“Three things can happen when you pass. And two of them are bad.”
-- Texas Longhorns coach Darrell Royal, who himself credited Woody Hayes of Ohio State
My students in Risk Management at the University of Illinois law school did some Monday-morning quarterbacking in class last Thursday afternoon. The subject was the outcome of the Super Bowl the Sunday before – specifically, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll’s call of a slant pass, trailing by four points with 26 seconds in the game and second-and-goal on Boston’s one-yard line, rather than launch running back Marshawn Lynch against Boston’s stacked but questionable defensive line.
The resulting interception by Patriots rookie Malcolm Butler handed victory to Boston. Firestorms of criticism deemed Carroll’s choice the worst call in NFL history, unrelieved by his lame attempt at a post-game explanation.
Instinctive professional performance under pressure requires high-level natural aptitude, trained and honed by intensive practice and experience. Think not only top-level athletics but airline pilots, oral surgeons and senior barristers. (In contrast, by the way, are activities with minimal entry qualifications and largely randomized results, such as casino gambling or investment fund management.)
So nearly all hindsight commentators are distinctly unqualified to render a credible judgment on what they would have done at the time, in Carroll’s place. Which does not, however, disable useful inquiry as to the components of his decision-making.
Now, after the passionate rowdiness aimed at Carroll in the world's dens, barrooms and betting parlors has started to quiet down, our classroom represented the saner half of the half-sane world of the Super Bowl spectacle.
Over the season, Lynch had averaged 4.7 yards per carry overall, and 2.7 yards per carry in the red zone while garnering thirteen touchdowns. With his colorfully nicknamed “Beast Mode” at the ready and ample play clock at his disposal, Carroll needed only one success out of the three downs available to rush for a single yard and notch up the victory. Failure on a first or second try would have intensified Boston’s goal-line focus on Lynch, to be sure, as if not already at its peak. But even at the fifty/fifty odds of independent coin-flips, Lynch would have succeeded seven-eighths of the time (for which, the formula is 1 - (½ x ½ x ½)).
More importantly -- and where the real pedagogic moment arrived – my students charged Carroll with under-valuing the small but devastating impact of a Black Swan, “worst case” outcome.
That is, from the gridiron to the boardroom to the courtroom, the natural bias in human nature is to act with over-confidence in favor of success and to minimize the possibility of catastrophe. It could be the “Mission Accomplished” of George W. Bush in 2003, or Chuck Prince of Citigroup claiming “we’re still dancing” just ahead of his firing in 2007, or Jon Corzine’s inability to assess the Eurobond exposure that was the last straw in the crushing of MF Global in 2011.
It is the failure to anticipate and avoid “the worst” that brings disaster. The unlikely but real possibility of the Patriots’ game-changing interception falls into the same category as the business and investor debacle of the collapse of Enron, or the economic destruction wrought by the downfall of the subprime mortgage market.
For Pete Carroll to dial up three ground-based attacks might have seemed both dull and unimaginative. But the strategy for a hard-charging leader in a hormone-fuelled environment should be to recognize clearly that the best way to maximize the prospect of victory is by avoiding defeat. In other words, pick the best line and run with it.
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