout remaining, meaning that they could stop the clock with it once. The only other way it could stop the clock was to throw an incomplete pass.

At the same time, the Patriots had a very hard decision to make. If the Seahawks scored, then the Patriots would need enough time to score as well. With a minute left, they had a chance. Any less, and they were as good as done.

To summarize, the Seahawks top priority was to score. It’s second priority was to do so with as little time as possible left on the clock, so that the Patriots didn’t have a chance to answer. The Patriots either had to try to stop the Seahawks from scoring, or — if they believed that the odds of that happening were unlikely — they needed to let the Seahawks score as quickly as possible, so that they had a chance to answer.

That was the complicated version of the situation, at least. The joy of football is that it is both wildly complex and brutally simple. The simple version of the situation was this: One yard, three chances. Give ball to big, strong man known affectionately as “Beast mode.” Watch him rumble into end zone. Celebrate victory.

That was the version that most people — myself included — saw, so when the Seahawks decided to try to pass the ball, most everybody was shocked. The reason you don’t pass in that situation is that you risk throwing an interception. That’s exactly what happened. Malcolm Butler, the unlucky victim of Kearse’s lucky catch two plays before, anticipated the play, intercepted the ball, and preserved the Patriots victory.

The media — both regular and social — predictably erupted. How could they throw the ball on that play?!

(Okay, takeaways start here.)

I took three things away from watching the game and that play in particular.

First, I had assumed — like most of America — that Pete Carroll, Seattle’s head coach, had made a bungling error. But when he explained his reasoning afterward, there seemed to be at least an ounce of good sense behind his call.

With about 30 seconds remaining, in the worst case scenario, Carroll needed to stop the clock at least twice to give his team three chances to score. They only had one timeout. So, they would try a pass play first. If they scored, then they would very likely win the game, because the Patriots would not have enough time to score. If they threw an incomplete pass, the clock would stop, and the Seahawks would have two more chances to try to score, both times likely on the ground.

Still, it seemed like a net bad decision. It still seemed like handing the ball off the Lynch was a lower risk move with a higher probability of success in that situation.

It turns out that when you look at the actual numbers, it’s not clear that this is the case. (Hat tip to Bob Blakley for the pointer to the article.) In fact, the data suggests that Patriots head coach, Bill Belichik, made the more egregious error in not calling a timeout and stopping the clock. It may have even behooved him to let the Seahawks score, a strategy he employed in the Super Bowl four years earlier. Or, maybe by not calling timeout, Belichik was demonstrating a mastery of game theory.

The bottom line is that the actual data did not support most people’s intuitions. Both coaches — two of the best in the game — had clearly done their homework, regardless of whether or not their decisions were right or wrong.

Second, regardless of whether or not the decision was good or bad, I loved how multiple people on the Seahawks — Carroll, Wilson, and offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell — insisted that they were solely responsible for the decision. There was no finger pointing, just a lot of leaders holding themselves accountable. Clearly, there is a very healthy team dynamic on the Seahawks.

Third, I loved Malcolm Butler’s post-game interview, not just for the raw emotion he displayed, but for what he actually said. He made an unbelievable play, which he attributed to his preparation. He recognized the formation from his film study, and he executed. All too often, we see remarkable plays like Butler’s, and we attribute it to incredible athleticism or talent, when in reality, practice and preparation are responsible.

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One Response to “Super Bowl Collaboration Lessons: Data, Preparation, and Accountability”

  1. The linked article also points out that context matters. One of the worst power run defense, one of the best power run offenses. That data is aggregate, this context probably sways reality towards intuition being more accurate. But I agree with your general conclusions, and I don't see it as crazy as everyone else does.

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