For Pete’s Sake: Another Sports Puzzler for the Ages - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
For Pete’s Sake: Another Sports Puzzler for the Ages

All right, I’ll admit I’m a paid-up member of the Armchair Quarterbacks of America, Tampa Bay Area Branch. So my comments must be considered in this light. But I still can’t let Seahawks coach Pete Carroll off the hook for his incomprehensible decision to throw into traffic Sunday evening instead giving the ball, and the Seahawks’ championship hopes, to stud fullback Marshawn Lynch. (Pardon the antiquated terminology. But for this 72-year-old, any ball carrier who is big, bruising, dominating, and has just one big eye in the middle of his forehead, is a fullback.)

Lynch punched into the end zone 13 times during the regular season. He demonstrated Sunday that the Patriots’ prospects of denying him one yard on successive tries was roughly Chris Christie’s chances of being selected Miss Congeniality. This was so even with everyone in Glendale and in Super-Bowl TV Nation knowing Lynch would get the ball, and with the Patriots’ (pardon the unlovely expression) goal-line package on the field. 

“It’s not the right matchup for us to run the football,” Carroll said after the game, and while the Patriots were frolicking with the Vince Lombardi trophy. “So on second down we throw the ball really to kind of waste a play. If we score, we do. If we don’t, we’ll run it on third and fourth down.”

What was in fact wasted was a great season. And the hopes of a championship repeat. Carroll is taking responsibility because he is captain of the Seahawks ship. The play-call originated with Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. But Carroll could have, and all of Seattle is certainly thinking should have, overridden the most important play call in the most important game of the year. 

Prosecution stipulates that the estimable Carroll and Bevell each know at least a thousand times more about football than I do. But this only makes it more puzzling that guys this savvy should elect to throw the ball on the one-yard line — which means Russell Wilson is throwing into 22 guys packed into 11 yards, most of them around the goal line with his target — instead of giving it to the big train, who had already gained 102 yards. It would have been the right matchup to give Lynch the ball even if the Patriots had put 11 Navy SEALs with automatic weapons on the field. It beggars belief that one of the best backs and the best offensive lines in the NFL could not have gained a yard with two, possibly three cracks at it.

In my previous blog on this infarct a couple of readers gigged me (which is fine) by pointing out that it was not a sure thing Lynch would have made it to the end zone. True enough, but you have to like Lynch’s chances of muscling his way to six points against the chance of a guy in the wrong color jersey coming up with a pass in the congested terrain of the goal line.

But pass it the Seahawks did, and it was Malcolm Butler who made Carroll & Associates pay for this highly eccentric decision. Butler may be a rookie, but he’s a quick study. Just moments after Jermaine Kearse made a highlight-for-life catch on his fourth or fifth touch of the ball (not in the game — on this one play), Butler had learned his lesson, to wit: catch it — don’t tip it. Which is what he did at the goal line, and thereby hangs a championship. It then took a brawl and a couple of penalties before Brady could finally take a knee and bring a ragged conclusion to an otherwise great game.

A second argument for passing rather than running at the end is that the Patriots wouldn’t be expecting it. And they certainly wouldn’t, for the reasons above. But this illustrates a point of wisdom that applies to all sports. Which is, if you can dominate a man or a team, you don’t need to fool ’em.

How many times have we seen a closer dominate a hitter with upper nineties heat. Then with two outs and two strikes on what should be the final hitter, he throws a Frisbee of a breaking pitch, which the batter hits out of the park. If the batter has demonstrated by late and awkward swings on the good hummer that he just can’t catch up with it, just can’t get off in time, there is no way he should see anything else. Put down number one, dial up the final pitch, and pound some Bud in the clubhouse (in those clubhouses where beer is still allowed). If the batter can’t hit it, you don’t have to fool him.

Exhibit A, before Sunday night, for this sometimes ignored principle was Kirk Gibson’s dramatic walk-off home run in Game One of the 1988 World Series. I wish to take nothing away from the heroic effort by Gibson the wounded warrior, or the pitch-perfect call by the great Vin Scully — “In a season that has been so improbable — the impossible has happened.” But the impossible likely would not have happened if A’s pitcher Dennis Eckersley had not, inexplicably, decided to throw a slider to Gibson after utterly dominating him with two fastballs for strikes. Gibson didn’t have either leg under him that night, and on the two fastballs he had looked like a farmer going after a snake with a hoe. The slider was just enough slower for Gibson to catch up with it and muscle it out of the park with his upper body. A great moment, but why did it happen that way?

We’ll never know in either case. I’ve seen Eckersley interviewed in later years about the game. He’s 60 and over it now. He and Gibson are friends. But it’s going to be very tender for Carroll, Bevell, and the Seahawks for a good while to come. Toward the close of his remarks, Carroll said the close of the game was “a very hard lesson.” Yes, a very hard lesson indeed. Last night Lynch was the fastball. The pass was the Frisbee. Carroll, Bevell, the Seahawks, and all their fans know it. 

Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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