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“Thinking In Bets” at The Super Bowl

Peter Attia’s emailed a recommendation today of Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets, which uses Seattle’s last play of Super Bowl XLIX (49), on February 1, 2015, as an example of a correct decision, even if the outcome was poor. This is a core principle for poker players to survive (and hopefully prosper) long term. It also requires you to structure the bet properly, and fans of Pete Carroll’s decision do not.

One example she uses is the last play in SB 49 by the Seahawks against the Patriots (the goal line interception). The outcome was horrible, but the decision was not flawed, if you look objectively at the data. Despite the underlying data informing this play call, virtually every pundit refers to this play as some variation of “the worst call in the history of Super Bowls.” There were countless other (much more probable) outcomes that would have made Pete Carroll (Seahawks coach) look like a genius instead of a goat, despite the fact that his decision-making process would have been the same.

Peter Attia email to subscribers December 30

Have NFL coaches been historically innumerate or culturally too cautious — punting on 4th and 1s while losing late in the fourth quarter? Certainly. They need to think in bets, where there is a large sample of similar situations, so outcomes can be probabilistically modeled.

Poker has completely defined inputs. Life doesn’t. Sometimes, the N just equals 1. The most material example of which was Lynch running for a three yard touchdown earlier in the game. But sure, let’s go wider.

The justification for the pass, cited by Duke from 538 in turn cited this tweet:

#NFL teams this season threw 66 TD passes with 1 INT on passes from the 1-yard line. That 1 INT was … well … tonight.— Mike Sando, (@SandoESPN) February 2, 2015

(There is even another citation that the ratio should be 1 in 109 total attempts.) Therefore, to object to the pass play is mere “resultism” Duke confidently writes in the book. No matter how good Marshawn Lynch is, or how bad the Patriots’ goal-line rush defense was. Yes, she is right that had the pass worked, he would have been celebrated for his gumption.

So what is the data set to use?

The stats provided in the tweet give that regular season’s statistics, and do not include the plays during pre-season, or for that matter from Pop Warner league games. Why not? Well, those games don’t count. The regular season counts, and the playoffs count. But the playoffs are of a different nature than regular season, and the Super Bowl probably again as much more pressure. This high pressure environment is one reason championship games are an order of magnitude more fun to watch: the pressure is on, who rises to the occasion, who cracks?

But the pressure with second-and-goal and 26 seconds left is probably as different from the regular season as the regular season is from pre-season. What are the stats about passes _over the middle_ to the end zone? Does the experience level of the quarterback matter (almost certainly – an experienced QB might not have trained his eyes on his target, or had been able to fake the hand off first. Locking eyes on a receiver is the easiest tell for a cornerback.)

The Seahawks had an increased propensity to throw on 4th and 1 anyway – from a Fansided article the next year – “On average, NFL teams, since 2012, pass the ball 21.3 percent of the time at the 1-yard line, but the Seahawks call passing plays 28.9 percent of the time. ” so New England was going to be prepared for this possibility, that was not just hypothetical, but even frequently used in the Super Bowl — perhaps most frequently by the Patriots themselves!

It was a possibility that became less hypothetical as the play was set.

Seattle lined up set in their standard formation, which is a passing formation, not a power-I or other running form:

Full play:

With this number of receivers, the Patriots must be prepared for the pass possibility, and they were.

Another good heuristic here: what would the Patriots have wanted the Seahawks to do? Run or pass? Don’t make me laugh.

What if you made the bet’s data set to include all passes in the Super Bowl from the one or two yard line? Why do I add the two yard line? Because it is qualitatively highly similar to the one yard line and expands the data set. This is what football fans, even if they can’t corroborate their feelings, may instinctively know. I looked through Pro Football Almanac’s history of every Super Bowl:

In close games where the ball is at the opponent 1 or 2 yard line: I count eight touchdown passes, numerous incompletions, a sack and a near sack for no gain, and there was a previous interception! Jim Kelly, 1993 – on a near identical pass over the middle, with no play action or rollout by the QB. Virtually all the other passes from that distance did play action or roll out (Marino 1984).

Rushing by comparison resulted in zero turnovers (Franco Harris fumbled in 1976 with the Steelers holding the lead. It was recovered by the Steelers who kicked the field goal.) Arguably, when a touchdown was necessary (the team was behind, late in the game) pounding it in hadn’t failed in a half century.

