A Foolish Football Call?

Explaining Why the Seahawks Threw the Ball

Posted Feb 02, 2015

In this column I focus on the topic of “foolish action.” So, in spite of the fact that I am hardly an expert on football (or some other topics I have written about, such as  avalanche fatalities) it is not inappropriate for me try and understand a football decision that many analysts (most of them former players or coaches) are calling profoundly foolish. I am referring, of course, to the decision by the Seattle Seahawks—with the ball on the Patriots half yard line with three plays, one time-out, and 26 seconds remaining in the game—to throw a slant pass over the middle,  rather than hand the ball off to their very hard-to-stop running back Marshawn Lynch (whose nickname is “Beast Mode”). The result of that decision was that the ball was intercepted and the game ended with the Patriots winning their fourth Super Bowl.

The reason why the decision by the Seahawks offensive coordinator, but authorized by their head coach Pete Carroll, is considered foolish is because the running option is considered by “Monday morning quarterbacks” to not only be less likely to result in a game-losing turnover but also more likely to result in a game-winning touchdown. Of course, the outcome of any course of action in football is impossible to predict in advance with certainty, and the universal criticism of the Seahawks coach is strongly influenced by the actual outcome of the play. (If the pass play had succeeded, Carroll would likely be acclaimed a genius). In the balance of this paper, I shall use my four factor explanatory model of foolish action to try and explain why the questionable decision was made, and will also make a case for why the play call was not as completely irrational as it appeared in the game’s immediate aftermath. In conducting this analysis, I shall organize my comments under each of the four elements in my foolish action explanatory model: situation, cognition, personality and affect.

          Situation.  Football action, like any other action, needs to be understood in the very specific micro-context in which it takes place. Bill Belichick, the coach of the game-winning Patriots, is considered the best “situational coach” in the NFL, and the end of a close game is the occasion when the presence or absence of situational coaching skills is most likely to influence the contest’s outcome. In this particular game, two critical aspects of the situation were that only 26 seconds remained on the clock, and Seattle possessed only one remaining time-out (the result of failing to get a play in fast enough earlier, and having to waste one of their two remaining time-outs). If a run had been called and Lynch was stopped from scoring, Seattle would have had to use their last time-out, in order to have been able to run a third down play, with the likelihood of not having time for a fourth down play. An incomplete pass on second down would have stopped the clock, and enabled the Seahawks to call a running play on third down and, if that was unsuccessful, use their time-out to stop the clock and run another hand-off to Lynch (unlikely to be stopped twice in a row from gaining a half yard) on the game’s final play.

Virtually every TV analyst expected Belichick to call time-out before the second down play was run, in order to be able to gather his defense for a well-planned goal-line stand. Probably 90% of the coaches in the NFL would have called a time-out then. The game announcers even speculated that Belichick could let the Seahawks score quickly, in order to give his team a chance to get in position for a miraculous score on, or immediately after, the ensuing kickoff.  That Belichick did neither was perplexing to some commentators, but it actually was a confirmation of his situational coaching superiority. That was because his move in the time management chess game almost forced Carroll to throw the ball, as a way of stopping the clock if the pass had been incomplete.

It has long been known that rushed decisions are most likely to be bad decisions, and by managing the clock situation better than Carroll, Belichick increased the odds that the Seahawks would make a mistake. A situational component that often contributes to foolish action is the role (positive or negative) of advisers or others likely to push a decision-maker towards or away from a risky course of action. One purpose of a time-out is to give coaching staff a chance to deliberate the merits of alternative play options. In this case, the time factor did not allow time for deliberation or discussion, which gave Pete Carroll’s gun-slinger risk-embracing personality greater room to operate unchecked.   

          Cognition. Foolish decisions are, essentially, failures in risk analysis. An ability to analyze and weigh risks and benefits of different football plays is, in fact, one of the skills that highly paid football coaches are expected to possess. On the surface, passing plays would seem to be more risky in short-yardage situations than running plays. The legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes (whose coaching career ended sadly when the likely demented aging coach punched an opposing player who ran into the Buckeye’s sideline) used a run-only offense that was described as “three yards and a cloud of dust.” Hayes once famously opined that there are three possible outcomes of a passing play and two of them (incompletion and interception) are bad. But running plays pose two risks also—fumbling or being stopped—in addition to the third risk that being stopped can cause too much critical time to elapse.

