It’s four days now since the New York Giants won the Super Bowl, and those four days were filled with discussions on how the game and especially how the last seconds of the game went.
From a strategic perspective, the final touchdown of the game was extremely interesting: With 1:04 to play, the Giants, trailing 15-17, had a second down and goal on the six yard line with one New England time out remaining.
In this situation, both teams had a couple of strategic options:
Option 1: The Patriots could have tried forcing a turnover which would have won the game for them, however the probability was pretty low to achieve this.
Option 2: They could have tried stopping the Giants offense, limiting them to a field goal (and a 18-17 lead) with maybe 15 seconds and no time out remaining. Then they would have needed to hope for a good kickoff return, maybe one good pass and a long field goal attempt to win the game.
Option 3: They could have tried to allow the Giants to score a quick touchdown, leaving them with 57 seconds to play, one time out and trailing with a minimum 4 points, hoping to be able to produce a touchdown to win the game themselves (for those of you that have not seen the game – if there are any: This scenario actually happened, but the Patriots failed to score the touchdown on the final down of the game).
From a Giants perspective, the decisive question was: Go for the points or for taking seconds off the clock with first priority?
The threat of losing the game was probably bigger for them in option 3 than in option 2. However, taking a save lead in option two is tempting, compared to option three with having to kick a field goal, even if it is a short one, in the final seconds of the game, when snapper, holder and kicker are nervous and might blow it.
A pretty complex situation if you are on the pitch and have to decide in seconds in the midst of a heated up atmosphere in the biggest game of your career.
Under pressure, it is not easy to understand the game theoretical counter intuitive approach that the Patriots were better off if they allowed the Giants to score a touchdown against them. Also, it was not easy to find the right strategy to react to this finding.
Looking at the situation in a bit more detail it becomes obvious that both teams were not fully aware of all implications all the time:
The Patriots could have well followed the strategy of allowing the Giants to score earlier than they actually did.
One might discuss if it was a wise decision to challenge the long Mario Manningham reception with 3:46 to play, blowing a timeout that can be worth 40 seconds.
Also, in the play prior to the Giants touchdown, the Patriots stopped a run on first down with 1:04 to go, forcing them to use a time out. Or in the play before that, why push the receiver Hakeem Nicks out of bounds after he reached the first down instead of pushing him into the end zone?
On the Giants side, Ahmad Bradshaw could have stopped his run on the one yard line instead of entering the end zone. Actually, his quarterback Eli Manning screamed “Don’t score!” when he saw what was about to happen, and it remains unclear from watching the replays if Bradshaw really tried to stop; at least he seems to be wondering for a split second.
Then again, Manning can be blamed, too: Why run a play instead of taking a knee in that situation?
As a result of all this, the Giants were the luckier team, as the Patriots came pretty close to scoring on a Hail Mary pass, but both teams could have created a better position for themselves if they better understood all strategic implications or followed them in a more coordinated approach.
And that’s the point where we can all learn from the final minutes of Super Bowl 46: We often find ourselves in strategic situations that are extremely complex. It is important to understand the implications, take the right decisions and implement them in a stringent way.
What sounds so simple and like a no-brainer is a tough challenge when operating under pressure, as we all do every day.
Understanding all the implications in dynamic systems can be practically impossible. Just look at our example from the Super Bowl: You think we covered it all? Well, what if Bradshaw really would have tried to stop on the one yard line – would the Patriots defenders have been prepared to push him into the end zone before he could have gotten his knee down? And so on, and so on…
Taking the right decisions can also be a nearly impossible task, and the nature of decisions is that once you have taken and implemented one, it is tough to say if it was right / the optimum or not, as in the experiment called real life there is no control group. Did the Giants take the right decision by scoring the touchdown? Okay, they won the game, so they reached their ultimate goal, but maybe it got closer than it had to?
Finally one of the basic rules of game theory teaches is that a coordinated approaches often yields more reward than an uncoordinated one. If an approach is uncoordinated, people will either follow their instincts or implement what they were trained to do. Brandshaw’s instinct and what he is trained on is scoring touchdowns. So he did.
This leads to an interesting thought which is my final take away from Super Bowl 46: Training and instinct are important, as they lead us the way in complex situations and prevent us from apathy under pressure. Great strategic decisions are built on this and use training and instinct as a fallback position. The combination gives you the opportunity to explore strategic possibilities. This time the Giants’ exploration did not lead to a lot, so they went with the fallback. That’s the flexibility of a champion. Congratulations, New York Giants.