One Yard, One Thousand Questions: How the Play that Changed the Super Bowl is Misunderstood

It was like being down five with less than 30 seconds remaining in a clinching game of the NBA Finals.  Or, being down the your final half inning and down 3-0 in the American League Championship Series.  It is over.  Get on the bus, it is over.  The remaining few moments are just torturous.  Unless some crazy Buffalo Wild Wings intervention took place, you need to just watch the other team do confetti angels and make laps around the stadium.

But, sometimes after you exited the arena, the Miami Heat nail two three-pointers in the shadow of the O’Brien Trophy.  Sometimes, a pinch runner swipes a base against the best reliever of all time and the Boston Red Sox come back from the dead and win the ALCS 4-3.  Sometimes, the impossible happens.

So, here we were; Super Bowl XLIX.  A Super Bowl that may go down as the greatest of the 49 ever played.  It had it all — a virtual toss-up matchup; Tom Brady versus the NFL’s best defense; pre-game storylines [“deflate-gate”; Silent Marshawn; nut grabs; a budding dynasty versus a previous dynasty]; and the game itself was entertaining.  Even the Halftime Show was noteworthy, if only for the psychedelic singing trees and dancing sharks.  The commercials could have been more entertaining, but it will go down as one of the most memorable championship games for any sport.

And yet, the entire game is being encapsulated in one play…one impossible play that prior to that moment, many were believing that it was virtually over.  Dan Patrick was going to have to give away a Chevrolet truck in Seahawk blue…or green.  Or, whatever.  The question that was being developed centered on Brady and if he could lead the Patriots downfield, if he was even given that chance at all.  The narrative that was emerging was that the Pats once again fell to team that benefited from an impossibilities.

But, the impossibilities were not over, as on 2nd and goal from the one-yard line, Seattle and Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell opted to throw the ball rather hand the ball off to Marshawn Lynch and let him bring “that New Jack City, boy!”  According to post-game comments, the play was based on the defensive package that the New England Patriots had on the field.  But when you have a running back known as “Beast Mode” and often seen casting off defenders like a bad case of fleas, to not run is crazy.  And, that Malcolm Butler stepped up and intercepted the ball is something that should have never happened.

Because of these things, that impossibility turned what seemed to be another Patriots loss into a miraculous Super Bowl victory.  And, it brought forth a blitzkrieg of criticism for the play call there.  However, such criticism ignores the realities of the play, of the entirety of the game, and of football as a whole.

The Play

The Play; and the moment that Butler broke on the play.

The Play; and the moment that Butler broke on the play.

First, the play itself is less about Bevell’s play call, Russell Wilson’s throw, or Ricardo Lockette’s [lack of] effort and more about the play and effort of Butler.  Go watch the play again and give credit to Butler.  Yes, some have noted the play Butler made, but when they do it they typically do it when chastising the offensive play call.  But, Butler knew what was coming.  Jermaine Kearse jams/picks Pats DB Brandon Browner.  Browner even knew it was coming as he reach out to make contact first as soon as the ball was snapped.  Butler knew; he jumped the route as soon as he saw that pick.  He takes off to the spot even before Wilson squares his shoulders to throw.  By the time Wilson gets ready to cock back and throw, Lockette and Butler are approximately equidistant from where the ball ended up; Butler made a hell of an effort to get there and make the play.

Ignore the play call.  We can second-guess that all day.  Fact is that if Butler does not make that play, then Lockette scores.  If Butler did not feel the play and jump the pass, Seattle likely takes the lead [assuming Lockette did not somehow drop it].  The play was called and thus what played out is what it is…Butler stepped up when he needed to.  Yes, Lynch would have been the better play call, but that was not the played call so we should not — nay, CANNOT — play the what if game.  What if they give it to Lynch and he’s stuffed or loses two yards or fumbles?  What if I’m taking a shower and I slip on a bar of soap?

