An Egghead’s Guide to the Super Bowl

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John Urschel, Penn State graduate, NFL offensive lineman and Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at MIT, has some advice on how to enjoy the Super Bowl. (Photo: Penn State/flickr)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “An Egghead’s Guide to the Super Bowl.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

We assembled a panel of smart dudes—a two-time Super Bowl champ; a couple of NFL linemen, including one who’s getting a math Ph.D at MIT, and our resident economist—to tell you what to watch for, whether you’re a football fanatic or a total newbie.

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.

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[MUSIC: Tony Flynn, “Orchestral Dawn”]

[MUSIC: Richard Freitas, “Gridiron Glory”]

Super Bowl Sunday has become a sort of secular holiday in the United States, with more than 110 million people watching the game on TV. As with any audience that large, there’s bound to be a lot of variance among the viewers. You’ve got hardcore fans, especially of the teams involved – this year, the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons. You’ve got the people who like football well enough but aren’t fanatics. And then there’s a large swath of people who probably don’t watch much football at all. They’re primarily there for the party, and the chicken wings. Or maybe they’re new to this country, or at least new to the sport, and have no clue as to how American football even works. So we thought: what can we here at Freakonomics Radio do to make this secular holiday a little more enjoyable for everyone? That’s why we assembled a few bright people, including two current NFL players; a former player who’s a two-time Super Bowl champion; and because this is Freakonomics Radio, a Ph.D. economist, to create this  episode: “An Egghead’s Guide to the Super Bowl.”

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For our Egghead’s Guide to the Super Bowl, we’ll start with our resident egghead, Steve Levitt.

[MUSIC: Dorian Charnis, “Endurance”]

STEVEN LEVITT: Hey, Dubner.

Levitt is my Freakonomics friend and co-author, an economist at the University of Chicago.

DUBNER: So Levitt, I’ve known you a long time and I know you’ve written a lot of papers on different sports and elements of sports — sumo wrestling and soccer and sports gambling, for instance. But honestly, if someone were to ask me, “Hey, is Steve Levitt a sports fan?” I don’t really know. I don’t think you actually enjoy watching just to watch your — you don’t really enjoy rooting for a team or anything plebeian like that, do you?

LEVITT: Well the sad part is I used to. I grew up as a huge sports fan and then before I wrote papers on sports gambling I did a lot of sports gambling myself and although sports gambling was really, really fun, the problem with it was that once you start betting on sports it became, at least for me, I think for most people, hard to maintain any kind of loyalty to the home teams like the Minnesota Vikings or the Twins that I grew up loving so much. And even though I no longer gamble on sports, I’ve never been able to get back my mojo when it comes to really caring about a team just for the sake of caring about a team.

DUBNER:  So considering that you don’t love watching the game just for the sake of the game or the competition or your team, whatever. Um, are there ways that you enjoy it anyway? Are there things that you look for whether they’re kind of brain puzzles or kind of bets against yourself to see, you know, if X happens will Y happen and so on?

LEVITT:  Well I don’t do anything as intellectual as all that. But  I do watch the Super Bowl, and there are at least two things about the Super Bowl which  at least for me give me a source of entertainment when I watch the game. Now the  first of these of course is the ads, and there’s really nothing else in the world like Super Bowl ads. And I don’t know why I love them so much. It’s partly because I know so much effort has gone into them, partly because there’s so much creativity and partly because I am … I always do focus on the intellectual side of wondering whether the ads will actually work. And it’s an interesting problem. So in general it’s very hard to figure out whether advertising works. In particular it’s extremely difficult to know whether something like a Super Bowl ad actually works and in a time where now this year I think the 30-second Super Bowl spot will be selling for $5.5 million, it’s a good question to ask whether or not indeed the investment that the firms are making in these ads pay off, and so as I watch the ads I’m always intrigued to think about whether or not there’s any conceivable way that the ad that you’re seeing might lead to a positive ROI for the advertisers.

