Tuesday, February 03, 2015

"That" Superbowl pass

So, there's been quite a lot of mudslinging around the Seahawks decision to pass it for the go ahead, potentially game winning touchdown in the Superbowl. The hype train has been going into overdrive, so today I want to put the brakes on, take the train back to the station and help everyone get off it.

There are several reasons that I want to touch on as to why the Seahawks decision to throw it was not as dumb as many people think.

The first is because of the 'cheat sheet'. This is the sheet of laminated paper that you see the coaches holding on the sideline. Cheat sheets of this nature started appearing (to the best of my knowledge) during the 80's and were predominantly driven by coaches from the Bill Walsh lineage. Regardless of who invented it, the theory behind the cheat sheet is very simple; it's easier and more reliable to make decisions on a Thursday night during the week, when you have the opponents game film to hand, a copy of both rosters, information about who your best performers are, who the opponents best performers are etc, than it is to make one in a split second during the pressure of the game.

Every coach understands this. It's incredibly hard to make snap decisions that are properly informed. You'll almost inevitably forget some piece of information or another that has an impact on the outcome. Sitting in an office however, with a nice cup of coffee at hand, you can check and double check most of the important factors that might influence the play. You can double check the opponents film if you have to. And so you put together your cheat sheet.

On that cheat sheet will be a section that covers short yardage plays around the goalline. It may even have a section for plays specifically designed to be run in this situation (short yardage goalline, sub 30 second, need a touchdown). It's possible the Seahawks would even have those plays in a specific order. And like any coach with any degree of experience they would probably have lingering memories of a previous incident where they went "off sheet" and tried to call a play on the fly... and it failed miserably.

On that note I'm guessing that the Seahawks had a play lined up and they went with the play on the sheet. While it may be hard for Seahawks fans to accept, that is the kind of play calling decision that has gotten you to the Superbowl two years in a row in the first place, and will probably take you back to the Superbowl at some point in the near future. In the long run sticking with the sheet is the right call. In the same vein that just because it snows sometimes where you live that doesn't mean global warming isn't a thing, just because sometimes the play that was called doesn't work that doesn't mean that overall your playcalling strategy is bad.

On to the second point and a bit of tough love Seattle fans; stop talking about Marshawn Lynch like it was a guaranteed touchdown. Stop it. You're making yourselves ill.

Because the reality is that while Marshawn Lynch has been a great running back for the Seahawks and has had some amazing runs, sometimes it doesn't quite work like that. Sometimes the opposition get the defensive penetration they need and Lynch goes nowhere. The Patriots had made several plays of this nature during the game. Everyone saying "give it to Lynch" is missing the point that Lynch may not have actually gotten the yards needed. Then what?

Conversely the play that Seattle ran has a league wide very high success rate. That's because Seattle ran what's called a pick play, where one receiver deliberately tries to block an opposing defender in order to set up a free catch for his team mate.

Pick plays are actually banned under the rules (they come under offensive pass interference). The reason they're banned is because they are almost impossible to defend against. Normally in order to defend them you need a player to do the two things that Butler did for the Patriots a) recognise the play almost instantly and b) commit defensive pass interference to stop the catch.

Yet despite being banned almost everyone has this play in their playbook. The Patriots (one of the worst historical offenders for this, along with Peyton Manning) ran a pick play themselves earlier in the game. So why does everyone run it if it's banned? Because the officials almost never call it. The use of the pick has been growing dramatically in the last few years as a result of the fact that officials don't throw the flag. Why not run a play that is practically guaranteed to work if the officials aren't going to flag it and everyone else is running it?

Typically pick plays are reserved for tight spots. I mentioned both Manning and the Patriots, both of whom will normally reserve the pick play for difficult third downs, such as third and six. When they can't get it done using their regular offense, it's time to dial up the pick play. Both have been doing it for years and lately everyone else has been jumping on the bandwagon too. As have Seattle, clearly.

And yes, before anyone jumps in, what Butler did was pass interference. I personally think that kind of physical play should be permitted, but per the rulebook what Butler did was quite blatantly pass interference. He used his shoulder and hit the receiver off the ball. On first and ten, anywhere else on the field, that would have drawn a flag.

So where is all this talk of picks going? Well basically just to point out that it was perfectly reasonable for the Seahawks coaches to think that the play they called would result in a touchdown. They could run that same play a hundred times during a season and would reasonably expect it to work (or draw a defensive flag) probably 95 times out of those 100 attempts. Again, this is precisely why pick plays are (at least officially) banned, because the success rate is so ridiculously high. The Seahawks just happened to encounter a case of exceptionally bad luck (and defensive pass interference, which in a sense serves them right). 

We also have to consider the clock. The Seahawks had just the one time out left. A run would probably have forced them to use their time out, which then would have meant calling two plays in the huddle. They might have got a shot to run it after a timeout, but then would have had to have desperately scrambled to get off a final shot.

Throwing the ball gave them an additional option. An incomplete pass would have stopped the clock and let them go back to the huddle. Now you can run it and then call a time out to give yourself time before a final shot. 

In summary, as hard as it may be for Seattle fans to swallow, the reality is that their coaches made the right choice at the time (the only thing you can judge them for). Ultimately they were beaten by Butlers alertness, physicality, and an exceptional piece of bad luck. Oh, and not being able to hold onto their earlier lead. As a 49ers fan I'm chuckling at this whole saga and I suspect most Seattle fans will eventually calm down and realise that their team is in an exceptional position to make yet another Superbowl run next year, while my own will be lucky to finish above the Rams in the division.

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