Breaking down Super Bowl XLIX's baffling final minute
By MILES WRAY
It's a play that will live in football lore for decades. It's a play that will no doubt lead Malcolm Butler 'round the talk show circuit this offseason. It's a play that Russell Wilson will replay in his mind dozens and hundreds of times as he stares at his ceiling in the middle of the night. Malcolm Butler, formerly buried deep in the Patriots' secondary depth chart, intercepted a goal line pass to seal New England's fourth Super Bowl title.
The question immediately voiced by NBC's Chris Collinsworth on the play call, and then probably echoed by everyone at your Super Bowl party, of course: why didn't the Seahawks hand the ball to Marshawn Lynch?! From common sense to nuanced statistics, the issue seems pretty clear-cut: Seattle really should have handed it off to Lynch.
Here are three more factors that should have made the decision to go to Lynch even more clear-cut, plus a fourth that perhaps should have been present on the field:
1.) It's what the Seahawks already did well in 2014
In their 18 regular-season and playoff games before the Super Bowl, the Seahawks ran 31 offensive plays within five yards of the endzone. They handed the ball to Lynch on 15 of those plays, and he scored touchdowns on 7 of them (or 46.7% of the time). Wilson kept the ball five times, and scored on three of those runs (60%). No other Seahawk was handed the ball in these situations.
The Seahawks dropped back to pass on 11 of these 31 goal line plays. Of these 11 plays, Wilson was sacked twice, threw three incompletions, and completed six passes - but only three of them for touchdowns. Or: the Seahawks scored on 27.2% of their goal line passes, and of 50% of their goal-line rushes. Yup.
Drilling deeper into the Seahawks' goal line passing: none of the touchdown recipients were wide receivers. Lynch, his back-up Robert Turbin, and, of all people, third-string tight end Tony Moeaki all caught one goal line touchdown apiece. The target on the Super Bowl-ending interception was Ricardo Lockette, a finesse wide receiver whose strengths are most evident in the open field.
The Seahawks are famously strong in their schematic identity as a team - they know you know what they're going to do, but they're still going to do it anyway. A pass to Lockette at the goal line is wildly uncharacteristic for this team.
2.) It's a thing that Lynch is elite at
Go back to the beginning of Lynch's NFL career, in 2007, and you see a running back who gets beastlier by the season. In his career, he's carried the ball 115 times near the goal line, scoring 43 times (39.8%).
But that tally includes an uninspiring 6 touchdowns on 24 goal line carries (25% TDs) during Lynch's tenure as a Buffalo Bill (2007–2010). Lynch's goal line prowess has vastly improved (along with the rest of his game) during his tenure in Seattle:
The league average in 38.8% TDs over that same time span.
Arian Foster of the Houston Texans also has, coincidentally, the same amount of goal line carries and touchdowns over the same five-year stretch. Nobody is close to Foster or Lynch in terms of total responsibilities. Third place in goal line carries is Michael Turner, with 76, and third place in touchdowns is BenJarvus Green-Ellis, with 30.
There's not really another running back in the league who Seattle would want lined up in their backfield in this crucial scenario.
3.) It's a thing that Lynch was elite at earlier in this game
Considering that the Seahawks only had 31 plays within five yards of the end zone all season, it's interesting that they had four such plays against the Patriots before the vaunted interception. They looked like this:
Lynch went for eight yards on his three carries, or 2.6 yards per attempt. That's not a very impressive number in terms of a running back's total performance - but things are crowded down there by the end zone, and this is actually a fantastic average that near the goal line. Lynch only averaged 1.8 yards on such plays earlier in 2014, and the league average this season was 1.01 yards.
Lynch's second-quarter touchdown was also immediately preceded by his own three-yard run from the six yard-line, which would have boosted his average a skosh more. These numbers reinforce what we already saw: Lynch had a dominant game.
4.) Wait, shouldn't Bill Belichick have been doing something here?
For Seattle, both head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator/play-caller Darrell Bevell were quoted saying that the amount of time left on the clock was a big factor in calling for the pass that would ultimately be intercepted. When the ball was snapped for that play, there were 26 seconds left on the clock, and Seattle had 1 timeout while New England had 2.
It's useful here to set up the context immediately before the Butler interception. Jermaine Kearse made his all-time zany catch and went out of bounds at the five yard-line with 1:06 on the clock, immediately followed by Seattle's second time-out. Then, facing first-and-goal at the five, Lynch rushed for four yards, bringing the ball to the one yard-line. From there, the game clock and the play clock rolled down to 0:26, which is when the ball was snapped for the play that would end up as an interception.
