Can The Worst Play Call In Super Bowl History Be Defended? (SPOILER: No.)
Before we get to the
#Slatepitch #Voxpitch, you should read Barnwell if you haven’t. In particular, Edelman and especially Hightower aren’t getting enough credit. He also persuades me that Lockette deserves more blame for the decisive pick than Wilson. (My general point on that still stands: Lockette is what he is. Not only is he a very marginal player, the reason he draws an NFL paycheck is his downfield speed. If Bevell thought he was good at winning one-on-one battles in tight spaces with corners he wouldn’t be a backup player among one of the weakest groups of wideouts in the league. It’s wrong on multiple levels for Bevell to try to deflect the blame onto Lockette.)
On the issue of The Play, he makes some attempts to defend the abstract logic of the play, but this is the key point that leads him to his conclusion that it can’t be defended:
The key phrase there, of course, is “in a vacuum.” This wasn’t a vacuum. This was the Seahawks and the Patriots, and while the size of the stage shouldn’t matter, the matchups should. As I mentioned in my Super Bowl preview, this was a matchup specifically built for running the football with Lynch in short yardage. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots were the worst team in the league in power-running situations and fifth-worst in terms of stuffing the opposition for no gain or a loss. Seattle was the second-best power running team and the sixth-best team at avoiding stuffs. If there was ever a matchup that called for a team to live and die on the back of its running game from the 1-yard line, this was it.
Right. It’s not hard to construct a general argument in favor of a pass. But on one hand, Lynch against the Patriots short-yardage rush defense is the most favorable matchup the Seahwaks have. And on the other, the Seattle wideouts against the Patriots secondary is by far the most favorable matchup for New England. If New England is in that situation, a pass makes perfect sense. Brady has a case as the greatest QB in history because of his laser-precise short passes, and he has multiple viable targets on any pass play, allowing him to search for a bad matchup. For Seattle, it’s a different story. You’re obviously not challenging Revis with Baldwin, Kearse didn’t get open and also isn’t very good, leaving only one viable target who isn’t the one you want to have to make a play. And while Wilson isn’t Tim Tebow on short passes or anything, he’s also not Brady — having him try to make an absolutely perfect throw on an inside slant isn’t a good use of his strengths.
With all that, there’s still a possible case. Barnwell made this point, but I think the contrarian floor belongs properly to Yglesias here:
In incomplete pass stops the game clock. An unsuccessful run does not. A timeout also stops the clock, and Seattle only had one timeout left. So if the Seahawks had run on second down and failed to get a touchdown, they would have had to call timeout.
Now, it’s third down, and they have no timeouts left. So if they run on third and fail, the game is over. But if they pass on third and fail, the clock will stop, and they can run another play. So they basically have to pass on third, and the New England defense knows they have to pass.
By contrast, if you throw on second down and fail, the clock stops. Now it’s third down, and you still have your time out. That means you could run on third, fail, and use the timeout to stop the clock and run another play on fourth down. That means New England has to defend against both the pass and the run, which puts Seattle in a more advantageous strategic position than they would be had they run and failed.
Unlike Bevell’s gibberish, this makes a certain amount of sense. Because of two unnecessarily burned timeouts from the School of Andy Reid, Seattle probably couldn’t have run the ball three times. If you can’t run three times, why not do it on the down where you gain the most strategic advantage?
I still don’t really buy it because of the matchup question. But, again, while the logic can defend calling a pass it certainly can’t defend the play that Bevell actually called. The argument collapses on itself because they made no attempt to disguise that the play was a pass. The formation was a shotgun with three wideouts, not a goaline formation that would signal a run. There was no attempt to fake to Lynch or roll Wilson out, which would create deception as well as being better tailored to Wilson’s strengths. There are pass plays in that context that are potentially defensible — but a pass out of a passing formation so obviously telegraphed that a rookie with fewer than 200 pro snaps could read the play perfectly is very definitely not one of them. They didn’t get any strategic advantage from calling that play on 2nd down, and so we’re left with them passing on their most favorable talent matchup and getting their worst.
There’s a related issue that returns me to the most important takeaway to the game. Carroll suggested that he was surprised by how the Patriots reacted to the personnel they sent on to the field, hence Carroll talking about “wasting a down” before they could get a better matchup for the running game. I’m genuinely baffled by what they could have been expecting (4 DBS? 5?) It’s been repeated to the point of cliche, but it’s still true — Belichick is committed to doing what he can to minimize the other team’s strengths. If you decide that you’d rather put the game in Ricardo Lockette or Jermaine Kerse’s hands rather than Marshawn Lynch’s at the goal line, Belichick is giving you that matchup 100 times out of 100. The fact that Carroll and Bevell apparently thought that Belichick would get out of his goal line defense if they sent another shitty wideout onto the field is almost as jaw-dropping as the play call itself.
And this is what puts Belichick on another level. As Brien says in comments, the focus and discipline with which Belichick exploits weaknesses and favorable matchups is remarkable. It’s harder than it sounds. Jim Harbaugh is a fantastic coach, but he pissed away multiple games to Seattle in part because he couldn’t resist challenging Richard Sherman, with predictable results. And of course Pete Carroll isn’t a bum; he’s very likely headed to the Hall of Fame, and Seattle was in the Super Bowl in part because he completely outmatched another Super Bowl-winning coach in the previous game. But it’s very hard for creative coaches to avoid the temptation to get cute or to prove something rather than just focusing logically on the best play in a given situation. Carroll has done a fantastic job in Seattle, but he made a ghastly error at the worst possible time. Belichick’s 4 rings aren’t an accident.
UPDATE: 538’s analysis. which a couple commenters have linked, has similar problems. It focuses way too much on general probabilities rather than the specific context, and it meaninglessly judges the efficacy of a generic “pass” play as opposed to the actual play Seattle called.
Update II [PC]: Haven’t read through all the comments so don’t know if it’s been pointed out that Seattle absolutely could have run Lynch four times on that series — Yglesias is wrong that if they had run on second down they would have to pass on third. Seattle snapped the ball on second down with 26 seconds left. A run by Lynch doesn’t take more than five or six seconds, even if there’s a big scrum. If Seattle uses its last time out at that point they have 20 seconds left. That’s an eternity in a goal line situation where all your players are already at the line of scrimmage. A third down run would have left them a good 15 seconds left to line up and run any fourth down play, including Lynch again. 15 seconds to get a play off isn’t even a particularly fast snap in a contemporary hurryup situation. And if the Patriots would have tried to stop guys from lining up by staying on top of them the refs were going to stop the clock.