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Nate’s Notes 7: Good Decisions & Bad Luck

By March 22, 2021June 8th, 2023No Comments

In Super Bowl 49, with 26 seconds left, the Seahawks were down by 4 points to the legendary New England Patriots, coached by Bill Belichick and led by quarterback Tom Brady, probably the greatest coach / quarterback combo in football history.

But there was good news for the Seahawks. They had the ball on the one-yard line. If they could just move the ball one yard, they would win the Superbowl. And it got better for the Seahawks…they had Marshawn Lynch, one of the greatest running backs in the NFL. Lynch’s nickname was “beast mode” because of his incredible ability to break tackles and run over defenders. He was the perfect player for this situation.

In fact, I’d had a front row seat to Marshawn Lynch’s powerful running style a few years earlier when I played against him in the Las Vegas Bowl. He ran over, through, and around our defense for a career best 195 yards and 3 touchdowns.

And he was doing the same thing to the Patriots. I knew Lynch was going to get the ball. I knew he would get 1 yard, and I knew the Seahawks would win the Superbowl. But then the unthinkable happened. When the Seahawks quarterback called for the ball, he didn’t hand the ball off to Lynch. Instead, he took one step back and threw a pass…an infinitely more risky play on the goal line. And to millions of peoples utter astonishment, the pass was intercepted. The game was over. But it was the Patriots who had won. The Seahawks had lost.

When football fans are asked about the worst calls in football history, this play call is frequently at the top of the list. How could you not give the ball to Lynch? You only had 1 yard to go! How could you throw the ball? How could you give away the Super Bowl?

But unsurprisingly, there’s actually quite a bit more to this story. While the Patriots had a legendary coach in Bill Belichick, the Seahawks had a legendary coach as well, Pete Carroll.

Carrol was one of only three coaches in history, who had won both a college football championship and an NFL championship as a head coach. In fact, Pete Carroll and the Seahawks had won the Superbowl the previous year. And Pete Carroll known for being gutsy…known for making tough decisions even when those decisions wouldn’t be popular.

So back to the play in question. There were 26 seconds left, and it was only 2nd down and the Seahawks had one timeout. Carroll correctly reasoned that he had time to execute three plays, so long as one of the three plays was a pass play (because the clock would stop if the pass play is incomplete). When the Seahawks went to the line of scrimmage, they saw that the Patriots were fully expecting run. The Patriots had eight people playing the run but the Seahawks had only six blockers. As good as Marshawn Lynch was, even he couldn’t be expected to beat two players by himself, and that’s assuming the other six blockers on the Seahawks blocked perfectly… anything but a guarantee. So, the Seahawks quickly determined that this would be the time to throw the ball. But it got even better for the Seahawks. The Patriots were vulnerable to the pass, both in terms of numbers and personnel.  The Seahawks saw that the primary defender for the pass play they wanted to run was Malcolm Butler, an undrafted player who had barely made it to the NFL. He was also a rookie, meaning it was his first year in the NFL. And he’d never had a single interception in his NFL career. Attacking him felt like a safe play.

That’s why Pete Carroll chose to pass the ball. They had several advantages. And if the pass play didn’t work, they would just give the ball to Marshawn the next two plays. It was actually a good decision. Pete just got unlucky.

A few days after the game, Pete Carroll was interviewed by Matt Lauer on the Today Show. Matt started the interview by saying, “Let’s start with full disclosure…I was at the game Sunday. The next morning, I went on the air, and I said to my viewers that I thought it was the worst call I’d ever seen.” So, I don’t want to be that guy that sits here and pretends I didn’t say it. I said it. You’ve heard the experts, not just the average Joe’s say, “It was the worst call ever.”

At that moment Pete immediately, and politely, interrupts Matt, for the first and only time in the interview, and responds: “It was the worst result of a call ever. The call would have been a great one if we catch it. It would have been just fine and nobody would have thought twice about it.

What Pete Carroll understands, that so many of us fail to grasp, is that the goodness or badness of a decision, is often independent of the outcome. Or said another way, the rightness or wrongness of a decision should only be judged based on the information available at the time the decision is made.

Psychologists have a name for this, when we judge a decision as bad, only because the outcome of the decision was bad: Psychologists call this the outcome bias. And we’re all quite prone to the outcome bias. Researchers at Brigham Young University collected data from over 23,000 NBA games over 20 season and found that NBA coaches are vulnerable to the outcome bias as well. The researchers found that coaches tend to stick with their starting lineups significantly more so after narrow wins than narrow losses, even though either outcome has essentially the same information regarding future success.

Second, NBA coach’s decisions to change the starting lineup are equally responsive to both expected and unexpected success. However, if coaches were perfectly rational, they should respond only to unexpected performance. NBA coaches attribute too much importance to their strategy in a narrow win or loss, causing them to switch strategies too much when they lose, and not enough after they win.

We also see the outcome bias in regard to medical procedures. People determine that risky procedures are either good or bad based on the outcome of the procedure rather than based on the decision making process of the doctor at the time of the procedure.

A good decision that leads to a bad outcome is still a good decision. And if you don’t believe that, think about it another way. A bad decision that leads to a good outcome, is still a bad decision. For example, if you make the terrible decision to drive while drunk, but you get home safely, the decision was still awful.

But so what. Why does this matter? Why is it important to separate the decision making process from the outcome of the decision.

Throughout your life, you are going to make a number decisions that turn out badly. But in these moments, you need to ask yourself if it was the decision that was bad or if it was just the outcome that was bad. And if the decision was good, but you simply got unlucky, then don’t beat yourself up over it. If we allow our judgments to be influenced by the outcome bias we’re going to hold ourselves responsible for events beyond our control. That’s not right. It’s not helpful. It will cause us to make worse decisions in the future. And it won’t make us happy. We need to be generous with ourselves when we do the best we can.

And importantly, we need to make sure that we don’t hold others responsible for events beyond their control. If our family members, friends, or colleagues make decisions that lead to bad outcomes, but their decision was good at the time the decision was made, then we should extend them the utmost generosity.

So, kids please be kind to yourself. When you seek out the best information you can, and you make the best decision possible, given the information you have at the time, then that is all anyone could ever ask for. Be generous to yourself. And be generous to everyone, especially all of the Pete Carrolls. Don’t hold yourself or others accountable for bad lack.

It’s a simple idea. Please take it seriously.

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