For Patriots and Seahawks, Victory Hinged on the Details
The ultimate offensive play in Super Bowl XLIX marked the climax of what some deem the greatest Super Bowl in history.
The Seattle-New England showdown had been widely anticipated since the commencement of the 2014 season.
Yet, it’s rare for early favorites to make it to the championship and deliver a performance that doesn’t disappoint, unlike last year’s Super Bowl.
While Patriot enthusiasts celebrated their victory, Seahawks supporters will forever bemoan the events that unfolded with just 26 seconds left on the clock.
Since the game’s conclusion, an extensive debate has raged, so let’s dissect that ultimate Seattle play from a multitude of perspectives to offer an exclusive insight into all the considerations and the inevitable outcome.
The Scenario: Patriots 28, Seahawks 24
Seattle had possession with a mere 26 seconds remaining, second-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
The primary objective, obviously, was to secure a touchdown for the win, but the question was how to execute it. The initial thought for Seattle naturally leaned toward a rushing play.
Marshawn Lynch, an NFL standout, had already amassed over 100 yards in the game, averaging a respectable four yards per carry.
However, in five similar “and-1” situations earlier in the Super Bowl, Lynch had only received the ball four times, resulting in one touchdown and one first down.
Curiously, the sole passing attempt in such a situation was an incomplete pass to Jermaine Kearse, covered by none other than Malcolm Butler.
Although it wasn’t a guaranteed conversion, considering the two prior failures, they still had three opportunities and time on their side.
So, why did they opt not to run the ball?
Head coach Pete Carroll’s post-game explanation concerning the scenario was that the Seahawks aimed to maximize their chances of scoring a touchdown while leaving no time for their opponents.
He clarified, “We’re going to leave them no time, and we had our plays to do it.” An average play on the field typically consumes between 6-7 seconds, signifying that there was room for three more plays.
On the goal line, there was absolutely no doubt that Seattle could execute three passes within that timeframe.
However, Seattle retained one remaining timeout, which would permit them to run the ball and halt the clock if a touchdown wasn’t achieved.
Running plays typically demand less time than passing plays, ensuring that the Seahawks would have sufficient time for two additional throws if, for any reason, their ground game faltered.
Carroll also noted that the Patriots were positioned in their goal-line formation during the last play of the game.
Carroll’s implication is that the unfavorable look for running the football was a result of Seattle’s own choice regarding personnel substitutions rather than an inherently undesirable defensive formation.
Even in the suboptimal situation for a running play, Seattle had an athletic quarterback who posed a threat to run.
The image above illustrates that the offense had one less blocker than the defense on both sides of the center.
However, since traditional quarterbacks don’t often run, and Russell Wilson is known for his running ability, the outside linebackers had to account for his potential to keep on a read-option play.
This level of unpredictability balanced the situation, even in the face of an initially unfavorable setup.
To summarize: Lynch, the 1-yard line, 26 seconds left, one timeout, and an athletic quarterback all pointed to the logical choice of running the football.
But that’s not what transpired. Now, let’s delve into what did occur.
As evident from the image, New England loaded the box to thwart the run and anticipate Lynch or Wilson carrying the ball.
Consequently, the defensive backs were assigned man-to-man coverage with no safety assistance on the outside.
In a two-minute drive, there isn’t the luxury of deploying complex combination coverages, so defensive strategies tend to simplify.
The cornerbacks at the bottom of the image were engaged in “locked” coverage, signifying a strict man-to-man assignment, regardless of the receiver’s alignment, motion, or post-snap movements.
The Seahawks, with all these factors in mind, opted to pass the football, and they had the suitable play designed for this specific scenario.
Jermaine Kearse, wearing No. 15, positions himself at the front of the stack and proceeds to move outward against cornerback Brandon Browner, No. 39.
This strategic maneuver generates a natural pick due to the congestion it creates, something that forces Patriots’ DB Malcolm Butler, sporting No. 21, to navigate through the traffic and cover Ricardo Lockette, No. 83.
