Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll’s decision to go with an inside slant pass call on second down from the one yard line, one timeout left, and trailing 28-24 with 26 seconds remaining on the clock after the snap in Super Bowl XLIX, is being called one of the worst decisions ever. (The tweets by notable players compiled by ESPN get better and better, all with the same general conclusion. And a slew of articles in major sports publications immediately emerged, scathingly castigating the play, and calling Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s explanations “cockamamie,” and worse.)
But because of the wildly poor outcome, and the “super” football changing history circumstances, a powerful hindsight bias is greatly affecting judgment of the decision after the play. And the irony here is that it was Bill Belichick – perhaps the best coach of the modern era – who made the really poor decision. (But more on that later.)
It’s possible that an inside slant wasn’t the best call by Seattle. And on this particular play, in hindsight, it worked out poorly. Very poorly: Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler made a great read and jump on the ball, quarterback Russell Wilson threw a micro second late and high, and Wide Receiver Ricardo Lockette stayed soft going for the ball:
But in football, there is huge variation on outcomes for any one play. As a result, the outcome on one play often can’t accurately indicate whether it was a good call or not, even though it can greatly affect judgment of the play after the fact. Yet it’s hard to remove that outcome from biasing that analysis; particularly so when that outcome is a fluke interception from the one yard line that changes the outcome of the Super Bowl, as well as NFL, Patriots, and Seattle Seahawks’ history.
2 to 3 out of 5 times that particular play call in that situation (or any similar situation) likely would have worked. The other 2 to 3 times the pass goes incomplete and the Seahawks burn 3-4 seconds off the clock. Then, with about 22 seconds left in the game and their one remaining timeout, Seattle can choose to comfortably try two runs, or still mix up the play calling with a roll option, etc. And in such a case the Patriots would know Seattle doesn’t “have to” call this or that specific type of play (such as a pass) because of time constraints and would still be guessing before the ball is snapped – at least somewhat.
In this instance is the decision just worked out very poorly – and the Patriots guessed right before the snap. But near 49 times out of 50 (maybe very slightly less if the Patriots had a hunch from studying film – but they still don’t know that is going to be the play call), the play goes incomplete or it’s a TD, while maybe once in a while the ball is caught just outside the goal line and the receiver is driven backward.
And it’s very rarely a pick; particularly with quarterback Russell Wilson throwing. He’s had 26 picks over 3 regular seasons and 1252 pass attempts. And a few of those picks were in longer third down yardage attempts (where a long interception is often the same as an incomplete and a punt, so you might as well throw if nothing is open), or long odds comeback attempts, where the odds of throwing a pick also go up.
While Wilson didn’t play that well in the NFC Conference Championship game, throwing 4 interceptions – 2 off of tips that were’t really his fault – his performance over his seven other playoff games (all also wins) have if anything, been even better.
Thus the decision to pass from the one yard line is certainly not the “awful” decision it’s being made out to be. Particularly with the additional benefit to Seattle of a clock stoppage if the pass goes incomplete given that they have two more plays – and even a third play if a penalty is called – thus affording them the flexibility to elect a running play (with Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch even!), on any or all of them without time running out before they can get the play off.
Also easily overlooked is the fact that while bad things can happen on a quick slant, the odds are very low. But the only bad thing that really mattered here was ultimately not scoring a touchdown, versus scoring a touchdown. Getting stopped on three successive plays from near the goal line, although not quite as dramatic, is equally as bad as that pick.
And the odds of getting stopped on three successive plays – while lower than scoring (and, because of Belichick’s bad decision moments earlier, thus almost assuredly winning the game as a result) – are still much, much higher than a rare fluke pick on that pass call.
What happened was the sheer unpredictable variance of football, as well a great – and somewhat fortuitous – defensive play by the Patriots who possibly had prepared very well for the circumstances. They had reportedly practiced the play during the week. And according to Butler, who made the great read and jump on the ball and got the interception, he even got burned on that very same play in practice, and that is partly why he remembered it.
Additionally, and perhaps foolishly, Seattle lined up three wide receivers at the line instead of two. Also according to Butler, this tipped him off that the play stood a good chance of being a pass – possibly even an inside route – and he jumped it perfectly on a well timed guess. (And maybe the Patriots had picked up that tendency to not camouflage certain types of plays that well, but they can’t know that that is the exact play that Seattle is going to run, that Seattle would possibly telegraph it here if they did run, or even that there was a good chance that it would work out the way that it did, regardless.)
