In the moments after Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler leapt in front of Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette, snatching both the football and a Super Bowl victory for New England, conventional wisdom cemented around the idea that Seattle’s coaches blundered the game away. Why on Earth, the football world asked in unison, had offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and head coach Pete Carroll dialed up a risky slant pass at the one-yard line? Shouldn’t they have just pounded the ball into the end zone with Marshawn Lynch? A typical headline in the Los Angeles Times read, “Pete Carroll Blows It for Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.” Much fun was had at Carroll’s expense:
There are two problems with this gloss on one of the more thrilling Super Bowls in the game’s history. The first is that it smacks of hindsight bias: The Seahawks’ play call wasn’t that bad—until, that is, it ended in disaster. More importantly, it robs the winners of the enormous credit they deserve.
Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson, and the Seahawks didn’t throw away the Super Bowl. Bill Belichick, Malcolm Butler, and the Patriots reached out and grabbed it.
To see how, let’s reset the clock to 1:06 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Seahawks’ Jermaine Kearse had just made a miraculous, bobbling reception, giving Pats fans flashbacks to the David Tyree helmet catch. Seattle called its second timeout with the play clock running down amid the chaos that followed, setting up first and goal at the five-yard line. Now they had four downs and just over a minute left to punch it into the end zone. The Pats had two timeouts—enough to preserve the clock for a last-ditch drive of their own, should the Seahawks score quickly.
On first down, Seattle ran Marshawn Lynch off left tackle for four yards, down to the one. Carroll said after the game he expected Belichick to call his second timeout here, daring Seattle to score quickly and give Tom Brady the ball back. But Belichick didn’t do that. The clock kept running—50 seconds, 40 seconds—and suddenly time no longer seemed to be on Seattle’s side. Now Bevell and Carroll faced second-and-goal from the one, which is normally an invitation to slam Lynch into the line again and see if he can push it through. With a single timeout left and the game clock wasting away, however, Seattle no longer had time enough for three Lynch runs. If it was going to get off three more plays, one of them would need to be a pass.
You can make a strong argument that another Lynch run should have come first—save the pass for third down in case he doesn’t get in. You can also make a strong argument that, when they did pass, the Seahawks should have run play action, faking to Lynch to keep the defense off balance. You can argue that they should have run a fade pattern, or some other goal-line route that carries less risk of an interception. You can make all kinds of arguments about what Bevell and Carroll should have done. No doubt you already have.
The reality is that the unexpectedly ticking clock left little time for such arguments on the Seattle sideline. They had to call something, and call it quickly. And what they called in those dwindling seconds, under enormous pressure, was a quick slant out of the shotgun. The thinking being that, even if the play didn’t score, a clock-stopping incompletion would function like a second timeout, leaving time for two more plays–one or both of which could be a Lynch rumble.
Bad call? Maybe. But not so bad that it was doomed to fail. As Grantland’s Bill Barnwell points out, the numbers alone suggest pass plays on the one-yard line are about as likely to succeed as runs:
Before Sunday, NFL teams had thrown the ball 108 times on the opposing team’s 1-yard line this season. Those passes had produced 66 touchdowns (a success rate of 61.1 percent, down to 59.5 percent when you throw in three sacks) and zero interceptions. The 223 running plays had generated 129 touchdowns (a 57.8 percent success rate) and two turnovers on fumbles.
Nor was a Lynch run guaranteed to result in glory:
We aren’t going to rehash all the advanced analytics one could marshal to support or discredit that play call. Instead, you should read this comprehensive run-down in Slate by Brian Burke, whose simulations found that a pass play gave Seattle a 77 percent chance of winning, whereas a run call would have slightly raised that figure to 85 percent. Suffice it to say, the Seattle coaches’ decision alone did not decide the outcome.
If you’re going to pin the Patriots’ victory on a handful of individuals, forget about Carroll, Lockette, or anyone else on the Seattle side of the field. The three people whose actions swung the game most crucially were all wearing nautical blue, and in the aftermath of the game, they aren’t getting nearly enough credit.
1. Tom Brady
This was the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. Teams had previously gone 0-29 in the big game when trailing by 10 points or more in the fourth quarter. Over the last three seasons, the Seahawks were 18-0 when leading by 10 or more in the 4th quarter. Amid all the talk about Marshawn Lynch’s supposed unstoppable potency, let’s remember that Brady completed 13 of 15 passes in the fourth quarter, and went 8 for 8 on the game-winning drive.
This was against the best secondary in the NFL. And yes, not for nothing, Brady engineered this miracle using fully kosher footballs. If the Seahawks defense stonewalls Brady down the stretch, we never bother with the debate about the endgame. Give Mr. Bundchen his due.
2. Malcolm Butler
Look at this snapshot capturing what Russell Wilson saw on the interception:
That receiver is open. That play call was, in terms of freeing up a juicy target, a complete success. Nearly every time, throwing that ball will result in a touchdown or at worst a batted-down ball. As mentioned: On previous throws from the one-yard line this season, there had been zero interceptions. Until Butler.
And what a pity that Butler isn’t getting his propers. An undrafted rookie, he played sparingly this season, as the fifth cornerback. He didn’t enter the Super Bowl until after halftime. Yet he diagnosed this play instantly, broke without hesitation, and outmuscled his foe. Butler’s play was a spectacular feat of athleticism at the most dramatic possible moment. Yet Monday we’re talking about the play call.
(By the way, Butler actually saved the Patriots twice. On the freakish circus catch at the five-yard line moments before—which he had defended effectively, before the ball bounced into his opponent’s hands—he had the presence of mind to scramble to his feet and knock the receiver out of bounds. By all rights, Kearse should have waltzed in for the score.)
3. Bill Belichick
When asked what he saw on the critical interception, Butler answered, “I saw what I saw in practice.” Belichick had prepared his team for that very play. “At practice, the scout team ran that same play and I got beat on it,” said Butler in a post-game interview. “Bill told me, ‘You’ve got to be on that.’ At that time, memorization came through.”
Who spent time coaching up a rarely used substitute cornerback, even during prep for the most important game of the year? Who was prescient enough to practice the precise play the Seahawks would opt for with their season on the line? Who kept three cornerbacks on the field, instead of swapping in the all-out, goal-line defense to counter Marshawn Lynch on the other side of the ball?
What’s more, Belichick’s choice not to call timeout with the Seahawks knocking on the end-zone door was one of his classic Jedi mind tricks. It turned the tables, shifting the time pressure to Carroll, and almost certainly influenced the Seahawks’ play call. This was a game of chess, and Belichick’s gambit paid off.
Inevitably, Super Bowl XLIX will be remembered in part for the entertaining brouhaha over deflated footballs and for Carroll’s fateful play call. But let’s hope it’s remembered more vividly for the Patriots’ clutch performances and brilliant coaching. The Seahawks would not have lost this game to any other team.