The crucial element here is that Butler operates at a different depth compared to Browner. If they had been aligned at the same level, they might have collided, nullifying the pick.
However, the slight depth variation prevents this, creating a small gap of separation between the defender and the wide receiver. Based on the exterior defensive coverage presented, this appears to be a well-conceived offensive play call.
The challenge now rests with Russell Wilson. Can he deliver the pass into that narrow window before Butler can close the space he had to concede in order to evade the pick?
This is a swift-developing play, particularly near the goal line. In my opinion, being so close to the end zone, it’s better not to be in the shotgun formation; it’s more efficient to be under center for a quicker release.
Snagging a shotgun snap, locating the laces (if time allows), assessing the coverage, and delivering an accurate pass is an exceptionally demanding task.
Moreover, standing in the shotgun typically signals to the defense that a pass is imminent, enabling them to focus on their route reads.
However, some elements can be omitted, such as reading the coverage. In this case, knowing it’s man-to-man coverage eliminates the need for further assessment, as that’s precisely why this particular route combination is being called.
Wilson receives the snap and promptly delivers the pass to the designated wide receiver.
At this juncture, let’s pause for a moment and revisit the photograph. Much has been said in the past day, attempting to rationalize why this interception occurred.
For those who claim that “Russell Wilson made the worst decision in the history of football” or suggest he should have thrown the ball into the ground or behind him, where else could he have thrown it?
This was a one-man route! For those unfamiliar with this system or who haven’t thrown a football, it’s crucial to reconsider. The poor decision lay in the play call, not in Wilson’s choice of where to deliver the ball. His read was indeed correct.
So, why criticize the pass when Wilson threw to the right target, on time, and ahead of the receiver?
If Wilson had thrown the ball behind Lockette, the receiver might have had to halt his progress, potentially preventing him from reaching the end zone, or worse, the pass could have been deflected and intercepted.
This play wasn’t designed for a throw behind the receiver; the objective was to lead him precisely as Wilson did. As for the suggestion of throwing the ball into the ground, consider the image again.
It’s nearly impossible for a 5-foot-10 QB to launch the ball over both the offensive and defensive lines, let alone over them and into the ground within that confined space. Attempting to throw it into the ground would have been an unwise decision.
But was it the ideal play for the given situation? In my view, no. Could it have succeeded?
Yes. The key takeaway here is the challenge of efficiently receiving a shotgun snap and delivering the pass accurately and on time, which Wilson successfully accomplished.
Malcolm Butler, however, executed an exceptional play, and there might have been additional factors at play.
In the freeze-frame, we observe Lockette in the act of attempting to catch the pass, with Butler closing in at the point of the catch.
It’s worth noting Lockette’s hand positioning, clearly circled in the image. His palms are facing upward, indicating his intention to use his body for the catch rather than extending his hands with his palms facing the football.
This seemingly minor detail carries significant implications. In a tightly contested play like this, the extra fraction of a second it takes for the ball to reach Lockette’s body provides Butler with the opportunity to intercept the pass.
This was the critical difference between an interception, a touchdown, or simply an incompletion.
It’s not an indictment of Lockette; many wide receivers opt to use their bodies to ensure a secure catch. However, the trade-off is that it grants the defensive back more time to react to the ball.
In that particular moment, Butler made a more competitive play. The spirit of competition permeates all aspects of the game, a key tenet of Pete Carroll’s coaching philosophy, and on this play, the Seahawks came up short in the competition.
Crucially, this game’s outcome didn’t hinge on one solitary play, although it might feel that way. It’s teams that win or lose these games, not individual coaches or players.
Every individual involved has a hand in the result, and this play illustrates how success or failure doesn’t conclude with the decision to run or pass. It’s about the layers of detail that coalesce to create a successful football play.
It was an unforgettable conclusion to an exceptional NFL season, and it serves as a prime example of the intricate details that contribute to making a football play successful.
Fans will continue to reflect on this play indefinitely, while teams across the league are sure to employ it as a valuable teaching tool for their own players.