Super Bowl XLIX: Making Sense of One Yard


Photo by Keith Allison

Photo by Keith Allison

Looking beyond the single-worst call in Super Bowl history to make sense of a winning philosophy that came a yard shy of consecutive championships.

Seattle lost the Super Bowl because it dared to win. It’s extraordinarily difficult to reconcile this statement in light of the Seahawks’ choice to call a pass over the middle from the one yard-line on second down, especially when it has one of the great fourth-quarter running backs in the game that just carried the rock four yards through the defense. But dumbest decision in the history of big games aside (and in many respects I’m right there with you), one must look beyond this single play to grasp Pete Carroll’s leadership philosophy that brought the Seahawks within a yard of winning consecutive championships.

I’ve seen these losses at the one yard-line before. Ernest Byner in 1987 at the one in Denver after a heroic effort to bring Cleveland back from an early deficit in the AFC Championship. Kevin Dyson at the one after Steve McNair willed the Titans down the field after Isaac Bruce and the high-powered Rams offense seemingly put a dagger through Tennessee’s championship hopes the series before.

After those two games, Russell Wilson’s interception at the one doesn’t faze me. In a weird way, it inspires me. Once you get over yourself, it should hearten you about Seattle’s team philosophy.

Pete Carroll lets his players play. It’s a simple statement that deserves greater exploration.

Fostering Open Competition

It doesn’t matter if you’re a sought-after free agent, a third-round pick, or an undrafted free agent, the Seahawks live the philosophy that the best performers earn the time on the field. Russell Wilson beat Matt Flynn. Before injuries and off-field issues sent him packing, Spencer Ware was seeing time on the field early in his career despite the team picking Robert Turbin much earlier.

Rewarding players with opportunities based on current performance is the first part of daring to win. It plants the seed that the coaches have confidence in the player for what he does on the field at that moment and not the numbers on the contract. It also keeps everything simple and doesn’t force players to over-analyze why they’re not playing.

Bad leadership creates scenarios where teammates lack a clear understanding of how rewards work. It leads individuals to fill that vacuum devoid of clear, stated expectations with ideas often borne of insecurities that breed infighting, pessimism, lack of trust, and lack of self-confidence.

Far fewer players feel the system is rigged against them. Fewer marginalized players leads to an easier time generating unity of vision.

Minimizing the Weight of Mistakes

An old-school mentality with leadership is an unforgiving emphasis on perfection. We all strive for flawless execution, but we’re all inherently flawed.

Some mistakes require a heavy-handed approach. I understand why Bill Belichick phased out Jonas Gray for missing a practice despite a great game against Indianapolis. Gray’s mistake wasn’t an error based on effort on the field, but lack of preparation and professionalism off it.

Showing a lack of commitment and effort is different from a mistake born of effort. Gameness is something great coaches want to encourage.

But there are coaches who punish the gameness out of their players. Tom Coughlin’s handling of David Wilson is a compelling example. Wilson was a rare talent and an emotionally galvanizing personality when he arrived to the Giants from Virginia Tech (Note: audio after 1-minute mark NSFW).

Although he only had one fumble during his rookie year, Wilson had a ball security problem and the rookie’s first turnover cost him a shot to play for much of the season. Coughlin’s philosophy, which is widely accepted; in fact, lionized, instills the fear of losing playing time as incentive to tame bad habits.

As with any method of management, this kind of punishment has its place. Belichick eventually began benching Stevan Ridley for his fumbles. However, he didn’t sit Ridley for multiple weeks during Ridley’s 1200-yard season where he lost 4 fumbles. Belichick allowed his runner a chance to continue playing, showing confidence in his young charge to fix the issue. Only when that tactic failed did Belichick begin sitting Ridley during another 4-fumble season the following year.

Coughlin lacked this kind of leadership with Wilson–an athlete with physical skills that put him in the neighborhood, if not a few streets away, of Adrian Peterson and Eric Dickerson: backs with speed, agility, and phenomenal balance. These backs had coaches that knew they needed to ride the good with the bad the way that most teams do with quarterbacks and interceptions.

