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What Might Have Been

One of the greatest endings in Super Bowl history never should have happened.

Three-plus hours earlier, on the opening drive of the game, the Steelers were driving down the field, deep into Arizona territory. Facing first-and-goal at the Cardinals' one-yard line, Pittsburgh seemed all but assured of starting the game with a touchdown. A breakdown in blocking assignments caused Gary Russell to lose four yards on 1st and goal. On 2nd and goal, Willie Parker gained those 4 yards back, setting up 3rd and goal from the 1. Ben Roethlisberger then scrambled, got stopped short of the goal line, then got (illegally) chucked into the end zone by his teammate, center Justin Hartwig. Or so it seemed. Upon further review, officials overturned the play, leaving the Steelers with 4th down and a foot (or less) to go for a big, opening-drive TD. Off the sidelines sprinted Jeff Reed and the kicking team. 3-0 Steelers.

I had no absolutely no vested interest in the Super Bowl, no rooting interest, no money on the game, not even a friendly side bet with my cat. But I nearly threw my TV out the window.

I'm not a football stathead, but I'm pretty confident that, given the statistical probability of scoring from the one-foot line, combined with the huge field position edge gained should the attempt fail and the Cardinals take over with Kurt Warner taking the snap from his own end zone, the correct play in terms of expected value had to lean STRONGLY toward going for the touchdown. Again, I say this as someone who's a relatively casual football fan. If you're an NFL head coach, shouldn't you have stacks of charts in your hand and swarms of assistants in your ear, relaying all the odds on every possible outcome in that situation? Shouldn't said head coach then process that information, pull Roethlisberger over, tell him to QB sneak the ball in, and be done with it?

Ah, but all this assumes two scenarios that we almost never see in sports, especially in football:

1) A coach will use logic and probabilities to make a decision, over gut feel and habit
2) A coach will ignore the little voice in his head that tells him to "play it safe", which is code for "don't do something even mildly controversial, because if it fails, the statistically illiterate, s|STAR||STAR||STAR|-disturbing media will give you grief for the rest of your life."

I made this case to two friends of mine.

One, a passionate Steelers fan, said Pittsburgh has struggled all year to punch the ball in these situations, and that the FG try was the right play in that situation. The Steelers ended up stalling just short of the goal line again in the 3rd quarter, prompting my Steelers-rooting buddy to email me back an "I told you so".

The second friend, who like me had no vested interest in the game but was, like me, someone who considers the odds in every life situation, sports-related or otherwise, may have been even more pissed off than I was (it was Chris Liss, which should surprise exactly zero regular readers of his outstanding columns). We both noted that neither Al Michaels nor John Madden even mildly questioned Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin's decision. My buddy also noted that if this were poker, the announcers would have ripped the gutless decision, arguing that the odds were strongly in favor of going for it, and that aggressive moves, more often than not, get rewarded. In other words, Norman Chad could probably break down that play better than John Madden, a man who's been playing, coaching and announcing football games for almost 60 years.

At any rate, by kicking a field goal in that situation and not going for the TD, the Steelers set off a chain of events that led to Santonio Holmes' amazing end zone catch of a perfectly thrown Roethlisberger pass–a thrilling moment even for the most detached football observer.

Still, I have to ask: Forgetting everything that transpired afterwards in the game, if you were Mike Tomlin, would you have gone for the TD, or kicked a FG?