A bit of cognitive knowledge that Carroll (and likely Belichick) possessed is that Lynch for all of his greatness is not a lock to score in a goal line situation, as reflected in the fact that in five previous attempts to score from under the one yard line, this amazingly powerful running back had been successful only once. Furthermore, the idea that a slant pass on the goal line is inherently risky turns out empirically to be mistaken. In over 20 goal line slant passes attempted by NFL quarterbacks during the 2014 season, one third resulted in a touchdown, two-thirds resulted in an incompletion, and not a single one resulted in an interception. A properly executed slant pass on the goal line is in fact difficult, if not impossible, to intercept. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, this much-rehearsed play from the otherwise very reliable quarterback Russell Wilson was not quite perfect (the receiver would have caught it had it been thrown a split second sooner), the rookie defensive back, Malcolm Butler, who picked off the ball made a play that is rightly being termed sensational, and the wide receiver for the Seahawks, Ricardo Lockette, has been criticized by his own offensive coordinator for weakly allowing Butler to push him off the ball. Thus, three low probability factors came together to make this the only goal line slant pass over the entire season to result in an interception.

Another cognitive factor—also influenced by time pressure and Belichick’s superior situational intelligence—that contributed to Carroll’s unsuccessful play call was misinformation about the Patriot’s defensive alignment on the field. In a press conference immediately after the game ended, Carroll justified his play call by saying the Patriots were using a goal line defense, made up mostly of large players with few defensive backs, thus giving the Seahawks a great chance of succeeding in a pass play. In fact, the Patriots had three cornerbacks in the game, thus covering all wide receivers, and the third one sent in—Butler—was the one who made the decisive play. Butler says that the Patriots' defensive coordinator told him when he sent him in to look out for a slant pass over the middle to Lockette. Assuming that the Patriots had not been videotaping the Seahawks’ offensive signals (something they had been severely punished for doing in the past), this again shows superior situational coaching intelligence on the part of the Patriots’ staff. The mistaken understanding by Carroll of the Patriots’ defensive configuration has been allegedly attributed to mistaken information given him by whoever on his staff was supposed to communicate such information, but may also have been affected by self-deception, as such a defense is likely the one that Carroll (who like Belichick is considered a defensive wizard) would have called.  

          Personality and Affect. Foolish actions often are affected by an actor’s (in this case, coach’s) personality, of which a relative propensity for risk-taking is a major component. Foolish action can also be affected by one’s affective state, which in the waning moments of a major football game is likely to be judgment-affecting excitement or adrenaline rush. Most likely, Carroll has good self-regulatory control over his emotions (a requirement for anyone as successful a football coach as he has been), so I shall just comment briefly on Carroll’s personality.

I have been following him as a fan for many years. (I embody the comment by neoconservative icon Norman Podhoritz in his 1967 memoir “Making It” that “pro football is the secret vice of American [male] intellectuals”).  I have in the past rooted for both  NFL teams (the Jets when I lived in New York and the Patriots when I lived in Connecticut) that he formerly coached, and thought he was a terrific and under-appreciated coach. One of Carroll’s positive qualities is a penchant for creativity and risk-taking. Often, this works out well, as when Carroll called a game-tying pass play with six seconds remaining in the first half of the Super Bowl, when almost all other coaches would have kicked a point-blank three-point field goal. But sometimes his gambling tendencies blow up in his face, as when Carroll as coach of USC gave away the 2006 national collegiate football championship when he decided to go for it on fourth and 2 from the Texas 45 yard line in the Rose Bowl, when kicking a punt was far more likely to have won the game for USC.    

It has been pointed out that Carroll likes to impress people with his creativity and intelligence by calling plays described by others as “too cute.” A wiser course of action in the 2015 Super Bowl would probably have been to run Marshawn Lynch on second down, and if that was unsuccessful call a time-out and run him again if necessary on a game-ending third down. Carroll has defended himself by saying it was a “terrific call that didn’t work out.” Whether it was a stupid move is for the reader to decide, but I think my analysis shows that it was not as irrational a decision as most fans and many football analysts initially thought. Various factors, especially the dwindling amount of time and only one remaining time out, in combination with inaccurate information about the Patriots’ defense, impelled the Seahawks to a course of action that statistically was much less risky than hindsight would make it appear to have been. Some degree of risk-taking is essential to succeed in football, as in life, but unfortunately what may appear to be a wise course of action sometimes leads to catastrophe.  

                    Copyright Stephen Greenspan