“Let me just tell you what happened because, as you know, the game comes right down and all the things that happened before are meaningless to you now,” Carroll said. “It’s really what happened on this one sequence that we would have won the game.
“We have everything in mind, how we’re going to do it. We’re going to leave them no time, and we had our plays to do it. We sent in our personnel, they sent in goal-line (package) — it’s not the right matchup for us to run the football — so on second down we throw the ball really to kind of waste a play.
“If we score, we do. If we don’t, then we’ll run it in on third and fourth down. Really, (we called it) with no second thoughts or no hesitation at all. And unfortunately, with the play that we tried to execute, the guy (Butler) makes a great play and jumps in front of the route and makes an incredible play that nobody would ever think he could do. And unfortunately that changes the whole outcome…
“There’s really nobody to blame but me, and I told them that clearly.”
The staggering final play of last night’s enthralling Super Bowl XLIX, in which Seattle inexplicably called for a passing play on the one-yard line that was intercepted and cost them their second consecutive NFL Championship, was a failure in every sense of the word. And in the 16 hours since the play went down, the Seahawks have been standing in a circle, all pointing at each other, yelling, “He’s the dad!”…
Offensive coordinator Darren Blevell, who made the call—with the approval of coach Pete Carroll, who, by taking blame for the play, is the one person who isn’t standing around accusing everyone around him—says wide receiver Ricardo Lockette should have “fought through” the defense. Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin, who earlier became the first player ever ejected from a Super Bowl, blasted Blevell, saying “We were on the half-yard line, and we throw a slant. I don’t know what the offense had going on, what they saw. I just don’t understand.” (This was a sentiment heavily shared by many in the Seahawks locker room afterward.) One anonymous Seahawk even claimed that Carroll made the call to have Russell Wilson throw the ball, rather than Marshawn Lynch run it, because Carroll simply likes Wilson more. It was that sort of loss…
Carroll asked for a pass, but Blevell’s the one who came with the rather inexplicable idea to throw it in the middle of the field, pretty much the only place the ball could have been thrown where it could be intercepted. Why didn’t Blevell call for a fade route? (Perhaps to Chris Matthews, the surprising star of the game, who had been using his height to grab jump balls all evening?) Or even have Wilson try a play action and roll out, with the option of throwing it, running it in or tossing the ball out of the end zone to regroup? (Seattle could have held on to its precious time out that way, too.) Heck, even if Wilson had been sacked, it would have been OK. The one thing that couldn’t happen was an interception. Blevell had countless options, and he still found a way to choose the worst one.
“I don’t believe it happened,” said receiver Doug Baldwin, showing the same look in his eye that all the 12s in the stands had. “I still haven’t figured it out yet.”
He tried. Baldwin tried to figure it out. He looked around and up at the ceiling and offered a few words. Then he stopped himself.
“I’m just trying to make up an explanation.”
As time passes, and the wounds become less acute, I suspect that many of Carroll’s players will start to become open to viewing this painful and perplexing lost opportunity from a similar orientation. As for now? Too soon.
I’ll spare you the numerous “What the (expletive) was he thinking?” mutterings I overheard from people in Seahawks uniforms and refrain from lending any legitimacy to the conspiracy theory one anonymous player was willing to broach: That Carroll somehow had a vested interest in making Wilson, rather than Lynch, the hero, and thus insisted on putting the ball in the quarterback’s hands with an entire season on the line. “That’s what it looked like,” the unnamed player said, but I’d be willing to bet that he merely muttered it out of frustration, and that it was a fleeting thought.
