By Dan Snapp

REPORTER: “What do you think of the execution of your team?”
JOHN MCKAY: “I’m in favor of it.”

Nobody can predict the past quite like the sports punditry.

Somehow, be it by tea leaves, phrenology or maybe even sorcery, they all have the breathtaking ability to foresee that a play that failed yesterday isn’t going to work. It’s uncanny.

Second-guessing sports decisions has long been a cottage industry. It makes up the bulk of the morning programming on ESPN, where today they battled over who can best hyperbolize Seattle’s decision to call a pass play on second down from the one.

It’s the worst play call in Super Bowl history!
No, it’s the worst play call in the history of the NFL!!
You’re all wrong. It’s the WORST PLAY CALL IN THE HISTORY OF SPORTS!!!

That’s about where I change the channel, before somebody brings Neville Chamberlain into the discussion.

Columnists added their two cents. Here’s Peter King, once again wagging his finger at participants of a sport he himself never played:

To coaches: Don’t out-think yourselves. Marshawn Lynch, even against a line led by Vince Wilfork, is your safest bet to win a yard—and have either two or three plays, probably three, in which to do it.

To players: I will quote a certain coach the players in Seattle will not want to hear from this morning, a fellow named Bill Belichick. Do your job. Pick the corner. Fight for the ball. Don’t make a throwing mistake down near the goal line.

Exactly. Did you get that, NFL coaches and players? If you make a mistake, something will probably go wrong. So don’t make mistakes. Ever.

However, we’re sad to note King’s suggestion that the Seahawks had “probably three” plays to run the ball. This is a mistake. Get your house in order, Pete!

The stat gurus entered the fray as well, with and others applying win probability calculators, comparative tendencies (Pats D 32nd  in power situations + Sea O 2nd in power situations = BEAST MODE!) and your requisite narrative framing to point in the direction their guts were already heading, which is that Pete Carroll’s decision probably wasn’t all that bad.

Fivethirtyeight did, however, take issue with Belichick’s decision not to call a timeout with a minute left, right after Lynch’s first-down run to the one-yard line. More on that later.

The foregone conclusion is that Lynch running the ball on second down would result in a touchdown. But what if he didn’t? What then? He was 1-for-5 from the one this season, and went 2-for-4 in “and-one” situations in that very game. And had Lynch failed to get in on second down, you already know what the collective reaction would have been: Why run it there?!!! That’s what they were EXPECTING you to do!!!

Coaches are paid to consider all outcomes and to prep their teams for as many possible scenarios as they can.  Carroll’s dilemma in this particular scenario – second-and-goal at the one-yard line, with 26 seconds left, and one timeout remaining – was time. He expressed later his goals: score the touchdown, leave the Patriots no time, and have all four downs available to him. The last one may have been his undoing.

Remember that after Lynch’s first-down run, Belichick didn’t call timeout. called this a mistake:

So, when the Patriots had to decide whether to call a timeout, there were essentially three paths to victory for them:

  • Seattle turns the ball over on either second or third down. Letting the clock run slightly increases the chances of this, assuming the odds of a turnover are higher on a pass than a run (we’ll take it as about 2.5 percent combined instead of 2 percent).
  • Seattle fails to score on all three plays. Again, leaving the Seahawks a little less time probably increases the chances of this happening because it forces them to pass at least once. And we’ve seen how that worked out.
  • Seattle scores. New England gets the ball back and then goes on to win the game (most likely by kicking a field goal and then winning in overtime).

But the smaller amount of time the Patriots would have under scenario No. 3 easily dwarfs the other considerations. Belichick should have called a timeout.

That all sounds reasonable, but there’s one factor missing: Belichick’s decision to not use a timeout helped dictate Seattle’s decision-making. Had he called timeout with 62 seconds remaining, Seattle would face no time constraints, and could comfortably call a pass or a run on all three plays. By letting the clock roll, Belichick put the pressure on Carroll and his play-calling, not to mention the Seahawk players, whose confusion had already led to two wasted timeouts earlier in the drive.

Moreover, calling the timeout wouldn’t assure that the Seahawks couldn’t still run out the clock. Then Belichick loses the timeouts, the time, and the game.

