Kyle Shanahan: how to lose a winning game

The American football team Atlanta Falcons had a commanding lead of 28 to 3 during the 2017 Superbowl halftime. But then they fumbled the game in the second half. They lost 28 to 34! 

The game was dubbed as one of the greatest comeback stories of sports as the New England Patriots won when no one thought they would. But how did the Falcons screw up so badly?

It wasn’t that the Falcons were a bad team. In fact, arguably they were the better team. They had become the highest scoring offensive team under offensive coach Kyle Shanahan. So what happened?

Critics say that the Falcons lost because they were way too aggressive. Fans say that they choked. But the insiders say that they became overwhelmed with too much data to change tactics.

Situational statistics made Shanahan make some bad offensive calls. Data showed that quarterback Matt Ryan was having a great game with a very high passing the ball success rate. So they continued the offensive passing.

Data showed that the Falcons had above average success passing the ball long during second down. So they continued trying to throw the ball far during second down.

Statistics showed that the Patriots usually made adjustments in the second half of their game and had a strong run defence. So the Patriots decided to continue attacking through the air.

As a result – during key moments of the game, the Falcons fumbled the ball, and their quarterback was tackled and sacked, and they missed easy field goals. They lost a 25 point lead. And they lost the championship!

Too much data can be bad for you

“Which city has more inhabitants? San Diego or San Antonio?”

This is the question that Gerd Gigerenzer of the Max Planck Institute in Germany asked to students from Germany as well as from America. 62% of the American students got it right. San Diego has a higher population. But all the 100% of the Germans got it right!

How come? How did Germans perform better on a quiz about American cities? German students had heard of San Diego but not of San Antonio. And so they guessed that a popular city would have a higher population. But for Americans, both San Diego and San Antonio are household names. Because the Germans had less information, they performed better.

Too much data leads to poor guesses and decisions. A research conducted in 2015 shows that when doctors are presented with excess information, their decision making is impacted negatively. Provide them with just a few core tests and they are better at predicting heart attacks than if you provide them with whole body reports.

Excess information overwhelms and paralyses you. It leads to slow decision making and second guessing. It leads to more errors. And it exhausts you much faster!

There are companies that track their employees’ mouse clicks and time taken for various tasks and when they clock in and clock out and a hundred other myriad things. And yet, with all this data that they collect, they end up having less productive employees than companies who don’t track their employees. Because when they go through all of the data, they try to optimise the wrong things. Instead of focusing on employee output, they focus on employee action.

So should you not track data at all?

Investor Howard Marks tells us about the piece of advice his friend Ric Kayne gave him: “95% of all financial history happens within two standard deviations of normal.” 

What you want to do is log the data. And set triggers to alert you when something passes beyond two standard deviations of its normal range. But beyond that, don’t pay attention to all of the data all the time.

Instead focus on keeping things simple. Take action on fewer data points and key metrics.

But how can you know which data points are more important?

Your goals drive what data points are more important to you. 

  1. Destination. You need to have a clear objective. A clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve and how will you know if you have succeeded. If you don’t know where you are going, then no data can help you.
  2. Starting point. You need to assess where you are at currently. You can’t use strategies and tactics others use if their starting points are not similar.
  3. Map the plan. Only when you know the destination and your current point, can you map the action plan to take you from here to success. 

All that Kyle Shanahan and the Falcons had to do was slow the game and burn the clock. They were in the lead. They should have run the ball to protect the lead. Passing the ball in the air is quick. Running the ball is more time consuming. 

They would have won if they had assessed their game based on the situation during half time, instead of relying on the mountain of statistical data. They would have won if they would have mapped their strategy based on the right success metric: win the game. Instead of metrics such as making more passes or scoring more. 

All they had to do to remain in the lead was wind the clock down. Instead, they fumbled the ball and the game!

Action Summary:

  • Spend less time trying to collect all the information. Spend more time defining the problem better instead.
  • Have clarity on what success means. And regularly assess where you are at currently. Pay attention to only the few data points that help you go from your starting point to your destination.