“WCE! Worst Call Ever!”
—Eric Dickerson, former NFL running back, on Twitter, after the Seahawks eschewed a run and threw a game-deciding interception with 20 seconds left in their Super Bowl loss to New England.
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RENTON, Wash. — The pain that’s most recent isn’t the only football pain Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell feels these days. Some bad memories never go away.
Like the memory of Oct. 24, 1993. Bevell, the quarterback for the undefeated, 15th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers that day in the Metrodome against Minnesota, “had the best game and the worst game ever,” he recollected here this week. Though Wisconsin was a run-heavy team, Bevell that day completed 32 of 48 throws for a school-record 423 passing yards. “But I threw five interceptions. That game sticks with me to this day. I can remember every interception, everything about it.” That was the only loss of Wisconsin’s 10-1-1 Rose Bowl-winning season, and from the look on Bevell’s face, just talking about it hurts.
Still, it seems ridiculous to equate a Big Ten game at woebegone Minnesota with the decisive play in the season’s biggest football game on the planet. But his visceral reaction to a 22-year-old game makes me ask:
What hurts more? That game or the Super Bowl?
“Well,” Bevell said, after thinking for a moment, “this is the freshest.”
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It has been 200 days since Malcolm Butler powered through Ricardo Lockette’s attempt to catch the winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl 49. The interception by the previously unknown Butler at the goal line sealed New England’s 28-24 victory—and sealed the biggest second-guess of a call, arguably, in football history. On second-and-goal from the New England 1-yard line, with the best power-runner in football, Marshawn Lynch, in the backfield and one timeout left, Bevell called a play that coach Pete Carroll approved: a skinny post out of a two-receiver stack from the right flank. More about why it failed in a moment, but why it failed is less the issue these days than the impact it had on the parties involved.
Coach Pete Carroll said this week what he’s said for months—he still likes the call, just not the result. Bevell said the same thing. And so they move on. But at what cost? At what level of hangover?
Really: How do you judge a football hangover? How do you judge how heavily the most stunning, slap-in-the-face, game-changing play in Super Bowl history will weigh on this Seattle season, on the legacy of Pete Carroll, on the legacy and future of Russell Wilson, on the football future of a promising coordinator universally respected throughout the league—at least before Super Bowl Sunday last February?
Carroll is bulletproof in Seattle, and why wouldn’t he be? Three straight playoff seasons, two straight conference championships, one Super Bowl win. Wilson, 42-14 in his first three NFL seasons, just signed a $21.9-million-per-year extension tying him to Seattle through 2019.
Wilson was in full team-spokesman mode when I asked him about the play this week. He and Carroll couldn’t be more on the same wavelength about the notion that the coaches and players cannot allow the what-could-have-been thing to seep into preparation for a new season. “For me, for us, nothing changes,” Wilson said Monday, after a two-hour camp practice here. “That’s the great thing about our team and the guys we have on our team. I love the game too much, man. Love the game and respect the game too much. This game you have to respect; you can’t just let the days go by. God only gives you a certain amount of days, and you never know how many days that is. I’d be at fault if I let one of the days go by. I can’t and I won’t. This preseason is exactly the same to me as any of the ones I’ve had here.”
So Carroll and Wilson are cool. But what of the man who called the fateful play into Wilson’s helmet, who doesn’t have a lifetime of job security, who didn’t just sign the enormous contract as the franchise billboard?
This week Bevell talked about the play and its aftermath at some length. To say he opened up wouldn’t be accurate, because he’s not the kind of guy who shares feelings deep in his gut very much. “Let’s go inside here,” he said, motioning to the Seahawks’ palatial complex in the Seattle ’burbs … so he wouldn’t draw any sort of media crowd.
“That play we called will always be there to drive me,” Bevell says. “I wouldn’t change it. I think it was the right thing.”
“It’s interesting,” he said, leaning against a wall near the locker room, discussing the events of that night and their aftermath for the first time in detail with The MMQB. “The crazy thing about it is that most people who will talk to you, there are very few that are going to say something negative to your face. Obviously with the way the system is set up now, they have another way [social media] that they can hide behind and say whatever they want to say. The people I interact with—most of them are great. Sometimes they may ask a question, but none are mean or rude.”
Have you watched the play with Russell Wilson, to see what went wrong, to see if he might have done anything different?
“Have I ever watched it with him?” Bevell said. “No, I mean I don’t think we need to watch it, we’ve talked about it because it’s so vivid in his mind and so vivid in my mind.”
You didn’t call a Lynch run because they had their jumbo group in on defense, right?
“Matchups had something to do with it, yes.”
