The Worst Call in the History of History

By Dan Snapp

REPORTER: “What do you think of the execution of your team?”
JOHN MCKAY: “I’m in favor of it.”

Nobody can predict the past quite like the sports punditry.

Somehow, be it by tea leaves, phrenology or maybe even sorcery, they all have the breathtaking ability to foresee that a play that failed yesterday isn’t going to work. It’s uncanny.

Second-guessing sports decisions has long been a cottage industry. It makes up the bulk of the morning programming on ESPN, where today they battled over who can best hyperbolize Seattle’s decision to call a pass play on second down from the one.

It’s the worst play call in Super Bowl history!
No, it’s the worst play call in the history of the NFL!!
You’re all wrong. It’s the WORST PLAY CALL IN THE HISTORY OF SPORTS!!!

That’s about where I change the channel, before somebody brings Neville Chamberlain into the discussion.

Columnists added their two cents. Here’s Peter King, once again wagging his finger at participants of a sport he himself never played:

To coaches: Don’t out-think yourselves. Marshawn Lynch, even against a line led by Vince Wilfork, is your safest bet to win a yard—and have either two or three plays, probably three, in which to do it.

To players: I will quote a certain coach the players in Seattle will not want to hear from this morning, a fellow named Bill Belichick. Do your job. Pick the corner. Fight for the ball. Don’t make a throwing mistake down near the goal line.

Exactly. Did you get that, NFL coaches and players? If you make a mistake, something will probably go wrong. So don’t make mistakes. Ever.

However, we’re sad to note King’s suggestion that the Seahawks had “probably three” plays to run the ball. This is a mistake. Get your house in order, Pete!

The stat gurus entered the fray as well, with fivethirtyeight.com and others applying win probability calculators, comparative tendencies (Pats D 32nd  in power situations + Sea O 2nd in power situations = BEAST MODE!) and your requisite narrative framing to point in the direction their guts were already heading, which is that Pete Carroll’s decision probably wasn’t all that bad.

Fivethirtyeight did, however, take issue with Belichick’s decision not to call a timeout with a minute left, right after Lynch’s first-down run to the one-yard line. More on that later.

The foregone conclusion is that Lynch running the ball on second down would result in a touchdown. But what if he didn’t? What then? He was 1-for-5 from the one this season, and went 2-for-4 in “and-one” situations in that very game. And had Lynch failed to get in on second down, you already know what the collective reaction would have been: Why run it there?!!! That’s what they were EXPECTING you to do!!!

Coaches are paid to consider all outcomes and to prep their teams for as many possible scenarios as they can.  Carroll’s dilemma in this particular scenario – second-and-goal at the one-yard line, with 26 seconds left, and one timeout remaining – was time. He expressed later his goals: score the touchdown, leave the Patriots no time, and have all four downs available to him. The last one may have been his undoing.

Remember that after Lynch’s first-down run, Belichick didn’t call timeout. Fivethirtyeight.com called this a mistake:

So, when the Patriots had to decide whether to call a timeout, there were essentially three paths to victory for them:

  • Seattle turns the ball over on either second or third down. Letting the clock run slightly increases the chances of this, assuming the odds of a turnover are higher on a pass than a run (we’ll take it as about 2.5 percent combined instead of 2 percent).
  • Seattle fails to score on all three plays. Again, leaving the Seahawks a little less time probably increases the chances of this happening because it forces them to pass at least once. And we’ve seen how that worked out.
  • Seattle scores. New England gets the ball back and then goes on to win the game (most likely by kicking a field goal and then winning in overtime).

But the smaller amount of time the Patriots would have under scenario No. 3 easily dwarfs the other considerations. Belichick should have called a timeout.

That all sounds reasonable, but there’s one factor missing: Belichick’s decision to not use a timeout helped dictate Seattle’s decision-making. Had he called timeout with 62 seconds remaining, Seattle would face no time constraints, and could comfortably call a pass or a run on all three plays. By letting the clock roll, Belichick put the pressure on Carroll and his play-calling, not to mention the Seahawk players, whose confusion had already led to two wasted timeouts earlier in the drive.

Moreover, calling the timeout wouldn’t assure that the Seahawks couldn’t still run out the clock. Then Belichick loses the timeouts, the time, and the game.

