Despite this phenomenal fourth quarter catch by Julio Jones, the Atlanta Falcons lost Super Bowl 51.
CREDIT: Getty Images
How did the Atlanta Falcons go from a 19-point lead in the last two minutes of Super Bowl 51 to a loss in overtime? They were facing the New England Patriots, four-time Super Bowl champions and certainly very tough to beat. But the Falcons also made some fundamental mistakes, the kind most business people, and especially most entrepreneurs, are prone to make as well.
Here are some mistakes that led the Falcon’s surprising loss–and that all of us can learn from:
1. They weren’t flexible about risk.
Most of us have a “risk profile.” I tend to be risk-averse, for example. Over the years, that has cost me opportunities, but also kept me out of trouble. If you’re like most leaders, you have one too, and tend to deal with risk in a consistent way.
The problem with this is that every situation is different. Sometimes taking big risks makes absolute sense. Other times, you’re better off playing it safe. Having a single risk profile means you’re doing things wrong some of the time.
That’s exactly what happened to the Falcons. This season’s team had an aggressive, risk-taking profile. It’s what got them to the Super Bowl for only the second time in 18 years. It’s part of why they led 21-0 at halftime. They still had the lead going into the last minute of the game. If they’d switched from a risk-taking to a risk-averse approach at that moment, the game might have had a very different ending.
2. They didn’t change strategy.
Recency bias is the human tendency to believe that what was true in the recent past will be true for the foreseeable future. It’s what gets investors into trouble over and over. When the market is going up, they forget that it can also crash, and they keep buying. Then when it does crash and stays down for a while, they start believing that the market is a bad investment and they sell, often just in time to miss the next upswing.
Recency bias leads to all kinds of errors, and it helped the Falcons lose the Super Bowl when they continued the aggressive style of play that had worked for them up until then. In particular, with a big lead in the final minutes of the game, common sense would have dictated a simple strategy change: Slow down! The Falcons could have and should have run down the 30-second clock before every snap, but instead sometimes threw with 20 seconds of time still remaining. If they had slowed down, the Patriots might not have had enough time to tie the score in the last minute of regular play.
Watch out for recency bias if you hear yourself saying something like, “We’ve always done it this way,” or “This is what’s worked for us in the past.” Whenever that happens, stop and check your assumptions and ask yourself if all the conditions that made it the right decision in the past are still true. “We always play aggressive,” Falcons Quarterback Matt Ryan told the press at the end of the game. Then he said he wished he could take some of those aggressive plays back.
3. They didn’t follow the data.
Jeff Ma, best known for leading the MIT blackjack team that took on Las Vegas and inspired the movie “21” offered a fascinated odds-based analysis of Super Bowl 51. As Ma explains, there are computer simulations available that can tell coaches and quarterbacks which play has the best odds of success in any football situation, just as they can tell a blackjack player whether to stand or take a card in every blackjack situation. But in both blackjack and football, people ignore the odds and make the wrong decisions because, he says, “humans are subject to cognitive bias.”
With a lead of 28-9 in the last two minutes of the game, the Falcons had a 99 percent chance of winning according to widely available computer analysis, Ma writes. But cognitive bias caused the Falcons to pass the ball when they should have rushed it instead. He notes that throughout the game they were gaining an average 5.8 yards per rush, impressive compared to the league average of 4.3. In the last two minutes, rushing would have been a smarter, safer approach. Almost any other play would have been better than throwing passes. “They could have taken a knee three times in a row and kicked a field goal,” he writes. “But instead they decided to pass. And pass.”
Why did the Falcons ignore the data? We don’t know, but most of us, especially those with a lot of experience, prefer to make decisions based on that experience rather than do what some computer algorithm tells us. After all, we believe we have innate knowledge no computer can compete with. Unfortunately, much of the time we’re wrong. And we can wind up, like Matt Ryan, wishing we could go back and do it all differently.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.