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Why the Pass at the End of Super Bowl XLIX was the Right Call


Joel Adams

Computational thinking reveals the logic behind the Seattle coaching decision.

Super Bowl XLIX was one of the more interesting Superbowl games, with perhaps the most exciting ending of any of these games. The outcome hinged on a controversial play call that left fans on both sides scratching their heads and second-guessing the coaching decision.

Let me first state for the record that as a lifetime fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, I didn’t really care who won the game, but I watched it because two outstanding teams were playing (and of course, to check out the commercials). The New England Patriots featured one of the top offenses in the NFL and a pretty good defense; the Seattle Seahawks featured the top defense in the NFL and a pretty good offense.  It was a good matchup.

The Patriots dominated the early going, but made some mistakes, and the Seahawks managed to tie the game 14-14 with 2 seconds left in the first half.  The Seahawks then dominated the beginning of the second half, scoring 10 points to lead 24-14 at the end of the third quarter. But in the fourth quarter, the Patriots held the Seahawks scoreless and scored two touchdowns of their own, giving them a 28-24 lead with barely two minutes left in the game. The Seahawks took the ensuing kickoff, drove the ball down the field, and with 1:14 left, quarterback Russell Wilson threw a 33 yard pass to the Patriots’ five yard line that produced one of the more memorable catches in Superbowl history. During this drive, the Seahawks used two of their three timeouts.

The Seahawks thus had a first down at the Patriots’ five-yard line, and one timeout left.  With 1:06 left on , they gave the ball to their star running back Marshawn "beast mode" Lynch, one of the best short-yardage runners in the NFL.  Lynch gained 4 yards, bringing the ball to the Patriot’s one-yard line.

The Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady is a master at engineering last-minute comebacks. To minimize the chances of this, the Seahawks assumed they were about to score and let the clock run down as long as they could, so that afterward, Brady would have minimal time left to pull off another miracle.

That produced the following game situation: with 26 seconds left, the Seahawks had second down, needed just one yard to score the game-winning touchdown, and one time out remaining.  And they had Marshawn Lynch, who had already rushed for 102 yards in the game and had averaged 4.2 yards per carry.

The seemingly obvious call would be to give Lynch the ball again, right?  The line of reasoning runs like this: Lynch would (probably) gain the one yard needed for the touchdown; the Seahawks would take the lead; the Patriots would have ~20 seconds to score against the #1 defense in the league; when the game ended, the Seahawks would most likely be the Super Bowl champions.

What happened instead is probably the most controversial coaching decision in the 49 years of the Super Bowl.  Instead of giving Lynch the ball, the Seahawks’ coaches called a "slant" pass play – a "safe", quick-strike, high-percentage pass that the vast majority of the time, either gains yardage (producing a touchdown in this situation) or falls harmlessly incomplete.  The possibility of an interception is not taken into consideration, any more than the possibility of a fumble is a consideration on a running play.

Unfortunately for the Seahawks, the Patriots’ free-agent rookie safety Malcolm Butler beat the pass receiver to the ball and intercepted the pass, ending the Seahawks’ drive and chances of victory. This sudden reversal of the Seahawks' fortunes ignited a firestorm of armchair quarterbacks second-guessing the Seahawks’ decision to pass instead of run, including the game’s announcers.

So why did Seattle decide to pass the ball instead of run it? In any crucial decision like this, the game situation presents a dizzying number of parameters that a coach must consider when making such a decision. In my opinion, the critical parameters in this game situation were:

  • Timeouts remaining: 1
  • Time remaining: 26 seconds
  • Yards to go: 1
  • Defensive alignment: goal-line (short yardage) defense

Also relevant to the decision are two of the rules of American football:

  • On a running play: if the runner is downed in-bounds, the clock keeps running.
  • On a passing play: if the pass is incomplete, the clock stops.

