Seattle’s throw was bad, but was throwing the ball so wrong?

A pick play that became a pick. (Kathy Willens/AP photo)

A pick play that became a pick. (Kathy Willens/AP photo)

A pick play that became a pick. (Kathy Willens/AP photo)

A pick play that became a pick. (Kathy Willens/AP photo)

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.

Reader Comments 1

39 comments
SaulK
SaulK

it was the dumbest call in the history of sports, pro or college.  

MaybeMaybeNot
MaybeMaybeNot

ESPN statistics go out the door when the Super Bowl is on the line.

So it was right not to give to Beast Mode because of some stats that ESPN dug up from his rushing from the 1 yard line?  Do you really, really, really believe that when everything in the world is on the line for a Super Bowl win that you would bet against Beast Mode finding a way to get into the end zone because of his regular season stats from the 1 yard line????? 

Steve McCrea
Steve McCrea

I think the author hit it on the nose. It wasn't wrong to pass necessarily, but it was very wrong not to use a fake to Lynch as a distraction, since everyone watching across the world expected that he'd get the ball. And it was wrong to throw a quick pass into traffic without a safety valve. A play action bootleg pulls all the run stoppers into the line, puts Wilson out on the edge with the ball in his hands, and virtually assures one on one coverage on the receiver. It creates the opportunity to either run or pass, as well as the chance to throw it away if no one is open, since he's out of the tackle box. If you are going to pass, you absolutely HAVE to fake it to Lynch. And if you're throwing from the pocket, a fade is the play of choice. But a play action bootleg with Willson or Lockette in the flat and Kearse in the corner is a much better choice if you want to throw on second and goal from the 1. Not to fake it to Lynch, even if you throw the slant, is criminal football negligence in my book. 

RealReality
RealReality

I'm surprised all the guys commenting on here have time to do so. Shouldn't they be game-planning for their own teams? 

Hindsight is 20/20 and everyone is an expert after the fact.

WhopperDawg
WhopperDawg

That is a lot of defense of the call by Seattle and even got the Dawgs in there as well which is where my mind went as that play developed. But what do both have in common besides ignoring arguable the best running back in their respective leagues in short and goal situations?


Both lost their games. Run the ball.

seminoleking
seminoleking

of course it was a ignorant call. you give the ball to your best player. if anything, if they got stopped, THEN, on 3rd and 4th down, you do the roll out or play action.......

kdwood
kdwood

It was  a STUPID call. period.  When Bobo made the call vs Carolina it was also stupid.

ATL89
ATL89

I just feel bad for the players who worked hard all season and up until that point in the Superbowl, just for the Head Coach and the Offensive Coordinator to brain fart and throw the Superbowl win away.

moboman
moboman

@ATL89 Agreed on that.  Even though I may defend the thought process of throwing, if I'm coaching and I got Lynch in my arsenal, I'm using him on second down.

moboman
moboman

The DB won the game for NE.  He went for the pick, instead of just trying to knock it down.  Winners MAKE PLAYS, and thats what he did.

gfw
gfw

I agree with those who do not believe it was a bad call.  I liked the call.  In fact, Lockette looks to me like he might have been expected to make the catch.  The ball actually goes by him a bit before it's intercepted.  Looks to me like he whiffed on the catch when he was bumped from behind.  I agree with moboman that it gave Seattle the element of surprise.  I would say it yielded a risk/reward ratio that made it worth trying.  Everyone thought Lynch was going to run the ball, and Seattle had time for another play if it didn't work. 

Wilbo
Wilbo

@gfw You are so right!!! It absolutely gave Seattle the element of surprise!!! The entire sports world was surprised to the bone - no, make that shocked -  Seattle would do something so abysmally stoopid, so completely unjustifiable, so totally senseless to give away a Superbowl championship they had in the bag.



moboman
moboman

To me, maybe you run Lynch on 2nd down, and rollout Wilson on third, with the instruction that he HAS to throw the ball either to a receiver or incomplete unless he's absolutely sure he can run it all the way in.Edit (in 5 minutes)

MikeS777
MikeS777

Even if Lynch doesn't make it, they had a timeout.  Sorry, but this will go down as one of the worst blown Super Bowl's in history.  Granted the defense had too many banged up players in the 4th or we might not be having this discussion.  A healthy Seattle defense doesn't give up 14 pts to NE in that 4th.

prarrd
prarrd

I think the team wasn't coordinated because the white players couldn't understand the ebonics spoken by the black players. The black players speak like children. Can't the NFL do something about this TERRIBLE ACT OF RACISM?

Wilbo
Wilbo

@prarrd Unacceptably stupid comment.


Bradley, could you be useful for once and delete this?

MikeS777
MikeS777

A regular season game? Ok try the same play.  But in the Super Bowl when the whole season is on the line?  No you don't just waste a play like that.  You have to give it to you're best player.  If you're going to go down, you have to take your best shot.  That shot was either Lynch for 1 yard or rolling out Wilson to make a play with his legs or throw it away.

Even if you wanted to throw, the only success Seattle had all game was keeping the ball high to their taller WRs.  They couldn't get separation all game enough to do anything else, so a slant makes no sense.  A fade or a back shoulder throw like what they ended the first half with?  That would be the only pass play that would have made sense to me.

moboman
moboman

@MikeS777 To me, maybe you run Lynch on 2nd down, and rollout Wilson on third, with the instruction that he HAS to throw the ball either to a receiver or incomplete unless he's absolutely sure he can run it all the way in.

