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 fivethirtyeight.com 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. Fivethirtyeight.com 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.