We’ve discussed before the celebration of gutsy calls, at least when it works.  The thing is, what if Butler did not make the play?  I know that I just stated to not play the What-If game, but if people want to do that, then what if Seattle scored with the play that was called?  Wilson would be clutch; Bevell and [more audiably] Pete Carroll would be praised.  This happens all of the time.  When “controversial” plays like this fail, the Blame Game begins.  But when those plays hit, the acclaim never stops.

We don’t have to look far to see proof of that — six seconds to go in the first half, to be exact.  Less than two hours earlier, Wilson and the Seahawks gambled by running a play rather than kicking a field goal.  The field goal would have been virtually automatic and made it a 14-10 Patriots lead.  But, a touchdown?  With the Seahawks getting the ball to start the second half??  It was too tempting.  So, Seattle went for it and Wilson threw a quick strike to Chris Matthews for the game-tying touchdown.  While the risk was noted, the onions of Seattle could not be talked about enough.  Now, imagine that the play was picked off.  That’s what happened at the end of the game and we see the results.  That’s how quickly glory can turn into gore.

One final point.  Analyst Chris Simms noted on the Jim Rome Show that throwing the ball was not a bad play call; but calling that play was bad.  It was a typical play that the Seahawks like to run down by the goal line, so it was definitely a play that the Patriots were prepared to defend.  It is why Butler had his vision of making a play.  Think about the “Statue of Liberty” play that Boise State ran against Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.  It was set-up so well because the Broncos ran a similar two-point conversion play, but where Jared Zabransky threw the ball instead of the behind-the-back handoff.  Oklahoma expected a similar play, and Boise State fooled them.  ANYTHING but ordinary and Seattle likely scores.  By playing tendencies, the Patriots got the best of the Seahawks.

The Game

But, the game was not decided just there.  Yes, it ultimately decided the game, but the game is 60 minutes and there were numerous plays that got us to that point in the game.  There were three big plays after the two-minute warning, all involving Butler including the interception.  There was the deep ball down field to Kearse that Butler went up and batted away.  There was then the acrobatic catch by Kearse.  Kearse made the catch on his back and then proceeded to get up.  Butler kept playing; he did not hear a whistle.  Had Butler not made a play and knocked Kearse out of bounds, the slant of doom would have never occurred.

But there were other moments in the game that are worth discussing.  What about Seattle running the ball just four times for ten yards after taking a ten-point lead [and prior to New England taking the lead]?  They had two three-and-outs and another drive of only four plays.  Some of those incomplete passes hit and we are not discussing it.  But, throwing on first down when you have Lynch, who averaged 4.6 per carry up until Seattle took a 24-14 lead, is crazy.

What about the errors made by Tom Brady?  Had the Seahawks scored — whether on the slant to Lockette or with a hypothetical Lynch run — Brady would have been questioned about the poor passes, especially the first interception to Jeremy Lane.  He would have been the goat rather being proclaimed the GOAT.

And, of course, what about Carroll’s decision to go for it with six seconds to go in the first half?  Remember Super Bowl XLIII?  First and goal at the one [hmm…] with under 20 seconds to go in the first half [hmm!!!] and Kurt Warner throws an interception that is returned 100 yards for a touchdown!  Any number of things could have happened there, but instead the Seahawks tied it up.

All of these mattered.  Heck even the lesser running-into-the-kicker penalty when it should have been roughing changed the trajectory of the game.  Even the possibility that Patriots wideout Julian Edelman was concussed yet played on changed the trajectory.  Hell, Brady drawing the Seahawks offsides to get them off of the one-inch line changed the trajectory.

Every play changed the direction of the game.  Football is not linear in that it does not just go from 15:00 to 0:00.  It weaves its way around like a “Choose Your Adventure” book.  Every decision has repercussions and every repercussion leads to new decisions.  And in the end, it is up to the players to do what they will with the situation at hand, even if the play called in is one that is second-guessed after the fact.

Thus, instead of wasting time questioning the play call, let us celebrate the plays made on the field in the situations that presented themselves.  Let’s give props to Malcolm Butler credit rather than wondering if Ricardo Lockette could have tried harder.  And let’s examine the game in its entirety and appreciate what will go down as one of the greatest Super Bowls of all time…

…sad Nationwide commercials included.

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