The Decision That Defined the Super Bowl

Seattle coach Pete Carroll made a lot of great choices in Sunday's game, and one that he'd probably like to take back.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

For coaches, football is a series of never-ending decisions. Who to draft for your team. Who to start in a game. Which plays out of the hundreds of variables in your playbook to run. Which of four possible receivers to throw to on a given play. How to respond when one of those receivers complains that he didn't get the ball. Each of those decisions can lead to an unlimited number of unknowable outcomes, any one of which could be the decision that defines a coach forever.

Pete Carroll made one of those decisions last night. With less than a minute to go in Super Bowl XLIX, with his team trailing by four and the game-winning points about three feet away, the Seattle Seahawks head coach ordered his offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, to choose a pass play.

Bevell then made his decision. He called for an inside slant, asking wide receiver Ricardo Lockette to cut behind his teammate Jermaine Kearse and run straight across the goal line, while Kearse attempted to set a "pick" by pushing his defender into the endzone, putting both of them between Lockette and his defender.

New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler recognized what was coming and made his decision: Jump into the route. Quarterback Russell Wilson threw the pass just inches too high and too far, a sprinting Butler beat Lockette to the ball, and a game-winning touchdown for Seattle became a game-winning interception for the Patriots.

Before the Super Bowl could even end (there was still enough time for a couple of kneel down plays and an endzone brawl), pundits and fans decided for themselves that the play call was one of the worst in football history. That's because Carroll had another, presumably better option: Marshawn Lynch, one of the toughest running backs in all of football and a man who gets paid a lot of money to get those one-yard touchdowns. Everyone, including the Patriots, assumed Lynch would get the ball in that moment. He didn't. And his team lost.

After the game, some of Lynch's teammates were in disbelief that their coach decided to pass instead of run. Most of the sports pundit world was, too. There may have been a mathematical case there, but Carroll wasn't making it after the game. He had about ten seconds to consider the down, the distance, his remaining time outs, the Patriots' remaining timeouts, their defensive alignment, Seattle's on-field personnel, the time left on the clock, and how much time would be left if they failed to score on a run or on a pass. He considered all this, and then told his coordinator what to do. He took full credit and made no excuses.

The ramifications of that one decision (and the cascade of decisions that followed) will reverberate in more ways than one might think. Seattle failed to be repeat champions. Gamblers across the country won or lost millions of dollars. Instead of being a third-time Super Bowl loser, Tom Brady is now a four-time winner, putting him in rare company with Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw. It doesn't matter that Brady played no part in that final play. His legacy also hinged on its outcome.

Then there's Carroll's counterpart, Bill Belichick, who also won his fourth Super Bowl despite an arguably questionable decision to let nearly 40 seconds run off the clock as the Seahawks dithered over their final play. Had Wilson's pass connected, the Patriots would have needed that time to mount a comeback. Everyone would be questioning Belichick's late-game thought process instead.

What Carroll won't be remembered for are the hundreds of other decisions during the previous 59 minutes of game time that brought him to that moment. For example, with six seconds left in the first half, Carroll gambled with a pass play into the end zone that tied the game at 14. A lot of coaches would have kicked a field goal, and not risked having the clock run out on them (or worse, a turnover.) But without the gamble, he wouldn't have had the chance to make a bigger one later.

Had Carroll chose the safer option, it still could have failed, just as the risky option almost succeeded. (As he said after the game, "You never think you'll throw an interception.") Had he given the ball to Lynch and not scored, no one would have faulted the coach. Still, he chose the other option and the history of the Super Bowl was altered forever.

Belichick knows that feeling well, too. In 2009, the Patriots lost an important regular season game after going for it on 4th down in their own territory and failing. The coach was ridiculed, even though every number cruncher would tell you that statistically, it was the right move, and if it weren't for Sunday's game, that could have been his defining moment.

Carroll won a Super Bowl last year and two national championships in college, so his reputation as a stellar coach won't be demolished by this one moment. But last night's decision will follow him forever. He's made plenty of correct decisions, and will have more to make in the future. Lynch will have to decide if he returns to Seattle next year. Belichick will have to decide what changes will be needed to get him and Brady back to the big game. Fans will have to decide whether the coach and QB make the greatest football duo ever, or whether they're still chasing other legends. Nationwide Insurance will have to decide if that "dead kid" ad was really worth it. Every player on the field will have to decide if there was anything they could have done differently that might have changed the outcome. And the rest of us will have to be grateful, once again, not to have every one of our decisions play out on national television for all the world to judge.