So that’s one thing to think about during the Super Bowl, especially if you’re not that interested in the football. But what about the football? Let’s introduce the rest of our egghead panel, all of whom are quite qualified on that front.

[MUSIC: Ed Hartman, “Football Funk”]

My name is John Urschel. I’m a Ph.D. student at MIT in applied mathematics and I also play football for the Ravens in the NFL.

WINSTON: Eric Winston. I am a right tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals. Just finished my 11th year and I am the president of the NFLPA.

TUCK:  Justin Tuck, former NFL defensive end now Wharton MBA student.

So we’ve got in John Urschel a guy getting his math Ph.D. at MIT while playing in the NFL; in Eric Winston, the president of the NFL players’ union; and in Justin Tuck, a recent retiree, with two Super Bowl rings, who’s now getting his MBA at Wharton. Surely their recommendation for what to watch for isn’t the same as Steve Levitt’s? And yet … it is:

URSCHEL:  It does not matter how much or how little football you know. You will enjoy the commercials. When they go to commercial break, this is not your time to get up and go to the bathroom and like go get some like chips and dip.

WINSTON: Watch the halftime show — it’s great. The halftime show is phenomenal. The commercials are great too. The commercials are really funny.

TUCK:  I’ll tell them to pay attention to the commercials. The commercials are really good.  

Okay, so watch the commercials. As for the game itself? We’ll start with what to watch for if you know absolutely nothing about the sport of American football.

URSCHEL: I’d say it’s very much similar to rugby

John Urschel, the mathematician.

URSCHEL: Except some main differences are when you have the ball and you get tackled, they actually stop play, so rugby you know it’s continuous play. They actually stop play and it’s a lot of set pieces which a lot of people who don’t watch football and a lot of international people, they think it’s kind of strange, they think it’s kind of slow. But I think the thing to watch for and appreciate is the fact that because football is broken up into these bits of like seven, eight second plays with these breaks in between, in those seven and eight seconds you get to see so much athleticism and just so much physical talent that it makes it a much higher quality seven or eight seconds broken up than if you watch an entire rugby game throughout or an entire soccer game throughout. I can tell you that on every single play if you watch it closely and you really pay attention to the players you will see amazing feats of athleticism every single play which I can’t say for every single minute of say West Ham versus Arsenal.

TUCK:  I would say if you don’t know anything about the game, right, you probably will watch the person with the ball.

Justin Tuck, who played nine seasons with the New York Giants and two with the Oakland Raiders.

TUCK: Like obviously the center has the ball first. He’s going to snap it to the quarterback in some capacity while he’s in the shotgun or under center. And then from there if it’s a run play, you know the quarterback is going to hand the ball to the running back. If there’s a pass play the quarterback is going to drop back and figure out what is the best option for him to disperse the ball to another player.

WINSTON: If you actually want to watch the game, step one — don’t bother a guy that’s really watching the game to explain it to you.

Eric Winston.

WINSTON: Like, that is the worst. Like we can do that at halftime we can… just right in the middle of the series don’t start pulling, “Hey, what’s that mean?” or whatever. So that’s step one if you’re a novice or you’re you don’t really care about the game.

DUBNER: I’ve often been told and read that all offensive linemen are on average the smartest guys on any football team. Is that true and if so, why is it?

WINSTON: Of course. Without a doubt we’re the smartest guys in the field.

URSCHEL:  I like to think we’re pretty bright.

Urschel is also an offensive lineman.

URSCHEL: I mean, I hate to judge people just based off their position group but I like to think we’ve got some pretty smart guys. Certainly I would I would agree with that in that you know being an offensive lineman requires more kind of mental function in a given game than say playing as a defensive lineman or linebacker or defensive back and that’s certainly true. You have to know your assignments know all these plays. Be able to see what the defense is doing make adjustments and then to be all on the same page all five of you, because all it takes is one of you to mess up and the whole play is just ruined. As opposed to on defense, all it takes is one of you to make an amazing play and the whole play is just brilliant.