I think it’s fair to say more the play was like the situation the Seahawks were in, the more the historical record suggests rushing. But that takes more evaluation than a SQL query of the readily available database. Quantify but make sure you know what to quantify. Here is my own (rushed) listing of all the relevant plays.

A list of individual instances: make your own conclusion

There were a ton of plays from near the goals exactly six years earlier on a February 1st. The 2009 Super Bowl had a lot of plays near the goal line:

In the first quarter, score tied at zero, the Steelers were first and goal, and gave the ball to Gary Russell for a loss of 4 yards. (The choice here over the main, but smaller back, Willie Parker, deserves analysis too as a contrarian pick.) Parker would regain the yardage next play, then a QB sneak from Rothlisberger was a touchdown, though subsequently overturned. Still, 0-2 in rushes but still results in a field goal. One of which was famous.

Second quarter, third and goal from the one for the Steelers, up 7-0, Gary Russell rushed for the TD. Kurt Warner of the Cardinals, on first and goal from the one threw a touchdown, and would do so later in the fourth quarter on third and one from the goal.

Between Warner’s two touchdown passes from the one, there was this disaster for the Cardinals (in the highest pressure situation of the game), down 10-7 with no time on the clock at the end of the half:

In the 2011 Super Bowl, from the Steeler 2 yard line, with 12 minutes to go in the fourth quarter down 25-21, Aaron Rodgers attempted a pass, and was sacked for a loss of six yards. (They overcame this poor bet and would score a touchdown on a pass the next play, from the eight yard line where no rush was viable.)

In the 2013 Super Bowl, there were three plays by the Ravens on the 49ers one yard line. In the second quarter, leading 7-3, they threw a one yard TD pass. However, they faked the run first. In the 4th quarter, leading 31-29, they ran for no gain, then an incomplete pass that played with fire, nearly resulting in a 19 yard sack. (They kicked the field goal next play.)

In the 2014 Super Bowl, the Seahawks faced this situation (though lower pressure). First and goal from the one in the second quarter, with the same running back, it took two rushes from Lynch against the Broncos, but got in.

After the Seahawks’ famous botched play, in the 2016 Superbowl, rushes from the 2 and under were two-for-two getting TDs. No muss no fuss.

What did the Patriots learn from short yardage situations, even with an unremarkable back? In the 2017 Superbowl, behind in the fourth quarter, second and one from the one, James White, 1 yard TD. In overtime, First and goal from the two: Incomplete pass, then a successful rush for a TD.

2008 SuperBowl, end of first quarter then beginning of the second down 3-0, the Giants had to rush twice to get the TD.

2007 SuperBowl, Peyton Manning in his prime. Only one play from the one. A rush, and Colts touchdown.

2006 SuperBowl, Steelers down 3-0, had second and one, two rushes but got the Touchdown.

2005 SuperBowl, Patriots and Eagles tied at 7 in first quarter, Brady play action pass to Vrabel for Touchdown. The Patriots rushed from the 2 yard line for a touchdown in the third quarter.

2004 Super Bowl, Carolina 1st and 2, rush for touchdown. Tom Brady play action pass to Vrbael in the fourth quarter, while down by one

2003 Super Bowl, Buccanners up 6-3 first and goal from the two, two rushes to get TD.

2002 Super Bowl, Rams down 17-3 in 4th Quarter, two rushes to get it in.

2000 Super Bowl, 3rd Q Titans down 16-0, first and goal from 2, two rushes, Eddie George gets in. 4Q 2nd & goal from 2, down 16-6, Eddie George rushes in.

1999 Super Bowl, first and goal from one, down 3-0 in 1st, Denver’s Howard Griffith rushes in. 4th Quarter: Up 17-6, Griffith rushes. (NB: later in 4th, Elway ran up the middle for 3 yards for TD in designed draw. Was a blowout then.)

1998 Super Bowl, Denver 4-4 in rushing TDs from 1.

1997 Super Bowl, From 1 yard line after penalty, Bledsoe does play action pass successfully. Later, First and goal from 2, Favre rushes for TD.

