“The worst call in Super Bowl history,” read a headline in my hometown Seattle Times after Seahawks’ head coach Pete Carroll seemingly threw the game away with his ill-fated decision to pass – rather than run – as the game clock expired.
Actually, Carroll made two end-of-half decisions in Sunday’s Super Bowl, both questioned by the NBC announcers. The differing outcomes of the decisions – and the resulting reactions by pundits and fans – offer potent examples of a mental pitfall that has been the subject of roughly 800 psychological science publications.
But, as research shows, we often do not expect something to happen until it does. Only then do we clearly see the forces that triggered the event, and feel unsurprised.
Better to kick a safe field goal, argued the NBC announcers. But the gamble worked, and Carroll was acknowledged to have made a “gutsy” call
“The stupidest coaching decision I can recall,” I vented to my wife afterwards, aided by 20/20 hindsight.
The next morning I reassessed the situation. With one timeout, I now realized, Seattle could venture, at most, two running plays.
Responding to those who claimed he made “the worst call ever,” Carroll later explained to Today Show host Matt Lauer, “It was the worst result of a call ever. The call would have been a great one if we caught it. It would have been just fine and no one would have thought twice about it.”
But probabilities are not certainties. In sports, as in life, good decisions can yield bad outcomes. Bad decisions can have lucky outcomes. Thanks to hindsight bias, “winning erases all sins.” And losing makes a good coaching call look not gutsy but just plain stupid – even to a psychologist-fan who temporarily forgot what he teaches.