Mike Holmgren: I would've run it at end of Super Bowl XLIX
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Mike Holmgren: I would've run it at end of Super Bowl XLIX
Tuesday July 21st, 2015

Today marks the beginning of our NFL Worst Week, which will highlight some of the worst players, people, plays and decisions in the history of the NFL. To kick it off, Don Banks reflects on what he considers the worst play call ever made in NFL history. 

A new season is always the start of a new story, serving as the annual reset button that wipes the slate clean and puts the past in its place. But there is no way forward in 2015 without first looking back, back to the stunning play on 2nd down in Glendale, Ariz., that essentially ended the 2014 NFL season. The play that was and remains the worst call in NFL history. Not just Super Bowl history. NFL history. Bar none.

You know the one. Nearly six months have passed since the Seattle Seahawks found devastation in the desert, one yard shy of claiming back-to-back Super Bowl titles and joining the league’s elite class of champions. Just 36 inches stood between the Seahawks and legitimate dynasty chatter, but instead Pete Carroll’s team suffered the most gruesome and grievous self-inflicted wound imaginable on a football field. The Seahawks passed when they should have run, and because of it, they lost when they should have won. Simplistic, but still so true.

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And if you think the Seahawks are over The Call, and you reason that all the anguish and pain of their mind-boggling, last-minute loss to New England has already been endured, well, that makes you the ultimate optimist in my view. Just wait to see what unfolds this year, in a season that will unavoidably be played out amid the backdrop and continued reverberations of a decision that cost Seattle so very dearly.

Because in all likelihood, time has not even begun to show us the sum of what the Seahawks lost that night at University of Phoenix Stadium, when Patriots rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler picked off the ill-fated Russell Wilson pass at the goal line and changed not only the outcome of the game but also perhaps the legacies of two franchises.

This will be, I predict, a case where past is indeed prologue. This one is going to leave a mark that lingers for some time. It won’t be an easy page-turning in Seattle this year, not after the kind of crushing loss the Seahawks suffered. This was that rare haunting defeat—with the enormity of the sudden change in fortunes almost too dramatic to fully process—that a franchise, no matter how good it may be, doesn’t just shake off and bounce back from.

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Ask the 1986 Red Sox about how difficult it is to pick up the pieces and carry on in the quest for a title after coming so close. Or the 1990 Bills for that matter. True, Buffalo went back to the Super Bowl three years in a row after Scott Norwood’s last-second field goal try faded inches right and deprived the Bills of a ring, but Marv Levy’s AFC powerhouse never remotely got that close to ultimate victory again. And the pain of Norwood’s miss only grew exponentially through the years.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand why Seattle coaches and players continue to talk bravely about how this gut-punch of a loss won’t define them, or their 2015 season. They have to say that. They have to try to believe that. But I don’t. And I’m convinced at some point this season, that don’t-look-back approach will ring hollow, as the team and the organization realizes again and again how difficult it is to put themselves into the position they were in on that fateful night of Feb. 1, 2015 in Arizona.

They were a yard away from glory. They had the best power running back in the game today revved up and ready to cap another improbable postseason comeback, this one built on the miraculous and gravity-defying Jermaine Kearse catch that looked poised to do in the Patriots once again and out-David Tyree, David Tyree. On the same field no less. It was so close the Seahawks could almost taste the confetti, with a champagne chaser.

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And then, inexplicably, there was no Marshawn Lynch with the ball and the game in his hands from the 1 on second down. There was no end zone celebration, at least not one that involved the Seahawks. And there was no rational way to explain or defend Seattle’s decision making. The bottom line is the Seahawks got cute at a point in the game where beauty would have been forever defined by a three-foot touchdown plunge by the man they call “Beast Mode,’’ choosing instead to throw a risky pass in tight traffic to a receiver, Ricardo Lockette, who owned all of 25 career receptions at that moment.

To this day, I still can’t believe they did it. I still can’t fathom how they convinced themselves it was worth the chance they were taking. It was the most astounding play call I ever could have imagined in that situation, with so much on the line, and victory so within reach. As lapses in judgment go, it was a death blow delivered to the Seattle organization and its legions of loyal and difference-making fans.

