Monday, February 02, 2015

The Super Bowl of Second Guessing

I remember once playing in a rec basketball game as a teen in which we were trailing a stronger opponent heading into the latter part of the final quarter. The coach that night was my friend’s father, standing in for the regular head coach who had to miss the game for some reason.

My buddy’s Pop was either an assistant or just helped out in practices here and there, I can’t recall. In any event, I remember him calling a timeout and instructing us to start fouling the other team’s worst shooters, a fairly standard approach teams often take to try to get more possessions and stage a comeback should the other team miss enough free throws.

The strategy worked especially well, and within just a couple of minutes we’d whittled a double-digit lead down to just one. Then we fouled again, they missed again, and we took the lead with less than a minute remaining. The other team called a timeout, and as we huddled up my friend’s Dad had an idea.

Let’s foul again, he said, almost sounding like he was asking us when he did whether or not we thought it might be a good idea. The other team was struggling mightily from the line, he noted, and if we fouled they’d likely miss again, we’d get the board, and the game would be in the bag for us. I remember thinking it seemed like a goofy plan, but he was so enthusiastic about it we were all pretty easily convinced it was somehow a genius move.

You can probably guess how this story ends. We fouled, their player hit both free throws, and we ended up losing. It was initially disappointing, but ultimately the game became a fun, much-referenced collective experience we often talked about afterwards. I remember whenever it came up, my buddy’s Dad often saying with a touch of humility and a wide, mischeivous grin -- “It was such a great idea!”

Looking back, I’m reminded a little how the game represented what was perhaps one of the first times -- and in a thankfully low-stakes way -- I was exposed to the idea that adults didn’t always know the right thing to do. I also can’t help but think of how my buddy’s father continuing to argue for the plan despite the outcome might well have been an early lesson in the dangers of being results-oriented in one’s thinking.

His plan to foul when ahead was pretty obviously not a good one, regardless of the outcome. But his (half-joking, half-serious) insistence that the idea was still valid despite the way things turned out definitely forced a young Shamus to think about how results don’t necessarily confirm or deny the correctness of a strategy -- something the older, poker-playing Shamus came to understand even more clearly.

Obviously it was the stunning conclusion to last night’s Super Bowl XLIX that inspired this bit of reminiscing from me today. Seattle’s decision when down 28-24 to throw that second-and-goal slant pass with 26 seconds left and the clock running rather than run the ball was certainly a surprising choice, with the calamitous outcome of an interception inspiring instant second guessing that will continue unabated for as long as the game continues to be discussed.

New England’s decision not to use one of its two remaining timeouts prior to the play was itself especially odd, too, letting the clock run down from 1:00 to 0:26 and all but eliminating any chance to get back down the field for a tying field goal should Seattle punch it in as expected.

As a Carolina Panthers fan, I think back to Super Bowl XXXVIII in which New England got the ball with the score tied 29-all and used up almost all of the last 1:43 gaining enough yards to set up a winning FG. If Seattle scores on second down last night, NE has but 20 seconds with which to gain (likely) at least 40-45 yards to set up a tying kick.

Anyhow, I tend to think that NE not calling a TO last night perhaps led Seattle to think they needed to be wary about how they were going to use the one they had left. That is to say, had they run the ball and been stopped, they’d face a third-and-goal and thus would be forced to call their last timeout, which would then (essentially) take away the option to run on third down.

That’s what I’m led to believe, anyway, by Seattle coach Pete Carroll’s statements afterward about wanting “really to kind of waste that play.” That, of course, could have been accomplished by spiking the ball on second down, though that would’ve seemed an odd choice. In truth, they didn’t want to “waste” the down, but to run what seemed a low-risk play that would either stop the clock with an incompletion or get them in the end zone. But neither of those outcomes happened.

I don’t want to wade too deeply into analyzing the play or decision, though, something everyone else is doing ad infinitum today. And I’m sure there will be a few who -- like my buddy’s father long ago did with his unorthodox move -- will stubbornly build cases for why the pass call was not such a bad idea. Indeed, the quants at Five Thirty-Eight are already doing so, pointing out how NE letting the clock run down was a more egregious error than was calling that pass play.

But most are taking and will take the other view regarding the decision. And bolstered by the outcome will forever second guess.

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Blogger Rakewell said...

But you didn't answer the important question: Who was most impactful?

2/02/2015 5:13 PM  

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