Sports

Alex Speier

Statistically, Seahawks’ final play call not as bad as you think

Dont'a Hightower stopped Marshawn Lynch just before the goal line late in the fourth quarter Sunday.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Dont'a Hightower stopped Marshawn Lynch just before the goal line late in the fourth quarter Sunday.

GLENDALE, Ariz. — A day later, the question still echoed. What was Pete Carroll thinking?

It’s natural, perhaps even obvious, to suggest the Seahawks coach made an epic error. His decision to have quarterback Russell Wilson pass from the Patriots’ 1-yard line rather than hand the ball to human wrecking ball Marshawn Lynch with 26 seconds remaining and a chance to take the lead will forever inspire criticism given the outcome.

Advertisement

As soon as Malcolm Butler intercepted Wilson’s quick slant pass intended for Ricardo Lockette, Carroll relocated inside a bull’s-eye, with both Patriots and even some Seahawks squaring him up.

“I’m just as surprised as everyone else,” said Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner. “Marshawn Lynch, hands down, is the best running back in the game.

Get Sports Headlines in your inbox:
The Globe's most recent sports headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“I just really feel like sometimes these coaches are so intelligent they outstrategize themselves. I think that’s what that case was. It’s simple. You turn around and give it to the best back in the game.”

Yet another corner of the Patriots locker room suggested that the play call wasn’t as outlandish as the outcome might suggest. After all, if the Patriots had stopped Lynch on that second-down rush, the Seahawks would have been forced to use their final timeout, at which point Seattle would have had no choice but to pass. In passing on second down, the Seahawks gave themselves the opportunity to run twice on anything except a turnover.

“I’m sure they thought they had two more shots,” said Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears, who was a member of Carroll’s coaching staff in New England. “They went for the quick strike. No problem with that.

Advertisement

“But then, all of a sudden, it just didn’t fall their way. But a lot of people would have taken the shot then, and if it’s incomplete, you take two shots at running with a timeout left.”

At least from a coaching standpoint, clock management offered some rationale for how Carroll and the Seahawks approached the situation. Over the last three years, there were just four instances in which a team had a play from the 1-yard line in the final 30 seconds of a game when trailing by anywhere from 4 to 8 points — a touchdown-or-bust scenario. On two occasions, the trailing team rushed, getting stuffed once and scoring a touchdown once; the two passes likewise resulted in incompletions.

As for the likelihood of a turnover, it’s fair to say that such a thing wasn’t in the forefront of Carroll’s thinking when the call for a pass was sent to Wilson; of the 106 passing plays from the 1 in the NFL in 2014, none resulted in an interception or fumble.

Still, given who the Seahawks had running the ball — Mr. Beast Mode himself, the man who’d torn through the Patriots’ line for much of the game — it remained difficult on the surface to fathom the play call.

Yet a broader look at how teams handled plays from the 1-yard line suggests that but for an incredible interception by a Malcolm Butler, there was some logic behind the play call.

Though Lynch sometimes seems it, he’s not unstoppable. Of his 281 carries during the 2014 season, 20 resulted in lost yardage while two more yielded fumbles, meaning that something bad happened for the Seahawks 7.8 percent of the time when he was asked to carry the ball.

Over the three years when he’s lined up behind Wilson, he’s had 20 fumbles and 77 non-fumbling negative-yardage plays — a tough-to-stomach outcome on 10.7 percent of all of his runs. Of course, he’d netted at least a yard on 22 of his 24 runs (91.7 percent) in the game on Sunday, but there was at least some possibility that he could be stopped.

More to the point, Lynch doesn’t have the bulldozing track record that one might anticipate from the 1-yard line. He was handed the ball at the 1 five times in 2014, getting into the end zone just once — a 20 percent success rate well short of the league average of 57.5 percent.

Over his three-year partnership with Wilson, Lynch has more often failed to reach the end zone (7 times) than he has reached it (5) when given the opportunity from the 1. Perhaps that track record sat in the back of Seahawks coaches’ minds as they considered their call.

Rushes from the 1-yard line: 2014
RUSHES TDS TD % FUMBLES FUMBLE % NEGATIVE PLAYS NEGATIVE PLAY %
NFL 212 122 57.5 2 0.9 22 10.4
SEAHAWKS 6 2 33.3 0 0 2 33.3
LYNCH 5 1 20 0 0 2 40
WILSON 1 1 100 0 0 0 0
PATS DEFENSE 5 4 80 0 0 0 0
DATA: Alex Speier, pro-football-reference.com
Globe Staff

Rushes from 1-yard line: 2012-2014
RUSHES TDS TD % FUMBLES FUMBLE % LOST YARD PLAYS LOST YARDS %
NFL 699 404 57.8 12 1.7 74 10.6
SEAHAWKS 16 7 43.8 0 0 5 31.3
LYNCH 12 5 41.7 0 0 4 33.33
WILSON 4 2 50 0 0 1 25
PATS DEFENSE 18 11 61.1 0 0 2 11.1
DATA: Alex Speier, pro-football-reference.com
Globe Staff

That said, the Seahawks simply haven’t been very good from the 1, with their attempts to pass for a touchdown proving even less successful (3 for 8, 37.5 percent) than their rushes (7 for 16, 43.8 percent) in a very, very small sample. They’ve been no better when having Wilson run or pass from the 1 (converting 5 of 12 attempts — three passing, two rushing) in the quarterback’s three NFL seasons.

Meanwhile, the Patriots had shown little resistance to ground or air attempts from the 1, having been scored upon in 4 of 6 opportunities in 2014 (4 for 5 on the ground, 0 for 1 in the air) and 14 of 22 (63.6 percent, 11 of 18 rush attempts, 3 of 4 pass attempts) in the last three years.

Passes from 1-yard line: 2014
PASSES TDS TD % FUMBS/INTS FUMB/INT % LOST YARDS LOST YARDS %
NFL 106 61 57.5 0 0 4 3.8
SEAHAWKS 2 1 50 0 0 1 50
PATS DEFENSE 1 0 0 0 0 0 0
DATA: Alex Speier, pro-football-reference.com
Globe Staff

Passes from 1-yard line: 2012-2014
PASSES TDS TD % FUMBS/INTS FUMB/INT % LOST YARDS LOST YARDS %
NFL 328 162 49.4 6 1.8 16 4.9
SEAHAWKS 8 3 37.5 0 0 2 25
PATS DEFENSE 4 3 75 0 0 0 0
DATA: Alex Speier, pro-football-reference.com
Globe Staff

Ultimately, the Seahawks faced a situation where their recent history with their quarterback/running back tandem suggested something of a statistical wash. Their own experience in play calls on the doorstep to the end zone suggested that Lynch was less than a 50-50 bet (not factoring in the Patriots’ lack of resistance on such plays).

In that light, the idea of calling for a pass — with a focus on clock management — seems palatable. After all, the Seahawks had no reason to expect the one outcome that proved ruinous to their season: an interception the likes of which the NFL hadn’t seen in 2014, the likes of which the Seahawks had never seen during Wilson’s time at quarterback, the likes of which the Patriots hadn’t seen since 2007, when Junior Seau picked off a pass from the 1 by Browns quarterback Derek Anderson.

Undoubtedly, that history offers little consolation to Carroll or the Seahawks players who fell just short of repeating as Super Bowl champions and instead became victims of the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. But the notion that the play call was among the worst in history ignores the data suggesting that not only was the play call not uncommon, but it was anything but a formula for inevitable doom.

In the end, it took a remarkable play by a previously unheralded defensive back to force a lifetime of waiting in Seattle for the third-down rush that will never come.

Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.