I asked Justin Tuck the same question – if offensive lineman are, on average, the smartest group on the field. He, remember, was a defensive lineman.

TUCK: I would say as a group they probably are.

DUBNER: Really? I can’t believe you’re giving it to them just like that.

TUCK: Wait, wait,  you didn’t let me finish. Let me finish. As individuals go, you know I would probably say all the O-linemen had to be you know, C caliber of smarts, where you get guys at the center position probably has to be B , you know a B-plus type, quarterback has to be probably A.  But you know you know obviously they’re going to say — and I heard you talked to two pretty good ones — so I could give that to them. For the whole, I give that to them.

So if you’re a football novice and you’re watching the Super Bowl, you’ve got a few things in your pocket: watch the ads, of course; during the game, watch the ball but also take advantage of the stop-and-start nature of the game, that seven or eight seconds of amazing athleticism; and finally, if you’re looking to impress someone, tell them how the offensive lineman – the huge gentlemen up front who protect the quarterback and clear the path for runners – how they’re probably the brightest guys on the field. All right, then, what if you already know a fair amount about the game? We asked our eggheads what you should watch for. John Urschel first:

URSCHEL: I think one thing that’s always interesting to think about, that I think the regular fan who watches a lot of football doesn’t kind of put in their head, is, think about the kind of chess match going on here. Think about the actual strategies that the team have and try to think about what wins and loses a football game. Because you know you’re a football fan, you watch all these games, you root for your team. You know you’re a diehard fan. But really what are the fundamental things that win and lose football games and what are the critical moments and how do you know them when they get there. The sort of awareness of, “Well, how do these wins and losses really really come about?”

[MUSIC: Joshua R. Mosley, “Government Suspense”]

To that end, Justin Tuck suggests you look for patterns in how a given team handles different situations as the game goes on.

TUCK: You can figure out you know, depending on what the team had done earlier in the game why they would come back to do something you know later in the game that way. I would say look at personnel like whether — you know, normally in third and ten, you know you’re going to be more a passing attack type of offense. And obviously on defense they’re going to be more in the nickel packages and trying to stop the pass.

 Eric Winston has some simple but useful advice for a fairly knowledgeable football fan:

WINSTON:  Look who affects the middle of the pocket.

Meaning?

WINSTON: Meaning, see what team can move make the quarterback move horizontally.

The quarterbacks to watch this year are Matt Ryan – a great player for most of his eight seasons with the Falcons, but playing in his first Super Bowl; and Tom Brady of the Patriots, playing in his record seventh Super Bowl.

WINSTON: Tom does a phenomenal job of what they call stepping up in the pocket, meaning that once the ball has been snapped and the quarterback’s looking downfield he moves upward in the pocket, usually right to the direction of where the ball was snapped by the center. He steps up and is looking to make a good throw because it’s easier to make a throw when your shoulders are perpendicular to the line of scrimmage and you can follow through. So if you’re affecting that ability, especially for Tom, in making him move sideways, he doesn’t throw the ball as well. So Matt’s a little bit… as similar to Tom Brady in that sense. He likes to play from the pocket. He likes to be able to step up and make throws. He’s used to making throws with some guys on him. He’s a big guy. … If they’re pressuring the middle of the pocket and making Matt Ryan move around and move laterally, they’ll be better for it.

If this actual football stuff doesn’t move you, Eric Winston has something else to think about. Something that comes from playing the NFL for 11 years and not making it to the Super Bowl.

WINSTON: So this is a little factoid that I’m sure a lot of your audience might be interested in. Most players, even though they have the option of buying two tickets and going to the game, won’t go — the active players won’t go there. There’s very few players that will go. The old adage is you don’t go to the Super Bowl until you play in it. And so that’s always been most guys’ thing, that they’re not going to… They’ll come to the park they’ll come to Houston to go to some of the parties and do some media engagements and talk to people and meet people but they leave either Sunday  morning to get home so they can watch the Super Bowl or they’ll leave Saturday.