GMAB
GMAB

Wilson  rolls out with Lynch blocking, touchdown.

moboman
moboman

Not so dumb Mark.  The thing is that there was at least SOME element of surprise throwing on second down.  Had they ran on second and failed to score, they would have been forced to burn the timeout.  At that point there would have been NO element of surprise by passing on third down, which would have still left a fourth down opportunity with an incompletion on third down.  With three downs remaining and only one timeout, ONE of the first two downs has to be an incomplete pass to preserve enough time for three attempts.  MIKE SMITH would never have even figured this out.


What it comes down to was exactly what you said, no deception in the play called, and most importantly, a PHENOMENAL play by the DB. 

ATL89
ATL89

@moboman Why do you need the element of surprise to move the ball ONE YARD, when you have the personnel to get it done without any tricks at all, and "you know what that is called?", it's called over thinking it.

moboman
moboman

@ATL89 @moboman You don't NEED the element of surprise, and they blew it by making the play too "readable" and not deceptive.  My point is that they were trying to maintain enough time for THREE POSSIBLE ATTEMPTS.  I don't think this game was lost by Seattle as much as it was WON by a great play by a rookie defensive back who didn't just bat the ball down, he grabbed the game.

Silverlake
Silverlake

Call will go down in infamy as the worst. call. ever.  in Super Bowl history. You can take up for Pete Carroll all you want, but he blew a sure Super Bowl win.

Rickster_
Rickster_

One of the worst calls since Joe Pisarcik failed to take a knee to run out the clock and instead tried to hand off to Larry Csonka. The handoff was fumbled, Philadelphia returned the fumble for a TD and won the game. 


Since this was on a far bigger stage, it's probably even a worse call.


SunDropMan
SunDropMan

Mark Bradley, shame on you!  You are smarter than this.  This is below you, really.  This has to be the dumbest statement by a sportswriter I have seen.  You could even ask a homeless guy on the streets and he would get this one right.  It only takes common sense and logic, nothing else.  To nullify your last paragraph "Fun with numbers", here's something you can smoke in your crooked pipe:  Lynch had averaged 3 yds. per carry for the game, had over 100 total, and even the QB, Wilson had averaged 13 yds. per carry in the game. Since they were in the shotgun formation(which was a mistake) he could have faked to Lynch and walked in basically around either end.  DON'T PUT THE BALL IN THE AIR AT THE ONE YARD LINE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! How dumb can a coach be?  If I were the owner I would dock Carroll and Bevells pay about $100K each !

Andrew Burrows
Andrew Burrows

@FarTrain And he is only 40% from the 1 yard line.  Throwing the ball is not problem here.  Throwing in the middle is the problem and throwing it with zero deception is the problem.  

Wilbo
Wilbo

@FarTrain  "Mark Bradley, shame on you!  You are smarter than this."


No he's not.

oledawg
oledawg

I heard a statistic that Lynch had 5 carries from inside the 3 during the course of the season and was only able to get a TD on one of those carries...so probably not a bad call. Poorly executed and a bad throw.

SunDropMan
SunDropMan

@oledawg You were watching a different game than I was.  Stupid comment, but coming from a "dawg", that explains it.  How's Bobo feeling, great I bet?  No longer known as the coach with the "dumbest call in all of football" !

ATL89
ATL89

Yes, it was really wrong!! In that situation, you always play the percentages, and in doing that you also know your team and your opponent. Here is the point, you a have QB, who is not great at fitting the ball in tight windows, and you have a Running Back, who has the most yards after contact in the league, and in a Goal Line situation at the end of the game, "what gives my team the best chance to win?", passing it with my QB, or running it in with my RB.  Also, it's not like New England was stuffing Seattle's run game, they just kept in check, so running the ball with BEAST MODE was sufficient enough to get one yard. Pete Carroll just choked, that's all that happened, and we have seen that here in Atlanta on multiple occasions with Smitty.  

Nauti-boy
Nauti-boy

FLAG - I thought it was pass interferrance. Butler's shoulder hits the receiver beforethe ball gets there. The hit is what moved his hands out of possition to catch the ball.


CALL - Not a bad call.  it's actually a fairly high percentage play. incomplete stops the clock. Chris Collinsworth (who I like) was off the mark and started this discussion.


PASS - Bad pass. Instead of high and away it should have been thrown low and in. 

Scotus
Scotus

@Nauti-boy Not even close to interference.  Both players have the right to the ball, and the defender Butler was clearly playing the ball.

Nauti-boy
Nauti-boy

@Scotus @Nauti-boy "a defender cannot play through the back of a receiver". look it up. Hitting the receiver in back shoulder before the ball gets there is playing through the back.

2112thDawg
2112thDawg

It's a riskier play call than running Lynch in there with a fullback with a time out. You can run two of those or run Wilson once in there with a sneak. NE didn't stuff the run at all. They held it in check but Lynch and the other RB had positive runs all day. Bad play call. Another bad call was to throw deep on 3rd and 3 when up by 10 at midfield and Brady sitting on the bench. They had them on the ropes. Get 3 yards there keep the ball and the game may be out of reach for NE there. OC for Seahawks had a bad day.

DawgWhistle
DawgWhistle

Surprised you didn't also note that the interception Tech made on Georgia in overtime that ended the game was almost exactly the same as this one - just on the other side - and was likely the result of coaching, practice and recognition on the part of the DB. As explained by Carroll and Belichek (sp?), when the defense is lined up to stop the run, you often try something else. As Tom Osborne said, 'There are no bad calls...just bad execution and outcomes'. Next time?...Who knows?

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

Questioning the call is nothing more than armchair quarterbacking. Great play by the defender.

Rickster_
Rickster_

First! (And yes, the call was bad. The throw, however, was even worse.)