Bill Belichick Makes a Huge Strategic Mistake in Super Bowl XLIX, Patriots Still Win

It was expected to be a great match-up, and what a match-up Super Bowl XLIX ultimately was.

There are multiple fantastic stories out of the game, not the least of which, albeit ultimately overshadowed by the Patriots victory at the end, was the exceptional performance by undrafted Chris Matthews of the Seahawks; who not long ago was working at Foot Locker when the Seahawks called him up for a tryout. (This is the same Matthews who recovered the onside kick in the NFC Championship Game against the Packers, who but for that onside recovery by him would have almost assuredly been playing in this Super Bowl instead of Seattle.)

But Patriots head coach Bill Belichick – who no doubt about it is an excellent head coach, and whose team often makes fewer really egregious strategy mistakes than most others – made a big mistake with 1:01 remaining in the game.

Trailing 28-24 with 1:01 to go, the Seahawks Marshawn Lynch, a super tough clutch runner who had a fabulous game and who was barreling over Patriots for very tough yardage for much of the second half, had just barreled 4 yards to the 1 yard line on 1st down.

If the Seahawks scored on the next play to go up 27-24, the Patriots – in desperation mode with nothing to lose and four plays to advance the ball per each set of downs – would have had plenty of time to mount a drive to get into field goal range and at least tie the game at the end.

If they got the clock stopped by calling timeout.

(Heck, at the end of the first half, the Patriots drove for a touchdown in a little under two minutes, and then, although it was a bit of a fluke, the Seahawks then drove for a touchdown with 31 seconds left in the half. But a little over 50 seconds, while not great, would give the Patriots more than enough time to mount a quick field goal drive attempt.)

The whistle blew at 1:01 after the Lynch run to the 1, and the Patriots needed to immediately call a timeout.  A play from the 1 would likely take between 4 and 6 seconds, and if the Seahawks scored it would stop the clock again. They would kick off, and if the Patriots just downed the ball in the end zone, they would have around 55 to 56 seconds left.

Even if the Seahawks were stopped on their 2nd down play and scored on their 3rd, if the Patriots used another timeout (or the 2nd down play was an incomplete, stopping the clock), the Patriots would still have around 50 seconds left.

Don’t call that timeout and let the Seahawks run the clock down, and they won’t have time.

And the Seahawks did run it down, milking it all the way to 26 seconds before snapping the ball (maybe even too long); meaning if they scored The Patriots would have about 21 seconds left.

Because of the change in odds when there is no flexibility to ever throw in the middle of the field (and the defense can ignore it), or – barring one extremely long pass out of bounds – even so much as one incomplete, while teams get that last field goal with 50 seconds left all the time, it’s only under super fluky circumstances that they do it in 20 seconds; and even 30 seconds (which would have been the case had the Seahawks taken the clock down to a more comfortable 35 seconds and still scored on the very next play rather than on 3rd or 4th down instead), makes it a big long shot. (A team can also have a fluke kick return, but taking the ball out of the end zone is usually a mistake now with the deeper kickoffs, because the chances of big yardage is low, and just getting the ball out out to the 20 – which they’re automatically given just by downing it in the end zone, eats up another 5-7 seconds – which with even 30 seconds left is one fifth of the remaining game time.)

Presumably Belichick, among other things (including not thinking it through clearly), was aware that the Seahawks had used two of their timeouts, and possibly didn’t want to “give them” time.

But if so, this was fanciful: The Seahawks had one of the best – if not at this point the best – game managers at QB in the game. They had 61 seconds, and only four plays tops – barring some fluke penalty – left to run, with a net yard total ending it.

Lynch led the league in TDs this season. Wilson is incredibly versatile from the pocket, and if time became an issue, they could easily just run out of the shotgun and have Wilson scramble in or throw to the end zone for a TD or clock stopping incompletion.

By not calling that time out – in the fairly likely (though not assured) event of a Seahawks TD on 2nd or 3rd down – the Patriots completely threw away a good – and in fact but for a lucky stop of Seattle, critical – chance to tie the game at the end.

As it worked out, the Patriots won anyway. On 2nd down Wilson threw his first interception of the game, to Patriots DB Malcolm Butler, and history was made. The Patriots had their 4th Super Bowl victory of the dynamic Brady Belichick era, and by defeating last year’s Super Bowl champions they remained the only team this millennium still to repeat.