DUBNER: Just because it’s too hard to sit there and watch it in person?

WINSTON: Well, It’s just that’s just one of those things. It’s just it’s like superstition almost. You just don’t you know go to the Super Bowl until you played in it.

Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: our eggheads tell you what to watch for if you’re really into football, or want to seem as if you are. And: if you’re the kind of person who hears the word “football” and thinks of soccer – well, we’ve got that in our Freakonomics Radio archive too – at Freakonomics.comon iTunes,  and elsewhere. I’d suggest you start with the episode called “Why America Doesn’t Love Soccer (Yet).” There’s also one called “The Longest Long Shot” – that’s about Leicester City Football Club’s amazing Premier League title. Both episodes include my footy-loving teenager Solomon – and, if you’re really into it, he and I do a whole separate footy podcast called Footy for Two. Check it out.

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[MUSIC: Brian Curtin, “Will to Win”]

How do you watch the Super Bowl? Depends – depends on how much you care about the teams; depends on whom you’re watching with; and your level of interest and knowledge. In this “Egghead’s Guide to the Super Bowl,” we’ve been asking NFL players past and present – Justin Tuck, John Urschel, and Eric Winston – things that anyone can look for. We’ve already covered the average football fan and the total newbie; but what should someone who really knows the game watch for?

WINSTON:  I look at formation — are they doing a lot of two tight-end sets, are they completely open sets? And what are they. Are they under center quite a bit? I still believe and they’ve gone away from this. But I still believe the more you’re under center, the more deception you have in your offense. You’re more you’re able to play- action pass more you’ll able to do different running plays, I think out of shotgun you are limited to me and some of the things that you can do. And so I look at that. I’m looking at the defense obviously –- are they moving around, or are they stagnant or are they blitzing a lot. And then once the ball is snapped I’m watching the front seven, meaning the offensive lineman. Plus the down linemen and linebackers and how are they, who’s winning there,  who’s not winning.

That was Eric Winston, long-time offensive lineman, and current president of the NFL Players Association. And here’s advice from John Urschel, the Ravens offensive lineman who’s also getting his Ph.D. in applied math.

URSCHEL:  I would tell them pick any position that they find interesting, whether it’s you know, like a corner back or whether it’s a certain wide receiver and you’ll really notice more about the game if you just pick a position or even pick a player and just watch that player the entire game,  just to see what that person’s game is like the whole game, because very much very often you know football fans even hardcore football fans who know a lot, they’re always watching the action and they kind of miss out on the idea of well what’s this player’s day actually like. So if you look at a wide receiver– what is that wide receiver doing on pass plays where the main route combination is not to his side. What is he doing when it’s a run play. Is he running them off, is he just jogging, is he talking to the corner back? What you know what is going on there.

DUBNER: Offensive linemen are in the unfortunate position of when on the rare occasion that they make a mistake, and are called for holding, that is often one of the only times that their name is mentioned on the broadcast and the camera goes to them and so on. It is just an unfortunate situation.

URSCHEL: Well, no offensive linemen will ever admit this but since we’re talking you know mathematically holding happens a lot during a game but only gets called … and when it gets called it’s always kind of a little questionable. Should have been called, shouldn’t have been called. So there’s always this risk-reward as an offensive lineman for how long you hold for, how hard you hold, in terms of how often you get holding calls during the season, as opposed to how much this helps you maintain your block.

DUBNER: Do you find that an offensive lineman or defensive lineman is more prone to fatigue?

URSCHEL: Defensive linemen certainly, because they have to run to the football. So an offensive lineman’s job is I’m blocking this man and I’m stopping him from either getting to the quarterback or getting to the running back. And while his job is to get to the quarterback or the running back so you know I’m blocking him. And suppose the running back runs all the way to the other side eventually he’s going to get off my block. He’s never going to get to the guy but he still has to start running in that direction. If the quarterback throws the ball and a receiver catches it. Well I’m not much good downfield I’m running downfield but the defensive lineman has to sprint downfield to try to help to make the tackle. So they get tired much more quickly than we do. Also I think there’s some fatigue involved in not knowing what’s happening. So we have to always be going always be you know aggressive whereas I know the play I know what’s going to happen,  they have to figure this out.

