You’re Not Smarter Than the Coach

The Monday after Super Bowl XLIX was an interesting day. The second day of February was an opportunity for people from all walks of life, from rabid New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks supporters to casual football fans to people who only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials, to proclaim that they’re smarter than an NFL head coach.

What prompted this undoubtedly nationwide phenomenon was the second-down pass attempt by the Seahawks at the New England one-yard line that was intercepted by Patriots reserve cornerback Malcolm Butler. This play occurred with twenty-six seconds remaining in the game and the score 28-24 in favor of New England. The Seahawks had to score a touchdown.

This post will not be an attempt to explain the thought process behind this play. Other writers and experts have already explained the multitude of factors that influenced Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to call for a pass attempt in that situation.

Instead it will be an attempt to quell the overconfidence that Super Bowl viewers felt in the wake of that momentous game-shifting play. At your office, in the break room, around the dinner table, at the bar, or on social media, you assuredly were exposed at some point to the opinions of casual football fans regarding this play.

Here’s the thing: They don’t know what they’re talking about.

Even if they’re right, even if the play call was a bad decision, these people can’t thoroughly and accurately elucidate why it was a bad decision. The pass was intercepted, the Patriots took over on downs, and won the biggest sporting event of the year at the last second. “What a stupid call!” cried millions as the final seconds ticked off the clock. The magnitude of this scenario and the import of the event itself elicits opinion from all but the most uninformed of viewers.

But can these people explain why the thought process behind it was flawed? Probably not. Pete Carroll tried to enlighten us as to he and his staff’s thinking at that critical moment. He mentions having one timeout remaining. He mentions a potential replay on a previous catch by wide receiver Jermaine Kearse. He mentions the game clock. He says that his team would probably have time to run three more plays. He talks about personnel (offense having one back, one tight end, and three receivers while the Patriots sent out their goalline defenders to stop a potential rushing play) and the perceived advantage by the Seahawks based on this matchup. (Patriots coach Bill Belichick denied being at a disadvantage).

He goes on to explain that he wanted to preserve play-calling multiplicity for third and fourth down if they had needed those downs to score. They sought to do this by calling for a pass on second down in order to save a little time on the game clock (rushing plays take more time than passes). Had they rushed on second down and not scored (as was the case on first down), according to Carroll, then they would have had to throw the ball on third and fourth down. New England would have known this and sent personnel on the field to stop a pass attempt.

In essence, Carroll was trying to catch New England off-guard and also trying to use the game clock to his team’s advantage. We all know what happened. It didn’t work.

But to the casual football fan, it was a terrible decision.

Okay, casual football fan: Detail a better method for trying to win this game. Be sure to include in your counsel clock strategy, timeout usage, your knowledge of personnel groupings and matchups for these two teams, your insights following your film study of the Patriots defense, and your game plan which included analyzing the Patriots defensive tendencies on down-and-distance at the goalline from the 2014 season. Maybe even include some analytics as many teams are now using advanced statistics to evaluate in-game decisions. Oh, are any of your players hurt during this game? How about previous injuries? What have the trainers told you about any potential injuries to players you might need?

Now give us your play call, which obviously includes personnel, protection, motion and shifts, audibles, quarterback reads and route combination (if you’re wanting to call a different pass).

Since the vast majority of Super Bowl viewers thought the Seahawks should have run the ball on this play, tell us what kind of rushing play you would choose. Would you pull a guard and play power? Maybe pull a tackle or the center? Or just have the line drive block? Would you have a fullback? If so, would he carry the ball? Or would Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks starting tailback? Would you run an inside zone? Outside zone? Would you give the QB a read-option? If so, would you add in a packaged pass option? How about a naked bootleg and hope your QB can run it in himself?

We can keep going if you want. Let’s say you do score. Take us through how you would manage the kickoff following the point-after attempt. What defensive personnel would you put on the field knowing that New England needed to throw the ball down the field to score a game-winning touchdown (a field goal would do no good as its a four-point game)? What coverages would you run? Would you blitz the Patriots QB Tom Brady? If so, how?

All of these were running through Pete Carroll’s mind in the span of probably one minute. Obviously the interception made much of this moot. But the fact remains that its his job to consider these myriad factors and make quick decisions with the Super Bowl on the line. Careers will be defined by your decision. Sports history will be written with your decision. Hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide hang in the balance as you have seconds to make arguably the biggest decision of your career.

Could you do better than Pete Carroll at this very moment?

What if the tables were turned?

Say you’re an auditor for a large company and you royally muck up the company’s tax filing with one small but significant oversight.  Would you want a bunch of guys in visors exclaiming the stupidity of your mistake all over social media when they themselves probably couldn’t do long division?

Imagine you’re a registered nurse who works in a hospital’s intensive care unit. During a particularly stressful shift you accidentally administer too much insulin to a diabetic patient. The patient has a seizure and lapses into a coma. A momentary misjudgement resulted in severe harm to a patient and you’re devastated and afraid that your job is in jeopardy. Would you appreciate guys like this going on and on about your medication error on TV, in print, and on the web? What if these same people have never heard of a gallbladder and can’t name three bones in the human body?

The point is that lambasting a coaching decision in a game is human nature when that decision ends up costing the team victory. But to proclaim the coach incompetent, a fool, a person too stupid to have his job, based on one wrong decision is asinine. Especially when that coach, Pete Carroll, was at the absolute pinnacle of his profession, Super Bowl champion, one year prior and has a track record of success.

And to castigate the decision itself when you can’t explain the thought processes behind it is even more ridiculous. Football fans thought Carroll should have called for a running play to Lynch on second down. But most don’t even consider the game clock as a factor when in actuality it was probably by far the largest factor in Carroll’s decision making.

In the end, the call had a disastrous outcome for the Seahawks. Carroll’s explanation makes at least some sense and if you disagree with it, as most fans do, then you should be able to reasonably articulate why if you’re hell-bent on letting loose the profanity and personal attacks against Carroll, his coaching staff, and his players. Most Super Bowl viewers who rebuked Carroll probably didn’t even know how many cornerbacks the Patriots had on the field for this play.

Casual fans only show their ignorance of the game and it’s strategy in moments like this. In sports, when tide-altering decisions affect games on such a scale that they enter the public consciousness and become popular topics of discussion, the more appropriate, and certainly more rewarding, way to respond would be to educate oneself on the situation and the thought processes behind it.

That way, when you’re ready to interject your opinion on the big game, you can come off as having a grasp of the sport’s inner workings, it’s schemes, rules, and structures, instead of sounding like another in a long line of mindless spectators.