GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Seattle Seahawks needed one more yard for football immortality.
One more yard, and the Seahawks would win an all-time classic Super Bowl, and in doing so be just the ninth team in NFL history to repeat as champions.
Instead, while the Patriots and anyone without a rooting interest will remember the game as one of the most thrilling Super Bowls ever played, for the Seahawks, Sunday’s 28-24 loss in Super Bowl XLIX will forever be remembered for the one play that backfired in a huge way. And the one play call that, no matter how head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell try to explain, is so hard to understand.
The Seahawks led the league in rushing this season with the highest total in the NFL since 2006. Yet with one yard standing between the Seahawks and a Lombardi Trophy, with running back Marshawn Lynch in the backfield next to quarterback Russell Wilson, with 26 seconds remaining to be played, three downs and a timeout remaining, Bevell called a pass play because the Patriots had a goal-line package in to stop the run.
Running would have meant asking six blockers — the line plus tight end Luke Willson — to beat seven defenders at the line of scrimmage, plus a safety who would have come crashing down, not an easy task. But not an impossible one with Lynch in the backfield. Instead, Wilson threw a quick pass to Ricardo Lockette, and Patriots rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler made a great play to jump the route, out-muscling Lockette for the ball and the game-clinching interception.
One yard, and this is a story about another amazing Wilson comeback, or about Carroll owning two Super Bowl rings and two AP national championships. Or about the unlikely star turn for Seahawks rookie receiver Chris Matthews, who had never caught an NFL pass before Sunday, when he had four catches for 109 yards and a touchdown.
Or about that insane circus catch from Jermaine Kearse two plays before the fateful interception. Or about another big postseason performance from Lynch.
Instead this was a game about Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady winning their fourth ring together, and about a resilient team overcoming a 10-point deficit by scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns against the best defense in the NFL.
And yes, it’s about that play call.
I rarely, if ever, am critical of play calls, because it’s ludicrous to assume I know more about this game than the coaches making the decisions. But I, like so many others, just can’t wrap my head around that decision.
Carroll was asked over and over about the play, and over and over he explained that their personnel didn’t match up well with New England’s to run on that play. His thought was that a pass, if not a touchdown, would “kind of waste that play” then they could run on later downs.
“If we score, we do, if we don’t, then we’ll run it on third and fourth down, really with no second thoughts or no hesitation in that at all,” Carroll said. “And unfortunately, with the play that we tried to execute, the guy makes a great play and jumps in front of the route and makes an incredible play that nobody would ever think he could do.”
Bevell said the call was something he felt “really comfortable with,” but he also on multiple occasions suggested that Lockette could have “done a better job staying strong through the ball.”
But even if that’s the right call on paper, the right decision against New England’s personnel, it’s not the right call if the team’s third receiver — fourth before Paul Richardson’s injury — isn’t fighting for the ball the way his coach wanted.
Lynch pounding in the go-ahead score, or perhaps Wilson scoring on a keeper, seemed so inevitable that reporters in the press box were questioning why New England wasn’t using its timeouts. Or even if the Patriots should let Seattle score to get the ball back with some time left on the clock. But instead New England won a classic because the Seahawks couldn’t get that one last yard.
Wilson tried to put the blame on himself, noting, “I’m the one who threw it,” but as deep as Butler was when Wilson threw it, it’s hard to question the accuracy of the throw or the decision. Instead, you have to give Butler credit for making a great play in a moment where, “I knew they were going to throw it. … We knew they were going to throw the ball.”
And also wonder why Wilson and Lockette were put in a situation where something like that could happen when Lynch, who hadn’t been stopped for a loss all game, could have had two or three cracks at the end zone from a yard out.
One yard to immortality, and the player teammates refer to as the “heart and soul” of the offense wasn’t involved in the play that decided the Super Bowl.
Most Seahawks accurately pointed out that the game isn’t won or lost on one play. If the defense gets a stop, Seattle wins. If Kearse doesn’t drop a perfectly thrown pass on third down late in the third quarter, Seattle likely gets at least a field goal and keeps momentum. Or on the flip side, if that crazy catch by Kearse instead hits the ground, Seattle maybe doesn’t get near the end zone.
But some Seahawks were left scratching their heads like the rest of us.
Receiver Doug Baldwin spent 25 seconds trying to explain the logic behind the call, but he was also shaking his head while he talked, and finally conceded, “I don’t know, man. I’m just trying to make up an explanation here. I really don’t know.”
Some of his teammates were even more direct.
“I don’t know,” linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “We’ve got Marshawn Lynch, one of the best running backs in the league, and everybody makes their decisions and unfortunately we didn’t give him the ball.”
Linebacker Bruce Irvin, who was part of an ugly skirmish as New England was kneeling out the clock, was also baffled by the play call, saying, “We had it. I don’t understand how you don’t give it to the best back in the league on not even the 1-yard line. We were on the half-yard line and we throw a slant. I don’t know what the offense had going on, what they saw. I just don’t understand.”
Irvin’s not alone there. The play that defined this Super Bowl classic, at least from a Seahawks standpoint, was very hard to understand.
Herald Columnist John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org