To make their decisions, coaches mentally run through a variety of "What if" scenarios in which, like chess players, they must look beyond the current game situation to the game situations their decision might subsequently produce.  Running these scenarios produces a lengthy decision tree, with various outcomes at its leaves. A coach runs through these scenarios (i.e., walks the tree) and chooses a decision that has the maximum likelihood of producing a positive outcome.

To see why Seattle’s coaches made the decision they did, let’s first examine the "What if" scenario for running the ball, ignoring the possibility of a fumble. I will pretend I am a Seahawks coach, and highlight positive outcomes in green and negative outcomes in red:

Suppose we run on second down, giving the ball to Lynch:

      1. If Lynch scores:

a. The game is probably over in our favor.

      2. Else (we ran on second down and didn’t score):

a. It is third down, we have less than 20 seconds left and the clock is running.

b. To stop the clock, we must use our last timeout.

c. With no timeouts left, we can only stop the clock after the third down by passing on third down and it falling incomplete.

d. The defense will be as aware of this as we are.

e. If we pass on third down:

       i. The defense will be expecting a pass reducing our chances of success.

       ii. If the pass is complete:

a) The game is probably over in our favor.

       iii. Else (the third down pass was incomplete):

a) It is fourth down; the incomplete pass stops the clock.

b) We have one play (pass or run) to decide the game, but we have no timeouts left to discuss strategy and choose an optimal play for the game situation, reducing our chances of success.

f. Else (we run on third down, giving the ball to Lynch again):

       i. If we score:

a) The game is probably over in our favor.

       ii. Else (we didn't score running on third down):

a) It is fourth down, the clock is running, and it may well expire before we can get a fourth-down play off.

Now, let’s compare the corresponding "What if" scenario for throwing the slant pass, ignoring the possibility of an interception:

Suppose we pass on second down:

1. If the pass is complete:

a. The game is probably over in our favor.

2. Else (the pass was incomplete):

a. It is third down, the clock is stopped with about 20 seconds left, we still have one timeout, the defense cannot know if we will run or pass.

b. If we run Lynch on third down:

i. If we score:

a) The game is probably over in our favor.

ii. Else (we didn't score, running on third down):

a) It is fourth down; the clock is running.

b) We can use our last timeout to stop the clock and discuss strategy.

c) The timeout lets us choose a fourth down play (run or pass) with an optimal chance of success in the fourth down game situation.

c. Else (we pass on third down):

i. If it is complete:

a) The game is probably over in our favor.

ii. Else (the third down pass was incomplete):

a) It is fourth down; the incomplete pass stops the clock.

b) We can use our last timeout to discuss strategy.

c) The timeout lets us choose a fourth down play (run or pass) with an optimal chance of success in the fourth down game situation.

In other words, the Seahawks’ coaches chose to pass on second down in order to preserve their final timeout. They did this because in a worst-case scenario, having that timeout would give them the maximum likelihood of winning the game.

It is also worth mentioning that although it is true that Lynch had averaged 4.2 yards per carry to that point in the game, "average" statistics often hide important information.  In this case the 4.2 yards per carry statistic hides two critical pieces of information:

  • With 10:14 left in the first quarter, Seattle had a third down and needed two yards for a first down at their own twenty-four yard line. They had Lynch run the ball and New England’s short yardage defense stopped him for no gain, forcing Seattle to punt on fourth down.
  • With 11:51 left in the third quarter, Seattle had a third down and needed one yard for a first down at the New England eight-yard line. They had Lynch run the ball, and New England’s short yardage defense stopped him for no gain, forcing Seattle to settle for a field goal on fourth down.

In other words, twice before in short yardage situations in this game, the Patriot’s defense had stopped Lynch for no gain.  With the Seahawks needing just one yard for a winning touchdown, the Patriots would be using that same short-yardage defense, making the success of a Lynch running play anything but certain.  Hence the decision to pass on second down, as that had a reasonable chance of success, and if it was unsuccessful, still left open the option of running on the third and fourth downs.