If Carroll had confidence they could get a rushing touchdown in two tries, he would have run on second, and say screw fourth down. But he went the conventional route, going with the only play call that left all his options open. Basically, he wanted three bites at the apple, not two.

Carroll figured the pass would either be a score or an incompletion, and nine times out of ten, he’d be right. Then he’d have third down with 20 seconds left and a timeout, and he could do whatever he wanted on both downs.

If a Lynch run on second down failed, then Seattle takes the timeout, and it’s almost a sure thing that they pass on third down. So the only way for Carroll to preserve all downs and preserve his playcalling options would be to pass on second down.

Belichick’s decision to forego the timeout turned the game into a 60-second battle of wills and nerve. The people second-guessing him and Carroll today have the benefit of never having played such a high-stakes poker game, where a decision one way or the other determines the fate of an entire season.

No play call has been this criticized since Belichick’s 4th-and-2 call in 2009. After that play failed, he was excoriated in the press, where they said his “arrogance” and “hubris” prompted the unheard-of play decision.* The media also said the call proved Belichick didn’t trust his defense. Perhaps that was true. On Sunday, though, he was the one trusting his defense, while Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth were suggesting maybe the Patriots should just let Lynch score to preserve time, since it seemed such a foregone conclusion.

* Oddly, similar “risky” decisions by other coaches were hailed as “brave” or “daring”. Jeff Fisher, in particular, has been lionized for throwing caution to the wind with his frequent fake punts. Then again, he’s a natural beneficiary of the Jeff Fisher Corollary.**
** The Jeff Fisher Corollary: The amount of praise you receive rises in direct proportion to the number of column inches you fill.

All of this, though, misses the larger point: the players still need to execute. No arguments, no run/pass scenarios, no statistical analysis, no timeout decisions and no play call decisions can override that reality. In the end, the players still have to make plays. Execution is the key.

Malcolm Butler described how the Patriots had worked on that very same slant play in practice, and how Jimmy Garoppolo (playing Russell Wilson) and Josh Boyce had beaten him for a touchdown, because he wasn’t in position. Belichick stopped practice and told Butler, “You’ve got to be on that.”

When Butler saw the same formation in the game, he knew what he had to do, but he still had to execute it. Brandon Browner similarly diagnosed the play and executed his role.

Belichick’s decision possibly helped dictate Carroll’s decision, which then created the scenario. But the play worked because of the hard work before – seeing the play in Seattle game films, practicing it and correcting it – and the recognition and execution after, once the scenario presented itself again.

That’s foresight.


33 thoughts on “The Worst Call in the History of History

  1. Yeah, I don’t get the “Belichick should have called TO” argument at all. He was forcing Carroll to make a critical decision with no time to waste, and it worked perfectly.


    1. So had BB called the TO with 1 minute left which is how much time was on the clock after Lynch was tackled then, had Seattle scored not he second down play the Pats get the ball back with about 50 seconds, 1 time out and only needing a field goal to win.

      Instead he lets the clock run, pressuring seattle into a snap decision (something Pete is not equipped to do), Butler jumps the route and the Pats win. But had Butler not jumped the route and Seattle scores there…the Pats get the ball back with 2 time outs but only 25 seconds left.


  2. Lynch is as likely to fumble in the scrum as Butler was likely to push off a block, turn the corner, outflank the reciever, grab the ball off balance with his body twisting, and make the pick vs. just knocking it down.

    In fact, a veteran player would probably have let him make the catch, then try to wrap him up for a no-gain catch. Only a rookie would be so insane as to go for the ball…haha.

    My issue is that Rockette (is that his name) was never in the end zone – so the whole point was to save the clock, right? But if he HAD been tackled, it’s the same as a run – so the throw was always ill-advised, and that’s Wilson, not Carroll.

    But I could easily be convinced that if he’d caught it, momentum would have got him to the EZ.

    I don’t think BB was that scheming with not calling the TO. To have ANY chance, they’d need the two, so he couldn’t call one yet – and he knew Carroll would call one. I think he knew the defense had to make a stop.

    In the seconds after, I thought the pass was terrible too – but the INT simply shouldn’t have happened…if you assume the worst, you;ll be paralyzed, so Carroll played the odds, BB gambled on his D, and a rookie made one a genius and one a fool. Should make them both humble!