DUBNER: That’s such an interesting point because there’s a lot of social science research psychology particularly that shows that uncertainty is exhausting. And people make really poor decisions under uncertainty. So you’re saying that even for the defensive. For anyone on the defense I guess you’ve got that doubt all game long.

URSCHEL: Yes. You’ve got this constant uncertainty.  

TUCK:  If you ever want to watch smart football players, especially on the defensive side, just pick a defensive end.

And that again is Justin Tuck, an All-Pro defensive end who spent nine seasons with the New York Football Giants, including their two Super Bowl wins over the New England Patriots.

TUCK: And most of the time the defensive ends that are really late getting in their stance. They’ve exed out plays they know are not coming. I used to do it. I learned it from Strahan and Osi when I was playing with those guys —

That’s Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora.

TUCK: — but I would always get in my stance last second because I wanted to see what the offense was doing. I wanted to see did they have trips into the boundary. Is the running back eight yards deep versus six or seven yards deep. Quarterback in the shotgun. What is what is the hand of the offensive linemen that I’m going against. What does that tell me? How’s his foot position; is he blocking down, is he blocking towards me. Is his weight back because he wants to kick out because of the pass? Things like that is what experts look at, you know and you know are they are they going in motion to see if we’re playing man. All right. You know is this a situation where we might get hard-counted. Is it third and short. Should I watch the ball more and more intently than I would if it was third and long. All those things kind of go in my … But the better you get at it, the quicker it goes. So you know you normally have, once they come to the line of scrimmage you probably have five seconds at the max depending on the type offense you’re playing against and you have to you know decipher all this information like that and be able to go and play. And I think the teams that do it the best are the teams that you know play really really well.

DUBNER: When you say you want to go into your stance late is it because you want to be upright to see better longer or you want to adjust your stance?

TUCK: Both, both.

DUBNER:  OK so you’re going to. OK.  So the more information you have the more you know what stance you want.

TUCK: Exactly and you know I always told people like for example like we used to have defenses kind of like, check with me defense, where we would change defenses as the offense changed or so on and so forth. So as a D-lineman I had to listen to the guys behind me. Once I got my…  And I would tell my linebackers don’t tell me anything once my hand’s in the ground because once my hand’s in the ground my mind went completely black. And it’s more figuring out or focusing on how to beat this guy right in front of me. You know when I put my hand in ground it could be 80,000 people in the stands. I don’t hear any of them. So that’s one of the reasons why I stood up longer because you know we will be checking defenses and going from blitzes to cover twos or whatever it may be and you have to you have to hear that stuff and then adjust to it. And so me standing up, or me not putting my hand in the dirt as long as possible gave me a better chance of being able to adjust.

DUBNER: How valuable would you say — and I would ask you to kind of put on your MBA hat here, because now you’re thinking about risk-reward and all that – how valuable in let’s say in one given football game is the element of surprise? You know, it’s like a game-theory question: theoretically, if the offense can surprise you every time or at least randomize, then I’m ahead of the game. On the other hand by insisting on wanting to surprise you, I might do things that are not playing to my strengths. So I’m curious as a defensive player what you thought of not necessarily trick plays but you know how much the offense tried to fool you.

TUCK: You know, I think it’s a fine line between trying to fool players because you’ve got as a defensive player, most of my time isn’t spent on the actual field running around trying to stop offenses. Most of my time is spent watching film trying to figure out you know what their tendencies are. So coming to a football game I have a pretty good sense of what they like to do in certain situations which allows me to play really really fast.

