Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 10, 2015

National Security and the Crusades…, but why would you throw the ball?

Filed under: Strategy — by Christopher Bellavita on February 10, 2015

America has greater capacity to adapt and recover from setbacks than any other country.  A core element of our strength is our unity and our certainty that American leadership in this century, like the last, remains indispensable.

So reads the final sentences of the 2015 National Security Strategy.

Phil Palin already posted the two paragraphs in the Strategy that directly refer to homeland security. They include the unsupported assertion that guarding against terrorism is the core responsibility of homeland security.

A few years ago John Mueller and Mark Stewart demonstrated that “to be deemed cost-effective [homeland security expenditures] would have to deter, prevent, foil, or protect against 1,667 otherwise successful Times-Square type attacks per year, or more than four per day.” I have not seen an analysis that comes close to refuting their conclusion.

But everyone who disagrees with Mueller and Stewart knows they were academics playing with statistics. And everyone understands how statistics can be used to prove just about anything.

When I was an older man, I used to believe that as a nation, data mattered.  I am much younger now and understand what matters more is data filtered through the lens of beliefs.

Last week’s theological and historical discussion sparked by Barack Obama’s National Prayer Day remarks was just one more demonstration that first comes opinion, then comes data.

Thanks Obama.

But those who still believe in what Andre Breton called “the reign of logic” should have been heartened last week by the post-hoc application of game theory to what was effectively the last play of Super Bowl 49.

(In case you forgot, game theory is “the study of strategic decision making, … the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers.”)

In an article titled Game Theory Says Pete Carroll’s Call at Goal Line Is Defensible , Justin Wolfers describes the decision context:

26 seconds remain in the Super Bowl, your team is 4 points behind, you have the ball just one yard short of the end zone, it’s second down, and your team has arguably the N.F.L.’s best running back. What’s your call? Run or pass?

Wolfers – who is an economics professor – applies the basics of game theory to the Seattle Seahawks’ decision:

The logic is that if you always choose to run in this situation, then you make the opposing coach’s job too easy, as he will set a defensive formation aimed at stopping your running back. Forget guarding the receivers, Belichick [the Patriot’s coach] would respond by piling players between Marshawn Lynch [the Seattle running star] and the end zone. As great as Lynch is, even he would find it difficult to run over a stacked defense that was waiting for him. Likewise, if the Seahawks would always decide to pass in this situation, there would be little need for the Patriots to guard against the run, and so their defense could double-team the eligible receivers.

Instead, you need to keep your opponents guessing, and the only way to do this is to be unpredictable. The only way to be unpredictable is to be a little bit random.

Get it? It’s sort of like rock, paper, scissors.

But it’s not.

The winning strategy is to be random. Because if you’re predictable, it’s not a winning strategy. (I wonder if our National Security Strategy is predictable?)

Anyway, Seattle threw the ball.  It was intercepted. The Seahawks lost the Super Bowl. But strategic logic says it was a defensible football call.

Game theory points to the possibility that Carroll’s decisive call was actually the result of following the best possible strategy, and that this is a strategy that involves an element of randomness in play-calling…. It may defy common sense, but it makes good strategic sense.

Hang on, says another rationalist author wise in the ways of game theory, “Game Theory Cannot Rationalize Seattle’s Super Bowl Loss.”

Cullen Roche – who runs a financial services company — argues that the Seattle coach wasn’t trying to out strategize or out think the Patriot’s coach.

Carroll explained his call after the game. With 26 seconds left and just 1 timeout the Seahawks did not want to waste a timeout, but also didn’t want to leave the Patriots with any time left and a chance to score. Carroll was emphatic that they would score on 3rd or 4th down with a run play. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind whether they could score. He didn’t need to outguess Bill Belichick.

This had nothing to do with Game Theory or trying to outguess the other coach. Pete Carroll had the New England Patriots dead in the water. He knew that there was virtually no chance that the Pats could stop one of the best offensive lines in the NFL with the best running back in the NFL

… So, what happened here was that Pete Carroll let Tom Brady [the Patriots’ quarterback] get into his head. And this resulted in an irrational decision to throw a slant pass into a crowded backfield…. In essence, Carroll did exactly what the Game Theorists wanted – he inserted the probability of a pass play into the minds of the defense. …Inserting the idea of randomness actually increased the odds of the interception because the defenders altered their thinking…. [In] the rush to protect against the improbable, [Carroll] called an improbable pass play.  No amount of theorizing can rationalize it.

This is an ideal dialectical situation. There’s a thesis that the call made sense from a game theoretic perspective. The antithesis is nope.

Where else to go for a synthesis but to the mother country.

The story in the Economist was called “Defending the indefensible: Game theory in American football”

To bring readers among the 98.5% of humanity that did not tune in up to speed (around 115m people watched the game, meaning that some 6.9 billion did not), the final minutes unfolded as follows.