Up until the Super Bowl, the Seahawks had run nine plays from their opponent’s 1-yard line. They ran the ball seven times and passed it twice. They scored a touchdown on three of those run plays (a 43% TD conversion rate), and they scored a touchdown on one of the pass plays (a 50% TD conversion rate)…
Why did Pete Carroll run a pass play? Throughout the season, the Seahawks performed better with pass plays than run plays from the 1-yard line, and Marshawn Lynch hadn’t performed well that close to the end zone. The Seahawks didn’t have the right matchup for a run play on 2nd down. And given the amount of time left in the game, Seattle didn’t have time to run three run plays in a row. They were going to have to pass it at least once if they needed all three plays to score a touchdown…
If anything, it wasn’t a pass play itself that was a bad idea, but that pass play. If you’re worried about the defense jamming the middle with a goal line defense, then why on earth would you call an inside slant? And why would you call it against a defense that would likely jam the receivers right as they came off the line?
The Seahawks had a timeout left, and had an arsenal of junk-drawer plays to spring their junk-drawer receivers on rubs or picks or banging a defender off of the referee; you can run Marshawn, the best running back in the league—and importantly, particularly in this situation, the best at breaking tackles in the backfield and getting back to the line on plays that are blown up—and put off riskier calls to later downs. Worst case, you have to decide if you want to call two plays in the huddle after taking a timeout, or if you want to throw into a defense that knows you’ll probably throw on third-down, which is a risk for which you’d be prepared…
[E]ven if Wilson’s pass hadn’t been high and wide, it would have had to have beaten a charging defensive back to a spot. This is a play you can make, but it wasn’t any kind of master call and miracle execution by New England. Plus, running a slant along the front of the goal line kills a lot of the time management benefits of a pass—and even the halfback flare and little in on the other side weren’t going to change this.
Somehow, [Russell] Wilson has escaped blame in this mess.
First of all, no truly great quarterback would have received that play call in his helmet and stuck with it. “You want us to do what?” Wilson could have changed the play at the line of scrimmage, even with New England stacking the box for Lynch. Still, you can’t put too much onus on him for going with the play: Wilson was just following orders, showing he’s a soldier, not a field general. (You think Brady or Peyton Manning lets that happen?)…
What we’ve heard is that Lockette could have gone harder and that Butler broke to the ball like he was Usian Bolt getting out of the blocks. But what about Russell Wilson?! That ball should already be out of his hands. He has Lockette wide open but paused every-so-briefly before releasing. If he gets rid of the ball early, worst case is that Lockette gets tackled before the goal line. Holding onto it for that split-second brought Butler into play…
But he weakly takes his 2.5-step drop, throws the ball off his back foot and sails it high, right to Butler. If that ball is low and around Lockette’s hip, there’s no chance of an interception. Wilson did everything wrong on that play. Had he received the shotgun, stood tall and whipped the ball to Lockette, Seattle would be planning a Super Bowl parade today.
At that point, nearly everyone watching assumed that the Seahawks would score a touchdown on the drive. How could they not, after Jermaine Kearse’s insane catch that had brought the Seahawks to the five-yard line? Giving Seattle 7 points meant that New England would have to get its offense back on the field as soon as possible to drive into field goal range, kick for three, tie the game and head into overtime.
According to that assumption, after Lynch’s run to the one-yard line, Belichick should have called a timeout to preserve the clock. He had two left, after all. But instead, Belichick chose to let the clock run. In doing so, he was opting for a goal-line stand rather than a soft touchdown and a field goal try. In effect, he was saying to Carroll: if you want this Super Bowl, you’re going to have to play for it. And he was placing an uncommon amount of faith in his defense to make the clutch stop.
Carroll and his team still had a timeout of their own that they could have burned to stop the clock. But if they assumed that Belichick would be sending the field goal unit onto the field on the next possession, they may have wanted to preserve that last timeout to “ice” the kicker, who would likely be trying from long yardage. A throw to the end zone offered them the best of both worlds: a catch wins, an incompletion stops the clock for free. And the Patriots defense was likely expecting a run.
On the 1-yard line, QBs threw 66 touchdowns with no interceptions prior to Wilson’s errant toss.3 Not mentioned: They also scored four touchdowns on scrambles (which Wilson is pretty good at last I checked). That’s a 60.9 percent success rate.
Just for comparison’s sake, here’s how more than 200 runs fared this year in the same situation:
125 led to touchdowns.
