The decision will take its place as a standard-bearer of blunders in coaching history, soon to be an iconic reference point of incomprehensible choices made not just in NFL annals but in all of sports lore and probably beyond.
As you read this, writers for late night talk shows no doubt are feverishly working it into monologues. They might not come up with anything better than this:
Not long after New England beat Seattle 28-24 on Sunday in Super Bowl XLIX, a joke making the rounds in the Twitter-sphere was that, finally, 17 years after being hired as New England’s coach, Pete Carroll had delivered the Patriots a Super Bowl victory.
Alas, Carroll now coaches Seattle, and mean and exaggerated as that might be, well, you can’t really say it’s not true.
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His obligation late in the game in many ways was quite simple: “Best shot to win,” as Baseball Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa used to say to explain about anything (including, in fact, some exotic decisions gone awry).
Instead, with the game on the line and just over a minute to go, his team facing second and goal at the New England 1-yard-line, Carroll idled the NFL’s crushing leading rusher, Marshawn Lynch, and opted for a pass that was jumped and intercepted by Malcolm Butler.
It was a stupefyingly risky call that terminated Seattle’s last real chance to win, and the only thing really debatable about it is whether Carroll overthought or underthought this.
In the end, there’s no way to know what flashes through someone’s minds in such a crucible, clock ticking on the most-scrutinized stage on Earth. But if there’s no justifying the decision not to run Lynch there, maybe that doesn’t quite mean there’s no explaining it, either.
We’re all products of our experiences, and few are steeped in theirs more than NFL coaches, who marinate in an infinity of trends and tendencies and probabilities of matchups and schemes and, ultimately, risk analysis.
Even if the decision was made in a relative instant, it also was the byproduct of a season broken down to an impossible degree by Carroll and his staff — like any NFL staffs would do.
And whether it was consciously or subconsciously in the minds of Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, part of that data was accrued on Nov. 16 at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Chiefs, you’ll remember, beat the Seahawks 24-20 that day, in large measure because they stopped Seattle on fourth down three times in the fourth quarter.
One of those was a late desperation heave on fourth and 18.
The other two were an incompletion on fourth and goal at the Kansas City 2-yard line on a play Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin argued he was interfered with … after Lynch had barged for two yards to get there.
Maybe that failed fade pass should have served as the lesson for Seattle.
But maybe the play that did endure as a lesson was on fourth and one at the Kansas City 36, where the Chiefs clamped Lynch to no gain.
As it happens, that was the only time this season Lynch was run on fourth and one …
And he was smothered by the Chiefs, who had a knack for shutting down short-yardage runs (allowing only four rushing touchdowns all season) but, in fact, were one of the worst teams in the NFL against the rush (only four teams allowed more yards a game than their 127.2 and only two allowed more per carry than their 4.7).
So part of what comes out of that is that even a team that couldn’t handle the run adequately overall managed to bristle and stop Lynch when it knew what was coming.
And while it wasn’t fourth down in Glendale, that’s part of an interesting body of work that Carroll and Bevell might have had flickering in their heads when it came to Lynch, who earlier in the Super Bowl had been stopped on third and one at the 8-yard line.
According to The Washington Post, the Seahawks had given Lynch the ball five times on the 1-yard line this season — and he’d converted just one of those into a touchdown.
According to Pro Football Reference, Lynch inside the 10-yard-line had rushed 183 times for 283 yards (1.5 yards a carry) in his career.
Now, of course, that average is skewed by the short distances he had in front of him, and Lynch indeed converted 52 of those 183 into touchdowns.
But the average also is skewed by the fact that teams gear their defenses to stop him by loading the box.
None of this vindicates Carroll’s call, of course, or the execution of it.
If they weren’t ready to run Lynch yet and wanted to eat some more clock, there were plenty of ways to do that without throwing into the jaws of the defense.
Yet it also reminds that even if running Lynch was the “best shot to win,” it was no foregone conclusion that Lynch would score.
And maybe it accounts some for how Carroll so outwitted himself as to wreck Seattle’s last chance, an error that for the foreseeable future will cruelly eclipse all that had led to that moment.