2.06.2015

HIP CHECK: ONE PLAY AT A TIME


A lot of folks don’t like coachspeak, and you can certainly count me among the number with a distaste for that athletically Orwellian compound word. Beyond morphology though, the concept itself is one of the least attractive parts about watching sports. We've heard most coaching cliches so many times we can rattle them off ourselves: team effort, everyone's focused, I'm proud of these guys, we'll look at the film, we're moving on to the next game, yap yap yap. And while I will concede there’s rarely anything of importance gleaned from a coach’s in or postgame shibboleths and evasions when faced with the media, there has always been one ballgame bromide that feels more authentic than the rest: a game is not decided by one play.

I like that adage because while it doesn’t soften the blow of a loss caused by a boneheaded mistake or enhance a heroic play at the end of the day, it is still true to a large extent. Competition is, from start to finish, flush with moments that chaotically careen into each other through some kind of contentious butterfly effect. It seems unfair and untrue to say that one specific thing, at one specific time, can be the sole and deciding factor in a game’s outcome. But then of course, Super Bowl 49 comes along and becomes the strongest candidate yet for the exception that proves the rule. 

A great number of things happened in Super Bowl 49 that if turned on their heads would no doubt beget a multiverse of different in-game permutations and sportball superposition, but we’re all really here to talk and think about one thing aren’t we? We’re here to talk about one play. The play that sure as hell felt like it independently and unequivocally decided the game’s winner and loser. Cue a fairly-well-executed segue…

Since my last post was all about the Buckeyes, I thought it only fitting to start my quick hit on the Super Bowl with two “threes” that will always be associated with the greatest coach in Ohio State football history: Woody Hayes.

1. Because he felt that a consistent offense should be one in which a run play garnered at least three yards, the media termed his brand of football: “three yards and a cloud of dust.”

2. In order to illustrate this belief in the running game and his aversion to the forward pass unless necessary, Woodrow is said to have said, in some form or fashion: “Three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad.”

For a guy like Woody Hayes, who had amazing running backs at OSU, including one of the greatest in college football history in Archie Griffin, this run-first, pass-seldom plan of attack was not surprising. Woody wanted to grind you down on offense and smack you in the face with an elite defense, and the best way to do that is to is to run, run, and run some more when you’ve got the ball. And you’d think that Pete Carroll, another great coach in his own right with a string of similarly stout defenses and a comparable running back in the terrific Marshawn Lynch, might have heeded ol’ Woody’s clarion call to the ground game at the very end of Super Bowl 49. But you’d be wrong of course, and I betcha coach Hayes’s words are hitting Pete pretty hard in hindsight.

And yes, this is a case of hindsight, that’s for certain. Fans absolutely love to second-guess a coach or player’s decision-making, and this is always with that very comfort of retrospect ready in their apoplectic quiver. It’s very easy without any pressure and the outcome already in front of you to say what you would’ve done. You, the guy on the couch, not the guy that’s a coach. You, the guy playing armchair quarterback, and not the guy with men the size of armchairs flying at him. We all can say what we would’ve done to make a game different, but we’re usually delusional, if not totally full of shit. But what if, in this case, we aren’t faced with of a matter of “I would have” but instead a matter of “you should have”?

I make this somewhat murky distinction because I want to give Pete Carroll and the Seahawks the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the decision to throw the ball with time winding down against the Patriots last Sunday. Yet just like so many armchair quarterbacks before me, I simply can’t. That’s because the moment the ball was snapped and Russell Wilson dropped back to pass, I couldn’t believe what was happening. I’m not alone of course, as the entirety of sports media and the general public alike have followed suit in pillorying Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell for the decision not to hand the ball to one of the league’s premiere running backs with only three feet to go on the road to a Super Bowl title. 


I mean gentlemen, this is Marshawn Lynch. Marshawn freaking Lynch. The man whom, ever since he described his attitude on the field to a reporter at an NFL Rookie camp in 2007 as “Beast Mode”, has lived up to that maniacal, threatening moniker with vicious aplomb. A runner whom when called determined, determines what that concept even means. This indomitablity has helped him truck dood after dood after dood throughout his career and become a runner whom renown has yet to outrun. I bet even A.E Housman knows that Beast Mode, the attitude-turned-noun, could’ve dotted the Patriots’ “I” from one yard out and prevented Tom and Bill from getting that elusive number four.

Yes, he eats a lot of Skittles and grabs his crotch to celebrate a TD and won’t talk to the media unless you absolutely force him to, but he was a storyline in the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl more so because he is the best player on the Seattle offense, and probably the best player on the entire team (Sherm, I hope you’re not reading this and good luck with that Tommy John sitch!) than for any off-the-field antics. The Patriots’ coffin seemed all but sealed in those final 30 seconds of action, and I might, if I were coach Carroll, have been creative on second down if there were some mere mortal in my backfield, but with a hammer like M. Lynch, you go ahead and try and hit that final nail.

We’re so puzzled by Seattle’s decision not to give the ball to Lynch because it makes so much sense to do the opposite, hindsight or no. You need one yard, you have a devastating running back, and you have a time out to spend. Don’t overthink things. Give the ball to that cannonball of a man and let him earn you a Super Bowl. It’s why you have him, it’s how you’ve used him these past seasons over and over again, and it’s why you are in talks to pay him a boatload of money this offseason. Feed the damn beast gentlemen.

Why wouldn’t you take a chance on something that has a more than 50% chance of working with two downs to go? Why wouldn’t you, in a game that we’re told over and over by coach after coach is about big name players making big time plays, let that scenario play out in the most crucial moment of your season? Why wouldn’t you thank your lucky stars that a football caromed off of nearly every part of Jermaine Kearse’s body and somehow landed in his hands, back on the ground, and take the sure route to a TD in the aftermath? Why the hell would you throw the ball? It really is puzzling. I felt it immediately, and I can’t fight the feeling now. The pass was a bad idea. It was a terrible idea. It was in all estimates unconscionable. 

Again though, if I may employ an SAT analogy here…

ME : COUCH
PETE CARROLL : COACH. 

I get it. I really do get it. But still…

The only thing I can say that flies in the face of my disbelief, the only real condolence that can be handed Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson, and Darrell Bevell’s way is that Malcolm Butler made an absolutely fantastic play on the football that was thrown on a second down that will forever live in Super Bowl lore. He broke on that thing like a secret service agent on an assassin’s bullet. He knocked Ricardo Lockette out of the way and grabbed Wilson’s pass out of the air with such assurance and speed that the sporting world seemed to freeze for an instant and rotate 180 degrees on its axis. The game moved so quickly from one outcome to the other that I give Russell Wilson props for even walking upright off the field afterward. I would have collapsed, buffaloed and dismayed, paralyzed with the shock usually reserved for catastrophic injury.

But that’s Seattle’s only real quasi-positive takeaway here. That’s it. The kid made a helluva play on the football. Yet Seattle’s offensive braintrust still called the play, and Russell Wilson still threw a little high and wide, and Marshawn Lynch still did not get the football in a scenario expertly constructed for him by the Super Bowl gods. Brady led the Pats to the go-ahead score, but a Patriot did little else between then and that second down play to prevent Seattle from grabbing the victory. Lady luck seemed to be booty-calling the ‘Hawks once again, just like she did against Green Bay in the NFC championship, and the kids from Seattle were going to have one more incredible win to seal rare back-to-back Super Bowl titles. But it was not meant to be, because Marshawn Lynch wasn’t given the chance to make it manifest. A game is not decided by one play, but this Super Bowl was.

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