If Carroll had confidence they could get a rushing touchdown in two tries, he would have run on second, and say screw fourth down. But he went the conventional route, going with the only play call that left all his options open. Basically, he wanted three bites at the apple, not two.

Carroll figured the pass would either be a score or an incompletion, and nine times out of ten, he’d be right. Then he’d have third down with 20 seconds left and a timeout, and he could do whatever he wanted on both downs.

If a Lynch run on second down failed, then Seattle takes the timeout, and it’s almost a sure thing that they pass on third down. So the only way for Carroll to preserve all downs and preserve his playcalling options would be to pass on second down.

Belichick’s decision to forego the timeout turned the game into a 60-second battle of wills and nerve. The people second-guessing him and Carroll today have the benefit of never having played such a high-stakes poker game, where a decision one way or the other determines the fate of an entire season.

No play call has been this criticized since Belichick’s 4th-and-2 call in 2009. After that play failed, he was excoriated in the press, where they said his “arrogance” and “hubris” prompted the unheard-of play decision.* The media also said the call proved Belichick didn’t trust his defense. Perhaps that was true. On Sunday, though, he was the one trusting his defense, while Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth were suggesting maybe the Patriots should just let Lynch score to preserve time, since it seemed such a foregone conclusion.

* Oddly, similar “risky” decisions by other coaches were hailed as “brave” or “daring”. Jeff Fisher, in particular, has been lionized for throwing caution to the wind with his frequent fake punts. Then again, he’s a natural beneficiary of the Jeff Fisher Corollary.**
** The Jeff Fisher Corollary: The amount of praise you receive rises in direct proportion to the number of column inches you fill.

All of this, though, misses the larger point: the players still need to execute. No arguments, no run/pass scenarios, no statistical analysis, no timeout decisions and no play call decisions can override that reality. In the end, the players still have to make plays. Execution is the key.

Malcolm Butler described how the Patriots had worked on that very same slant play in practice, and how Jimmy Garoppolo (playing Russell Wilson) and Josh Boyce had beaten him for a touchdown, because he wasn’t in position. Belichick stopped practice and told Butler, “You’ve got to be on that.”

When Butler saw the same formation in the game, he knew what he had to do, but he still had to execute it. Brandon Browner similarly diagnosed the play and executed his role.

Belichick’s decision possibly helped dictate Carroll’s decision, which then created the scenario. But the play worked because of the hard work before – seeing the play in Seattle game films, practicing it and correcting it – and the recognition and execution after, once the scenario presented itself again.

That’s foresight.

Guest Post – Time To Move On From Rondo

This is a guest post from Sam Portman.

Time to Move On From Rondo

Boston Celtics’ general manager Danny Ainge needs to acknowledge the writing is on the wall and make a bold move to complete his team’s rebuilding process without Rajon Rondo in the picture.

Ideally, the 28-year-old Rondo was supposed to be the centerpiece of a youth movement overhaul that Ainge started in the summer of 2013. All of the experience and mentoring that Rondo soaked in from the “Big Three,” along with his undeniable talent, made him the natural piece to build around. Easier said than done. While Ainge trusted that his four-time All Star would make a steady cornerstone piece during a tumultuous rebuilding period, Rondo has fallen short of Ainge’s expectations.

Last season Rondo didn’t have the opportunity to grab the reins of the team’s vacant leadership role because he was sidelined for more than half of the season recovering from a torn ACL that he suffered in the middle of the 2012-13 campaign. As a result he only played in 30 games last season.

Even though last season’s Celtics team finished with a 25-57 record and didn’t qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2007, valuable experience was gained. In the absence of Rondo, the young team did experience growing pains but also found a silver lining with the newfound leadership from Jeff Green and Avery Bradley. Green finished with a career high 16.9 PPG and was a force at both ends of the floor. Avery stepped comfortably into Rondo’s point guard position and flourished as a starter. The fourth year player raised his 9.2 PPG in the 2012-13 season to a career best of 14.9 in 2013-14.

Even though Avery had his best season as a pro and Rondo still under contract, the Celtics interestingly decided to use their two first round draft picks this summer on guards, taking Marcus Smart from Oklahoma State with the No. 6 pick and Kentucky guard James Young at No. 17. Could this be a sign that Ainge is preparing his lineup for the departure of Rondo?