But the decision is not based upon outcome. The decision is based on the circumstances that existed at the time the call was made.

And at the time the call was made it may have given the Patriots a very small edge in terms of the Seahawks’ ultimate own clock availability (and obviously the Seahawks didn’t think so because if they did they certainly wouldn’t have purposefully milked it for another 10-15 seconds on top of the 20 -25 or so critical seconds that by not calling the timeout the Patriots stole away from themselves). But it it took away an enormously valuable opportunity for them, and was an extremely poor decision in terms of maximizing their chances of ultimately winning the game.

Teams – even the Patriots, who between Belichick and Brady generally handle the clock about as well as any team in the league – continue to underestimate the relevance of the clock at the ends of football games, and the remarkable difference being able to control that clock and provide enough time for a reasonable drive at the the end (or prevent an opponent from doing so), versus not being able to.

At the time, it is likely that Belichick wanted the Seahawks to be cognizant of the clock: To not have the full timeout period to cogitate, ruminate – perhaps privately remonstrate – over what play to run, hopefully make a mistake and lose some clock time, and perhaps be stopped once or twice and be a little constrained from so freely running Lynch out of the backfield.

All valid concerns. But they pale in comparison to the differential between the game being all but over if the Seahawks score, and it being still very much up in the air, and with the Patriots down by 3 and the ball in their hands last with some time to drive and get that 3.

The Patriots couldn’t have assured the latter in the case of a likely score (and when an opponent finds itself at your 1 line on 2d down, let alone with a QB like Wilson, they are likely to score). But they could have greatly increased their chances of seeing to it that if they failed to stop Seattle (as was likely), that they themselves were still very much in the ballgame, rather than instead, having all but a fluke shot or – depending on how many plays it took Seattle – essentially none at all.

Through ill advised sideline decision making – however hard to do while under the gun of general coaching duties (why teams could use a sideline adviser who understands the structural strategic components of the game and knows how to correctly assess situations quickly and broadly) – the Patriots took that huge opportunity away from themselves.




11 thoughts on “Bill Belichick Makes a Huge Strategic Mistake in Super Bowl XLIX, Patriots Still Win

  1. I think the game was fixed in favor of the Seahawks, but the Patriots overcame the “12th man” (the refs) to win anyway.
    Reffing was clearly in favor of the Seahawks. Three examples:
    (1) What was that offensive pass interference call on Edelman, when the ball wasn’t even thrown his way, and they never showed it on TV either?
    (2) What about the play where the ref in the endzone set a perfect pick to rub off Darrelle Revis so the Seahawks could score a TD? There must have been other funny business going on. Brady was so much better in the first half than Wilson but couldn’t get much of a lead.
    (3) Why did the clock run down to 2:00 after a Patriot receiver ran out of bounds with about 2:19 on the clock at the end of the first half? That cost the Patriots effectively one timeout. But then things didn’t go as expected and the Patriots scored with about 0:30 left — so a 20 second touchdown for Seattle was somehow allowed to tie the score. Not sure if there was funny business there or not, but it was an amazing thing.
    But the final play could not have been scripted, with the contact and all.
    Actually Pete Carroll’s explanation makes sense. All season long, people across the NFL were unable to score from within the 5 on ground-and-pound. Everyone resorted to throwing passes into the endzone. Why would the end of the Super Bowl be different? If the Pats had stopped Lynch, people would have said they should have thrown a short pass.
    So while Coach Carroll knew he was supposed to win, it didn’t work out. So he had to apologize to his bosses. Hence his apologetic tone for a perfectly defensible decision, and the sports press was very angry (probably had money on the Seahawks) and started berating Carroll for not getting it done, with the 12th man in his pocket.


    • Thanks for the Interesting Comment. I think the referees overall did a pretty good job in the game. The out of bounds at the end of the half – I don’t remember it exactly but I don’t think Amendola was fully out of bounds so the clock isn’t stopped. That’s frequent in football.

      Also, I’m not even sure you can say that stopping the clock there would have helped or hurt the Patriots. 2:00 from where they were (the 31) was plenty of time.

      I think your point on Carroll is well taken. Teams throw from close to the goal line all the time. Here it had the additional advantage of stopping the clock on an incomplete. An unsuccessful run would have used up the majority of the remaining clock, or burned the Seahawks last timeout.

