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Why Pete Carroll attempts hopeless challenges

Cincinnati Bengals v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Football Outsiders features a weekly column which scrutinizes coaching decisions through the criteria of win probability. It’s uh it’s not my favorite post, and to be perfectly honest, I’ve stopped reading it. I’ve really come to dislike these precise-seeming but really very crude measurements of coaching. Some of coaching is clock management, deciding when to go for it on fourth down and when to kick the field goal, and when to challenge a ruling on the field. That part of coaching is accessible to us and easy enough to second guess. The impossible ambiguity created by these in-game decisions is catnip to some. That’s what they like: an irresolvable argument. I am not new to the internet.

Pete Carroll has earned a bad reputation for his use of challenges. He’s inclined to challenge plays which are not conducive to being overturned. He’s inclined to challenge plays which even preliminary replays indicate were ruled correctly on the field. But there’s a method to how Carroll challenges, and I think it’s part and parcel to what makes Carroll such a successful head coach. Carroll uses challenges to build esprit de corps.

His challenge of Jared Goff’s goal line fumble is a perfect example. Nothing at all suggested that he would win the challenge. Even Seahawks defenders on the field seemed perfectly happy to accept that Goff had recovered his fumble. Mostly.

Dig the youthful enthusiasm of D.J. Reed and Jordyn Brooks. They’re jacked! They want that turnover, man, bad.

A stop is good but a turnover is much more valuable. Generically, the next play has almost a 50% chance of scoring the touchdown. That’s why despite the third-down stop, LA’s expected points were still worth more than half a touchdown. Sometimes Carroll seems to confuse his optimistic interpretation of what’s happening for what’s happening. But consider another alternative.

What if you could reward your team for their third-down stop, go into an extended break preserving that vibe, regroup and rest your defenders in the midst of an 11-play drive deep into its sixth minute, and back those super impressionable young players even if they’re dead wrong? Calling a timeout is neutral. Both teams and the world do not get to see again and again and from every conceivable angle Goff lunging, fumbling and scrabbling just to retain possession. Calling a challenge results in a timeout, costs a challenge, but puts Seattle’s stop and Goff’s scramble on blast.

It’s perhaps a handicap of age or the aged-minded, but the sure loss of a challenge, the sure loss of a chance for a third challenge, creates dread in many people. It seems to invite something particularly noxious to happen. Some nightmare scenario in which Seattle loses because of a bad ruling which cannot be challenged. And while that happens, it’s just not very common at all, and the actual value of having two challenges for 18 minutes or so of game clock instead of one is hard to determine. But I would guess it’s overestimated because of the endowment effect. People hate losing things even things of questionable value.

Carroll has a special talent for building a winning team culture and player development. Now I can’t prove that can I? And I know for some, that’s enough to ignore its value. But I think that’s a dangerous kind of stupidity which really needs to be checked. Motivating players, creating the kind of environment which allows Seattle to seamlessly integrate new players, while retaining the very most important aspects of discipline and accountability, is so much more valuable than whatever tiny insurance that extra challenge creates.

No coach averages even a challenge a game. This chart is from 2019, but I think it’s instructive.

Late in the third quarter it is very unlikely a team will need two challenges. It is unlikely a team will need one challenge. And it does not seem like any coach really creates meaningful value from their use of challenges. Most coaches do not win most challenges. I doubt any coach is really consistently good at winning challenges or consistently bad. Matt LaFleur looks like an exception in the above chart, challenging often and winning often. This season he has won two of three challenges.

Fans overestimate the importance of those decisions we see. Some small part of Pete Carroll’s job is making decisions on game day. The greater part of Carroll’s job, the far more important and difficult part of Carroll’s job, is assembling the best available talent into a cohesive unit that plays with precision and passion. He does that very, very well. It’s easy enough to say the challenge was unwinnable. The hard part, the subtle and intricate problem Carroll had to solve, was how best to use a potentially worthless asset. Sit on it and coach scared, or risk a little and remind the young men killing themselves for the cause that you believe in them unconditionally.