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How Pete Carroll dodged a bullet he fired at himself

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Winning cures everything. Except this decision against the Rams

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks
fourth downs are the worst downs
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Pleasantries, first.

The Seattle Seahawks are 4-1, a game and a tie-breaker ahead of the Los Angeles Rams, a rival who now occupies third place in the NFC West. Thursday Night Football’s heavyweight fight between the rivals ended in jubilation for Seattle and its fans. The result cannot be undone. It is a fixed moment in time.

But the biggest coaching blunder of the game almost swung the result another way. For everything that Pete Carroll did right on Thursday —

  • Crafting offensive and defensive game plans that worked more often than not
  • Believing in Tedric Thompson long enough
  • Making Greg Zuerlein miss with some form of South End voodoo and/or the dark side of the Force

— he also did his best to blow the game with an indefensible decision at the end of the first half. How indefensible, exactly? I’m glad you asked.

The situation is fresh in our collective still-giddy minds, because it happened less than a week ago, and will remain so because this game is destined to be remembered and rehashed for decades. After a Chris Carson run on third down goes for a small gain, the Seahawks are presented with 4th and less than a yard, on the Rams 30. Seattle leads 14-6. The clock shows 1:38 to play in the first half. Things are going, dare we say, well.

The Seahawks offense stays on the field, because going for it is the obvious choice — wait what’s this, are they trying the works-once-in-a-thousand-tries, draw-the-defense-offsides trick? They are. It does not work, because it doesn’t. Timeout is called, and on comes the cowardice field goal unit for a 48-yard attempt.

It’s 6:46 p.m., and Carroll is making the move, the one which at best could turn out a wee bit negative, and at worst a lot bit negative. If the Seahawks end up losing, it will be in part because of this call.

Four people, one of which is not a people, would love to weigh in now on the limitations of Carroll’s decision.

Me, and I say: It’s not the right time of the half to kick

Let’s say the field goal, which is far from a sure thing, succeeds. Yay, it’s 17-6. But when you kick, you’re automatically giving one of the league’s fastest-moving offenses 94 seconds to drive for a score of their own. The reward for kicking a field goal is to be penalized a possession, in essence. Combined with the knowledge that LA gets the ball to start the second half, you’ve awarded the visitors a 2-for-1 situation, where they could potentially take the lead with two scoring drives, instead of trailing by two possessions at halftime.

Besides, trusting your defense to come up with the stop before half is a pretty 2011-2016 thing to do. Those years are past.

2. Pro Football Focus analyst Timo Riske (@PFF_Moo on Twitter), who says: dumb on four levels (and agrees with me, thanks Moo)

As a confessed Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan, Moo has seen one fan’s full share, maybe more, of questionable front office blunders, so the lack of restraint here is a pretty big red flag. Let’s move through the “quartet” one instrument at a time.

“Conversion is more likely than a field goal.” In other words, when you go for it, you’re more likely to keep the ball, then subsequently tack on between three and seven additional points, than you are to actually make the kick.

“Good conversion is better than a good field goal.” The point here is that a new set of downs boosts the drive’s EPA past three. We’ll see just how much in a few short paragraphs. Even a good field goal is voluntarily leaving points on the table, if you convert.

“Failed conversion is better than a failed kick.” The kick will fail about the same percentage of time as the fourth-down attempt. With that in mind, better to give the Rams the ball on the 30 instead of the 38, right?

“Additional factor... clock management.” Like I said. We’re numb to suboptimal clock decisions in the final moments of halves, but it’s hard to comprehend how this factor didn’t sway Carroll out of the field goal option.

Longtime Field Gulls reader Tyler Jorgensen, who like Moo, has also seen things: Do the math, coach

His comment the day after is to relay a very relevant conversation seen on social media between BValue2002 and former FG writer/current Hawkblogger contributor Evan Hill (@EvanHillSEA on Twitter).

Rams “stuffing” them give ball to Rams at Rams 30. Missed FG gave Rams ball at 38.

1) 75% chance at FG – 2.37 expected points (EP).

2) 70% chance of converting 4th and 1 = 1st down (70% x 4.63 EP on all SEA drives from Opp. 29 or better) = 3.24 EP.

No brainer – go 4 it!

“That’s the straight math of it,” Tyler goes on to say, before adding: “So instead of gambling on the potential league MVP to be lead his team to a yard, then essentially run the clock out with either a shorter FG or ideally a TD, Pete puts his faith in a young inconsistent defense that has proven problematic, particularly in 2 minute situations, as we saw this game.”

Carroll donated almost a full expected point and more than a minute and a half to Sean McVay. That’s not a great habit to get into. Trusting Russell Wilson to not screw up is a better one.

From the retired NYT Fourth Down Bot, which has no horse in this race: a simple enough graphic

Its message is the same as it’s always been: 4th and 1 is a terrible time to do anything other than going for it. But on especially 4th and less than 1, and especially from the 30, the bot disapproves.

Granted, the bot does not know that Carson was just stopped short of the marker a play earlier, that the defensive line across from the Seahawks is awfully stout, and that weird things tend to happen against the Rams. The bot has no gut, and Carroll does, and he trusts it, and he’s made some pretty good calls over the years.

Just not this one time.

More than a little interestingly, NFL coaches in general eschew the same FG try Seattle embraced. Their gold band of “what the heck let’s go for it” is puny, but it encompasses the scenario from last Thursday anyway. What a peculiar time for Carroll to be more conservative than the average coach.

The main thing I hope is that the offense’s critical fourth-down failures against the New Orleans Saints at home in Week 4 have not soured Carroll on aggressive playcalling when there’s a yard or two to go. Because before the season — and dare we say postseason? — is through, something just like the situation from last Thursday is bound to present itself again. And it would be nice for the process he employs to be not quite so transparently bad.