      And an interception was extremely unlikely. Wilson has thrown 26 his entire regular season career (out of like 1252 pass attempts). And a few of those are when a QB is taking more chances with the ball or long passes on 3rd down, etc so even that overstates it.

      The argument that a pick or tip is that easy from the goal line is over overstated, particularly on a quick throw. It was just a great read by Butler (who was also alerted, he said, by a 3rd WR at the line, which was probably a mistake on the Seahawks part), a bad throw/decision by Wilson and just an extremely unusual play.

      There has been a great deal of commingling of the very unusual and highly variable outcome of the play, with the call itself. Had it worked, some might have said “I wouldn’t have thrown a slant there” (good or bad call to make, it’s subjective, Carroll’s a pretty good coach), and it wouldn’t be looked at even as a mistake. Many would even say “great call.”

      The outcome greatly biases us, but there is too much variation on any one play for the outcome to be determinative, or even very informative.


  2. Can’t say that I agree with any of this. I believe Belichick had studied this situation before and Ernie Adams was probably in his ear telling him to sit tight. You call it a mistake. I call it big brass cajones. Seattle was waiting for the timeout but Bill stared them down as the team with the lead and said, “Nah ah. You got one timeout and you need 6. Come and get it.”

    Had they had two timeouts, I believe they NE calls timeout immediately if Seattle doesn’t, but Bill knew exactly what he was doing. He was daring them to throw and it worked.


    • Reasonable commentary, but obviously I disagree with you. New England had two timeouts and Seattle calling a timeout there would have been an even worse decision by Seattle than it was for New England.

      Letting the clock run when they still have plenty of time is not “daring” a team to do anything. I also think (as noted) that Seattle took it down a little bit too much, which tipped their hand a little.

      But even then, not necessarily, and even then when a team expects a pass (such as all the time at ends of games when clock prohibits a run try) the odds of a pick are very low

      AgaIn, I think the outcome of the play is understandably greatly coloring analysis of it. The chances of that pick were extremely slight, and it just as easily could have been a TD as an incomplete.

      If it’s a TD by taking it down that far the game is still essentially over. If it’s not they now have complete flexibility and unpredictability for both of their next plays, since 21-22s left, and a timeout. Maybe they run both times, or mix in a roll out option, but not boxed in by clock while at the same time game is over if they score on any of the 3 plays. (Which is why Butler may have guessed, but that’s a good guess.)

      The chances of the pick were extraordinarily low. There is now way Belichick can predict that. He might have hoped they would run that play and Butler would jump – they had practiced it during the week apparently and Butler was burned – and that’s good coaching, but that’s still a super long shot. Getting the ball back wit time versus no time after their (likely) TD, is not a super long shot, or even just a long shot.


      • I’m speculating, but maybe one of the reasons Belichick was so confident in his last minute game management was because he knew from studying film that Seattle probably only has a couple of quick, goal line pass plays designed to stop the clock. He knew the pressure was on Seattle to stop the clock from ticking. It was definitely a big gamble, but the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. He played to win, not to tie and hope for the best in OT.


      • Great comment, I was thinking something along those lines also. I don’t think it warrants what he did, the odds are way too low and he can’t know they can always stop the Seahawks from in close.

        Re stopping the clock, that also still means “pass” and again chances of a pick are super low.

        I also think the hunch off a pass – frankly a pass on 2d down made the most overall sense and Belichick and the Pats may have realized this too – if that’s what happened, would have been negated by Seattle taking the clock down to 35 s (then they have the flex’ to run 1st and STILL keep all options fully open – apparently they didn’t want the Pats to even have 30 secs if they scored on the 1st try.)

        I was guessing the Patriots had seen that they lined up two on side on that play – that had practiced it (Butler getting burned in practice on that same play and then seeing the second WR, which was also why the offensive part “almost worked so well” and the timing situation, tipped him off that it was a pass and he decided to jump it) , and it was luck they ran it and FAR bigger luck that it was picked and not just broken up. Also watching the replay close since, Bevell shouldn’t have spoken out about Lockette so quick, but dang he was in much better position than Butler even with the jump, and just went soft on it. (Part of coaching though, and in part why the Pats are great – “watch out on that play for them jumping it, drive to the ball ” but who knows what he was told or taught. I mean Im second guessing after the fact – but it seems to line up with Bevell’s comment.)

