2 Lessons Learned From Superbowl 49: Resulting & Failing Conventionally

The ideas in this post come directly from Bigger Pockets Podcast Show 297. Hosts David Greene & Scott Trench interview Author & Professional Poker Player, Annie Duke on Mastering the Decision-Making Process. 

Annie Duke is the author of Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts, the book where most of the content from this interview comes from. 

I want to share a few ideas from this podcast episode because when I heard them, it opened my mind to new ways of thinking about my decision making process as well as the results my decisions yield. I hope I’ve done a good job capturing her message.

Resulting:

Resulting is the idea that you can use the quality of an outcome to derive the quality of a decision. 

The example Annie Duke references in the podcast is from Superbowl 49. 

The Baseline Facts: Seahawks are down by 4 points. It’s 2nd down. There’s 26 seconds left. They have 1 time-out remaining. Need a TD to win. A Field Goal is not going to cut it. 

Pete Carroll, the coach of the Seattle Seahawks, decided to call a passing play at the 2 yard line. This was despite having Marshawn Lynch, one of the best short yardage running backs in the league at the time. The pass resulted in an interception. 

The immediate reaction from everyone: Pete Carroll made a terrible decision. 

  • "Why pass the ball from the 2 yard line?" 
  • "Just hand it off to Marshawn!" 

Seahawks fans (few) and Patriot haters (many) were livid about the outcome. The play call left fans everywhere dumbfounded. Until Pete Carroll explained his decision making process in a post game interview...

What are the options?

  • Option 1: Run the ball
  • Option 2: Pass the ball

If Option 1: 

  • Result 1: TD (Likely game winning - close loop)
  • Result 2: Non-TD (3rd Down with clock still running)
  • Result 3: Fumble (highly unlikely - disregard)

If Option 1, Result 2: 

  • Option 1: Call Time Out (Have time for one more play)

If Option 2:

  • Result 1: Complete pass + TD (Likely game winning - close loop)
  • Result 2: Complete pass + non-TD (highly unlikely - disregard)
  • Result 3: Incomplete pass (clock stops, time for two more plays)
  • Result 4: ...Interception

Without going much further, you can start to see how Option 2 was the best decision in the moment. If the pass is incomplete, the clock will stop. Then you can go through the decision tree again equipped with a time out and two more play attempts. Option 2 provides more opportunities than Option 1 in the case of failure.

Unfortunately, the one thing Pete Carroll probably didn’t account for was what actually happened: an interception! 

Why would he account for that? Let’s look at the numbers. In 2015, Russel Wilson, the Quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks threw 8 interceptions on 483 pass attempts. That computes a 1.65% chance of any pass attempt resulting in an interception. It’s a non-factor.

Football fans and sports pundits don’t understand what Pete Carroll understands. We have no access to the decision tree developing in his mind. Instead we say, “If I know the quality of the outcome, then that's enough to tell me about the quality of the decision.” In this case, the outcome was an interception to lose the game, which means the decision was bad.

USA Today printed an article calling it one of the worst decisions in football history. They’re slightly off-base. It could definitely go down as one of the worst OUTCOMES in football history. But not one of the worst decisions. Here’s why...

After explaining this, Annie prompts the audience to perform a thought exercise. What would we say if the pass resulted in a touchdown? The answer is clear. We all would have said, “Pete Carroll is a game theory genius! Everyone thought he was going to punch it in with Marshawn. Instead, he passed the ball and surprised the defense and won the Championship! Yayyyy” 

This reaction exhibits why Resulting is bad. We cannot judge the quality of a decision based on the quality of the result. 

Failing Conventionally:

Then Annie prompts the audience to perform another thought exercise. What would we say if the Seahawks ran the ball on second down and failed to get in - Then called time out - Ran the ball on third down and failed to get in again - Ultimately losing the game? The conversation would likely look something like this: “That Patriot defense is too good. The Seahawks just couldn’t quite get it done.”

Spectators would remove the responsibility from the Seahawks to out-perform. Instead, they'd attribute the unfavorable result to good defense. Why? Consensus

If given the responsibility to make the same decision, most people would run the ball. It’s the easy play-call with the highest perceived chance of success. If it doesn’t work, it’s because the Patriots are too good on goal line defense. It's not because of poor decision making skills.

We often make our decisions based on what consensus is for that issue. We don’t pass the ball when we can hand off to Marshawn Lynch from the 2 yard line. We prefer to fail conventionally over innovating and potentially looking like a genius. Why? Going against consensus typically doesn’t pay off. We’re paralyzed by other people's judgment on our decisions. The risk of being wrong is often not worth the reward of being right. 

Other ways we fail conventionally:

  • (NFL) Not going for it on 4th down enough
  • (NHL) Not taking the Goalie out when you’re losing towards the end of the game
  • (Work) Doing things “the way they’ve always been done.”
  • (Relationships) Not approaching someone “out of your league”

Let’s use the following example almost anyone can relate to.

Imagine you’re going on a date to the movies. The movie starts in 20 minutes and your date lives exactly 20 minutes from the theater. You arrive to pick up your date on time, however, she’s running 5 minutes late. Once you’re both in the car you say, “I know a shortcut using the highway, it takes 15 minutes, we’ll get there on time.” To which your date replies, “Just go the regular local way, 5 minutes late is fine. We’ll barely miss the previews.” 

You know it’s risky, but you’re determined. You decide to take the highway route. Surprise! There’s an accident on the highway route and now you’re going to be 25 minutes late instead of being on time. Needless to say, the date is ruined before it even started. Womp womp. 

Now that we know the situation, let’s do another thought exercise:

  1. What would happen if the highway route actually worked and you arrived on-time?
    • Someone’s getting lucky 😉
  2. What would happen if the regular local route also had an accident and you were 25 minutes late anyway?
    • Someone’s still getting lucky because you failed by consensus! 😉

If you don’t suffer the consequences by failing conventionally, why innovate? Why out-perform?

The easy answer is don’t. Don’t try to innovate or out-perform. Just kidding. Kind of. The tougher, correct answer is: pick your battles. Most of the time, going with consensus will be your best bet. Then there will be times going against the grain can pay off massively. The real skill is identifying opportunities where the risk is worth the reward. When those situations present themselves, I encourage you to be bold like Pete Carroll.

Sunny Shakhawala

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