  3. Dan:

    Nice column but your premise is wrong. It was the dumbest play call in the history of the NFL. But the reason why it was dumb is that Carroll was and always will be ill equipped to make the right decision under pressure. He had three options and he chose the most risky:
    – Run Lynch
    – Run option with Wilson
    – Put Wilson in the pocket and throw.

    His explanation about time on the clock is ridiculous after the fact justification. There was plenty of time to run the three plays. He chose the riskiest option considering he had the best running back and best roll out option QB in the league.

    So the fact that NE picked the ball off was the worst result possible but it is not why it was a lousy decision. It was a lousy decision because of the options available to him on the risk/reward scale. Carroll should be fired for making such a boneheaded decision. Similar decisions got Joe Morgan, John Fox and a host of other coaches fired over the years. It was the type of decision that destroys team unity, looses locker rooms and defines coaches as incompetent.

    I understand your point that NE through preparation and discipline caused the result. The issue is not the result…rather it was the initial play call and how it put the Seahawks in the worst possible position.


    1. Apparently you are not aware that players can fumble when running the ball.

      It’s comical and sad that some Patriots fans are buying this narrative. The reason the media is obsessing over the call is they hate the Patriots and want to blame Seattle rather than give the Patriots credit.


      1. I am aware you can fumble…something Lynch does far less often than Wilson throws picks.

        I am obsessing over this because I absolutely hate Pete Carroll and want to make sure it is clear that he blew it. He destroyed Parcels Pats, and now he proved what we in NE all knew…that he does not understand football. It was the worst call in the history of the NFL because Carroll could not think through the options. The Pats earned the victory…I don’t take anything away from Butler’s brilliant play (and Browner’s great play not allowing Butler to be picked). But I think it is important that people realize Pete Carroll put his team in position to lose…ultimately snatching defeat from the draws of victory.


        1. From what I saw in the playoffs, Pete Carroll is certainly better than Mike McCarthy, or John Fox. Carroll is one of the better NFL Coaches with a talented team, Belichick is simply an all time great.


  4. Just finished watching the full-game replay on the NFL Network. My conclusion: Seattle is a very good team, but the better team won and it never should have come down to one “dumb” play call at the 1-yard line. The Pats could have won that game by 10 or more–probably should have, in fact. I also counted at least six egregious fouls (all of them key plays) that Seattle got away with, including two helmet-to-helmet hits (one on Brady’s first quarter INT in the end zone) and an OBVIOUS offensive P.I. call on the long pass to Matthews that set up one of Seattle’s scores in the third quarter (I think it was the FG drive coming out of halftime). Sure, the Pats got away with a couple, too, but they also were hurt by a couple of ticky-tack calls (on second look, the facemask penalty that set up Seattle’s end-of-half TD pass could easily have been let go, especially considering some of the stuff Seattle’s defenders got away with). Oh, and let’s not forget that ridiculous, Tyree-like catch that set up Seattle inside the five on the final drive anyway. As for the controversial final play call–I really didn’t have that much of a problem with it. I’ve seen quick slants inside the 10 work for TDs hundreds of times in the past. Seattle simply didn’t execute and the Pats’ defense did. After watching the replay of the game, the Pats did stuff Lynch more than once on 3rd and short yardage situations — including one huge stop inside the five on the aforementioned FG drive in the third quarter. He had 102 yards, but he got about a third of them on just two carries in the 3rd quarter. The odds of him gaining that last yard for the GW touchdown are quite good, of course, but with four cracks from the five-yard line, MOST teams in the NFL are going to try at least one pass play.


    1. Yes…It always amuses me to hear one team discuss all the ‘points it left on the field’ as if the other team didn’t. Sherman afterward lamented that they weren’t able to extend their lead beyond 10 in Q3. And while none of the Patriots’ 28 points were of the ‘fortunate’ variety, at least half of Seattle’s were.


    2. Seattle is a very undisciplined team. One small example of this came in the 4th quarter, after the called late hit on Vereen on Seattle’s sideline. One Seattle player gets in Vereen’s face (which isn’t out of the ordinary) but then someone who looks like a coach steps in Vereen’s path and appears to be jawing at him. This would likely never happen with a Belichick team, and if it did the coach wouldn’t be around long.


