In hindsight, it’s easy to say Seattle should have run the ball on second-and-goal from the 1. That’s the thing about hindsight: It’s always easy. But here, from ESPN Stats & Information, is an informational nugget that, in the grand scheme, was more of a boulder:
The Seahawks had handed the ball to Marshawn Lynch at the opponent’s 1 five times this season; he had scored once.
Just because Lynch nearly scored from the 5 doesn’t mean he would’ve scored from the 1. It’s not easy to gain that last yard, even if you’re Marshawn Lynch. Safeties don’t have to cover deep because there is no deep. Linemen are burrowing low and linebackers are crashing behind them. And the dynamics change if a second-and-goal handoff to Lynch is stopped short.
This is the point that got lost Sunday night: Seattle had one timeout remaining. A failed run on second-and-goal would have forced them to use it with 20 or so seconds remaining, which would have all but mandated a pass on third-and-goal. Because if a third-and-goal run likewise fails, you’re in scramble mode just to snap the ball on fourth-and-goal, and you don’t want a championship riding on a hurried play.
Pete Carroll said afterward that the Seahawks were going to run on third and fourth down, which made sense: If you throw an incompletion on second down, you save your timeout. Alas, Russell Wilson didn’t throw an incompletion. He threw a pass that lost the Super Bowl. It was the first (and last) interception — this again from ESPN — any NFL quarterback threw from the opponent’s 1 this season.
My trouble with what the Seahawks did wasn’t that they threw. (I made the same argument after Mark Richt and Mike Bobo were pilloried for not handing the ball to Todd Gurley and first-and-goal from the South Carolina 4.) My issue was with the kind of throw Seattle chose.
There was no play-action element: Wilson was in the shotgun with Lynch behind him and didn’t fake a handoff. There was no roll-out: Wilson, who’s a great runner himself, took the snap and delivered. There was no escape hatch: Throwing the ball away is more problematic if you’re committed to a quick slant. The throw wasn’t a fade, which is the staple goal-to-go pass because the receiver either outjumps the defender and makes the catch or it’s incomplete: This was a pick play.
Watch the tape. (Though I’m sure you already have.) Jermaine Kearse lines up inside Ricardo Lockette and, by design, runs smack into cornerback Brandon Browner. Lockette cuts underneath and, for a millisecond, appears open. Malcolm Butler runs around the screen, as they say in basketball, and beats Lockette to the ball. Carroll would say later that the play was designed to keep Butler from getting there, but he did.
That’s the trouble with throwing over the middle — as opposed to a a fade, which targets a single cornerback along the sideline, which is what Seattle did on Chris Matthews’ touchdown at the end of the half — on the goal line. There’s lots of traffic, and defenders are allowed to bump receivers coming off the line. That far down, defenders are taught to hit first and not worry about an interference penalty. (The opponent’s already on the 1, is it not?)
Think back to the play the Atlanta Falcons tried on fourth-and-4 at the San Francisco 10 in the waning minutes of the NFC championship game in January 2013. Matt Ryan threw short over the middle for Roddy White. Linebacker Navorro Bowman jostled White — although the contact was within five years of the line of scrimmage — before the ball arrived and might have been called for interference (or holding). Bowman broke up the play. No flag was thrown.
(In the Super Bowl two weeks later, the 49ers would howl that their Michael Crabtree was held by the Ravens’ Jimmy Smith coming off the line on fourth-and-goal from the 5. Nothing was called then, either. The Falcons laughed a sardonic laugh.)
Back to this Super Bowl: Seattle was facing a time constraint because it had spent its first two timeouts earlier in that final drive when the clock was already stopped — once after an incompletion and again after the Butler breakup that become a Kearse catch. With one more timeout, the Seahawks could have run on second, third and fourth down if necessary.
Down to its last timeout, Seattle couldn’t have been assured of getting off three running plays in 26 seconds. Surely in the attempt to delay scoring the go-ahead touchdown as long as possible, the Seahawks used 35 seconds after Lynch’s 4-yard gain to snap the ball on second-and-goal, but sometimes you outsmart yourself. And sometimes you get lucky by not being smart.
Before Butler’s interception, Bill Belichick had had a brain-freeze by not using a timeout — he had two remaining — to save seconds for Tom Brady after Seattle retook the lead, but Seattle never did and all’s well that ends well. (At least until the NFL reveals its findings on the matter of deflated footballs.)
This marks the second time a Carroll-coached team has been denied a consecutive championship by a short-circuit on short-yardage. Leading by five points but terrified that Vince Young would do what he wound up doing, Carroll’s USC Trojans famously went for it on fourth-and-2 from their 45 with 2:05 remaining in the Rose Bowl in January 2006. LenDale White was halted by Texas.
That made more sense to me — neither team had stopped each other all night — than throwing the ball over the middle on second-and-goal. Second-guessers have held that USC should have given the ball to Reggie Bush, who was standing on the sideline for that fateful play, but White was the Trojans’ power back. Had he gained three more inches, the Trojans would have won back-to-back BCS titles. As it happened, they were undone by Young.
This was different. The Seahawks undid themselves, though not necessarily in the way everybody seems to think. (Again, though, we credit Butler for a great play.) The Tennessee Titans wound up a yard short as time expired in a Super Bowl at the Georgia Dome, but Seattle was a yard away with time remaining. Throwing a pass wasn’t wrong; throwing this pass was.
Fun with numbers: Here, via Pro Football Reference, were Lynch’s five carries from the 1 this season. His average yards per carry from the 1 — conceding that the maximum would be 1 YPC — was minus-0.2.