Peterson had 20 fumbles during his first 3 seasons, Dickerson had 39 during his first 4 years. Neither player was benched, but Wilson had one fumble lost and he was treated like a pariah.

It’s these decisions that can not only zap the confidence from a player, but also make him afraid to play with an edge. Football is a game of aggression, but ironically there are a wealth of organizations that are so afraid of losing that they play not to lose.

Obviously, Coughlin–a two-time Super Bowl Champion–has earned two championships despite this penchant for heavy-handed behavior that his players openly disliked. The old-school methodology still works, but its not the only way. It also has its flaws that people seem to forget when they are addressing the flaws of an approach that is unusual.

These heavy-handed decisions of the old-school approach trickle down to the attitude of the players. The team collectively lacks an aggressive mentality when it comes to play calling and execution. They’re thinking more about not screwing up than making the play.

These players are skilled enough that when they make a mistake, their first reaction isn’t to go into a shell unless leadership does something to send them there. Carroll and the Seahawks understand that the best way to get a player to perform after a mistake is to give him chances at redemption.

Let him fight his way out of the hole. The player is on the field because the staff thought he was good enough. Benching a player after one mistake shows not only a lack of trust in the player, but the coach’s lack of trust in himself for believing that the player was good enough to be in the game.

Russell Wilson and Jermaine Kearse had poor moments for most of the NFL Conference Championship, but Seattle didn’t shy away from them and it paid off handsomely. Chris Matthews didn’t have a single reception all year, but the Seahawks saw an opportunity to use him in a situation where he had advantages and went to the well repeatedly on Sunday.

Seattle’s calling card has been resiliency and a coach doesn’t instill this in a team if he doesn’t give his players a chance to prove that they have it both individually and collectively.

Another component of minimizing the weight of mistakes is not getting hung up on penalties. When a team allows players to perform with an edge, they’re going to be aggressive. Aggressive behavior can lead to recklessness, but would you rather have a team of people who tried to hard or didn’t try hard enough?

Most people say that they’d rather go down swinging, but they behave as if they’re fighting a battle of quiet desperation–paralyzed by the inertia of the moment.

Daring to Win

It’s a statement that turned inside-out is not afraid to lose. When you believe in your ability, you don’t shrink from challenging situations or mistakes. You go deep to the free agent wide receiver who was working at a Foot Locker before making the team and you go back to him with 0:06 in the half for the touchdown to tie the game rather than doing what the entire conventional football universe urged the team to do: settle for a field goal.

It also means you aren’t afraid to throw the ball over the middle from the one-yard line on second down for the win when the entire universe says give the ball to Marshawn Lynch–me included. I still think the call was mystifying in its foolishness.

Regardless of the fact that Russell Wilson’s placement could have been better and Malcolm Butler’s interception was a fantastic play–an effort where the UDFA rookie started his attack on the route from a position behind another defender,and traveled a healthy distance to the ball–this play at the New England one will be forever known as one of the worst individual calls in the history of sport.

However when examining the play within the larger scope of Seattle’s team philosophy, if you supported the Seattle regimes’ mentality of daring to win then you’ll realize that you have to live with the fact that the team’s aggressive swing for greatness was indicative of Carroll’s term with the Seahawks.

(Even if we all thought the No.24 hammer was the best tool in the war chest.)

 

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12 comments

  1. They should’ve dared to win with Marshawn at the helm.

    Where does hubris fit into Pete Carroll’s system? Because it’s clearly another prevalent mantra throughout his career.

  2. I am pretty convinced this is Pete falling on a sword for his guy. That said, Bevell has shown a pattern of borderline detrimental play calling tendencies. It seems as if he’s constantly looking to assert himself as an uber-creative and outside the box play caller. The result; I think most of Seattle’s wins have come in spite of Bevell, not because of him.

  3. As a Giants fan and non-Coughlin supporter I wholeheartedly agree with your overarching point about approach with personnel and player mistakes on the field, but to use the final play-call as an exemplar of not being afraid to lose just doesn’t make sense. The entire universe isn’t expecting him to give Lynch the ball, because Bill surely knew the slant was a possibility and prepared his players for it.