Drafting Smart, a sleeper for Rookie of the Year, seems like an obvious insurance policy in for Ainge and the Celtics. In fact it has already paid off because Rondo is starting the season on the injury list once again. This time he broke his hand falling in the shower. It was first reported that he would miss six to eight weeks but Rondo is optimistically pushing to get back in time for opening night. With Rondo on the shelf again, the door is open for the rookie Smart to benefit with starts at point guard.

Maybe worse than Rondo’s durability issues is the nonstop contract and trade rumors which have been lingering for over two years. This distraction is the last thing the young Celtics need hanging in the air. Rondo’s contract is coming to an end this season and will be asking for a max deal when he hits free agency.

Ainge needs to play his hand wisely and get something for Rondo instead of nothing. Boston will be better off in the near future by finding a trade partner that can land then more pieces to build on than one liability.

Opinion: Time For NFL Owners To Step Up

We welcome this guest editorial from Michael Walsh.

It is easy to forget that Roger Goodell is only the most powerful man in sports because the true oligarchy of power needs a public face. The inept, incompetent, and possibly unscrupulous Goodell only holds power because 32 of the richest men in America give it to him.

And now, as the disgrace of the league’s handling of Ray Rice knocking his fiancée out cold grows larger and larger with each breaking news story and subsequent denial or “admission” of failure, calls for Goodell’s resignation are growing louder and louder, and not just from fans on Twitter, but from the league’s partner, and often times enabler, ESPN, as well as the National Organization of Women.

Unfortunately, everyone has it wrong. Stop calling on Goodell to go.

Start calling on his bosses to do the right thing and make him go.

Make no mistake: Roger Goodell works for them. Those 32 insanely rich men. They have hired him to do their dirty work, protect “The Shield”, and most importantly, increase their bottom dollar.

And boy has he. Just a few of those accomplishments include a CBA that grossly favors the owners, a new Thursday night game revenue stream, and local cities falling over themselves to let the taxpayers fund their stadiums. The NFL isn’t an ATM, it is a mint. They are printing money, and their stated goal is to grow and grow the game, and by that they simply mean to increase their profits to even more obscene levels.

Goodell has been such an able employee, and just as importantly, been the face to take all the cries of hypocrisy and greed sent the NFL’s way, that they rewarded him with $44 million in salary last year. All of this to a commissioner whose gaffes and missteps are well-documented. High profile columnists, players both former and active, and fans on social media are happy to point them out.

Ho hum. Print that money. Thank you Roger. You’re doing a great job.

That is the message 32 of the richest men in America keep giving Roger Goodell.

Well no more. That can no longer be the case. Not when the leader of the most powerful, richest sports league in America has so monumentally screwed up something so important.

Ray Rice spit on his fiancée, twice, then hit her in the face with violent, malicious punches, twice, before dragging her like a sack of potatoes out of the elevator. And it is all on video.

What Ray Rice did is despicable. How he has acted since then is despicable. Ray Rice may or may not be scum, but the evidence there is pretty overwhelming.

And the NFL and Roger Goodell have enabled him and every other piece of scum out there. Domestic violence cannot be trivialized, it cannot be brushed aside, it cannot be explained away. The NFL owed it to every women in this country to do right by them, and they didn’t. Whether out of unimaginable incompetence, or, more likely, willful malice in trying to protect “The Shield” (their pocketbook), the NFL took what happened to a battered woman and made it an assault on all women.

So it is time for one of the 32 richest men in America to stand up and be the first to say that the man they pay to do their bidding has to go. It is time for one of them to publicly, with his name attached and his face on camera, to say that Roger Goodell failed his biggest test, that he failed every fan of the league, every daughter, every mother, every sister, every wife and girlfriend, as well as every son, father, brother, husband and boyfriend that love and worry about those people being the next sack of potatoes on a videotape that people with power don’t care to watch.

One owner needs to take the first step that will do whatever needs to be done to salvage something good out of all of this horribleness, no matter how much money it might cost 32 of the richest men in America.

What is the price of right and wrong? Surely the job of one terrible commissioner isn’t enough, but it sure would help in making amends for the damage already done.

Step up. One of you. Step up on your own and say he needs to go. The rest will follow. Then the league will go on, and hopefully the message will be sent that not only the behavior, but the enabling and incompetence that followed is not acceptable to the National Football League, and that women are valued and the league will go to any lengths to defend them from violent animals without having to worry about what 32 of the richest men in America might do to undermine that.

Thoughts? You can email Michael Walsh at [email protected]