      1. Lack of discipline is the hallmark of most Pete Carroll teams. Like I said in a previous discussion, there’s always an expiration date for Pete’s coaching style. It’s not there yet for Seattle, but it’s coming (after Sunday night, it began to appear off in the distant horizon–hard to see it, but it’s out there, and it’s coming).


  5. Wondered the same on a previous post.

    Can’t imagine they “make” money doing this but it’s possibly a once-in-a-lifetime event, so why not?

    I figured both would be on till 3AM, at least. But when I got in my car around 2:30, WEEI was the only live station. CBS had already signed off to their overnight.


  6. B.B. drops the hammer.

    “There has been a lot of criticism that I don’t think is anywhere close to being deserved or founded,” Belichick said Tuesday during his weekly appearance on sports radio WEEI in Boston. “That football team is very good, very well-coached, and Pete does a great job.

    “Malcolm and Brandon [Browner], on that particular play, just made a great play. I think the criticism they’ve gotten for the game is totally out of line and by a lot of people who I don’t think are anywhere near even qualified to be commenting on it.”


    1. This is no different than when Bill Parcels was asked if he out coached Pete Carroll when he was the Jet’s coach and they won the second game in 1997. If you remember Parcels ripped the reporter a new one going off explaining that Pete was a fellow head coach and worthy of respect.

      They all are a fraternity and they circle the wagons. Belichick likes Carroll personally so he stands up for him. From another coaches perspective Carroll might be good. From this fan’s perspective…someone who purchases the product Carroll presented when he was coach of NE…he was the single worst coach I ever saw. All of the things I hated about him in NE came out in the last 2 minutes of the Superbowl. I am just glad his golden ass horseshoe did not bail him out this time.


      1. With all due respect, I just don’t trust any non-coach or intelligent player (with access to 12 on 12 film) to opine on what and what isn’t a bad play call. There is no comparing this to similar situations in the NBA, MLB and (possibly the NHL, but I know very little about the technicalities of pro. hockey).

        Like I’ve said 1,000,000 times on this very board, in response to fans and boston media talking heads that criticize McDaniels, no one, in the history of the NFL, has ever, after a successful play, said “that was a terrible play call.”


    1. Who is on it? Reiss and Curran should toss Shank and Borges into the river and let them swim to the B.U. bridge.


      1. I know Jeff Howe and Chris Price are on it, since I follow them on Twitter, and they’ve been posting live-shots.

        I just never remember them getting their own, instead of having one from each outlet embedded on random ones.


    1. Wow….I guess Florio’s never actually attended a sporting event, where half the revenue is generated by the patrons’ public consumption of alcohol (some places even sell beer in plastic bottles and cans rather than in plastic cups filled from the tap).


  7. You obviously were not a season ticket holder when he was here and had to watch your hard earned money wasted by his abject stupidity. Pete Carroll is awful.


    1. Season ticket holders saw 18 wins in 25 games. Boo hoo.

      Have you ever considered the possibility – just a tiny tiny possibility – that the Patriots weren’t as stacked with talent at that time as you think?


      1. No…I saw a team that week in and week out got worse. In 3 years Pete Carroll was coach here there was exactly one game plan he instituted that was better than the one his opponents came in with (The Scott Zolak SF game). His genuflecting at the alter of Drew Bledsoe, his inability to adapt (as witnessed by both the SB defensive and to some extent offensive game plan), his inability to develop talent when he was in NE (exactly 1 player drafted under his regime was on the 2001 Super Bowl winning team…Kevin Faulk.) and his lack of understanding of the symbiotic relationship between offense and defense caused the Pats to get progressively worse each year he was head coach here. Pete Carroll was handed a team that went to the Super Bowl and he destroyed it. Bob Kraft went from Parcels to that moron. It was horrible. The players loved it…no discipline, no accountability, no results, accepted excuses. California Clueless. The only difference today is he has a much better GM partner in Seattle than he did in NE, therefore the talent of the players has overcome to this point, his lack of coaching acumen. Seattle is a good place for him, the fans are not critical (mostly because they also do not understand the game), the media is full of Mike Salk wannabes and not critical, there is no accountability. All of these negatives were on display in the Super Bowl. Like Mike Felger I am absolutely baffled at how Carroll won a SB…with the caveat that he lucked out getting Peyton Manning and his incredible ability to self destruct in big games as his opponent.

