(Kinda) Defending the Indefensible

Super Bowl XLIX is in the books. Here’s what we learned: Pete Carroll and Darrell Bevell are idiots.

I mean, how can it possibly make sense to throw the football on second-and-goal from the one-yard line with the Super Bowl on the line? Especially when you have Marshawn Lynch in the backfield?

The Clock Management Question

Let’s review the situation. The Seahawks earned their first-and-goal at the Patriots’ five-yard line via the great juggling catch by Jermaine Kearse. The Seahawks took their second timeout after the catch, stopping the clock with 1:05 left in the game. On first down, they handed the ball to Lynch who gained four yards down to the one-yard line.  Neither team called a timeout at that point, letting the clock tick down.

The Seahawks ran their ill-fated pass play at :26.  If the Seahawks run there instead and Lynch does not get in the end zone, the Seahawks have to burn their last timeout with about 20 seconds left on the game clock. That means their third down play must be a pass, lest they risk not being able to get the fourth-down play off before the clock expires if a third-down run also fails. (The play itself would go 4-6 seconds, plus the league-average of 15 seconds to get the ball spotted and everyone lined up.)

Meanwhile, running the pass play would keep the Seahawks’ timeout in place, enabling them to maintain playcalling flexibility on third down (and potentially into fourth down as well.)

Lynch as a “sure thing”

Much of the conventional wisdom on handing the ball to Lynch assumes that Lynch scoring a touchdown would be a sure thing.  There are many reasons to think that. Lynch averaged over four yards per carry for the game, and Seattle’s offense ranked second in the league in power running success (conversion of third down and less than 2 yards to go) during the 2014 season.

But there are contra-indicators in the numbers as well.  In yesterday’s game, Lynch had converted just one of three power running opportunities, and had scored on only five of 12 attempts from the one-yard line over the last three years. And after the Seahawks took a 24-14 lead in the third quarter, Lynch had been held to 14 yards on five carries.

The Danger of Passing?

Other commentators have pointed out the increased risk that comes from passing the ball.  But is that really true?  In fact, the interception thrown by Russell Wilson last night was the only one thrown by quarterbacks in plays that began on the one-yard line all season long.  If you look over the last five years, passing the ball from the one-yard line has been only slightly riskier and less effective than running the ball.

Ballatthe1

So Carroll, Bevell, and the Seahawks took a risk by putting the ball into the air on that second-down play.  Not an insane risk, as some would have you believe, but a calculated, defensible one. What made the play call more questionable is the particular passing play that was selected.

Running an inside slant against a defense crowding the box to prevent the run is a risky play choice. To reduce risk, the Seahawks could have done a number of things, including:

  • Running a pattern designed for the back (or corners) of the end zone, enabling Wilson to easily thrown the ball out of bounds
  • Giving Wilson a run-pass option on the play; either a read-option right off the snap or rolling him out to take advantage of his scrambling ability (Wilson gained 39 yards on his three carries in the game)

As Brian Burke at Slate points out, it’s like Carroll went to the roulette wheel and bet on black, counting on the worst case scenario being red. But he actually hit the double-zero instead.

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