After Pete Carroll's timeout strategy led to a 19-17 loss at the hands of his rival Jim Harbaugh's 49ers, a lot of fans and analysts took their displeasure to Twitter and their blogs. Many blamed Carroll for the loss with the argument that had he called the final two timeouts differently or allowed the 49ers a touchdown, he would have given his offense a better chance to reclaim the lead.
All statistics used in this analysis were compiled from Pro-Football-Reference's play index, which has a record of every play in every game since 1999. From this point on, I'll refer to that source as PFR.
First, I want to address the commonly proposed strategy to allow the 49ers to score the game winning touchdown after they had 1st and goal from the 7 yard line with 2:39 to play. According to PFR, there have been 7 games similar to Sunday's game since 1999. "Similar", in this case, means the team trailing by 1 or 2 (will be ahead with a made FG) had the ball with goal to go with less than 2 minutes left in the game AND scored a touchdown.
The notable example is Super Bowl XLVI when Bill Belichick 'let' Ahmad Bradshaw score with 1:04 remaining after calling his 2nd timeout on 1st and goal from the 7. On that play, Bradshaw seemed to realize what was happening but still fell past the goal line. This gave Tom Brady :57 seconds and one timeout to score the game-winning touchdown, which he failed to accomplish.
It's not clear if the trailing team was 'allowed' to score the touchdown in any of the other games, but there was only one game in which the team that scored the initial touchdown went on to lose. That was in 2004 when Dolphins lost to the Cardinals after scoring a touchdown with 2:00 left on 1st and goal from the 1. After the Miami touchdown, none other than Josh McCown led the Cards on a 70 yard touchdown drive, needing all 3 timeouts, a 4th down conversion, a 48 yard pass to Larry Fitzgerald, and a defensive holding call on 3rd down inside the 10 to win the game.
It's also notable that in all cases where the trailing team kicked the GW field goal with less than 1 minute to play, as the 49ers did, that team went on to win.
The Seahawks would have had around 2:35 and the two-minute warning to score a touchdown IF the 49ers accepted their gift touchdown. Possible, but not at all likely considering the quality of the defense, the hostile environment, and the degree to which the 49ers had shut them down in the 2nd half. For what it's worth, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers have faced a situation like this, and both failed.
Now let's set up the situation if Pete Carroll had saved his timeouts after the 51 yard run by Gore, which increased the 49ers win probability by 31.3%(!!).
3:37 K. Hunter run for 1 yard. Play ended at 3:30.
2:51 F. Gore run for 2 yards. Play ended at 2:45.
2:06 C. Kaepernick run for 8 yards. Clock stops at 2:00.
It's important to note here that these are estimations based on the actual length of the plays that occurred in the game. We can't know if the 3rd down play could have ended before 2:00, but if it did and the Seahawks called timeout at 2:01, AND the kickoff was a touch back, they would have gotten the stoppage after their first play at the expense of a timeout. The difference is minimal.
Now the same situation is presented as before. If the 49ers accept a touchdown right away, then Russell Wilson has about 1:55 and 2 timeouts to score. This may seem to be a better situation, but the warning had already passed so the Seahawks effectively gain one clock stoppage and lose 40 seconds of time.
If the 49ers don't score a touchdown:
2:00 F. Gore run for -1 yards. Timeout #2 at 1:55.
1:55 F. Gore run for 2 yards. Timeout #3 at 1:49.
1:49 F. Gore run for 2 yards.
1:04 P. Dawson 22 yard FG.
This gives Wilson about 55 seconds and no timeouts to score from inside his own 20. Since 1999 only three such drives have occurred. In 2007, Kerry Collins led the Titans to a 29 yard FG from his own 20 with 56 seconds on the clock with the help of a 46 yard pass to Roydell Williams. The other two drives? An 80 yard touchdown pass last year from Blaine Gabbert to Cecil Shorts on the first play after a Colts go-ahead field goal with 56 seconds left, and an 87 yard bomb from Kyle Orton to Brandon Stokley with 28 seconds left against the Bengals in 2007.
Fans may be inclined to consider a Seahawks field goal drive a possible, or even probable outcome. Unfortunately, history doesn't quite back that up. In any case, a drive of that nature is far less likely than a stop on 3rd and 7, an opportunity the Seahawks could have capitalized on. According to PFR, the chances of the gaining a first down on a 3rd and 7 run play (49ers would be crazy to pass) are only 34%. Now let's look at the possible outcomes of a stop on that crucial 3rd down play.
First, Carroll's strategy. It's clear that he wanted to maximize the time remaining for a field goal drive by calling his timeouts as soon as the 49ers were in field goal range.
3:24 C. Kaepernick run for 5 yards. SF calls timeout at 2:39.
2:39 P. Dawson 28 yard FG.
Now the Hawks have around 2:35 and the two-minute warning to produce a field goal attempt to win the game.
What about saving the timeouts?
3:37 K. Hunter run for 1 yard. Play ended at 3:30.
2:50 F. Gore run for 2 yards. Play ended at 2:44.
2:04 C. Kaepernick run for 5 yards. Clock stops at 1:58
1:58 P. Dawson 28 yard FG.
Wilson now has around 1:50 and two timeouts to get a field goal. An extra stoppage is valuable but so is 40 seconds of game time. As Carroll said himself, he'd rather give his QB more time and trust him to stop the clock in the 2 minute offense.
To wrap up, the difference between calling the timeouts early as opposed to waiting until your defense gets a stop comes down to a matter of seconds. Carroll's strategy would have added 40 seconds to the subsequent Seahawks' drive if they had gotten the stop, or lost 25 seconds if they failed. Had he waited to call them, he would have sacrificed 40 seconds to plan for the failed 3rd down stop and give his offense 50 seconds instead of 26 at the end of the game.
You have to give your defense the chance to extend the game as early as possible, and Carroll did that. Carroll was right to take that chance for a 40 second advantage on a game-winning drive, especially considering the rarity of last minute game-winning field goal drives.