The Seattle Seahawks' Passing Decision: Not the Worst Call in History
Down four with 26 seconds remaining, the Seahawks faced a 2nd-and-Goal from the 1-yard line in the biggest game of the year. Rather than run the ball with Marshawn Lynch, Seattle attempted a pass play, which was intercepted by Malcolm Butler to seal the game. Pete Carroll was immediately crucified for his decision all across Twitter and by the broadcast team for not running the ball.
Was it a horrific call, or are people making too big of a deal out of this?
First, using league-wide baselines, let's look at success rates on the 1-yard line. Historically, running the ball is 5.6% more effective than passing the ball (53.9% versus 48.3%). But, keep in mind, this does not take into account the specific teams playing, score differential, time remaining, or the personnel groupings. Seattle had the best rushing offense since 2000 according to our Net Expected Points metrics, and the Patriots rushing defense was middle-of-the-road in 2014.
The personnel grouping was the key factor, according to Carroll. The Patriots left their three corners in for man-to-man coverage, so it makes sense that Carroll would want to take advantage of those matchups. As you can see above, Ricardo Lockette runs a quick slant in behind Jermaine Kearse, who sets a pick for him. Butler is forced to go over top of the pick -- exactly what Russell Wilson is hoping for. Lockette is certainly open, but Butler makes a tremendous and physical break on the ball, not only causing the incompletion, but somehow coming up with the interception as well.
If Wilson throws that ball low and into the chest of Lockette, like a quarterback is supposed to on a slant at the goal line, that's a touchdown (or worst case, an incompletion). If Lockette goes in stronger and anticipates the contact - which it appeared he did not - he was in position for the touchdown as well (or worst case, an incompletion). It's the quarterback and receiver's jobs to make sure the defender has to go through the back of the receiver in order to make a play on the slant. That way, either the defensive back is making a great play to knock the ball away, fouling the receiver, or the receiver can use their body for the catch. While this is not the same situation (since they are at the 11-yard line, not the goal line), look where Tom Brady puts this ball on the slant to Brandon LaFell for a touchdown earlier in the game. Also, look how LaFell has positioned himself between the ball and the corner.
Last, the clock is an important factor here. With 26 seconds remaining, if the Seahawks run the ball and don't score, they are forced to take their last timeout. That means on third down, they would be forced to pass anyway, since they would probably be unable to lineup and run a fourth down play on an unsuccessful rushing attempt. That's a lot of what ifs, and it's certainly possible they could have gotten away with it -- although piles of bodies at the goal line usually take awhile to clear. By passing on second, they could conceivably pound the ball on third and fourth down if need be (which is what Pete Carroll said he intended).
All around, it's an extremely difficult call and Carroll is judged by everyone only on the outcome of the play, rather than the decision-making process. I think I would have run the ball myself, but the hindsight bias is strong with this one and I completely understand the Seahawks' passing -- rather than all the criticism that came in calling it the worst play call in history. If the Seahawks score there, no one thinks twice about the decision. Similarly, Bill Belichick could have been ridiculed for not taking his timeouts once the Seahawks were in a goal-to-go scenario. But, the Patriots won, and no one mentions Belichick's mistake.
Congratulations to the Patriots and nothing should be taken away from Malcolm Butler's truly incredible interception.