Pillar #3. Economic thinking is thinking on the margin.

If you think that the tools of economics don’t apply to yesterday’s exciting Superbowl, then you’re mistaken.

Consider one of the last plays, the one all the commentators were talking about in the last 20 seconds of the game and the one that’s on the front page of this morning’s Wall Street Journal: New England Patriots’ defensive back Malcolm Butler picking off a pass from Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

Understandably, the NBC commentators Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth (especially the latter) were so busy commenting on what a bad play call Pete Carroll made that they missed a lot of margins.

Margin #1: No one I saw commented on the big mistake that Malcolm Butler made. I noticed it right away. When he intercepted the ball, he bounced off the Seahawks player and was in the end zone. Had he dropped to the ground, the Patriots would have started at the 20-yard line. That really would have been game over.
I hasten to add that I’m not blaming Butler. He made an incredible play. But had the commentators not been so preoccupied, they would have caught this mistake and brought it to their 100-million-plus audience’s attention.

Because of that mistake, the Patriots faced a tough situation: If Brady were to do the standard “take a knee,” there was a good chance he would be taking it in the end zone. Result: 2 points for the Seahawks, making it a 28-26 score for the Patriots with almost 20 seconds left on the clock. The next play would be a kick by the Patriots, which would arguably leave almost 15 seconds on the clock and could, with a muffed kick, put the Seahawks almost in position for a field goal. The Seahawks would have time for one play (because they still had a timeout), which could have put them in position for a good field goal attempt. Result of a made field goal: Seahawks 29, Patriots 28, with only a few seconds left, seconds that could be run off the clock with a Seahawks “squib kick.” End of game. Seahawks win.

Which brings me to:

Margin #2: The commentators were so busy, as I say above, criticizing Carroll, that they didn’t even bother to tell the audience what the penalty on the Patriots was, a penalty that cost them half the distance to the goal line. Al Michaels told the audience the result, but we never heard the infraction. In any case, that gave Patriots QB Tom Brady even less margin (see what I did there?) to work with. This made my scenario above even more likely.

Margin #3: Tom Brady cleverly got the Seattle Seahawks defender to encroach. This gave the Patriots a crucial 5 extra yards to work with. Now Brady could easily take a knee. Game over.

That last point, by the way, means that although Seahawks defender Bruce Irvin showed incredibly poor sportsmanship, marring an otherwise beautiful game, by instigating a fight, his action came only after a Patriots win was assured.