I’m working on a new book for early 2022 on how anyone could make better decisions. One of my favorite sections in the book is calling “Behind the Decision,” where I take a deeper look at famous choices.
In this example, I look at Patriots vs Seahawks Super Bowl 49 and the infamous decision towards the end of the Seahawks game, which cost them the game and championship. The Seahawks were down 4 points with less than 30 seconds left in the game. They were on second down and the Patriot’s one-yard (the other team). They had three attempts (2nd, 3rd, and 4th down) to get the ball over the end goal and win the game.
You should also know that the Seahawks had the best running back that season, Marshawn Lynch. For most people, this means that giving the ball to him and running it through the end goal was the most logical play. Instead, the Seahawks quarterback Russel Wilson threw the ball as a pass, and it got intercepted. Game over for the Seahawks.
Let’s look at the options that could have taken place here:
- Pass the ball on the second down
- Run it to Marshawn Lynch
- Kick it for a field goal worth 3 points
Option 3 is out immediately since it wouldn’t be enough to tie or win the game, and there wasn’t enough time to get the ball back. Option 2 is what most people consider logical, and option 1 is what happened.
Let’s look at some stats to see how likely option one or option two were to succeed. In that season, 66 passes (option 1) from the 1-yard line were thrown and intercepted once, which happened this exact pass. This means that 65 passes had been thrown from the 1-year with no interceptions before this play happened.
There’s also a strategic point here. The Seahawks couldn’t run the ball three times in a row. The Patriots’ defense would adjust so they could run the ball once or twice at most. This meant passing the ball on the second down seemed like a good option. Passing the ball had three potential outcomes: scoring, incomplete pass, or interception. Two of the three options were good, while one option was catastrophic.
As we can see, passing the ball on a second down wasn’t a crazy choice. It made rational sense and had a high probability of success. It just happened that the low odds are failure also meant complete failure. If the Seahawks got a chance to redo this play, it would still make sense to pass the ball. If that pass fails, they can run it in the third and fourth down.
The lesson here is that you can’t let rare probabilities derail your decision making. You need to make the best possible decision based on what you know (data and assumptions) and try to minimize the risks as much as possible. Make decisions based on an expectation of success and not failure.
As a general note, this example is also the first time we see the 3-Os framework in action. This framework stands for Outcomes, Options, and Obstacles. Read through the example again and look for these three elements in the Seahawks’ decision and how they handle each one.