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Football and Quantum Mechanics

David Cowles

Apr 15, 2023

“This is what we do on Sunday nights and Mondays during football season: we play 'what if' and 'if only'.”

The scoreboard clock reads 00:00: Philadelphia Sunshine – 27; Buffalo Blizzard – 26. Game over? Yes…and no. Time has expired, but the Blizzard scored a touchdown on the last play of the game, so they still have a chance to add one or two PATs (points after touchdown) to their score.

So, yes, the game is ‘over’ but we still don’t know who won. It’s like most 21st century US presidential elections; better still, it’s like any Iowa Caucus! (Heck, they’re still looking for Paul Simon to tell him that he won the 1988 caucus after all; and as for the 2020 caucus, well, they’ve just stopped counting.) But I digress.

According to the rules of the NFL, the Blizzard can kick a short field goal for one point; game tied! Overtime! Or they can run (or pass) the ball into the end zone for two points. All eyes are on the coach; will she go for one point, potentially sending the game into OT, or two, letting everything ride on just one play?

Power outage! (Hey, it’s Buffalo; it snows!) Even cell service is disrupted. We won’t know the outcome of the game until the power comes back on…or until the newspaper gets delivered in the morning…or the morning after that. Et voilà, you have the longest game ever played…even though it ended hours ago!

Did I mention, I have houseguests? Huge football fans – they invited themselves for a ‘sleepover’ so they could be ‘closer to the stadium’ where the game was to be played.  

Irony: Because of the forecast of heavy ‘lake effect snow’ in Buffalo, it was decided at the last minute to play the game in Philadelphia, where it’s always sunny; but I’m still stuck with my houseguests! Who knows for how long now!

It could be worse. At least my guests and I can communicate; we all speak football fluently.

Traditionally after every game, fans are required to spend 36 hours reflecting on why what happened, happened (WWHH). If only this… If it hadn’t been for that. Would-a, could-a, should-a. It’s what we do! 

Normally, this sort of retrospective is only possible once the outcome of the game has been determined. Simply put, how can we identify the causes of an outcome we don’t yet know? To salvage this hyperextended sleepover, we need to be able to talk football, but apparently, we can’t. 

Edwin Schrödinger to the rescue! A century ago, he placed the world’s most famous cat, alive and kicking, into a soundproof box – don’t worry, it was ventilated – and he set up his experimental apparatus so that the life or death of the cat would be determined by the occurrence, or not, of a totally unpredictable quantum event. Where was PETA?

At any point in time the cat could be alive or dead; we don’t know. But instead of throwing up our hands, Schrödinger suggested we treat the cat as both alive and dead.  Decades later, Richard Feynman applied this same technique to the entire field of quantum phenomena: he called his technique, “Sum over Histories."

One of my visitors happened to be a quantum mechanic. He told us all about the Quantum Qat; much obliged! He suggested we apply Schrödinger’s method to our ‘Football Game from Limbo’. First, assume that Buffalo has won the game; then reverse it and assume that Philly has prevailed. Here’s how it works:

Assume Buffalo won! They won because their receiver made a one-handed, fingertip catch in the end zone, dragging his toes to stay in bounds. They won because Philly missed a chip shot field goal in the second period. They won because somehow the refs missed a Buffalo defender’s flagrant interference with a Philly pass receiver in the end zone.

Now assume Philly won! They won because one of Buffalo’s touchdowns was brought back for a dubious ‘holding’ call. They won because Buffalo fumbled the ball on Philly’s five yard line. They won because Philly’s QB broke not one but two open field tackles to score on a busted play.

This is what we do on Sunday nights and Mondays during football season: We play ‘what if’ and ‘if only’. It’s fun, and we’re confident that our collective wisdom somehow enriches the noosphere. 

So six events, each highly improbable in its own right, but each perfectly capable of determining the outcome of the game. If only we knew the outcome!

All six of our ‘what if, if only’ events happened, there’s no changing that! But the meaning and significance of these events depends on the illusive outcome. Cosmology is like a good murder mystery: until we know who dunnit, we can’t separate the clues from the red herrings. 

We know the putative causes, we know their potential effects, but we can’t assess their actual impact on the outcome of the game because we don’t know that outcome…yet. Under these circumstances, can we call them ‘causes’ at all? All we can say for sure is that these six events preceded the game’s outcome. Post hoc ergo propter hoc?

When results are known, events become causes; until then, they are just events. In and of itself, each of the six key events is complete and determined. What is not determined is the meaning or significance of those events.

