The Seattle Seahawks had the ball last night. They were down four points with less than 30 seconds left in the game, on second down, on the Patriot's one-yard line.* They also had the best running back in the game, Marshawn Lynch, on their team. The obvious thing to do in that scenario is to try to run the football into the end zone. Instead, the Seahawks tried to pass, and the Patriots intercepted the pass — costing the Seahawks the game.
Since hindsight is 20/20, the call has been roundly condemned by observers of the game. What was Seattle coach Pete Carroll possibly thinking?
Most likely, he was thinking this:
With 26 sec on 2nd&g, you have to pass at least once to be able to use all 4 downs if necessary. Passing on 2nd keeps NE honest on 3 & 4 dn— Brian Burke (@Adv_NFL_Stats) February 2, 2015
Let me spell that out in a little more detail.
An incomplete pass stops the game clock. An unsuccessful run does not. A timeout also stops the clock, and Seattle only had one timeout left. So if the Seahawks had run on second down and failed to get a touchdown, they would have had to call timeout.
Now, it's third down, and they have no timeouts left. So if they run on third and fail, the game is over. But if they pass on third and fail, the clock will stop, and they can run another play. So they basically have to pass on third, and the New England defense knows they have to pass.
By contrast, if you throw on second down and fail, the clock stops. Now it's third down, and you still have your time out. That means you could run on third, fail, and use the timeout to stop the clock and run another play on fourth down. That means New England has to defend against both the pass and the run, which puts Seattle in a more advantageous strategic position than they would be had they run and failed.
Obviously, this line of thinking didn't work out very well for the Seahawks. And there's a good case to be made that it involves overthinking the situation. You only need two yards, and you've got Lynch, so why not put it in his hands? But if you leave hindsight out of it, you can see the argument on the other side.
* Correction: This post originally said the ball was on the two yard-line, but the NFL's official record says otherwise.
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