    By your reasoning, apparently they were afraid to lose on 3rd and 4th downs as they would apparently have had no hesitation about running it then.

    If they’re not gonna run it 3 times after first down (which they would’ve had time to do, easily), you don’t risk a quick-strike where the QB has a set target and isn’t given time to survey the field and assess risk.

    I applaud your attempt at turning the gaff into something more meaningful reflecting a winning culture, but this was a case of football stupidity…often people are just given too much credit.

    • Ben, definitely a bad call and the crux of the situation. I think I stated that enough times that it would have been overkill if I stated it again.

      We’ll agree to disagree about your assumptions that my statement leads to the logic that they would be afraid to lose on 3rd and 4th down because they’d run it then. It’s about not being afraid to throw when they perceive the opposition expecting run. Whether the defense actually expected it is not the point. It’s Seattle’s perception of the situation and how they handle it that determines the situation.

      I still believe that it was a pretty clear indication that most of the world expected a run there. Belichick didn’t expect a slant there in that situation. I doubt the thought: 2nd and a half-yard, they’re going to throw the slant. What he did do was help his team prepare to look at formation and WRs alignments and diagnose from there, which Revis did well. However, I’m sure if you asked the team if Seattle was at that place on the field at that point int the game, the Patriots would anticipate a run to Lynch until they see how the offense sets up presnap. From there, you ‘re reacting to what you see and not over thinking it like we do on our couches and bar stools.

      Regardless of the smarts/effectiveness of the call, the willingness to be aggressive with a pass over a run in this situation is an indication of an aggressive culture that has worked for the past two years up to this point on Sunday night. You may feel it’s too much credit, but I don’t. it was bad call, but the motivation is indicative of what happens when you aren’t afraid to do what many conventional coaches wouldn’t.

      But hey, thanks for reading and commenting even if you don’t find the idea hitting the mark.

      • Thanks for the thoughtful reply, and I think you convinced me that your primary point in the article was illustrated well enough by that final play-call (and I didn’t give you enough credit for stating it was a bad/mystifying call multiple times).

        Oh how I wish Coughlin could be more aggressive and less traditional in his approach (which manifests in so many crippling ways besides how he treats his players and fields his personnel, like a commitment to establishing the run in both halves of every game even if it’s not working, or a lack of going for 4th downs).

        I thoroughly enjoyed your breakdown of Abdullah (and comparison to Bradshaw), and I want him for sure, but I’d be seriously concerned about what might happen to him under TC with his fumbling and blitz-pickup issues….too often Tom doesn’t play people because of what they can do but benches them because of what they can’t (he mentioned not playing Corey Washington this year at WR, who is 6’4”, because he’s not good enough on special teams. Damontre Moore was feared to not be dependable against the run, so TC and Fewell played Kiwanuka ahead of him who was brutal against both pass and run but was a “reliable” veteran). How he doesn’t understand that you need to let young guys develop and experience some growing pains is beyond me.

        I’ll be happy when TC is gone, and if McAdoo is his heir I hope he wasn’t infected too much with his conservative and old school ways…if the playcalling in year 1 was any indication though, it seems like he’s been inculcated into the traditions (or hopefully just having his hand forced by the head coach).

        Keep up the great work, I really enjoy reading your player analyses and watching your film breakdowns–though you will have been the cause of tremendous sadness when Leonard Williams goes off the board before pick 9 😦

      • Good luck with the Giants, I know TC can be frustrating for the reasons you mentioned above. Thanks again for telling me how you feel about the work here. Means a lot.

  4. I enjoyed the article Matt and considered a lot of your points reflecting on my own approach and philosophy coaching Megan’s soccer team. Well done.

  5. Very well said. This has been my primary consolation since the play happened. The occasional decision like that last play comes from the same mind and heart that went for seven at the end of the first half; it’s just part and parcel of having “Big Balls Pete” as your head coach. You have to take the bad with the good — and as much as the bad hurts right now, there’s been infinitely more good.

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