Fast 2015-02-05: Was Seattle play call terrible?

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I’m so tired of hearing how terrible the final play call of the game was in Sunday’s Super Bowl. I’m talking about Seattle’s decision to pass on second down from the one-yard line with 26 seconds to go and the game at stake. Was that call made by head coach Pete Carroll, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, or quarterback Russell Wilson? I don’t care — it’s the value of the call I want to discuss.

Seattle could still stop the clock by calling its one time out. An incomplete pass, of course, also would stop the clock. In case you haven’t heard or are suffering too much trauma to remember, New England won 28-24 when the second-down pass was intercepted. Analysts are almost united in saying that the play should have been for the seemingly unstoppable Marshawn Lynch to carry the ball. If he scores a touchdown, it’s a win. If he doesn’t, use that last time out and have him run again. Simple, right?


But, wait! The decision to pass was actually mathematically superior to the one the critics advocate!

Although I had decided not to comment, I was prompted to do so by watching “The Five” on Fox News today. During it, Eric Bolling labeled the decision “the worst play call in the history of football.” Eric seems like a sincere guy, but he’s wrong.

Yes, coaches make bad decisions. I’ve ranted about the mathematical insanity of using fancy hand-offs or passes from very short first-down-and-goal yardage, when trying as many quarterback sneaks as necessary (or other low-risk runs into the line) will provide an even better chance of success. I’ve ranted about waiting for the second touchdown to go for two points, when down by 15. Clearly, if you gamble on the first touchdown, you’ll have information about whether you need just one touchdown or a touchdown plus a field goal. Doing it the customary way by waiting for the second touchdown to try for two points, if time would permit attempting two desperation scores, is absurd. Poker players know you gain value by seeing what opponents do first. Well, in football, you can gain value by discovering what you need to do first. Same concept.

Anyway, I’ve also ranted about coaches punting when going for a first down is provably worth more points, on average. And I’ve ranted against kicking field goals in many situations, for the same reason.


Fine. But in this case, you were only going to get to run twice. That’s up to two chances to score a touchdown. There wasn’t enough time to run three times. So, the question is: If you can get a small chance of scoring a touchdown by passing, is it better to pass once and run twice? Or is it better to just run twice? Rhetorical question. Clearly, it’s better to get the benefit of the extra pass.

You can — and should — quibble about the execution of the pass play. What seems to have been required to increase odds of success was a safe pass — wide-open touchdown or throw it away. And you can quibble about whether the pass should have been the first play or the second play. You might argue that more things might go wrong, such as penalties, if you pass first. So, maybe run, time out if no touchdown, pass, run if pass incomplete would have been a little better.


So here’s the Mike Caro verdict — the one you can rely on and ignore all chatter to the contrary.

Nowhere in the logical universe does the decision to pass rank as one of the worst ever. It was pretty much a statistical yawn — possibly the right decision (if the defense was expecting the run) or possibly a very slightly bad one. But, like so many decisions made in the heat of poker combat, it was close. You make the best choice you can. And you live with the results.

— MC | Follow-up link: → None

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Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


2 thoughts on “Fast 2015-02-05: Was Seattle play call terrible?”

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  1. This is why youre a poker guru. You are passing because the pats are playing run with all the defenders near the middle. You never,ever throw to were all the defenders are located.

    1. I absolutely agree with you. The entry above actually explains that the play needed to be safe to improve chances of winning. There is no difference in methodology between logically analyzing poker, football, politics, or life.

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