The story unwinds the final two minutes of the game until Seattle is on the five yard line with a first and goal:

On the following play, Mr Carroll had Mr Wilson hand off the ball to Marshawn Lynch, Seattle’s superb running back. He advanced four yards, putting the Seahawks inside the Patriots’ one-yard line. That put Seattle in the driver’s seat: even though they were still trailing, they had three chances (the second, third and fourth downs) to advance the ball less than 36 inches (91 cm) and gain a three-point lead. Teams in that situation go on to win just under 85% of the time.

This case, however, would be the exception. After letting another 40 seconds burn off the clock, to ensure that New England would not have time to answer with a score of their own [thanks to Mr Brady], Mr Carroll chose to pass instead of run. Mr Wilson took the snap, and saw Ricardo Lockette … appear wide open with a clear path to the end zone. The quarterback fired the ball in his direction. But Mr [Malcom] Butler was about to have his revenge for being beaten by Mr [Jermaine] Kearse two plays earlier. Reading Mr Wilson perfectly … he broke straight for the spot Mr Wilson was targeting and intercepted the pass …, ending the Seahawks’ season.

The Economist offers its description of game theory [my emphasis], and throws in an interesting factoid:

A brief game theory refresher may be in order. There is no play that cannot be stopped if the defence knows it is coming. If the Seahawks were to sign a blood oath promising to have Mr Lynch run the ball, the Patriots could simply throw all 11 defenders at him and stop him in his tracks. In order for a run by Mr Lynch to be effective, the opposing team must believe there is some chance, however small, that the offence will do something else. For such a threat to be credible, Seattle must randomly call a different play every so often ….

In one of the rare demonstrations of mathematically optimal play in the NFL, the league’s coaches as a group have found their way to a textbook equilibrium. During the 2014 season, offences on an opponent’s one-yard line ran two-thirds of the time (there were 212 rushes and 106 passes). The running plays went for touchdowns 57.5% of the time…and the passing plays went for touchdowns 57.5% of the time. This is exactly what theory would predict: if either rushing or passing offered a superior success rate, teams would shift their play mix towards the better option until the balance was restored.

The conclusion to all this? According to the Economist,

The phrase “Monday morning quarterbacking”, which originated with American football but is now used broadly, was invented for a reason: to heap appropriate scorn on critics who wait for the benefit of hindsight before rendering judgment…. There was nothing wrong with Mr Carroll’s play call. It just didn’t work out.

Facts? Opinions?  Rationality? Emotionalism? Motivated Reasoning?  Failure to use common sense?  Who really knows what play to call when the game’s on the line?

In my uncertainty and confusion I take refuge in the wisdom of the 2015 National Security Strategy.

America has greater capacity to adapt and recover from setbacks than any other country.  A core element of our strength is our unity and our certainty that American leadership in this century, like the last, remains indispensable.


Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn


Comment by John Comiskey

February 10, 2015 @ 5:28 am

Essentially, HLS and daily life are about making decisions. Some decisions are small and inconsequential, while others are large and life-determining. Rationale people make rationale decisions. They identify and analyze the problem(s)to the best of their ability, evaluate and consider options, and take action. Afterwards, they live with their decisions.

see Asking Essential Questions:

Retrospectively, decision makers and others judge both the decision maker and their decisions. They should judge rationally.

BTW, this NY Jets fan congratulates and thanks the Patriots and Seahawks for an exciting game.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

February 10, 2015 @ 6:56 am


A few days before the Superbowl my wife mischievously asked if I could name the two teams that would be competing. I began with successfully identifying the host cities. She was already surprised. When I could, with some hesitation, identify the team names, she was amazed.

So I will not join you in the game analysis.

I will comment that certainly, “what matters more is data filtered through the lens of beliefs.” This has always been so, even as essential ontological and epistemological issues are set-up.

In Elinor Ostrom’s take on game theory she advocates being very attentive to beliefs and a community’s tendency to defend its beliefs in applying the game’s algorithms.

The task of reason, as I understand it, is to cultivate sufficient self-critical competence that beliefs (heuristics?) are regularly tested against actual experience (including the beliefs of others). Especially because I believe something to be true, I ought to question it.

This can be uncomfortable. It is certainly an acquired taste. It probably involves more delayed than immediate gratification. But it is possible.

“And it shall come to pass… your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…”

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 10, 2015 @ 9:36 am

In defense of the NSS I would argue that broadly defined GUARDING AGAINST TERRORISM works for me. But there were key [essential?] building blocks set out for DHS all of which have yet to be built.

And now DHS generally but not all of its components is a rather tired 2nd string department for many many reasons which I won’t itemize here.

I am hoping the statement in the NSS is accurate about RESILIENCE but to me is doubtful.

And actually IMO Pete Carroll’s [actually the call of the offensive coordinator] worked except for the brilliant play of one defender.


What is the saying? LUCK FAVORS THE PREPARED!

Unfortunately DHS is not prepared IMO for many types of events!

Comment by Dan OConnor

February 10, 2015 @ 9:57 pm


Merriam Webster defines hubris as a great or foolish amount of pride or confidence.

Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence, accomplishments or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.

“…America has greater capacity to adapt and recover from setbacks than any other country…”. A core element of our strength is our unity and our certainty that American leadership in this century, like the last, remains indispensable. I would say, by definition, that’s hubris.

How do we measure that capacity? Is it supply chain acumen? Is it logistics capability? Is it work force? Is it our surplus of economic wealth? Is it our leadership? How do we measure it?

“Our homeland is more secure.” What is the definitive measure of that statement? Is there a quantitative or qualitative metric to assert that? The Legatum prosperity index


rates the United States 10th in the Americas for freedom. That same index has the United States’ lowest rank is in the Safety & Security sub-index, where it ranks 31st in 2014. So both freedom and security are not perhaps what they are offered to be. More tortured statistics sure, but that’s how we like to measure things.

And to say homeland security’s primary mission or core responsibility is guarding against terrorism is, I think misguided. It (terrorism) is a low probability high consequence event. A terrorist attack is less likely than geographical interruptions, massive storms or…slipping in the bathtub. And we have had on this blog many debates what is and what is not homeland security.

If Phil is correct that this administration has consistently treated Homeland Security as indistinguishable from National Security I would ask where is the proof? I am not challenging Phil inasmuch as proffering an alternate point of view.

If Homeland Security was indistinguishable from National Security surely we would not be running around spending work hours trying to determine who is essential and non-essential, exempt and non-exempt for the looming DHS shutdown. I don’t recall the USMC having to do that.

If homeland security professionals in DHS were vital to national security we would not watch, with some humor, the gesticulations of our leaders trying to explain how many employees will and will not be furloughed. We would not read how vulnerable we would become or the inverse, how little would change. Certainly a bit of sarcasm, but not much.

Perhaps national security and homeland security are indistinguishable politically and/or legislatively, but I think it would be a very different conversation at the operational level.

With regard to our unity and our certainty that American leadership in this century, like the last, remains indispensable? Americans’ job approval rating for Congress averaged 15% in 2014, one percentage point above their all-time low of the year before. And here’s some interesting reading about an insider’s view of Congress;


Nearly 60% of Americans believes the country is heading in the wrong direction. No offense, but the thinking and actions that got us in this place will almost certainly not get us out.

This is a leadership problem and to pass off language and rhetoric that is so overinflated smacks of hubris. More talking, money, and policy is not better. Better is better. Better decisions, better solutions, and better leadership make us resilient and capable.

We need more leaders and less bumper stickers. I don’t make that statement trivially. Many conditions and previous actions are converging on a requirement for new thinking and decisions.

With regard to John Comisky; now that the Jets play and practice in New Jersey and both coaches in the Super Bowl were both former NY Jets coaches, the only justice is to enjoy Schadenfreude; go Pats.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

February 10, 2015 @ 10:45 pm


I was making a sort of sloppy reference to Presidential Study Directive 1, where the — then brand new President — wrote:

“I believe that Homeland Security is indistinguishable from National Security — conceptually and functionally, they should be thought of together rather than separately.”

I disagree actually. I even testified before the House Homeland Security Committee about my disagreement. But I do perceive this administration has behaved in a manner mostly consistent with the President’s belief.

Comment by Al Poirier

February 10, 2015 @ 11:00 pm

“I am much younger now and understand what matters more is data filtered through the lens of beliefs.” Nicely said Dr. Bellavita

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 11, 2015 @ 12:02 pm

Prediction: No enactment of new AUMF that also repeals the 2001 AUMF anytime soon.

What happens to the President’s submission in the Congress will become a crucial issue IMO in the 2016 Presidential election race.

And Moldova next up for Putin Team?

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 12, 2015 @ 1:16 pm

Actually Phil this Administration could care less about HS IMO. Events may, however, still will out.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 12, 2015 @ 1:21 pm

Further comment on the proposed AUMF!

There was a AUMF in both 2001 and 2002. The later dealt with Iraq. The proposed AUMF repeals the 2002 AUMF but not the AUMF of fall 2001.

Barely credible, the 2002 AUMF concerned Iraq which war we officially won! Unofficially Iraq under informal partition.

The 2001 AUMF concerned the perps of the 2nd WTC and Pentagon attacks on 9/11/01! That one cannot be repealed because we have yet to WIN that effort.

Comment by Jack

February 13, 2015 @ 10:54 am

Fascinating. I’m naturally reminded of Omar Khayyam Moore’s observations about the divination practices of the Naskapi tribes in Canada might actually work…sort of: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1525/aa.1957.59.1.02a00060/asset/aa.1957.59.1.02a00060.pdf;jsessionid=F77F7F566B5B851D4A4B2AA2222AC02D.f04t02?v=1&t=i63r7ka6&s=6781947288aa27cae86aaecf0de68139b3920ab1

Comment by Jack

February 13, 2015 @ 10:55 am

*that the divination practices…

Comment by Tom Russo

February 15, 2015 @ 5:30 pm

Late to the comment table but love the game analysis.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>