As I hope this makes clear, coaching decisions involve complex chains of logical reasoning that depend on the current game situation, which has multiple interacting parameters.  It should also be clear that a coach cannot explain such complex decisions in a sound byte, a sentence, or even a paragraph. 

People who say, "The Seahawks should have run the ball!" are like short-sighted novice chess players who are only looking at the current move when they make their decision, and are ignoring the possible game scenarios downstream from that move.  Good NFL coaches are like master chess players, looking several moves ahead in the decision tree, and making the decision that maximizes their overall chances of success.  Given the game situation they faced at the end of Superbowl XLIX, the Seattle coaching staff’s decision to throw the pass was the right call to maximize their chances of winning the game.

My thanks to ESPN.com, whose play-by-play information facilitated this.


Comments


Stephen Asbury

I am not even a football fan, but you are really missing something here. The question isn't, hand the ball to Lynch, or pass to the middle. If the question is run the ball, or pass the ball. You are correct, passing is likely the better choice since it can stop the clock. But, and this is big, passing to the middle where the most players are (because you are on the 1 yard line) is no where near as good an idea as passing to the outside. Heck, the end zone itself has more surface area than the area between the line of scrimmage and the end zone itself which provides more room for a receiver to get clear.

Bottom line, handing the ball to Lynch is risky for many reasons, but passing down the middle is risky for many many more.

I think a more interesting question is, was the fight staged to force one more play in the game?


Joel Adams

Thanks, Stephen, you make a good point -- the middle of the field is certainly more cluttered with bodies than the sides, which decreases the chances of success and increases the chances of an interception. Nevertheless, a lot of teams throw the slant pass because it is usually easy for the receiver to beat the defender to the inside. Defenders tend to overplay a receiver to the outside because they have no help there, but they do have help (teammates) to the inside.

Because the defenders have no help to the outside: many teams like to throw a 'fade' pass -- a timing route in which the receiver goes one-on-one against the cornerback, the quarterback lofts the ball over the cornerback into the corner of the end zone, and the receiver tries to beat the cornerback to the ball. The ability to do this depends on the quarterback's touch and the receiver-cornerback matchup -- the receiver's strength, height and speed vs the strength, height and speed of the cornerback. From what I've seen, Seattle's Wilson has the touch to throw the fade pass, but I don't know the Seahawks' receivers or the Patriots' cornerbacks well enough to know if that was a good option/matchup for them. Perhaps someone who knows the two teams better can comment...


Dan Reichner

Thanks, Joel, your analysis was right on. The "Monday-Morning-Quarterbacking" is mostly coming from those who wanted to see Seattle to win the game. The Seahawks' slant call was very similar to the call that the Arizona Cardinals made with Kurt Warner with time running out in the first half of Superbowl 43. Both ended badly, but these slant calls on the goal line are common high percentage plays. It is just ridiculous to say that this was worst call in Superbowl history - the right way to look at this play is to realize that in a critical situation a defender can make a great play.


Joel Adams

Hi Dan, you're right that the defender made a great play.

Slant passes are among the hardest-thrown passes and defenders are not usually good receivers, so the fact that Malcolm Butler caught the ball so cleanly makes me think New England ought to try him on offense!

Also, if you watch how quickly Butler reacted on the play, I have to wonder if Seattle didn't somehow give away their intentions through the formation or some other 'tell'. New England is well coached and would pick up on any tendencies Seattle might have.

You're also right that this play is reminiscent of James Harrison's Super Bowl 43 interception and 100-yard return for a TD (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGYS6IfLZC4). Harrison was an amazing pass rusher, and his dropping back into coverage on that play was an ad lib on his part, making it another case where a defender anticipated what was going to happen and made a pivotal play. I thought about mentioning that but decided not to because I thought I might sound like too much of a Steeler fanboy. 8^)

Regardless, Butler made a great play and the Patriots deserve the credit for doing an amazing job of beating the odds.


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