94 failed to score.
Of those, 23 were for loss of yardage.
Two resulted in lost fumbles.
So overall, runs do a bit worse than passes (57.1 percent vs. 60.9 percent).
On second down with 26 seconds remaining and one timeout, the Seahawks would have had to pass on either second or third down to guarantee they would have time for a fourth down if needed. If Seattle would have to pass at least once, it would be better to do it on second rather than third down because it would force the Patriots to respect both options on all remaining downs. Had Seattle run on second down and failed, it would have had to use its final timeout. This would mean that New England would know a pass was very likely on third down. If that had happened, the Internet would now be bashing Carroll for an entirely different reason.
Carroll also explained after the game that the team didn’t have the matchup it wanted on the play to call a run. With a pass-friendly set of one running back, one tight end, and three wideouts in the game, the Seahawks expected New England to have smaller, quicker defenders in on their side to defend the pass. New England didn’t bite and kept its goal-line personnel in, so the Seahawks thought the matchup favored a pass. Interceptions are extremely unlikely from the 1—Russell Wilson’s was the first of the year—so the risk seemed worth it. Between the matchups and the clock considerations, the decision to pass seems defensible, but the play call of a quick inside slant and Wilson’s decision to pull the trigger remain subject to criticism…
I ran the situation through a game simulation. The simulator plays out the remainder of the game thousands of times from a chosen point—in this case from the second down on. I ran the simulation twice, once forcing the Seahawks to run on second down and once forcing them to pass. I anticipated that the results would support my logic (and Carroll’s explanation) that running would be a bad idea. It turns out I was wrong. The simulation—which is different than Win Probability—gave Seattle an 85 percent chance of winning by running and a 77 percent chance by passing.
Perhaps you are like my students, and your advice is that maybe Carroll should follow a mixed strategy most of the time, but not in the dying seconds of the Super Bowl. But realize that if this were an optimal choice, Belichick would probably figure it out, and he would instruct his players to guard against the run. When most of the defenders focus only on stopping one running back, they usually succeed.
Or perhaps you believe that Lynch’s statistics show that he is so successful at bulldozing through opponents that he would succeed even against a defense set up only to stop the run. I disagree. A key reason that Lynch has been so successful is that his coach has been playing a mixed strategy all season. Lynch has accumulated impressive numbers in part because opposing defenses have had to be concerned about Russell Wilson’s passing. And so Lynch’s history of success when playing as part of a mixed strategy says nothing about how successful he would be if his opponents knew for sure his coach would call a running play.
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. This leads to the intriguing possibility that if that fateful final play were to be run in a dozen parallel universes, with each coach continuing to play the same mixed strategy, the actual plays called would differ, as would their outcomes.
And what a pity that Butler isn’t getting his propers. An undrafted rookie, he played sparingly this season, as the fifth cornerback. He didn’t enter the Super Bowl until after halftime. Yet he diagnosed this play instantly, broke without hesitation, and outmuscled his foe. Butler’s play was a spectacular feat of athleticism at the most dramatic possible moment. Yet Monday we’re talking about the play call…
When asked what he saw on the critical interception, Butler answered, “I saw what I saw in practice.” Belichick had prepared his team for that very play. “At practice, the scout team ran that same play and I got beat on it,” said Butler in a post-game interview. “Bill told me, ‘You’ve got to be on that.’ At that time, memorization came through.”
Who spent time coaching up a rarely used substitute cornerback, even during prep for the most important game of the year? Who was prescient enough to practice the precise play the Seahawks would opt for with their season on the line? Who kept three cornerbacks on the field, instead of swapping in the all-out, goal-line defense to counter Marshawn Lynch on the other side of the ball?
What’s more, Belichick’s choice not to call timeout with the Seahawks knocking on the end-zone door was one of his classic Jedi mind tricks. It turned the tables, shifting the time pressure to Carroll, and almost certainly influenced the Seahawks’ play call. This was a game of chess, and Belichick’s gambit paid off.