Giants, Cowboys, Markets and Government Planning

The Giants' terrible call at the end of their game with the Cowboys shows us how the world really works.

By David Mills Published on September 18, 2015

“Is the Giants’ decision not to run already the season’s worst call?”, ran the headline on The Guardian‘s homepage, speaking of the Sunday Night Game of the Week. The Giants had the ball on the one yard line on third down with 1:43 left in the game. They had a three-point lead. They run the ball and score, they almost certainly (99 times out of 100) win the game. They run the ball and don’t score and then kick a field goal, they almost certainly (88 times out of 100) win the game. They tried to pass, failed, thereby stopping the clock and giving Dallas about 35 seconds on offense more than they would have had if the Giants had run the ball, kicked the field goal, and lost the game with 7 seconds left.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin’s call was an unbelievably bad call. No, let me say this accurately. It was unbelievably stupid call.

And I say this as a Giants fan since early childhood. To lose like that is bad enough. To lose like that to the Cowboys crushes the spirit.

An Object Lesson in Markets

In a desperate find-a-silver-lining way, I think the game at least offers an object lesson in markets and government. Liberals assume that the state can solve every problem. They may invoke democracy and even the market, but they assume the real answer is always some government action, usually extensive.

Look at the editorials in The New York Times. Whatever the problem of the day is, the editors propose a government action to solve it. Rare is the problem — other than abortion and sexual identity —  for which their answer is letting the people work it out through their own choices and interactions.

Presumably the editors like football and the New Yorkers among them must be Giants fans. (Wealthy New Yorkers tend to be Giants fans, not Jets fans.) The last five years since the team’s great Super Bowl victory should have taught them something. The Giants are a very big and very wealthy operation, entirely dedicated to winning football games.

They put a huge number of man-hours and a lot of money into figuring out what to do in a game: what players to use where, what plays to run when, what the other team will do in this and that situation and how to respond. They try to plan for the unpredictable. The team’s success and the coaches’ jobs depend on getting it all right. It’s an unforgiving world, the NFL.

And then you see the Giants call a pass on third and goal from the one with 1:43 left. A call made, or at least approved, by an experienced coach recently described by ESPN as one of the best coaches of all time. A coach who will almost certainly be fired at the end of the season if his team doesn’t do well. He threw away a victory that might be the difference between coaching again or going home for good. Why did he call a pass? How could he? (Writer groans, puts head in hands, tries to think happy thoughts and fails.)

You Can’t Plan

What should this tell the editors of The New York Times about government and markets? First, it should tell them something about the limits of government action. It shows that planning well is a lot harder to do than it sounds. Even in the limited, controlled world of an NFL game, things happen and players and coaches make decisions you can’t predict. They wouldn’t make a game plan if they couldn’t predict many times reasonably well, but the best laid game plans go oft awry.

The Giants were ahead that late in the game partly because the Cowboys lost their star receiver to injury, and no one could have planned on that. The Giants were in control of the game at the end because one of their defensive backs forced a Cowboys receiver to lose the ball, which happened to bounce into the arms of another defensive back, who took off with it. They couldn’t plan on that.

The Giants had third and goal from the one because that defensive back put one foot out of bounds on his way to the end zone. Had he put his right foot down six inches to the left, he scores, Giants win. They couldn’t plan on that. They lose because they called the obviously wrong play on third down. They couldn’t plan on that either.

The world the government tries to direct is far less predictable than an NFL game. There are a lot more players and a lot more choices, and a vast and mostly invisible number of factors affecting everyone’s decisions. Things happen you don’t expect, for good and bad, and people make bad decisions, brilliant decisions, and lucky decisions, none of which you could predict. And this isn’t even to mention the big problem that when you do anything, you change the incentives and therefore the way people act in ways you can’t foresee.

The Market’s Limits

Second, Coughlin’s horrible decision should teach the editors three things about the market. The first is that the market doesn’t always work well in individual cases. The NFL is a model of pure competition. Only winning matters. Everyone is fighting for his job. The incentives to succeed are as great as in any job you can think of. And yet, one of the best coaches of all time calls a pass on third and goal from the one with 1:43 remaining. (Writer groans, puts head in hands, tries to think happy thoughts and fails.) The market isn’t magic.

The second lesson is that the market doesn’t always reward virtue. The Cowboys won on Sunday night, for example. I kid. Sort of. Take the New England Patriots. If half the stories about the team are true, they’ve had such a great run partly by cheating. But years from now, someone picking up the NFL guide will only see the team’s name listed several times in the Super Bowl winners’ list. It won’t tell him how the team won. History will view them as winners, period, not winners who were scoundrels. As I say, the market isn’t magic.

The third lesson is that when the world is so complex and unpredictable, only the market can (eventually) reward the best work and the wisest decisions, by letting all the decisions people make fail or succeed in the real world. Individual cases may come out badly, but the more games teams play, the more a reasonable order forms.

Maybe not the very best and wisest — the Seahawks were arguably the better team in last season’s Super Bowl — but over time, those who do what they do better than others succeed. Those who, for example, don’t call a pass on third and goal from the one in a close game with 1:43 on the clock. (Writer groans, puts head in hands, tries to think happy thoughts and fails.) The NFL season (the market operating over time) separates the very good teams from the good teams, and separates them both from the mediocre and the bad.

What Markets Do and Can’t Do

These aren’t by themselves arguments against government action or for (or against) the market. There are other factors to be considered. For one, the example doesn’t address the question of those who can’t do well in the market. We care about the good of the many who don’t win in life and the good of the society in general. The chronically poor are not the equivalent of a bad NFL team in the middle of a terrible season. We can’t just tell them, “Wait till next year.”

No government program can help those of us still grieving over Coach Coughlin’s terrible call. But there are fifteen more games to go, and a self-adjusting market. The Giants have plenty of time to make things better. They just have to win BY NOT CALLING . . . oh, never mind. (Writer groans, etc.)

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