DUBNER: But on the other hand  they know that you know, now the game theory happens, right — so that you Justin Tuck have watched 12 hours of what you know X team is going to do on third and long and so they know that you know that then they might want to you know,  outsmart you.

TUCK: Yeah, they might but they also are doing something now that they’re probably not as good at as well. So I think it is pretty much you know a similar outcome. You might get me once on that trick play and then play  but the next time you might lose or you know 15 yards and set your offense back.  But I’ll also say this: I’m  more from the old school, where I believe that regardless if they know what I’m doing and if I execute what I’m doing yeah they’re better than him, then I’m going to win. So I’m always I’ve always been in the mindset. I don’t care if they know what I’m doing as long as I’m doing it 100 percent of my capacity, then I’m fine with that.

[MUSIC: Pat Andrews, “The Big Game Inspiration”]

In terms of outfoxing the other team, or at least trying to optimize your play-calling, Steve Levitt and a colleague wrote a paper on this very topic. It’s called “Professionals Do Not Play Minimax,” and it analyzed about 125,000 NFL play choices.

LEVITT: We found at the time — which was about five or six, seven years ago — we found that teams systematically ran the ball too much, that given the outcomes of plays, it looked like if teams were to pass a lot more than they did, things would actually get better. And I can’t say that it is actually causal. I doubt that the NFL football teams read our paper and dramatically changed the way they did things. But I am happy to report that in the years since we wrote that paper there was a dramatic increase in the share of plays from scrimmage that became passes versus runs when that trend hadn’t been there at all prior to our writing so. So maybe I should take credit for it even though it’s almost certainly impossible that I have made NFL football more efficient.

Steve Levitt has one more piece of advice for anyone watching the Super Bowl, regardless of interest level.

LEVITT: The beauty of the Super Bowl is that you can virtually gamble on any aspect of it. So not just the final score, who will win, but even who will win the opening coin toss. And I remember one year you could actually bet on whether Jay-Z would also appear along with Beyonce in the halftime show. So if you if you want to have some fun you can go to a sports book,  you can look at you know literally hundreds of different betting options that are there, and without even the trouble of going and making account at the sports book I would suggest you find a friend and you divvy up the bets, you bet on you know 50 or 75 things in the and you keep track of who wins what. And it can keep you busy for the entire game. And if it’s the sort of thing where you don’t get any pleasure out of taking money from your friends then I would suggest that you find one of your enemies and you actually divvy up all the bets with one of your enemies so that you if you actually happen to win a lot you can take great joy in that in that outcome.

[MUSIC: Christopher norman, “Maps”]

Coming up next time on Freakonomics Radio: nobody gets to the NFL – or succeeds at any level – without a certain amount of stick-to-it-iveness, otherwise known as grit.

Angela DUCKWORTH: What specifically are gritty people like? What do they do when they wake up in the morning? What beliefs do gritty people walk around with in their head?

How to get more grit in your life. That’s next time, on Freakonomics Radio. And one more thing: we’re working on a special series of episodes and we want to include your voice. Here’s the question we’k like you to answer: if you could reboot or totally overhaul one system or institution that you engage with regularly — something from your work life, or personal life, or maybe something about government or the economy — what would it be? No idea is too small, or too large; no idea is too serious, or silly. Record your comment using the voice memo app on your phone and email the file to radio@freakonomics.com. Please keep it relatively short, try to record it in a relatively quiet place, and make sure you tell us your name, where you live, and what you do. Thanks!

Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Shelley Lewis. Our staff also includes Greg Rosalsky, Christopher Werth, Stephanie Tam, Merritt Jacob, Eliza Lambert, Alison Hockenberry, Emma Morgenstern, Harry Huggins, and Brian Gutierrez. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:SOURCES

  • Steve Levitt, William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, where he directs the Becker Center on Chicago Price Theory.
  • John Urschel, Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in applied mathematics, guard and center for the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL.
  • Eric Winston, right tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals, president of the NFLPA.
  • Justin Tuck, former NFL defensive end, MBA student at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

RESOURCES

ETC.