Games are fun to watch, and stats are fun to study, but at the end of the day, the only thing that matters, that has meaning and significance outside the game itself, is the final score. There are no style points in American football. Only the final score transcends the game itself.

It is the outcome of the game that converts some events into causes and others into anecdotes. So are we prepared to say that causality proceeds backwards from the effect rather than forward from the cause as normally assumed? It’s tricky. Results do follow causes in time, but events do not become causes until the effects themselves are known. Hmm.

All we can say is this: there are events and, eventually, there are outcomes, and we know that those outcomes are massively related to the events that preceded them. To know which events among those precedent events, if any, deserve to be ranked as ‘causes’, you’ll need to put on your canonical conical science ‘cap’…yup, the one with the propeller on top! That’s it.

We need to go back in time, change the result of a single play and see if and how that change impacts the results. We would need to do that for each of our so-called ‘causes’. Then we would need to try changing two or more events at once, measuring the impact of each combination, and so on.

We have identified six events that, we think, might have been determinative of the outcome of the game. There are six potential causes, which can occur in 64 possible combinations, but with only two possible outcomes (no ties allowed). 

The engineering is daunting but, assuming you’ve licked the time travel thing, and assuming you don’t require any juice from the Greater Buffalo Power Grid, the conceptual problem is fairly simple. So far… 

Events do not happen in isolation. Our six causes occur in a sequence. Flipping the first event (A) may impact or even determine the outcome of the game; it also potentially impacts the other five events. 

A change in the value of A may independently trigger changes in the values of B, C, D, E, and/or F.

How so? Event A, however it turns out, impacts the crowd, impacts player attitudes – the famous momentum – and impacts both teams’ subsequent strategic moves (play calls). 

A change in the value of A may (or may not) trigger a change in the value of B and the other four events. But a change in the value of B may trigger independent changes in the values of C, D, E, and/or F. And so on… As you can see, by changing the value of one event, A, we’ve triggered an ontological avalanche

But is this even what we mean by causality? The phenomenon we call a football game is an example of a ‘chaotic system’. That is not to say that events happen at random; they do not! In fact, as we have seen, the causal bonds are incredibly strong. But unfortunately, they are ultimately indecipherable. 

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men and all the computing power on Planet Earth cannot convert a football into a deterministic algorithm. A butterfly flaps its wings on the 30 yard line and Gronk drops a pass in the end zone. Causal, yes; predictable, no!

Event chains are not linear algorithms, they are massively nonlinear webs. But for us to make sense of the game, to have something to talk about, we have to talk about ‘highlights,’ and we have to link those highlights in a more or less straight line to the final score (once we have a final score).

Does anyone think for a moment that this so-called analysis has anything to do with reality? We selected six putative ‘causes’ of the game’s output. Why not eight, or just 4? In fact, in our nonlinear world, every single thing that happens during the game, on or off the field, may cause the outcome. 

We live in a non-linear world – that’s a fancy way of saying, our lives are chaotic. What a surprise! But in order to function in this world, we often find it desirable to treat it as though it were a lattice of parallel causes. We function, we have fun, and we get stuff done, but we are relying on a model that is only accidentally related to the real world.

A better model of an NFL game exists…but you won’t like it. There are approximately 120 plays in a typical NFL game. Each one of those plays is causa sui. Nothing is causally dependent on anything else. There are correlations all over the place, but no causation. 

Each play is a reaction to everything that’s happened up to that point in the game: the score, the location of the ball, the injuries, the sequence of plays called and the results of those plays, etc. But no event is in any way ‘caused’ by those things. Every play is unique; every play evolves freely and in unanticipated ways.

Last night I saw a player go for an interception, miss, fall to the ground, get up, run back and tackle the receiver. Write an algorithm for that!

Each event arises in reaction to proximate history. The closest thing (and it’s not even close!) to ‘a cause of Event A’ is the sum of everything that happened in the game prior to A. So, post hoc ergo propter hoc is as good as it gets. Everything causes everything else! In a massively nonlinear system, sequence is the closest we can come to causality. 

Football is, indeed, a metaphor for life – perhaps that’s why we’re so invested in it. Today’s a new day. You are the OC (offensive coordinator) of your life. What play will you call? How well will you execute? How will you modify your ‘play’ in response to unanticipated events during the day? How will you feel about the result? Do your best, stay safe, and good luck! (Let us know how it all works out.)


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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