The Super Bowl, Creative Risk, and Criticism

Last night, close to 120 million people watched the Super Bowl, which means that the (disastrous) goal-line play call in the final moments of the game was one of the most publicly viewed, in-the-moment creative decisions ever made.

After a miraculous reception, the Seattle Seahawks had the ball on the one yard line with (probably) the most forceful running back in the NFL in the backfield. The call? An attempted pass, which was intercepted, sealing the Patriots’ victory and lots of misery for their legions of anti-fans. The failure seemed to be the result of  a questionable play call, poor offensive execution, and a great defensive effort.

The public response was swift and full of venom.

“How could you call a pass in that situation?!?”

“The offensive coordinator should be fired!”

Even the announcers had a difficult time keeping themselves from throwing the coaching staff under the bus.

Yes, the call was questionable. I don’t have the same information or perspective as the coaches and players, but I’ll admit that it seemed like a bad call in the moment, even given the need to take time off the clock.

However, consider that had the play been successful, everyone would be singing their praises and talking about how ingenious it was to pass when everyone expected a run. They would be celebrating the creative risk that led to consecutive Super Bowl victories for the Seahawks.

That’s the way it always goes with the non-intuitive choice. We love to celebrate risky wins, and decry risky losses. We love to lob witty critiques at those who are putting it all on the line, while we watch from a safe distance in comfort.

This same thing happens all the time in the marketplace, and it often leads to needless conservatism over the fear of being an outlier.

All creative decisions require a measure of risk, and a degree of willingness to be misunderstood. Fortunately, most of us don’t make our decisions in front of an audience of millions. However, that doesn’t lessen the internal pressure we feel to avert the ire of our critics.

Yes, there are objectively good and bad decisions, especially given the benefit of time and perspective. However, make sure that you are building a team culture in which you place trust in the talents and intuition of your star players, and give them a chance to shine, even if that means doing it in an unconventional way. And whatever you do, please don’t throw your people under the bus when they fail aggressively.

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13 Comments

  1. Dokimastis

    Carroll’s logic was sound and his willingness to later back up his decision very commendable; however, Belichick was the genius. By not calling the time-out, he was in effect “burning his ships”, telling his defense that it was up to them, Brady would not be bailing them out. With the clock ticking he put pressure on the Seattle offensive coordinator, who called a pass that was no better than a coin-toss. If instead he had Wilson fake a hand-off to Lynch and rolled out with the ball he could have thrown to an open receiver, ran the ball in or thrown it away. The most amazing thing besides the interception, is that Belichick could not logically defend his decision he just went with his gut.

    Reply
    • Todd Henry

      Yes, it’s been fun to watch the conversation about the “sixth sense” of Belichick after the game. That was the decision that forced the Seahawks’ hand.

      Reply
  2. Mani

    Todd, Creative decisions in sports does not work always and the outcome is random. I am referring to Tony Dungy’s style of playing. Dungy’s style is unconventional a decade ago. We are human being and not a computer to make million simulations to find the best outcome. But I do agree with you, throwing under the bus is never a good thing. Dungy believed in his team, he held them accountable, and he provided a supportive environment!

    Reply
    • Todd Henry

      This is very true. There are many forces beyond your control, in sports and life. You can’t control for everything.

      Reply
  3. Paul Deveaux

    What most people that have been critical of Carroll’s decision in the Super Bowl fail to realize is that we need to separate the quality of the decision from the quality of the outcome.

    You can only judge a decision based on the information you have at the time of the decision. The result is not a part of that evaluation. To evaluate a decision you need to look at the information available and the process used to come up with the decision. In this specific case Lynch had only scored from the one yard line once all season. The Patriots were expecting a running play. Since 1998 no pass play from inside the 2 yard line had ever been intercepted with less than five minutes in the game and the team down by less than a touchdown. What happened at the end of the game was highly unlikely. All things considered the play was not that risky.

    That being said, for creatives the key or lesson in this is to have a solid process and trust in it. There will be times that circumstances beyond your control (i.e. chance) negatively affect the results. All we can do is continue to “do the work” and eventually great results will come.

    Reply
    • Todd Henry

      This is an excellent point, Paul. I agree that it’s easy to separate the quality of decision from quality of outcome, and that even the best decisions will sometimes result in failure due to unforeseen circumstances.

      Reply
  4. Bob Caples

    “Yes, there are objectively good and bad decisions, especially given the benefit of time and perspective.” Not to be harsh, but this sentence doesn’t really make sense. One NEVER has the benefit of time and perspective when they could really make a difference.

    Reply
    • Todd Henry

      My grasp of the English language has failed me once more. What I intended to imply was that it’s easy to see in retrospect whether or not something was a good decision.

      Reply
      • Bob Caples

        Not at all! It’s easy to THINK you see…and that’s the point of your article, to me at least. Maybe it was a good call, but a bad execution. And, in this situation, at least, you never know what the other team is going to do in response. Marshawn Lynch could’ve fumbled the ball had they run it.

        Back in 1992, I had $50,000 which I was planning to put into a house. However, my friend Sharon was dating a guy, whom she said was one of those businesspeople who never loses money, who had just started this small company called America Online. Buying the house was absolutely “the right call.” However, had I bought into the AOL IPO then, my 50K would’ve grown to about $2.5 billion.

        If my goal was to deploy my money smartly–and it was and I didn’t have a family then who needed a house, etc.–then yes, nine out of ten people would have said I made the right call. I guess, ultimately, I’m an agnostic on this question. And perhaps I’m taking this in a direction that wasn’t at all what you meant!

        Reply
  5. Bob Caples

    I have a promo concept that failed pretty badly, but I KNOW it’s a winner if only I had the chance to execute it correctly. Stock pickers always talk about stocks that are “unfairly” beaten down, as if the market has ever been about “fairness.”

    Reply
  6. Bob Caples

    Good article. Success has a 1000 fathers; failure is an orphan. Something like that. It would be interesting to hear the tic-toc on that decision. The options he considered; why he discarded the others; why he picked this one. He may have thought that if the play failed, it would be because the pass was incomplete, not intercepted. Everyone says he’s learned more him his failure than his successes, and giving people room to fail is sort of a business cliche by now, yes? But when is a failure too big to let stand?

    One investment writer bet big on Lehman Bros during the crash and didn’t use trailing stops. He reasoned that the Feds would never let Lehman fail and trailing stops would just let the big boys push his readers out of a lucrative trade. Like the fellow who rode the H bomb all the way down, so did this poor sod. If you get a mulligan every time you fail, are they really failures?

    Reply
  7. Gregory Keith Deal

    Todd, this is one of your best blogs I’ve read. Very nice comparison.

    Reply
    • Todd Henry

      Thanks, Gregory. Glad you liked it.

      Reply

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I'm Todd Henry.

I'm Todd Henry.

I write books, speak internationally on productivity, creativity, leadership, and passion for work, and help people and teams generate brilliant ideas. More

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