For Seattle, Plenty of Blame to Go Around

Tuesday February 3rd, 2015

"LeBron would have scored from the one."

—Sign at the Philadelphia-Cleveland NBA game Monday night.

* * *

“What WERE they thinking?”

—NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams on Monday’s newscast, wondering why Seattle chose to throw a pass on the New England one-yard line with 26 seconds left Sunday night—instead of running Marshawn Lynch.

* * *

"This is the second-darkest sports day in my 20 years as a talk-show host here. The first was the day we lost the Sonics.”

—KJR Radio host Mitch Levy on Monday night.

America couldn’t get enough of the why-didn’t-the-Seahawks-hand-it-to-Marshawn-Lynch debate Monday. That may be because Sunday’s Super Bowl between New England and Seattle was the most-watched TV program in American history. With 114 million people tuned in, there were bound to be opinions. But it’s probably because the play, even after a night’s sleep and endless debate, still had legs. Internet sites brought in logicians and game theorists, probabilities were analyzed, and football coaches and players and columnists wondered whether it made any sense that Pete Carroll allowed the Seahawks to throw a pass into what turned out to be fatal traffic on the goal line. Rookie Malcolm Butler intercepted the ball, and New England preserved a 28-24 victory. It’s easily the most shocking ending to a Super Bowl in the 49-year history of the event.

So, a few points to be made. I watched the NBC copy of the play on NFL Game Rewind on Monday night, running it over so I saw the play maybe 20 times.

VINDICATED!
 
For embattled New England fans, Jenny Vrentas writes, the Super Bowl 49 victory was cause for celebration—and a giant middle finger to the rest of football nation.

FULL STORY
I think it’s a faulty assertion that Seattle would have gotten off only two plays if the ’Hawks chose to run the ball instead of pass on the first play. Follow this: On the interception, Russell Wilson got the snap with 26 seconds left. If he’d handed it to Lynch, and Lynch got stopped, Seattle could have called its final remaining timeout with about 20 seconds to play. At that point, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell assigns two plays to Wilson, and he calls those two plays in the huddle. If stopped on third down, you’ve got a plan for fourth down.

To think you could run Lynch on third down, and he could get stopped with 12 or 14 seconds left, and you couldn’t have unstacked the bodies and lined up and snapped another play is just wrong. Am I positive you could have run three rushing plays in the final half-minute with one timeout? No. But I think it’s quite likely that if necessary, you could have either run or passed on fourth down with some smart planning.

That’s one thought. Now, about the play that was called, I agree with former quarterback Hugh Millen (the ex-Patriot, in fact), who said over the phone Monday night that he can find lots of fault on the last play.

Millen thinks Lynch should have gotten the ball on second down from the one. I agree.

He doesn’t hate the play-call of a pick-play pass. I disagree.

But all three parties—Wilson and receivers Jermaine Kearse and Ricardo Lockette—are at fault, and on that point we agree. In the alignment, Kearse and Lockette are stacked, Lockette behind Kearse, to the right of the line of scrimmage. Directly across from Kearse is Brandon Browner. Behind Browner is Butler.

Start with Kearse. His job is to fight through the block of Browner and somehow impede the progress of Butler trying to get to the likely intended receiver, Lockette. At the snap of the ball, Browner engages Kearse, and Kearse never touches Butler. Bad play by Kearse. I know Browner is a big guy, but Kearse failed to do his job.

Butler, Lockette and the ball all met at the half-yard line, and Lockette bounced back. Even if he caught the ball, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t have scored.

Now Lockette. His job is to run a slant behind Kearse and catch a quick pass from Wilson. The pass might be a competitive one, because the corner is obviously going to try to break it up. Lockette has three inches and 22 pounds on Butler. When the ball is thrown, the cornerback can obviously see the ball’s coming for Lockette, because the receiver is staring at Wilson while he runs the slant. When the ball gets to the two men, Lockette doesn’t see Butler, and so Butler blasts full-speed to get the ball, hitting the receiver and catching the ball simultaneously. Perfect timing. Lockette should have been more physical here to fight for the ball, and he might have been had he not stared a hole through Wilson as he ran his route. Fail by Lockette. And this fail, too: If you watch the replay closely, with Butler arriving at Lockette the same time the ball does, they all meet at about the half-yard line, and Lockette bounces back. He never crossed the plane of the goal line. So even if he caught the ball, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t have scored anyway.

In Defense of Darrell Bevell
 
On the infamous play call, Seattle had the right look for the slant to work. Andy Benoit writes the interception that clinched Super Bowl 49 was more a function of the Seahawks' limited personnel.

FULL STORY
Now Wilson. His confidence and guts might have gotten the best of him here. That’s how it looked to me. As a quarterback in this situation, you have to know the most important thing by far here is zero risk. Wilson took a risk. It happened so fast, but I believe Wilson should have seen the hard-charging Butler—although still maybe three or four yards away from Lockette when the pass was released—coming clean without getting knocked off his route by Kearse. As Millen said, “As a quarterback in this case, if you’re not sure, absolutely sure, that you’ve got a completion, you throw it to the photographers." That’s a fail by Wilson.

So plenty of blame to go around. It’ll be a bitter pill for years around Seattle, but let this play be a lesson to all coaches and all players with a game on the line, a game of any magnitude and not just the Super Bowl. 

  • 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.

One last thing: I do not mean to deprive Butler of credit here. He deserves a ton of it. He’s a soccer goalie on a penalty kick. He wasn’t positive Lockette would run the slant-in here; if Lockett jab-stepped inside and cut outside, there was no safety help, and Wilson would have had the easiest touchdown pass of his life, and the most significant. But Butler guessed (by what he’d seen on film) the slant was coming, and he made an instinctive, fantastic play on the ball. A Super Bowl-saving play for the ages.

A play we’ll be talking about until training camp begins. And beyond.

• THE MMQB PODCAST: Andy Benoit reviews SB49 and looks ahead to the offseason.


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