1996 Super Bowl: First & goal, Emmitt Smith rushes for TD. In 4th Q, 2nd & 2, Bam Morris takes two rushes to get TD.

1995 Super Bowl: First & goal, Natrone Means, rushes for TD.

1994 Super Bowl: First & goal, up 20-13 in 4th Q, Emmitt Smith needs three rushes but gets TD.

1993 Super Bowl: second & goal from 2, first quarter no score, Thurman Thomas 2 yard TD rush. Second quarter: Second & goal from 1, two rushes no gain, Bills down 15-7, two rushes no gain, and 4th and 1 (high pressure!) Jim Kelly is intercepted. Dallas gets the ball back at the 20 yard line instead of the 1. In 3rd Q, Third and 2 from the Buffalo 2, while up 28-10, Aikman incomplete pass. (They got the field goal.)

1992 Super Bowl: Tied at 0 in first, Redskins first and goal from 2, 3 rushes & 1 incomplete pass, Bills’ goal line stand works. Redskins first and goal from 2 in 3rd, up 23-0, Riggs rushes for TD. 4th Q, down 37-10, one incomplete pass form the 2 before the next one good.

1991 Super Bowl: Bills and Giants each were successful rushing for TDs on the two attempts on the 2 or 1.

1990 Super Bowl: First and goal from 2 in 2 Q up 19-3, 49ers need two rushes to get a TD. (Elway had a 3 yard rush for a TD in 3rd, while down 40-3.) 4th Quarter, Roger Craig rushes for TD on first and goal (to go ahead 53-10!)

1987 Super Bowl: 1st & goal from one, Joe Morris rushes for TD. 4th Q, up big, Ottis Anderson first & goal from 2, rushes for TD. (Both for Giants.)

1986 Super Bowl: Bears 3-3 rushing for TDs from 2 or under (2 the QB McMahon, 1 William “The Refrigerator” Perry!)

1985 Super Bowl: Dan Marino’s only Super Bowl touchdown comes on first and goal from the 2, rolls out with a 2 yard TD pass to Dan Johnson. SF’s Roger Craig rushes from 2 yard line for TD later in 2nd, while up 21-10. 4th Q, Up 38-16, 4th and 1 from the 2, Craig no gain, turnover.

1984 Super Bowl: First & goal from 2, while down 13-12, John “Lighten Up, Sandy Baby” Riggins takes two rushes to get a Redskins TD.

1982 Super Bowl: Tied at 0, 1st Q, Joe Montana, first and goal from 1, sneaks in. Niners defense has goal line stand in 3Q, 2nd & goal from 1, Cincy tries two rushes and 1 pass no gains.

1981 Super Bowl: Third & goal from two, Raiders’ Jim Plunkett passes for TD to Cliff Branch.

1980 Super Bowl: First and goal from two down 3-0, Rams need three rushes but get TD. 3rd & goal from 1 Franco Harris rushes for TD. 4th Q with 2:34 left: Steelers 1st and goal from 1, three rushes but got another Harris TD.

1978 Super Bowl: Denver’s Rob Lytle rushes for TD on 1st & goal from 1, when down 20-3 in 3rd Q.

1977 Super Bowl: Raiders have 3 plays from within 2 yard line, 2 rushing and 1 passing TD.

1976 Super Bowl: With Steelers leading 12-10, Franco Harris fumbles on 3 and goal from 1 but recovers. Steelers kick FG.

1974 Super Bowl: First and Goal in 1st, Miami needs two rushes to get TD. 3Q, 2nd and goal from 2, Csonka rushes for TD.

1973 Super Bowl: First and goal from 2, Miami’s Jim Kiick needs two rushes, gets TD.

1972 Super Bowl: 3rd and goal from 2, Staubach completes pass for no gain. FG next play to go up 3-0.

1971 Super Bowl: Baltimore Colts have first and goal from 2, down 13-6, with 1:57 remaining in first half. 3 rushes for no gain, then one incomplete pass. 2nd & goal from 2, Tom Howatzke of Colts rushes for TD.

1969 Super Bowl: Down 16-0, First and goal from 2, Took 4 rushes (first play Jets ruled offsides, half distance to goal) but Colts get it in.

1968 Super Bowl: First & goal from 1, Packers need two rushes to get TD.

1967 Super Bowl: 4Q Q, Packers up 27-10, second and goal from 2, Packers need 2 rushes but get the TD.

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