There’s math out there that will explain why Denver Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett sent his kicker out for a 64-yard prayer to win the game on Monday evening instead of entrusting his trillion-dollar quarterback to convert fourth and medium. I’ll append that at the bottom of this post because it’s not as immediately important to me right now.
Much more interestingly, there are three reasons the Seattle Seahawks backed Hackett into a tactical corner in the first place. I’m talking about the three plays that preceded the kick.
Cody Barton is not a name that, shall we say, inspired a ton of confidence in Seahawks fans over the summer. After a decade of watching the Bobby Wagner-K.J. Wright combo lineback the hell out of every game, there was some trepidation in parts that the Jordyn Brooks-Barton partnership would be a severe drop-off.
If it is, nobody’s thought to tell Barton yet. He finished Monday night with eight solo tackles, a sack, a QB hit, and two tackles for loss. The second of those ends up as the biggest defensive play of the fourth quarter, as far as I’m concerned.
Everyone wants to talk about the field goal decision in the endgame of Broncos-Seahawks. I wanna talk about the plays that led to it.— John Fraley (@johndavidfraley) September 13, 2022
Cody Barton, man. First and 10 at midfield, clock under two minutes, and he does this at the top of the screen: pic.twitter.com/yyCCEHWSDq
Barton saves the day, leaves the game, and doesn’t return. Waiting with maximum impatience for an update on his health.
Trying to get a first down from a 2nd and 14 situation is a tall order. Denver’s expected points on the drive was 2.19 on first down and cratered to 1.11 after. In other words, Barton’s tackle was mathematically worth 1.08 points on a night the Seahawks won by 1.00 points.
On to the next snap.
So now it's 2nd and 14 after Barton's game-altering tackle. This play will be correctly ruled an incomplete pass, but Jordyn Brooks doesn't know that. So HE takes down Russ in the open field when another five yards could've changed everything pic.twitter.com/ieSyHJ1LNH— John Fraley (@johndavidfraley) September 13, 2022
It’s fair to say Russell Wilson has lost a step. We saw him in 2012-2015 get to the sticks on this exact play (minus the incompletion) what, a hundred times? There were days when it felt like an eight-yard scramble to the sideline on 3rd and seven was the Seahawks offense’s most reliable best play.
Russ doesn’t get there because it’s a new decade with old legs for him and new legs for Brooks. Look at how the Seahawks MLB frees himself from the block and turns to pursue, all with exactly the requisite amount of speed.
On the far left of your screen, Brooks disengages beautifully before morphing into his Seahawks MLB predecessor to chase down that slower QB pic.twitter.com/cLsJ5OC37n— John Fraley (@johndavidfraley) September 13, 2022
On third and 14, the last thing a defense can do is let a pass travel to the sticks. You’ll almost always concede a short completion for the chance to force fourth down. You’d like Justin Coleman to not whiff here, but there is a hive of angry, buzzing defenders ready to clean up after him when he does.
And now we're at 3rd and 14. The Seahawks line up with the presumed intent of: short completion's ok, just don't let him get to the sticks. And that's exactly what happens pic.twitter.com/d5nolfEEPB— John Fraley (@johndavidfraley) September 13, 2022
When Javonte Williams meets and defeats Coleman, the screen is empty, bereft of good guy defenders.
Williams picks up seven more yards before meeting half the Seahawks defense at once. That was the plan, though, right? I don’t imagine Pete Carroll was too worried about Hackett opting for the 64-yard field goal.
Williams is smothered well short of the yellow stripe in the upper half of your picture. It’s fourth and five. Surely the Broncos will design something to the right side, where they’ve been successful all night. They’ll probably convert and set up for a game-winning kick as time expires.
Only... yeah no. Largely due to Barton’s brilliant burst, the Seahawks bullied the Broncos into a bad decision. How bad? It depends. Lifetime, McManus had been 7 of 11 on game-winning kicks, and he definitely had the leg, as evidenced by the kick grazing the upright.
But the deeper math is also crueler.
Assuming the same temperature, humidity and wind, the probability of making a 64-yd field goal in Denver vs Seattle based on elevation drops by roughly 7 percentage points:— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 13, 2022
Mile High Stadium: 21.1%
Lumen Field: 14.2%
Let’s give McManus the 14 percent number. If you believe your offense can convert 4th and 5 half the time, it means you just have to get to a situation where the FG chance exceeds 28 percent, and it becomes smarter to go for it. Especially since Hackett had to know this:
Brandon McManus’ career-long field goal is 61 yards. He’s 2 of 10 in his career from 58-plus. He hasn’t made a kick of at least 55 yards outside of Denver or a domed stadium since 2016.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) September 13, 2022
The Broncos kicker may be just 2-of-10 from the longest distance, but between 50 and 57 yards he’s 30 of 50 lifetime. If Denver picks up the first down, the kick is now a 58-yarder, and now you’re just one dive forward away from McManus’ wheelhouse. Alas.
P.S. There's been some debate about whether Hackett was playing for three all along on the final drive, or on the final third down even. Wilson's post game quote went like this: "We said, where can you make it from tonight, and he said 46 left hash. That was before the drive. We got it there; unfortunately didn’t go in."
But FG writer Tyler Alsin makes a better point, in regard to the play call. The Broncos snap 3rd and 14 from their own 45. Nine yards short of the target Wilson mentions. The pass is caught by Williams at the line of scrimmage.
There is no scenario on God’s green earth where you look at this play and believe the Denver franchise has pre-agreed it would get them to the 46 to kick for a win https://t.co/jRezSQgPns— Sam Haggerdly (@TylerjAlsin) September 14, 2022
Indeed, if the aim is to pick up nine, option 1 cannot logically be "outlet to the RB who has to dodge one Seahawk in the open field and five more later." It shouldn't really even be the quarterback's second read, and yet here we are. And there's no going back, thankfully.