Great play by Butler, or could your guys have done more to get to the ball?
“Yes, it was a great play.”
Good play by Brandon Browner, too, keeping Jermaine Kearse from picking Butler.
“Yeah, it was. Malcolm just—it was a great break, no hesitations, great play.”
How did it feel to be such a punching bag nationally?
“I worry about my family, my girls, my wife, I worry about those people more than I do myself. I understand what comes with the job we do and they [the family] understand what comes with it. That doesn’t make it any easier, but once I knew all the stuff around it, why we did it and everything that happened, I was able to move on with it.”
Has your life been changed by this?
“That’s a pretty deep question. I know that what we do affects people in their lives for sure. It brings a lot of happiness, and it brings disappointment. In a small way I think it does have an effect on people’s lives. It’s not some huge thing, but our sport is the most successful sport so I think there are people who live and die by it.”
Are you over it yet?
“It’s never going to leave you. I can think back to when I was playing quarterback and there are plays that still eat me in my gut from when I was playing. The ones that usually eat you are the bad plays, not the Big Ten Championships. It’s those other plays that you think back to that eat you in the gut.
“That play we called will always be there to drive me. I wouldn’t change it, I think it was the right thing. Coach Carroll has done a great job with it as well. I think to answer your question, in terms of totally moving on, that night is rough, the next morning is rough, getting on the plane is rough, but as soon as I got here and I was able to watch it for myself on the tape and see our copy and look at it that way and do the analyzing of it, once that was over I was able to put it behind me. I’m okay. I really am.”
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On my tour of NFL camps, I’ve asked five men—two coaches, three quarterbacks, anonymously—what they thought of the play call and the execution of the play. The reaction has been mixed. Interestingly, not a single one supported running a power rush by Lynch against the New England front with three 300-pound-plus defensive tackles filling the gaps. One quarterback said, “Then it would have been third-and-goal from the 2 or 3, and you’d burn your last timeout. So you’d be there with what, how many seconds left? [About 20.] And you’d probably be farther away than you were on second down.”
One coach and the other quarterback had the same problem with the call: trying to beat a huge, physical cornerback, Brandon Browner, in what was sure to be a bang-bang physical play at the goal line.
“If you pass there,” the coach said, “you’ve got to call a fade. Too much can go wrong otherwise.”
The quarterback, a big fan of the strategic element of the game, said this: You’re not going to throw in Darrelle Revis’ direction. (Revis took the motion receiver, Doug Baldwin, to the offensive left side of the formation, leaving a 6-4, 221-pound corner, Browner, and the green Butler to defend the stack flanked right—Kearse in front and Lockette behind him.) “And you have to know in that case the big corner is going to do everything he can to not let the first [receiver] pick Butler,” the quarterback said. Indeed, Browner blew up the play by preventing Kearse from picking Butler.
Alternatively, Wilson could have thrown a fade, but that’s not a high-percentage option when you don’t have a Calvin Johnson-sized guy to win a jump ball—particularly when the key corners for the Patriots are Revis and the towering Browner. Really, Butler gets credit for making a truly great play, and he deserves it. But the importance of Browner cannot be overstated. When considering why the Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl, Tom Brady and Malcolm Butler should be the heroes of the day. But on the biggest play of the game, Browner’s value was equal to Butler’s.
What a different play that would be today, with off-season acquisition Jimmy Graham somewhere in the formation, perhaps drawing Browner away from covering one of the wideouts. At 6-7 and 266 pounds, Graham would have been a good target for a fade or a simple post-up curl. “He’s added a new dimension to our offense,” Bevell said. “He’s been amazing. Awesome. He’ll help on third down, help in the red zone. In some of those areas you feel like he will be able to be a big factor. I think he will have the effect that you imagine a tight end would, pulling some coverage, and maybe changing some stuff for guys outside and guys other places as well.”
The new year has been good for Bevell—to get back to coaching, to move on, to prepare for a game in St. Louis on Sept. 13 instead of looking in the rearview mirror. Good for his team too. “I think the players are probably more … I don’t know what the best word is … I think they are driven, I think they are upset, all those kinds of things. It’s good to get back to work.”
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Will you ever get a head-coaching chance now?
“I think that’s for other people to decide,” Bevell said. “I just go out there and do the best job I can. I am trying to be the best offensive coordinator for the Seahawks. I think the proof is in what we’ve done as well. Even though we had that play, last year was the most successful offense in the history of the Seahawks. We’re proud of what we’ve done.”
Time to watch tape of the morning practice. For Darrell Bevell, time to move on. He hopes he can do that.
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