        Here is my prediction…Carroll will lose the Seahawks next year as the players will tune him out and he will be fired in 2 years.


        1. Wow, how can someone who visits a site about media watching that features critical thinking have no self-awareness or relationship with reality? You make Borges look like Edward R Murrow.


          1. Nah…I just have very vivid memories of writing checks to the Patriots for Season Tickets when that buffoon was head coach…coming off the Parcels years where there was hope every day, we went to the Carroll years where there was just disappointment and despair because he was completely clueless. Any look back at his time here as positive is revisionist. It was that bad. Luckily Bill Belichick came along and has over the last 14 years erased all of the negative Pete energy so its all good now. But Carroll was the worst. By the way, if you think I am critical go talk to a Jets fan about his one year stint…he is compared favorably to Richie Kotitie. The only thing Jets fans and true Pats fans can agree on is that Carroll was the absolute wrong coach for an East Coast franchise.


          2. “Disappointment and despair” for season-ticketholders …. 18 wins in 25 home games. There are fans of other teams around the league who would question your definition of despair.

            We don’t have to look back at his time here in a positive manner, but it does make sense to retain even a small link to reality.

            (Also, as to above, weren’t Tebucky Jones and Woody drafted under his regime and on the ’01 Super Bowl team?)


      2. More than a tiny possibility. They were a good team in ’96, but Denver was the best team in the AFC, and simply choked away their divisional round game to Jacksonville, which basically put the Pats into the Super Bowl. Denver had beaten the Pats by 26 points, in Foxboro, just six weeks earlier. That ’96 team was never quite as good as people remember; however, I also have no doubt in my mind that if Parcells had stayed, there never would have been the dropoff we saw after Carroll came in. Wasn’t all his fault, because the personnel decisions, over which he had no control, weren’t good during that time period. But with that said, he didn’t do a very good job coaching the talent he had, which was still pretty solid, and young. One of the most vivid memories I have about that era was Bledsoe announcing, two days into Carroll’s first training camp, how great his relationship was with the new coach. How there was a lot of give-and-take, and how with the last coach, “there was just a lot of take.” That was a red flag right there, because Bledsoe NEEDED a disciplinarian type of coach like Parcells. His tendency was to try and coast by on his natural ability — which was significant — and he needed a task-master to keep driving him to get better. It’s hardly a coincidence that his game pretty much stopped improving, and essentially leveled off (Pro Bowl QB, but not elite) as soon as Parcells hit the Jersey Turnpike in February ’97. From 1993 to 1996, you could see him improve almost every year (except ’95 when he played with a dislocated shoulder for a good chunk of the season). He put up great numbers in 1996, then basically repeated those numbers the next two or three years (while still making some mindboggling mistakes from time to time, like the Kevin Henry INT against Pittsburgh in ’97); and then began the drop off which culminated with the Mo Lewis hit.


  8. Nope. Butler himself said that they’d seen that exact play with that personnel package on tape. That was a designed play, not an audible.


  9. I was going to politely rebut this argument, but I think this Deadspin article saves me a lot of time….

    Context, everyone. The play call was abysmal not because it was a bad play, or because it had a low probability of success (neither of which was the case)… but because in context, it was the option that minimized utilization of the team’s strengths and maximized the possibility of an irretrievable error.


  10. Mazz is holding onto that Brady 1Q pick like the last turkey leg at Thanksgiving dinner (as is his pal, Danny from Hell…I mean, Quincy…I mean, the South Shore). As well as opening the show with about a 7 minute rant on parades, like a lunatic. And Felger, going into break today, says “here’s Jim Rome on the former PATRIOT, Aaron Hernandez murder trial. Remember him?”

    So nice of them to allow the audience and Patriots fans time to enjoy the victory before sh**ting on everything fun. / sarcasm I really wish Dale & Holley podcasted more of their show and not just stupid interviews and 4@4.


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