What REALLY Cost Seattle the Super Bowl

Pete Carroll got too cute.

If you want to level a criticism at him for the now-infamous play call in the Super Bowl, I would argue the above statement is fair.  It was not "THE WORST CALL IN THE HISTORY OF FOOTBALL!!", as a large swath of click-baiting journalists would have you believe.  No one wants to hear it because in our current sports world, the hottest take always has to be the right one, but there was a certain tactical sense to the call he made.  Yes, he got too cute, and the result cost his team the chip, but the strategy behind the cuteness was sound.

Take a trip down the rabbit hole with me to see why.

The mistake behind the mistake actually happened two plays before, immediately after Jermaine Kearse's insanely memorable-yet-ultimately-meaningless circus catch.  As remarkable and unlikely as the catch itself was, I was even more impressed when Kearse had the presence of mind to get up and run out of bounds after the catch, stopping the clock.  If the last few plays work out differently, that goes down as one of the highest-football IQ plays in NFL history because it kept the Seahawks from burning a timeout or running the clock down before their next play.  Problem is, the Seattle coaching staff immediately sabotaged Kearse's brilliance by failing to get the next play signaled in to Russell Wilson in time, causing him to have to burn their second timeout anyway.  This turned out to be a lot more critical than you would initially think.

To look at this properly, we have to separate process from result, which is understandably difficult when it's the last two minutes of the season and the result matters more than it does at any other point in the year, but let's try.  In one alternate universe, the Seahawks' coaching staff keeps its head on straight after Kearse's catch, radios in the 1st-and-goal play for Marshawn Lynch, he runs to the one yard line, and everything is the same except that Seattle still has two timeouts left.

Here's where it gets interesting.  In that scenario, Bill Belichick now has a tougher decision on his hands, whether he realizes it or not (let's give him the benefit of the doubt - he's earned it - and say that he does).  He would probably be more likely to take his timeout to save the clock for his offense, knowing that Seattle could either run the ball three times, probably scoring one of those times, or that New England would simply allow Lynch to walk into the end zone (a la Ahmad Bradshaw the last time the Pats were in the Super Bowl).

Even if he decides to "trust his defense" to win the game, the situation is vastly different, but in a subtle way.  With two timeouts at his disposal and three plays remaining in the game, Pete Carroll would have been MUCH more likely to put in a goal line formation and just try to pound it in with Lynch because the clock would not be a factor at all.

As it played out, and this is extremely important, the Seahawks absolutely HAD to throw the ball on either second or third down.  Read that last sentence again.  If they run with Lynch on 2nd down and he gets stuffed (yes, he probably would have scored, but let's assume), Seattle burns their last timeout because they have no choice.  That means that Carroll has to call a pass play on third down, since if he runs again and gets stuffed, they are scrambling to run a fourth down play with the clock winding to zero and the whole season in the balance.  You don't want to be put in that scenario, and both he and Belichick know this.  So Belichick, being the smart guy he is, would have known that Seattle would throw on third down, and would have adjusted his personnel and scheme accordingly to lower the chances of a score.

So the choice to throw on second down actually made a fair amount of sense, since Seattle could dictate the personnel groupings on that play and possibly surprise the Patriots, whereas third down would have been a straightforward pass situation.  Did they get too cute?  Probably.  But that cuteness was in the service of having three real chances at the end zone instead of only two.  The result was obviously catastrophic for Seattle, but the logic behind the play was sound.

With all that said, if the Seahawks stay disciplined and don't burn that second timeout after Kearse's catch, the whole endgame strategy is different for Seattle (since they could run three times without fearing the clock).  Which raises another question: was Belichick's decision to not call timeout after first down a stroke of genius by a master tactician or a remarkable bit of serendipity?

Let's enter another alternate universe.  In this universe, everything plays out the same way, except that on the fateful 2nd-and-goal play, real-universe hero Malcolm Butler reads the slant pass a little bit quicker and jumps the route.  Smarty-pants QB Russell Wilson sees that the slant isn't there and either rolls out to his right and throws the ball away or tries to loft the ball to the corner to Marshawn Lynch on his wheel route.  In this universe, either throw is incomplete.  On third-and-goal, with full goal line personnel on the field, Lynch powers the ball into the end zone for the winning score.  New England is left with only about 10-15 seconds when they receive the kickoff, not enough time to muster up anything consequential.

In this universe, the same media currently excoriating Carroll instead rips the all-knowing Belichick to shreds for not calling timeout after the first-and-goal play and giving his team a chance to drive down the field for the tying field goal.  The Seahawks become a team of destiny, and Carroll's call to throw on second down is completely lost to history.  Same process, different result, completely different analysis of who out-coached who and endgame strategy.

So, did Belichick simply "trust his defense" to win the game for him, or did he "bait" Carroll into calling a pass play on second-and-goal, knowing that Carroll is a smart tactician and would probably do that in lieu of handing off twice to Lynch?  Maybe Belichick considered the possibility during the fateful burned timeout before the first-and-goal play, which would make it a double boner on Seattle's part because it gave Belichick precious time to think about his strategic options, rather than force him to make a decision on the fly.  Perhaps Belichick is so smart and experienced that he would have done what he did no matter what.  If only we had a massive corps of talented professionals whose only job it is to ask relevant questions like that and report the answers.  Wouldn't that be swell?

Full disclosure: I reacted to the pick the same way as everyone else -- stunned confusion followed by repeatedly asking "Why???"  Well, I just explained why.  Carroll's decision-making process on that play was completely sound, it was just a really, REALLY bad result.  There was an insane amount of coaching tactics behind that one decision, and to try to dumb it down by saying he's an idiot for throwing takes out all of the beautiful nuance of a game that was played and coached at the highest possible level.

Well, except for that God-awful timeout.  That was the real blunder that changed NFL history.