Seattle called for the pass in this scenario in anticipation that the pass would either go for a touchdown (in which case, mission accomplished), or that the pass would fall incomplete, which would freeze the clock, probably around 0:22 or so. Given an incompletion, the Seahawks would then be facing third-and-goal on the one yard-line. From here, if they give the ball to Lynch and he is stuffed, the Seahawks could then allow the clock to scroll down all the way to 0:01, at which point they would call their final timeout, setting up fourth-and-goal at the one yard-line in a play for all the marbles. In other words: the pass on second down was called to insure that Lynch would have enough time on the game clock for two additional shots at the end zone. Given the tone of Carroll's comments, they didn't really expect to score on the pass play. (In which case, why not spike it or throw it out of bounds?) Fair to say that they didn't expect Wilson's first interception of the game, either.
This is all well and good, but there's one thing missing, and it's missing at 1:02 - or, right after Lynch went on his four-yard run from the five yard-line to the one-yard line. Bill Belichick. Why didn't he call timeout in this situation?
As luck would have it, we already know exactly what Belichick likes to do when he has the lead with about a minute remaining in the Super Bowl when the opposing offense is on the goal line. He gets creative.
In Super Bowl XLVI, against the New York Giants in February of 2012, Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw received the ball with his team down two, a minute left in the game, and six yards between him and the end zone. There's no way that Bradshaw could have anticipated what happened next: the seas parted before him, and the New England defense (here acting as a pure extension of Belichick-ian intellect) even let Bradshaw awkwardly squat on the one yard-line for a moment before he tumbled in for the most bizarre Super Bowl-winning touchdown of all time.
Although the Patriots lost the game, I think this is one of the smarter play calls in NFL history on Belichick's part (it's certainly my favorite). The Giants trailed by two at that point, but they were actually more likely to win the game, as they could run the ball until the clock went down to 0:01, when they would kick a chip-shot field goal to win the game. By allowing Bradshaw to score, Belichick conceded the lead in exchange for a more valuable resource: a minute of time for Tom Brady to lead the offense. (It didn't work out in the end, but the Patriots sure didn't miss by much.)
It's interesting that Belichick didn't use the same strategy against the Seahawks: trading the lead in exchange for a minute to allow Brady to rustle up some more magic. Now, there are some different variables at play between the two games. Against the Giants, the Patriots were up by two points - which means that a Giants field goal would win the game. Against the Seahawks, the Patriots were up four - which means that the Seahawks needed a touchdown to win.
Given the different deficits, it looks like this strategy would make more sense against the Giants than the Seahawks. But you also have to consider the resulting deficit when the Patriots receive the ball. Bradshaw's touchdown put the Giants up 21–17, a four-point lead (the Giants failed to complete a two-point conversion). The Patriots needed a touchdown to win, and a field goal was useless to them. Against the Seahawks, a touchdown (and assumed one-point conversion) would have had New England trailing 31–28, in which case a Patriot field goal sends the game to overtime. This would make Brady's task on the hypothetical one-minute drill a lot easier to accomplish.
The two situations are not quite as different as they seem. Advanced Football Analytics' in-game probability chart gave the Patriots a 25% chance to win after Kearse's astounding catch. New England only had a 12% chance after Lynch's four-yard run. According to Pro-Football-Reference's chart of the Super Bowl against the Giants, the Patriots sunk down to a 3.9% chance at winning during New York's drive. After they allowed Bradshaw to walk in, followed by the stuffed two-point conversion, New England's odds rose to 5.7%. No, that's not much of a change - but still, Belichick improved his team's chances at winning by having them not play defense.
So I think it's very interesting - and, really, out of character - for Belichick to have simply allowed the clock to run with under a minute left in those thirty seconds of down-time after the Lynch run and before the Butler interception. It just might have been the optimal strategy for the Patriots to allow Lynch to walk in for a touchdown on his run at 1:06. This would have given the Patriots the ball with a minute left and two timeouts, and happy to accept a field goal. This sounds a lot more palatable than what they actually faced against the Giants, which was a minute left with one timeout, and absolutely needing a touchdown.
We'll never know what that alternate end-game scenario would have looked like. By electing to not even use his timeouts, Belichick allowed the clock to scroll down, so much so that it became a pressing concern for the Seahawks, who then surprised even members of their own team by throwing a pass on that most infamous play.
There's no shame for the Seahawks in losing this ultra-close game to an all-time legend. Still, it's safe to say they would do things pretty differently if they had a shot to play the fourth quarter over again - and, funny enough, this game's victor just might say the same.
Deflate Gate and the softness of the American mind