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Super Bowl XLIX: What Was and Wasn't Defensible About the Seahawks' Last Play

Let's break down that play for the ages, shall we?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

So, that was some football game last night, huh? It wasn't an SEC game, but we all love football around here. Let's go through what was and wasn't defensible about the Seahawks' final, fatal play.

If you somehow missed the end of the game, here's a brief rundown of the situation. Seattle, down by four, is driving to try to win the game. A circus catch by wideout Jermaine Kearse gave the Seahawks first-and-goal from the five with 1:06 to go. Seattle took its second timeout to stop the clock after the catch. On first down, Marshawn Lynch ran the ball down to the one. Pete Carroll chose to keep the clock running, and the second down snap came with :25 on the game clock. It was a quick slant pick play, with Kearse clearing out for fellow receiver Ricardo Lockette. Russell Wilson fired it to Lockette, but the Patriots' Malcolm Butler jumped the route and intercepted it to seal the game. You can watch the final play here.

First, let's hear why they chose to throw the ball on second down in the first place:

"We sent in our personnel, they sent in goal line," Carroll said. "It's not the right matchup for us to run the football, so on second down, we throw the ball. Really, it's to kind of waste that play. If we score, we do, if we don't we don't, then we run it on third and fourth down. No second thoughts, no hesitation."

There is no doubt about Carroll's assessment, as the Pats were definitely in run stopping mode:

patriots seahawks

Screencap from replay

Plus with only one timeout, Seattle couldn't run the ball on all four downs. If you're plotting out that last series of downs and preparing for the worst case scenario of needing to try to score on fourth, there must be a pass into the end zone somewhere in there. Carroll chose to try to beat the defense's goal line formation with a pass on second down. Had he gone with a Lynch run and it got stuffed, then third down would have to be the pass.

The argument most people are making this morning is that the Seahawks should have run it with Lynch on second down, full stop. It's not a bad argument. Beyond his Beast Mode reputation and general excellence and 4.3 YPC rate on the night, he only got stopped for no gain twice in 24 carries. He also did not take a loss on the night. No one would be ripping Seattle if Lynch had been stuffed on second down and the interception came on third down.

One of those times Lynch had been stopped for no gain was inside the Patriots' ten to force a field goal early in the third quarter, though. It was no guarantee that he would have gotten in the end zone. When he punched it in from three yards out for his team's first touchdown, it came from a spread set with four wide receivers against a seven-man box. It wasn't against a goal line defense.

What I'm getting at is that merely deciding to throw on second down wasn't the worst decision that Carroll and his offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell made in that situation. Throwing into traffic with a play the team uses commonly enough that New England could specifically identify and prepare for it was the bad decision.

The middle of the field is always a dangerous place at the goal line. Seattle clearly didn't expect the corner to jump the route, but that was only one of a few bad things that could happen. In tight windows like that, it's easy for balls to get popped up in the air where they're easy to pick. Plus, any one of the guys on the line could have dropped into that area and broken up the play.

Besides, if you watch closely, you can see that Lockette wouldn't have made the end zone had he caught it. Butler makes contact and knocks him down before he ever gets across the goal line. Had the catch been made, Seattle would have had to burn its last timeout to stop the clock because the throw was short of the goal line. In that case, the Seahawks couldn't hand it to Lynch on third down as Carroll had planned. How in the world do you choose to throw short of the goal line there?

A pass could have been fine, but it would have needed to be something like a jump ball to Chris Matthews, the 6'5" product of Kentucky who chose the right night to have his career breakout game. I get why Seattle might not want to put the entire Super Bowl on the shoulders of a guy making his first career NFL catches that night, but he's the tallest wideout the team has by a couple inches. He also has an inch on Brandon Browner, the Patriots' tallest corner who he beat on a nine-yard reception in the third quarter. Just throw it high where either Matthews could get it or no one could get it. If it works, great. If not, then Beast Mode it on third and fourth.

Or if you don't want to try a toss to Matthews, why not include a play fake to Lynch? Every last man, woman, and child observing the game was expecting a handoff to the Skittles spokesman. Why not use that, combined with Wilson's dangerous mobility on bootlegs, to your advantage? The touchdown on a complete BS play fake bootleg was a staple of Carroll's USC offenses.

So yeah: passing on second down against a jumbo front wasn't the indefensible part of the Seahawks' plans at the end. It was choosing a terrible play out of the team's passing playbook that was unforgivable.

Addendum: goal line passes were more successful than runs this year in the NFL, and Wilson's INT was the only one thrown from the goal line all year.