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Super Bowl XLIX flashback: How clock management doomed the Seahawks vs. Patriots

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Super Bowl XLIX - New England Patriots v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Today (February 1st) marks two years since Super Bowl XLIX between the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots. I know what you’re thinking, and no, going into great detail about that play will not be discussed. It’s been discussed to death, so you’re at least spared that. I do, however, want to focus on the sequence of events leading up to that play, which I find to be an oft-overlooked aspect of how one of the craziest Super Bowls of all-time ended. I’m of the opinion that the Seahawks mismanaged the decisive drive even before that play, and almost as a means of self-therapy, I might as well just air out my grievances now.

The Seahawks offense was Jekyll-and-Hyde for the entire game. They were horrific for the first quarter-and-a-half, excellent from midway through the 2nd quarter to the end of the 3rd quarter, and then their first two 4th quarter drives yielded a grand total of 0 yards. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Seattle’s offense had chances to drain some clock and kill the game off, and they failed to do so. Next thing you know, it’s 28-24 Patriots. That’s okay. They still had one last shot to rescue the cause, and had 2:02 to work with. Seattle had all of its timeouts plus the two-minute warning, which effectively functioned as a free timeout in Seattle’s favor.

I applaud Darrell Bevell for being aggressive and using the two-minute warning to his benefit. On 1st and 10, Russell Wilson took advantage of Marshawn Lynch one-on-one with linebacker Jamie Collins, and in the blink of an eye, they went from their own 20 to New England’s 49 with a guaranteed clock stoppage at 1:55.

The Seahawks obviously needed a touchdown to win the game, but they also were best served not letting Tom Brady get the ball back with too much time left on the clock, needing only to lead the Pats to at least field goal range to force overtime. Within the context of this game, Seattle’s defense lost both Jeremy Lane and Cliff Avril mid-game, New England had just scored touchdowns on consecutive drives, and didn’t face a single 3rd down on their go-ahead drive. So logically, a methodical drive that ate up as much clock as possible was just what Seattle needed.

Here’s your ensuing set of plays:

1st and 10, New England’s 49, 1:55 on the clock. Seattle is lined up in its formation with over :25 on the play clock. Wilson fires a 20+ yard pass to Jermaine Kearse, who is blanketed by Malcolm Butler. A risky throw which Butler breaks up, but it at least stopped the clock with 1:50. Then this happened...
Seattle calls timeout #1. The Seahawks, for whatever reason, aren’t lined up until about :10 on the play clock. Wilson is trying to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage. James Carpenter has his head turned towards Wilson with the play clock ticking, and a timeout is wasted.
2nd and 10, New England’s 49, 1:50 on the clock. The Patriots rush only three guys, Wilson airs out a deep ball to Chris Matthews, but Brandon Browner was there to swat it to safety. It’s not quite in the end zone, but had Matthews come down with it, he probably scores but with way way way too much time for Brady to return to the field.
3rd and 10, New England’s 49, 1:41 on the clock. Up to this point in the game, Wilson was 1-of-5 (with 1 sack) on 3rd downs, and the offense’s only two successful 3rd down conversions occurred on their first touchdown drive. This time, Wilson threw a nine-yard pass to Ricardo Lockette, who turned past Logan Ryan to get two more yards and a fresh set of downs. There’s 1:35 left when this play ends, but the clock keeps running. Timeouts are not taken, and they really didn’t need to use them.
1st and 10, New England’s 38, 1:15 on the clock. For reasons I can’t understand, Seattle continued to play the deep passing game, but thanks to incredible luck and tremendous concentration by Jermaine Kearse, an otherwise bad play wound up as a legendary catch. Kearse also gets out of bounds to stop the clock, thus preserving Seattle’s two timeouts. A truly heads-up play by Kearse in more ways than one. Seattle hurries up to the line of scrimmage to run the next play. Oh how exciting this is!
Seattle calls timeout #2. This was quietly a really big move. I don’t know what happened based on the television broadcast, but with :03 on the play clock, Wilson signals timeout to avoid a delay of game.
1st and goal, New England 5, 1:06 on the clock. Marshawn Lynch rushes for four yards, denied only by Dont’a Hightower, whom Russell Okung failed to successfully block in a one-on-one matchup. New England does not call timeout, and neither does Seattle.
2nd and goal, New England 1, :26 on the clock. The game is cancelled due to a massive wasp invasion.

In summation: Seattle came out of the two-minute warning with the ball in New England territory, all three of its timeouts, didn’t call timeout on either of the plays in which the clock continued to run, and somehow ended the drive with fewer timeouts than New England. That’s pretty bad.

I’ve been critical about what I believe to be Seattle’s rather reckless usage of timeouts in late-game situations, and this was a problem that arose as recently as three weeks ago. By burning two timeouts on stopped clocks — I argue that taking a delay of game would’ve been preferable to burning the second timeout — Seattle effectively forced themselves out of just spamming Marshawn Lynch runs until he crossed the goal line.

Let’s pretend that play never existed, and instead Seattle ran it with Lynch again. Had Lynch failed to score, that would’ve likely led to either Seattle or New England calling a timeout. Bill Belichick didn’t use one on the previous Lynch run, nearly to his own detriment based on statistical probability, and later said he would’ve called one if it was a failed running play, but for argument’s sake, I’ll assert that Seattle would’ve used its last timeout with about :20 or so left. With no timeouts, that kills off the idea of running it on 3rd down, so you absolutely have to pass it. A sack/offensive fumble recovery/non-scoring play that keeps the clock ticking would almost certainly end the game before any 4th down play could be run. In a roundabout way, this is my defense of Bevell/Carroll and their decision to call a passing play, but it’s also a situation that the team put itself in by killing multiple timeouts with the clock not running.

As for the consistent dialing up of big throws down the field when there was still well over a minute on the clock, New England still with two timeouts in its pocket, I take you back to the AFC Divisional Round.

The Baltimore Ravens squandered leads of 14-0 and 28-14 against the Patriots in Foxboro. Baltimore was down 35-31 with 1:46 left, faced with 2nd and 5 at New England’s 36. Both sides were down to one timeout, but the Ravens were in fairly solid position to leave Brady with as little time as possible. Instead, Joe Flacco heaved up an atrocious pass into double coverage, and Duron Harmon intercepted it. Trying to “score too early” backfired spectacularly. In effect, Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks used this exact same strategy in the Super Bowl.

The defining moment of Super Bowl XLIX will forever be that play, but in my opinion, the fortuitously rewarded aggressive playcalling (bad process —> good outcome) and the mishandling of a full compliment timeouts were more egregious than that play ending in the absolute worst case scenario. Bevell’s post-game remarks that the team “wanted to be really conscious about how much time was on the clock” is a statement that runs counter to their 49-yard touchdown pass attempt with 1:50 to go in the game.

Sigh. C’est la vie. I’m just glad I’ve gotten this off my chest.

If this article brought up bad memories and saddened you, I apologize. Don’t worry though, for I can assure you the Super Bowl XLVIII flashback I have in store for you on Thursday is a much happier one.