Super Bowl XLIX was certainly one for the ages, and depending on which side you were on it either ended in heartbreak or elation.
The final drive of the game was not all that dissimilar from flopping a set with Pocket 6’s only to find out your opponent flopped a set holding Pocket Aces, but then you caught the miracle 6 on the turn only to see the case Ace turned over on the river – yeah, it was that wild.
With so many close calls and game-changing plays I thought it would be fun (fun for me because I’m from Boston and a lifelong Patriots fan) to examine the game and all of its controversial situations from a poker mindset – so that means some stats and some risk/reward analysis.
Always leave yourself an out
The talk of Super Bowl XLIX was the decision to throw the ball on 2nd and goal from the 1-yard line that essentially cost the Seahawks the title. The call is almost unanimously considered to be a poor decision, but I don’t think it’s as bad many people are making it out to be.
Pete Carroll’s explanation (once you translate his rapid-fire non sequiturs into English) is reasonable; he wanted to make the Patriots respect the run and pass on 2nd, 3rd, and 4th down if it came down to it. Had they run on 2nd down and failed to score the Seahawks would use their final timeout and unless they are the gutsiest team of all time would be in an obvious passing down on 3rd down. By passing on 2nd down the Seahawks maintained the option to run or pass on 3rd down.
Here are a few statistics that make the call seem even more reasonable.
· There were over 100 (108 to be exact) passes attempted from the 1-yard line in the NFL this year; not a single one was intercepted, with 66 touchdowns. There were 223 runs with 129 touchdowns and two turnovers.
· Marshawn Lynch was 1-5 on the season running the ball from the 1-yard line.
Need more data? As CBS Sports reported, since 1998 there have been 81 situations similar to the one Seattle found itself in – 2nd and goal inside the 2 trailing by 4-8 points.
In those 81 instances, teams passed 33 times, scoring 14 times and being sacked only once with ZERO interceptions. Of the 47 runs, the team scored 25 times, but fumbled twice. Considering those metrics, and the data from the 2014 season indicating not a single pass from the 1-yard line was intercepted, throwing is actually the more conservative play, and less likely to result in a turnover.
All that being said, sometimes you have to ignore the stats and the “right” play and go with your gut. The flow of the game, which I think everyone but the Seahawks coaching staff was attuned to, said Marshawn Lynch was scoring if you handed him the ball.
Get a penalty on purpose
In my mind the biggest mistake occurred just before halftime when the Seahawks decided to take a chance and run a play from the 6 yard line with just six seconds remaining, potentially costing themselves a shot at a field goal if the play took too long to run.
Right before the play the Patriots called a timeout, and I was certain the coaching staff was going to instruct the players to commit pass interference if it appeared the Seahawks could score. I saw the scenario not dissimilar from an NBA player committing a hard, but legal, foul when the other team is going in for an easy bucket.
Instead the Patriots played the down like any other typical down, and the defender on the play, Logan Ryan, allowed Chris Matthews to make a play on the ball in the end zone, and the Seahawks put seven points on the board.
Had Ryan simply had the awareness (or been instructed) to realize there was even the slightest chance Matthews could score a TD he should have grossly interfered with Matthews. If he had, the Seahawks would have gotten the ball at the 1 yard line with about 2 seconds remaining, not enough time to run another play without sacrificing any attempt at a field goal.
With the score 14-7, against a defense that had up until a few minutes prior been dominating your offense, this would be an easy decision for Pete Carroll – you kick the field goal.
Football, like poker, is a game of variance
A missed roughing the kicker call on the opening drive. The Seahawks nickelback Jeremy Lane gruesomely braking his arm and out for the rest of the game. Malcolm Butler getting away with a clear trip on Ricardo Lockette. The David Tyree-esque catch by Jermaine Kearse. A poor first quarter decision by Tom Brady that cost his team a chip shot field goal attempt. And of course, the questionable decision to throw the ball from the 1-yard line by the Seattle Seahawks.
Of the four major U.S. sports, football is the only one where the champion is decided by a single game. Sure, a 7-game series isn’t enough to eliminate all the lucky bounces and missed calls that occur in basketball, hockey, or baseball, but in the Super Bowl every call and every play is magnified.
The best team doesn’t always win the Super Bowl just like the best player at the final table, even with the chip lead, doesn’t always win a tournament.