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Malcolm Butler (21) intercepts pass to win game for the Patriots (Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today) PLAY

Malcolm Butler (21) intercepts pass to win game for the Patriots (Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today)



By Dean T. Hartwell

When I saw the Seahawks throw an interception at the Patriot one yard line in the Super Bowl last week, I wanted to throw a brick at my TV set.

How on earth could the Seahawks fail to give the ball to the best running back in the NFL, Marshawn Lynch? What a terrible decision!

But wait a minute. I have had second thoughts.

The two coaches, Pete Carroll of the Seahawks and Bill Belichick of the Patriots, both made decisions without the gift of hindsight and they often made them in a hurry. Many of these decisions took place in the last sixty-six seconds of the game.

That period of time started when Seahawk receiver Jermaine Kearse was pushed out of bounds. He had just gotten up after juggling a pass six times and catching it on his back. The Seahawks now had 1 st and goal from the Patriot five-yard line.

“Play It Again” by Dean T. Hartwell

The Seahawks then decided to give the ball to Lynch, who barreled his way to the one yard line. The clock continued to run until the Seahawks ran their next play. That was because the Patriots decided not to call a time out of their own. In effect, Belichick decided to leave the game up to his defense.

As the game ran fast to its conclusion, Carroll had to decide what play to call before the game clock again was to expire. In a manner of seconds, he had to consider a number of factors:

Time left in the game Possible plays Defensive unit sent out by the Patriots (the defense lines up first). Possible consequences and levels of possibility of outcomes

Here is what likely ran through his mind:

Time left in the game – The game clock (the seconds left in the game) went down to 26 seconds before the Seahawks got the play off. Given that plays near the goal line last about 5-10 seconds depending upon whether the clock continues after the play (for example, a tackle in bounds) or the clock stops (ex: penalty, play goes out of bounds, time out called, etc.), he could estimate perhaps three plays. But the choice of possible plays would narrow depending upon how the Seahawks managed the time.

Possible plays – With one time out left, the Patriots had to respect the possibility of both a run and a pass. Even if the run was stopped, the Seahawks could still call time out. The absence of time outs would have limited Seahawks to passing plays, to which the Patriots could set their defense accordingly.

Defensive unit – Carroll would say later he saw the Patriot run defense take the field. 1 A run could still work, but certainly the perception that a pass might be better for this particular play likely crossed his mind when he saw that.

Possible consequences – With time running out on both the play and game clock, it would be human for Carroll to consider his fears of running specific plays. The pressure was on him (and Belichick) all game long to make decisions about player personnel, strategy, and time management) and that pressure increased in the final minute. A pass could have negative consequences, like an interception, but an interception wasn’t likely. (In fact, Quarterback Russell Wilson’s interception was the first time in 109 plays throughout the 2014-15 season in which a pass from the opponent’s one yard line ended up picked off by the opponents. 2 )

Every play carries the risk that something will go wrong.


play is


sure thing

because of the chances of a penalty, turnover, loss of yardage, etc. If, for example, Lynch was the sure thing to gain yardage, then why not give him the ball every play? It is simple – the other team would catch on and put in a defense to stop Lynch. (Lynch, interestingly, carried the ball five times all season from the opponent’s one yard lime –

“Play It Again” by Dean T. Hartwell

only once did he scored a touchdown. The other four carries were split between losses and no gains. 3 )

Belichick, too, was taking chances, first by deciding not to call a time out (which, had the Seahawks scored, would have given the Patriots more time to go for a game-tying field goal) and second, by sending on a defensive unit designed to stop the run. He had to show his hand first and, as noted, Carroll saw the defensive players when deciding the Seahawk strategy.

But the last decision belonged to the Seahawks. The pass play was called and carried out. There were hidden risks involved. The player who made the catch, Malcolm Butler, later said that Coach Belichick had told him (a fifth-string cornerback who didn’t even start the game!) to look out for Seattle to call that play near the goal line! Butler raced to where he anticipated the ball and just took it for an interception.

Can you really blame Carroll for not knowing that?

Millions of arm-chair quarterbacks have cursed Carroll for the play call. But they have the luxury of never having to put their call (a run by Lynch) to a test. Imagine this scenario, based on the same chance of the interception:

Lynch takes the ball from Wilson and runs right. The Patriot defense stacks him at the half-yard line. Butler strips the ball from Lynch’s hands. There’s a mad scramble for the ball…the Patriots have it!

The response from the same arm chair quarterbacks? “Silly Carroll. He should have known Lynch does poorly from the one yard line. He should have thrown it.”

Throw me back my brick!

“Play It Again” by Dean T. Hartwell


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