While a lot of people may not have liked the slant even before the play – yet plenty would have had it worked, but within a second of seeing that slant, we all saw a wild pick that totally flipped both the game and modern Super Bowl history around – that doesn’t make it a bad decision; and certainly not a horrible one. But the very unusual outcome is being commingled with the actual decision at the time the play was called, when, although easy to confuse, they are two different things.
Here, the fact that it was the Super Bowl, the one yard line, a super Super Bowl match-up with great story lines, and led to such a wild fluke pick, at the very moment after the Patriots last drive to take the lead when it looked like Seattle – and on a fantastic on his back thirty three yard catch by Jermaine Kearse down to the five yard line at the 1:14 mark moments earlier – had driven down to steal it the game back from them, to instead effectively end one of the most memorable Super Bowls in modern history, and do so on second down no less on a pick at the one yard line by one of the best decision making and “calm under game on the line pressure” quarterbacks in the game, is amplifying this tendency further.
Giving the ball to Lynch, strong of a runner as he has been in the postseason for Seattle, does not mean he gets a TD or even that the odds of a TD on a Lynch run are higher than they were (before the fact), on a slant pass.
And even if the odds were a little higher on the run but somewhat close, it supports the slant because of the clock stop advantage on an incomplete pass. Otherwise Seattle would likely have to throw at least once more anyway barring a running score on the very next play, which makes trying a pass first – rather than trying it on third down or fourth down (where it’s even more predictable because it would be forced by the clock) – a moot point anyway (but for the super fluke pick).
In addition, Lynch might have fumbled as well, even if the odds of that were arguably even lower than of Wilson throwing a pick. (Remember, there the Patriots do have a free shot at the ball even if guarded by Lynch who is pretty good at holding onto it. And with three shots from the one yard line the Patriots know they may need to knock the ball out as backup to stopping Lynch in the first place. Fumbles do happen on the goal line.)
Though again, the key point is that the odds of each – interception or fumble – are so low that with the game up in the air they really can’t be factored in rather than simply opting for the set of plays that, as offensive coordinator and head coach, Bevell and Carroll believe gave them the best chance of making sure they got into that end zone by the end of fourth down. And making sure, if they got to that fourth down – or even possibly to a fifth play due to a penalty – that they also had the time left on the clock to run it.
The fact that a team has a really good running back certainly doesn’t mean they should never throw the ball. And it doesn’t mean they should never throw the ball near the goal line – teams with good running backs do all the time – with success. That’s part of why it’s football, passes and runs are mixed in together.
And while we can argue that a different type of pass play was a “better” call, that again is the art of the game and the art of play calling itself – the latter of which is fairly subjective no matter how impassioned feelings to the contrary run after the fact.
The fact is – and it’s been overlooked by lot of popular analyses (although here are two that are reasonably solid) – there is huge variability on individual plays in football. So outcome, again, doesn’t usually determine whether something is a great call or horrible bad. It’s just a small clue, while play calling remains largely subjective, and if anything more often around the fringes of “iffy” or “solid” – as much as after the fact, in terms of their knowledge “before the fact,” nearly everybody suddenly has a crystal ball as to what was more likely to have happened on that particular play,
Again, the real awful strategy decision at the end of the game was actually made by one of the best – if not the best – coach of the modern era: BIll Bellichick.
Belichick, in not saving his team clock time in the (likely) event of a Seattle score, might have been hoping for the Seahawks to line up for an inside slant, for Butler to read it well, for Wilson to botch it and for it to work out perfectly for the interception and also for Seattle to only do so because the Patriots don’t use their timeout and give themselves a legitimate change to still tie the game after and in the event of a likely Seattle touchdown.
But that is somewhat wishful thinking, and a long shot in comparison with the substantive value that the Patriots decision with a minute left deprived themselves of – even more of a long shot in comparison given the reasonable likelihood of a Seattle score with three plays to run from the Patriots one yard line.
It just didn’t work out that way this time. Another time, it might have. And still another time, it would have. It’s the way it goes. Just as with this now famous – or infamous – slant call by the Seahawks that changed Super Bowl history.