From the moment Malcolm Butler made the amazing interception at the end of Super Bowl XLIX, I was always a bit annoyed that many people yelled about how “Pete Carroll blew the game” by not handing the ball to Marshawn Lynch. However, game theory explains why throwing the ball probably was the right decision there.
Game theory is defined by Google as:
The branch of mathematics concerned with the analysis of strategies for dealing with competitive situations where the outcome of a participant’s choice of action depends critically on the actions of other participants. Game theory has been applied to contexts in war, business, and biology.
Sports—particularly football—is another situation in which game theory can be, and is, applied. Coaching football is not easy to do—in my opinion it is the most important position in the sport aside from quarterback. Head coaches and their staffs, including coordinators, are tasked with putting together a gameplan to put their players in the best position to have success. And though they might not realize it, they are all using game theory when crafting their gameplan and calling plays.
During the 2017 regular season in the NFL, the passing and rushing attempts were as follows:
Passing: 17,488 attempts, 114,870 yards, 6.57 average
Rushing: 13,753 attempts, 56,172 yards, 4.08 average
Keep in mind, sacks (which equate to negative yardage) were not accounted for, and they are plays that set an offense back behind the chains more often than run plays. Also, quarterback runs on scrambles are in the rushing statistics—but overall, pass plays gain more yards per attempt than run plays.
Because pass plays gain more yardage on average than run plays, some argue that teams should just pass all game; but that would obviously help the defense, as they will know what’s coming. If you have a rare player like Tom Brady at quarterback, then you can get away with throwing the ball a lot more than you run, but typically you won’t be able to have your quarterback just pick defenses apart all game. And even with Brady, the Patriots were in the middle of the pack in run-pass ratio this season, and they had the tenth most rushing attempts in the league (because of their pace).
There are numerous plays and concepts that can be implemented on offense and defense, but to get it to the most basic of discussions, offenses will either run or pass. So, if a team is going to pass a lot, the defense should gear up to defend the pass. But in turn, the offensive play-caller knows the defense is going to try to stop them from having success through the air, so they should run. However, the defense also knows this and must be cognizant of the run. It also works the other way around with run-heavy teams, and it becomes a circle that is game theory in football.
Game theory is a reason play-action passes typically work well—whether it be typical drop-back play-action, play-action bootlegs, or the RPOs (run-pass options) that have become a bigger part of the NFL game in recent years. Offenses don’t just run play-action passes because it looks good.
On defense, blitzing is a tool that can be used to disrupt passing offenses in a big way. Blitz calls can often lead to more sacks, which can get the offense out of a rhythm, put them behind the chains making it more difficult to convert a first down and keep drives going, or help your own offense with field position.
However, with great quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Tom Brady, they can take game theory into their own hands and regularly get the upper hand by identifying the blitz and getting the ball out of their hands and to the correct receiver. Brady and Brees have years have experience and have seen it all, so defenses are not likely to get the better of them by blitzing. And young and athletic quarterbacks like Carson Wentz have a way of getting out of the blitz with natural ability.
The ability of great quarterbacks to beat the blitz is just one reason having a stout defensive front makes things a lot easier on defense and a lot more difficult on offense. Elite run defenses can force offenses into third-and-long situations, which helps with game theory and allows them to play the pass to get stops and get their own offense back on the field. Of course, blitzing is still an ace in the hole which can still be brought out by the defenses with an elite front.
Just look at teams that have added outstanding young running backs over the last few years—including the Rams, Jaguars, and Cowboys with top-ten selections in the draft. All of Todd Gurley, Leonard Fournette, and Ezekiel Elliott not only run the ball well, they present the threat of a run and force defenses to put more players in the box. The presence of a stud runner like those guys not only helps the run game, but it could help the pass game even more because defenses must focus on the running back if he is the best player.
The good play-callers are the best at it, but game theory isn’t too complex. For example, if you just think about it as if you were calling plays for an offense, you would want to call plays that give your team the best chance at a positive outcome. But you’re not running against air—you have a defense on the other side that makes decisions too, and it becomes a bit of a chess match.
Super Bowl XLIX gave a perfect example of game theory in just a couple minutes of real time. After the Seahawks got to the five-yard line via the spectacular bobbling catch by Jermaine Kearse, there was 1:06 left on the clock and they had one timeout—more than enough time to get the ball into the end zone if mixing in some passes to stop the clock on incompletions.
On first down, they ran the ball with Marshawn Lynch, who nearly got in but was tripped up at the one-yard line. The Patriots were clearly not just trying to stop the run, as pass was a very viable option in the situation, with Seattle having only one timeout. It looked like they were going to get into the end zone, but there was still time and the clock was ticking. Almost everyone expected Bill Belichick to call a time out and preserve time for Tom Brady and the offense—Cris Collinsworth even suggested on the NBC broadcast that the Patriots should perhaps let the Seahawks score a touchdown to get the ball back.
Belichick does not get recognition for it because people like to dwell on the negative, but he deserves a lot of credit for waiting it out and forcing Seattle’s hand. There was 1:00 left when Lynch was tackled short of the goal line, and by the time the Seahawks got set for a second-down play, there were under 30 seconds remaining. With only one timeout left, the Seahawks had to pass two out of the three remaining downs to even have time to get four plays in. Belichick forced their hand.
After Lynch nearly got in on the previous play, New England was selling out to stop the run—they would not allow Lynch to run the ball in for a likely game-winning score. As much as people want to claim Lynch would have gotten in if they had just handed him the ball, the Patriots got a ton of penetration. In all likelihood, Lynch would have been stuffed, causing his team to take their final timeout, which lets the Patriots know two passes are almost certainly coming.
While the Patriots were playing the run, they also had the perfect call to stop a quick pass they had seen on film and practiced against during the week (which Butler did not stop), with big corner Brandon Browner jamming the “pick” receiver, allowing Butler to fly in and make one of the greatest plays in NFL history. If anything should be criticized in regard to the Seahawks play call, it should be the type of pass play that was designed (but hindsight is 20/20 and that’s easy to say after the play happens).
Belichick and his team were placed in a competitive situation in which they had to quickly analyze the best strategies, considering their own actions relative the actions of the other participant, with the hope of winning the situation and game. Carroll and his team did the same. The Seahawks knew with the Patriots letting the clock run, two run plays were not going to happen—so they opted to try and catch them off guard by attempting the pass on second down. Only one winner emerged, but it played out right in front of our eyes:
A perfect example of game theory in football on the game’s biggest stage.