Under Pete Carroll, the Seahawks define themselves on competition. Man-on-man, see-who’s-better competition. In the most important play of the season, with some 36 inches to win a second consecutive Super Bowl, the Seahawks forsook competition and tried to trick the Patriots. They make themselves out to be bullies, and when it mattered they wanted to outsmart some one.
They ran a pick play with Ricardo Lockette as the intended receiver. They asked quarterback Russell Wilson to thread the ball through a maze of defensive backs’ arms. Lynch, the baddest dude on the field, watched an undrafted rookie named Malcolm Butler jump the route, snag the ball and crush Seattle’s comeback dream.
Wilson shouldn’t escape blame, because after all, he threw a bad pass and made a bad read — Lockette wasn’t able to rub off Butler as designed, which made the play far too risky. But it wasn’t about the play as much as it was about the play call.
It was an insane decision. In a league built on passing, the Seahawks are built on a bruising running game. Lynch is easier to tackle than a rhinoceros, but only by a little. Even better for the Seahawks, Wilson could run the ball in himself on a zone-read. Trying to stop the combination of Lynch and Wilson at the goal line is a nightmare. Trying to stop Ricardo Lockette on a slant is what NFL cornerbacks are paid to do.
On the sideline, Seahawks stud cornerback Richard Sherman said it all with his reaction. He hunched forward, squinted in agony and mouthed, “What?”
It may not be clear who deserves responsibility for the play call, but Carroll protected offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell in the immediate aftermath. “That was my fault, totally,” Carroll told NBC. In his press conference, Carroll said he told Bevell, “Throw the ball.”
Carroll may have thought back to the regular season. Lynch may be the toughest running back to tackle in the league, but behind a so-so offensive line, he often struggled to plunge in on the goal line. The Seahawks handed Lynch the ball on their opponents’ 1-yard line five times this season. He only scored on one of those attempts. Even Sunday night, the Patriots stopped Lynch in his tracks on a third and one at the New England 8-yard line, which forced Seattle to settle for a field goal on the first drive of the second half.
And so it should not be viewed as automatic that Lynch would have slammed home a touchdown. Still, the Seahawks’ best chance to score lied with giving the ball to their best player. The Patriots’ strength is not stoning running backs. This season, they ranked 28th in stuff percentage, a metric Football Outsiders created to gauge how often a defense stops an opposing back for no gain or less. In the Super Bowl, Lynch carried the ball 24 times and gain at least one yard on 22 carries.
At the end of perhaps the best Super Bowl of all time – after the Seahawks seemed to assert a dynasty; after the Patriots erased a 10-point deficit; after Jermaine Kearse gave new meaning to the term “crotch grab” in Seattle – the Seahawks had a chance to clinch a victory in their style. They went against what they do best, and they will have to live with it for a long, long time.