David R. Henderson  

Seattle Seahawks' Many Margins

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Pillar #3. Economic thinking is thinking on the margin.

If you think that the tools of economics don't apply to yesterday's exciting Superbowl, then you're mistaken.

Consider one of the last plays, the one all the commentators were talking about in the last 20 seconds of the game and the one that's on the front page of this morning's Wall Street Journal: New England Patriots' defensive back Malcolm Butler picking off a pass from Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

Understandably, the NBC commentators Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth (especially the latter) were so busy commenting on what a bad play call Pete Carroll made that they missed a lot of margins.

Margin #1: No one I saw commented on the big mistake that Malcolm Butler made. I noticed it right away. When he intercepted the ball, he bounced off the Seahawks player and was in the end zone. Had he dropped to the ground, the Patriots would have started at the 20-yard line. That really would have been game over.
I hasten to add that I'm not blaming Butler. He made an incredible play. But had the commentators not been so preoccupied, they would have caught this mistake and brought it to their 100-million-plus audience's attention.

Because of that mistake, the Patriots faced a tough situation: If Brady were to do the standard "take a knee," there was a good chance he would be taking it in the end zone. Result: 2 points for the Seahawks, making it a 28-26 score for the Patriots with almost 20 seconds left on the clock. The next play would be a kick by the Patriots, which would arguably leave almost 15 seconds on the clock and could, with a muffed kick, put the Seahawks almost in position for a field goal. The Seahawks would have time for one play (because they still had a timeout), which could have put them in position for a good field goal attempt. Result of a made field goal: Seahawks 29, Patriots 28, with only a few seconds left, seconds that could be run off the clock with a Seahawks "squib kick." End of game. Seahawks win.

Which brings me to:

Margin #2: The commentators were so busy, as I say above, criticizing Carroll, that they didn't even bother to tell the audience what the penalty on the Patriots was, a penalty that cost them half the distance to the goal line. Al Michaels told the audience the result, but we never heard the infraction. In any case, that gave Patriots QB Tom Brady even less margin (see what I did there?) to work with. This made my scenario above even more likely.

Margin #3: Tom Brady cleverly got the Seattle Seahawks defender to encroach. This gave the Patriots a crucial 5 extra yards to work with. Now Brady could easily take a knee. Game over.

That last point, by the way, means that although Seahawks defender Bruce Irvin showed incredibly poor sportsmanship, marring an otherwise beautiful game, by instigating a fight, his action came only after a Patriots win was assured.


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CATEGORIES: sports economics




COMMENTS (11 to date)
Mark Bahner writes:
No one I saw commented on the big mistake that Malcolm Butler made. I noticed it right away. When he intercepted the ball, he bounced off the Seahawks player and was in the end zone. Had he dropped to the ground, the Patriots would have started at the 20-yard line. That really would have been game over.

What if the referees had ruled that he caught the ball outside the end zone and *retreated* into the endzone? That would be a safety.

There's no way I think the refs would have ruled that, but in the split second he had to decide, Malcolm Butler did the instinctual thing of making sure *he* wasn't called for a safety. (Even if that might mean that the offense might get called for a safety on the next play.)

That last point, by the way, means that although Seahawks defender Bruce Irvin showed incredibly poor sportsmanship, marring an otherwise beautiful game, by instigating a fight, his action came only after a Patriots win was assured.

Go back to the tape. Ron Gronkowski clobbers...I think it's Deshawn Shead (#35)...in the helmet right before the punch.

Two sides to this story...maybe not the "instigator"

MG writes:

I thought the same about the "end zone" interception as soon as I saw it, but when I saw the replay it did look like he caught it/had control a few feet in and could not back into the end zone without a safety.

David R. Henderson writes:

Good points, guys.

Zeke5123 writes:

You missed another marginal play. During the Seahawks' final drive, they had to take a timeout to avoid a delay of game. That was a huge deal because it dictated play calling later.

On the second down, pass became likely because the Hawks only had one more timeout. If you ran and we're stop short, then you essentially needed to take the timeout there. Facing 3rd and goal, with few seconds left and no timeouts, a pass play then becomes almost a necessity, in order to preserve enough time for a fourth down play call.

Therefore, running on second down creates a path depencey that NE's defense could prepare for. While still somewhat predictable, the pass on second down would've been less predictable than the pass on 3rd down (if you run on second and fail).

Marginal stuff, indeed. But that might've been the differnce in the SB.

Brian writes:

I think the announcers were even worse about 20 seconds before the interception when they were suggesting that NE should just let the Seahawks score. There are some situation where that makes sense. Last night was not one of them.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Brian,
I agree. That was absurd. That would have given the Pats under a minute to march up the field and make a touchdown. Even Tom Brady can’t consistently be that good.

TallDave writes:

#1: It's not quite that clear -- if he changes his impetus backwards the refs could rule it a safety. He seems to have lateral momentum when he gains possession, but then begins to fall forward. I suspect Butler simply did the safest thing: leap forward while falling to prove that his impetus did not cause a safety.

http://www.nfl.com/rulebook/safety2

"#3: Tom Brady cleverly got the Seattle Seahawks defender to encroach."

I wondered how many people would catch that. He was pointing and clapping when it happened, that was clearly designed to get the space for a kneeldown. I doubt they even would have snapped it without a timeout.

Side note: for the first half of the game, our center speaker became disconnected, so I heard the game but not the announcers (I assumed at first this was NBC's difficulty). I may do this on purpose next year ;)

TallDave writes:

BTW, because Butler gets two feet down before entering the end zone, apparently even if he downs the football in the end zone, it would still be placed at the 1, and would not be a touchback:

"(a) Player intercepts a pass with both feet inbounds in the field of play and his momentum carries him into his own end zone. Ball is put in play at spot of interception."

I assume this rule exists so that players can't intercept at the 5 and trot into the endzone for a touchback.

Jim Glass writes:

Understandably, the NBC commentators Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth (especially the latter) were so busy commenting on what a bad play call Pete Carroll made that they missed a lot of margins.

They also missed the fact that it wasn't necessarily such a bad call -- except by the common standard that any play that backfires must be a bad call, of course.

Hmmm, I can't connect to the Advanced NFL Analytics web site for some reason (overloaded?) so I'll link to Yglesias quoting it.

http://www.vox.com/2015/2/2/7961789/pete-carroll-play-call-defense

Still, as when you bet on seven to come up on a pair of dice and get snake eyes instead, "bad call".

OK, let the second guessing of this second guessing of that second guessing begin.

But remember football at its roots is a war game, and as Napoleon said about war, "half of everything is chance".

nzgsw writes:

@Jim Glass: My 2nd-2nd guessing follows.

I agree that calling a pass in that instance isn't necessarily a bad call. But calling that particular play was: an inside route against a defense that is crowding the line anticipating a run.

With a QB like Russel Wilson, seems like a great time for a play-action roll-out, giving Wilson the opportunity to throw it away, run it in, or hit someone open.

BillD writes:

Lots of margins. Lack-of-self-control penalties for professionals who make millions would seem to be particularly egregious.

http://nypost.com/2015/02/02/the-highs-and-terrible-omissions-of-super-bowl-broadcast/

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