3 Management Lessons from Pete Carroll’s Super Bowl Mistake

Modern Marketing


“Let’s throw the ball here!” Pete Carroll’s, Head Coach of the Seattle Seahawks, now famous directive to his offensive coordinator who in-turn made the play call. The front page of the Seattle Times screamed the next day “The worst call in NFL history cost us the Super Bowl.”

Let’s take a step back for a minute. To set the stage for those who missed the Super Bowl, Seattle was down four points with around two minutes to go. Aided by a miracle catch, they moved to the five-yard line of New England with a little more than a minute to go and had four downs to punch it in.

Easy pickins, especially given that Seattle’s best player that night was their running back, Marshawn Lynch. On first down, Lynch gained four yards. 50 seconds left and now Seattle had three plays to get one yard. If Seattle scored in any of the next three plays, they’d be hoisting the Lombardi trophy.

And then, Pete Carroll and his coordinator made the fateful call to throw the ball instead of run it. Russell Wilson’s, the Seahawk quarterback, throw was intercepted by an unheralded rookie named Malcom Butler, from the Patriots.

Game, set and match—New England.

I am neither a fan of Seattle nor New England, so I wasn’t emotionally stung by the result. But I was taken aback by Pete Carroll’s error in judgment at the most critical moment of his entire season, maybe the most critical moment that some of his players may ever encounter in their careers. He made a very risky call. And it cost them the chance for repeat glory.

I really admire Carroll for being a standout person who immediately took the blame for the result and emphasized that the buck stops with him. These acts exemplify what a great leader he is! However, over the past week he has defended his thinking and I believe that there were three critical flaws at the end that cost his team the game—strategic missteps that we all can learn from and incorporate into our daily lives as marketers and professionals:

1. In Critical Moments, Always Put the Ball in the Hands of Your Best Player

We want the best players on our teams to be involved in the most critical moments. Imagine playing the Chicago Bulls of the 90’s or the Lakers over the past decade. Who’s taking the shot when the game is on the line? You can bet its Jordan and Kobe respectively—the game-changers!

The same thinking applies to our businesses too. Imagine briefing Gartner on a key magic quadrant discussion or delivering a keynote presentation at a prestigious conference to thousands of prospective buyers—you want your A+ players driving these initiatives. Our probability of success is so much higher with the proverbial ball in the hands of our stars.

And Seattle did exactly the opposite. Marshawn Lynch was their best player that night and had gained more than 100 yards up to that point. As the play was coming, Seattle fans would’ve screamed—we want him on that ball, we need him on that ball! Unfortunately for them, Seattle put the ball in the hands of their third best wide-receiver—Ricardo Lockette.

2. When Taking Risks, Take Them Early

If we have to take risks in any game or project, it’s almost always better to do it early and as quickly as possible. This is clear for those of us who are tennis players: we take more risks on the first serve and play the second serve cautiously. As a result, if we fail in our first attempt, the point is not over. We still have a chance to recover or even be ahead of where we were.

As marketers, we absolutely don’t want to try out untested messaging in a big end-of-the-year campaign or introduce some new pricing approach late in the 4th quarter of our business. These are risky moves that leave us no time for recovery and don’t give a second chance to get it right. Instead, if we want to take risks, we do it earlier, when less is on the line.

Pete Carroll, while defending his pass play call, pointed out that he had taken the same risk in the end of the first half, where Seattle threw the ball with just six seconds left and scored. He actually corroborated my point above—if the pass play had failed at the end of the half, he’d still have time to recover from the error. With fifty seconds left in the game, he left his team no time to recover in case a mistake happened. And it did.

3. When Making a Strategic Move, Always Choose Your Dominant Strategy

In the 1990s’, Princeton University Professors Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff published their book Thinking Strategically, a must-read playbook for all of us who yearn to gain a competitive edge in marketing, politics, or everyday life. In this book, they discuss the concept of a dominant strategy—a course of action a player takes that has the best chance to out-perform all his other actions, no matter what the opponent did. If this strategy is clear, the answer is simple: this is the first thing one should seek.

Imagine you’re a marketer in a highly price-sensitive market and have established the #1 position in your category. Let’s say your competition has introduced an aggressive promotion to gain some ground and finish strong at the end the year. Your best strategy not to lose any ground would be to exactly match that move—a course of action that can outperform others, no matter what your opponent did. With other factors remaining constant, you cannot lose market share based on a pricing war alone. Coke follows this strategy in many markets not to lose market share to Pepsi. And in Vegas, you can follow the same strategy vs. your friend in the last hand at the Roulette table.

With one yard left to gain, Seattle should’ve pondered—what course of action gives us the best chance to out-perform all others, regardless of what New England does? I opine that running the ball would’ve been the one. Why? Marshawn Lynch, the best running back in the league, had not been stopped before in the entire game for less than a yard (less than two actually). He had just gained four yards on the previous play. A quick risk-reward analysis should’ve skewed the decision entirely in favor of running the ball—the risk was significantly lower with running the ball than passing it, while the reward was no worse and likely better.

Many people point out that the New England player made a great defensive play by intercepting the ball. No arguments here. But a good strategist would’ve anticipated the risk of such an act at a critical juncture and reasoned backwards to call a play that mitigated this risk and provided equal or greater reward. Ironically, such a move would’ve also taken advantage of a strategic blunder by the opponent—inexplicably, New England didn’t call a timeout to save time in case their offensive needed to come back. The game would’ve been over if Seattle scored.

So there we go. My vantage point on three strategic missteps that either in isolation or in combination, can lead to undesirable results. However, a friend of mine presented a more evolved perspective on why Seattle lost—he reasoned that as they were never meant to be at the Super Bowl in the first place, given how lucky they were to get the win over Green Bay, the result was all about karmic justice. Maybe he is right. Maybe this had less to do with critical thinking. Maybe, Carroll was destined to have this momentary lapse of reason at perhaps the most critical moment of his career!