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Pete Carroll vs. the challenge flag, Part 1

Has he earned the right to throw it whenever?

NFL: International Series-Seattle Seahawks at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
don’t make me throw the red handkerchief
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

First in a series on commonly held Seahawks myths! Because why? You know why. It’s the driest trough of the offseason, the Meh-riners are vacillating between very watchable and very not, Kraken hockey is still months away, the Storm have bottomed out, even the Sounders are inconsistent, and to top it all off, my beloved Sonics remain somehow in exile. May David Stern continue to rest in pieces.

This Week’s Myth: “Pete Carroll is awful at in-game challenge flag decisions.”

Next week: “Lumen Field has lost its home-field advantage.”

Later: “Argh, why do the Seahawks waste so many timeouts?”

First, a mea culpa — my last adventure with data presentation required multiple corrections and I have triple-checked my numbers this time to ensure you can trust the article again. Thanks for understanding.

Second, a you-a culpa — turns out Pete Carroll is perfectly adequate at challenging plays. At least when compared with his peers. Who are the only criteria available and worth using. Sorry for the spoiler, and the format, since it’ll take me two articles to present all the data. Do yourself a favor and memorize this tiny row of digits, for use in your next online argument or to set your uncle straight at Thanksgiving when he inevitably slanders Carroll. But not you! You’ll know better by then.

Pete Carroll only

Total challenges Challenges/year Challenge win % Game win %
Total challenges Challenges/year Challenge win % Game win %
111 6.5 . 450 . 589

The impression that Carroll makes some rash challenges and doesn’t win at least half the time with the red flag — that impression is initially supported by the raw numbers. A 45 percent success rate looks mediocre on the surface. So, context. Let’s see how he measures up against the five active coaches with the most career wins.

Pete measures up with the best

Coach Total challenges Challenges/year Challenge win % Game win %
Coach Total challenges Challenges/year Challenge win % Game win %
Bill Belichick 128 5.6 . 406 . 662
Andy Reid 138 5.8 . 493 . 641
Mike Tomlin 86 5.4 . 419 . 636
Mike McCarthy 102 6.4 . 490 . 614
Sean Payton 121 8.1 . 446 . 631
Composite, all 5 575 6.1 . 452 very very high
Pete Carroll 111 6.5 . 450 . 589

Better than Belichick and Tomlin on challenge win percentage? Twinsies with Payton? Matching the combined challenge win percentage of the best in the business? Check out that .450 in Carroll’s row, reproduced nearly exactly in the composite row. Not so shabby-looking anymore. Carroll fits in with this crowd, unapologetically. But that’s not a very large sample size. How about against every NFC West coach since Pete joined the Seahawks:

(It’s a long list so they’re ordered by challenge win rate.)

Pete and the NFC West. All of it

Coach Total challenges Challenges/year Challenge win % Game win %
Coach Total challenges Challenges/year Challenge win % Game win %
Kyle Shanahan 34 5.7 . 588 . 531
Chip Kelly 21 5.3 . 545 . 444
Mike Singletary 18 6 . 500 . 450
Bruce Arians 59 7.4 . 492 . 624
Ken Whisenhunt 62 7.8 . 452 . 403
Pete Carroll 111 6.5 . 450 . 589
Sean McVay 31 5.2 . 419 . 612
Jeff Fisher 80 4.7 . 375 . 512
Steve Spagnuolo 17 4.3 . 353 . 212
Jim Harbaugh 35 8.8 . 343 . 695
Kliff Kingsbury 10 2.5 . 300 . 432
Jim Tomsula 9 almost 9 . 286 . 353
Steve Wilks 5 2.5 . 000 . 321

Jim Tomsula, Chip Kelly, Mike Singletary. El-oh-el @ 49ers. You really did that. And yet, they got a challenge secret sauce, or what? A wizard in the booth whispering in their coaches’ ears? Except for Harbaugh, of course. This guy

just might hurl his little red flag in a fit of rage, once or twice, yeah? Ah, despite sucking at challenges, Harbs won 70 percent of his games, while the rest of the franchise coaches above, well, let’s charitably say they did not do quite as well. This lack of correlation between challenging well and winning often shall be called... for-tyniner-shadowing.

Because Arians? Big, big winner on the field, still under .500 with the flag. McVay? Same. Look at him below Carroll. Shanahan stands out as the lone man who manages to win more than half his challenges and half his games. Kingsbury spooked his own self at some point and stopped throwing it altogether.

Three of the shrewdest challengers ended up being catastrophic failures. Singletary was a caricature by the end of his tenure, Kelly went 2-14, and Whisenhunt lost 31 of his final 39 games. It’s appearing more and more possible that being good at challenging calls is an entirely different skill than being good at coaching football.

Big picture: everyone who has come through the NFC West since 2010 has a combined challenge win rate of .433 in their career, allowing us to conclude Carroll is favorably positioned among all his immediate peers. Time to expand the field to all active head coaches. But that’s in Part 2, tomorrow. In the meantime, Carroll is happy to help explain what’s up with coaches’ inability to win even half their challenges. We can trace it to a money quote he gave Brock Huard and Mike Salk last October. Asked by the hosts, Carroll is unapologetic about how his red flag process can turn less than scientific:

“Those are competitive moments. I don’t care about the frickin’ timeouts when I’m battling like that.” He goes on to add, later in the same clip, “the other one is with 2:08 left, I got one shot, what the hell... Those are total Pete-seat-of-the-pants shots right there.”

Don’t worry. We’ll get to the timeouts later this summer too, as there are somehow still two months until Week 1. But it’s safe to say Carroll is occasionally making decisions in the heat of the moment, occasionally taking large risks for large rewards, occasionally treating challenges as no-lose gambles, and it would be silly to assume he’s the only NFL coach in that mold.