        I do think there was some element of that — seeing film on Seattle and thinking they had a “read ” on a few plays, and also maybe that Seattle expected the “timeout.”

        But I don’t think that last matters b/c Seattle had just taken a T/O after Kearse’s catch at the five. They had plenty of clue as to what they were going to do. They just brought it down as far as they could after the Pats didn’t take the timeout, possibly hinting at the pass.

        The irony is that the mistake was hinting at the pass bc the situation called for pass, yet after the play worked out horribly the play call has been called the worst decision ever in SB history by many for not just a slant (which is a high probability low risk play) but for “passing.” But it was SUCH a passing situation – ironically – the Pats might have known it or guessed. Butler did, or at least fr the 3rd WR . (The play actuall worked really well if you look at it closely, Butler made a great read , in part maybe bc of these considerations, he made a GREAT jump on the ball ,and all but stole it from Lockette who still should have had the catch.)

        But anyway, the Pats having an idea that the Seahawks would pass – if that was the case – shouldn’t matter, u still often can’t stop plays, but there was a hope that they’d run “X” or “Y” and the Pats could catch some serious luck.

        Better not to work strategy based on hope when giving up so much value, but generally I agree with you, don’t play for ties, play for the win. I just don’t think letting Seattle control the clock did that.

        Will say that when it comes to playing for the win generally, though some teams are getting better, the Pats have been about the best in the league under Brady and Bill.

        Most teams ‘settle” for field goals, and even “think” field goal in end game situations when they trail by 3. The Patriots are always playing for the TD with the field goal as a backup, which is the right way to do it.


  3. On the timeout (not called by Belichick at the end) I was surprised by it during the game, but it had the advantage of not giving the Seahawks time to think, and surprising them at a moment when THEY could not use a timeout to consider things calmly. This is important when the pressure is greatest. And If a turnover is more likely on a pass play, maybe even despite the predictability you run on 2nd down, throw on 3rd. But Carroll had to make a decision quickly and may have considered some factors not all.

    I think also figuring into the decision to do the surprising thing was the perception that in the normal course, the refs would find a way to have Seattle win.

    Any pass play is dangerous. Some say a pass should have been to the corner of the endzone. But those can be picked off too, and when the guy comes down in the endzone with the interception, all he has to do is fall down and the Pats would get the ball on the 20.

    Regarding the out of bounds at the end of the first half, as I recall there was no doubt he went out of bounds. The was running out at a 20 or 30 degree angle to the sideline as I vaguely remember.

    And I want to stress that offensive pass interference call on Edelman, when the ball was never even thrown in that direction. I’ve never seen that called in my life. I really wanted to see it, but the TV never showed it and everyone forgot about it.

    Brady and receivers were brilliant all game. (Give props to Seattle for inducing 2 picks, though) Patriots defense was airtight man-to-man, except when the ref blocked Revis and Seattle got a touchdown. The Patriots were far and away the better team, but for the 12th man.


    • I don’t remember the offensive pass interference call on Edelman. There was one called on Amendola – it looked like a legitimate call. Amendola blocked downfield on a timing pass that got held up.

      Originally the ref’s called it on Edelman – simply making a mistake, but they were talking about Amendola, and later corrected it to him.


  4. Pingback: Pete Carroll’s Decision is Being Roundly Castigated On the Unusual Results, Not the Call Itself and the LIkely Outcomes | NFL Football Strategy

  5. Maybe it was as simple as BB wanting the game to be decided by his Def v Sea Off rather then the other way around? Now you can say “Brady!” And I get that however the way the NE Def had played through the playoffs and the SB may have left Bill with this view. We’ll never know and I give him enough credit to execute what he believed gave his team the best opportunity to win


    • His prep week b4 game and defense call were great, and worked out Sea’ called that play and Butler jumped it, etc. But I think odds are Sea will score in that sit’n, and managing clock better still allows his defense to win it = just gives his O a shot if Sea’ does score (and as in this case odds were to 2 happen, but even if not). – My take anyway. Bill may also have had some inside hunches that softened the call a little bit, tho hard to say bc coaches don’t have crystal balls and specific play outcomes are very unpredictable. Great SB regardless.


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