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Game Theory in Football

This article looked at the play calling by the Seattle Seahawks in their game against the New England Patriots during Super Bowl XLIX.  Specifically the focus was on the last play of the game, where Seattle threw an interception on the goal line, losing them the game with a final score of 28 to 24.  Many were shocked by Seattle’s head coach Pete Carroll’s decision to pass the ball on the goal line when they had arguably one of the best running backs in the NFL.  When Seattle attempted to run the ball with Marshawn Lynch and they had less than 2 yards to go for a first down or touchdown, they were 81 percent successful.  On the other hand, New England was ranked last in the NFL for allowing those short yard plays to be successful 81 percent of the time.  This lead to the question, why would Seattle not run the ball in for a touchdown when they had much greater odds of scoring when they run the ball versus when they pass the ball.

This decision can be related to game theory, which has been covered in class.  If the defense knows exactly what play the offense is going to run, then it is very easy to stop the play.  This is why it is necessary to call plays that go against what the defense expects, such as passing the ball on the goal line.  In the NFL, the play calling has reached an equilibrium where the ball is ran two thirds of the time in short yardage scenarios, while it is passed the other one third of the time.  This lead to touchdowns 57.5 percent of the time when running and 57.5 percent of the time when passing.  If one strategy was more successful, then the equilibrium would have shifted more towards that type of play until equilibrium is reached again.  This goes on to show how it would make sense for the Seahawks to pass the ball at least once in the three downs they had to try to score on the goal line.  The Patriots were expecting the run and only playing man to man coverage, so a pass would have scored, or been incomplete and further opened up the run play to score.  The chances of an interception are low, so it made sense to try to run a pass to score on the defense which was expecting a run.  Only in hindsight is it easy to say that Seattle should have run the ball.


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November 2018