I’ve heard or read all the detailed and impassioned defenses of the call—which was made by Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and approved by Carroll—and they still don’t make sense to me. Carroll didn’t want to run Lynch, the NFL’s leading touchdown rusher the past two years, into the teeth of New England’s goal-line defensive formation with a three-receiver set. Some, including even New England’s Bill Belichick, called the decision defensible or even wise in the face of the front the Patriots were showing.

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To that I say, blah, blah, blah. It was a horribly over-thought decision that night, and the reality is it hasn’t changed with the passing of almost six months and the impending arrival of another season. The Seahawks had Lynch, they had three downs, they had enough clock to work with, and they had one more timeout. The Patriots, after Lynch ripped off a 4-yard run on first down from the 5, had to be back on their heels and beginning to feel the dread and demoralization of losing yet another Super Bowl, their third defeat in the big game in eight seasons.

But the Seahawks threw a pass, throwing New England a lifeline in the process, and with that chance, that shred of hope granted, Butler made an exquisite play for the ages and the sea of impending despair switched sidelines in an instant.

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“We throw the ball, really, to kind of waste that play,’’ Carroll said moments after the game, using a cringe-worthy choice of words that he no doubt regrets. They wasted more than a play on second down. They wasted a near-certain championship. They wasted an opportunity that had never come before in Seahawks franchise history, and may never come again: consecutive Super Bowl titles.

Timing is everything in life and football, and no matter how legitimate you view Seattle’s play call in that situation, I’ll argue forever that the call’s chance of success was significantly and obviously lower than continuing to run Lynch, or even a potential play-fake to him, with the marvelously athletic Wilson keeping and racing someone to the pylon on either side. But a second-down pass into traffic at the goal line, to maybe your third- or fourth-best receiving threat? Where’s Jimmy Graham when you really need him?

Woody Hayes is long gone from the football scene, of course, but the legendary Ohio State coach is still right: Two of the three things that can happen when you throw the ball are bad. But sometimes they’re a lot worse than bad. Sometimes they’re history-changing, and heartbreaking.

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Does the way that last year ended mean that Seattle is suddenly not on the short list of Super Bowl contenders this season? Of course not. I expect it to be knocking on the door of its third straight Super Bowl appearance this season, and to win the rugged NFC West once more, beating out Arizona, St. Louis and San Francisco, in that order. But I do believe the Super Bowl hangover will be substantial this season, and I don’t foresee Seattle becoming the first team since those 1990–93 Bills to make at least three straight Super Bowls, or to be in position to become the first franchise since Miami in 1971–72 to follow a Super Bowl loss with a Super Bowl victory.

I realize I’m not really predicting much, because only two of 32 teams reach the Super Bowl every year and the mountain to climb is always treacherous, with the past 10 seasons featuring no repeat champions and only the Seahawks even managing back-to-back trips. Maybe Seattle is that rare tough-minded team that can handle the kind of psychic toll that last year’s loss inflicted. But I know this: there are challenges and situations that every team must deal with in its locker room each season, and cohesion and unanimity are never complete over the course of the long grind.

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If there's any locker room second-guessing of play-calling or internal controversy that surfaces this year, as there was at times last year in Seattle (hello, Percy Harvin, and other brushfires), the specter of the Seahawks’ excruciating Super Bowl loss is going to be written into the story, and most likely with some legitimacy. To have that ring snatched away at virtually the last moment will undoubtedly complicate this season, somehow, some way.

To be clear, I’m not wishing further agony on Seattle in any way, but the worst pain may still be to come, when Seahawks Nation again realizes how difficult it is to get back to the place it was on the night of February 1. Pages can be turned in sports, and memorable comebacks are Seattle’s forte. But the history books are also filled with teams that never got completely over such a devastating turn of events, or returned to make amends for what was so narrowly and bitterly lost.

Seattle begins it quest to do just that very soon, when NFL training camps spring to life in the coming days. The Seahawks are a very talented and resilient team. Whatever shot they take this season at another Super Bowl berth, it will be a serious one. I just don’t happen to believe the worst call in NFL history, a label that  still fits, can or will be overcome this soon.

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