Thursday, February 05, 2015

Super Bowl Postscript: Replaying the Last Hand

Just a short postscript today on Super Bowl XLIX after reading New England fan Bill Simmons’s lengthy “Retro Running Diary” of the game.

To refer to anything Simmons posts over on Grantland as “lengthy” is redundant, as word count often trumps most other considerations with his stuff (a subject about which I’ve written here before.) But in this case there’s a decent amount of quality along with the quantity as he narrates in minute detail the roller coaster ride taken by the world’s most verbose Pats fan as he watched that incredible game and finish on Sunday.

The most intriguing part of the article (for me) comes near the end when Simmons attempts to come to grips with the seemingly baffling decision made by New England head coach Bill Belichick not to use one of the Pats’ two remaining timeouts when there was almost exactly one minute to go and Seattle was readying for a second-and-goal at New England’s one-yard line.

Rather that call the TO, Belichick let the clock run with more than 30 seconds ticking away before the Seahawks snapped it with 0:26 left for what would become a stunning interception to end (essentially) their title hopes. Like most everyone, Simmons found the lack of a timeout bewildering at the time, and if you scroll down to that part of his article there are some funny animated .gifs helping underscore his confusion.

At that point Simmons steps back and with a full day’s worth of hindsight is able to construct a kind of hypothesis to explain Belichick’s thinking, aided in part (he says) by a Washington Post article by Adam Kilgore explaining why it could be considered a “sneaky-brilliant decision” insofar as in a strange way it might well have helped coerce Seattle into the pass call.

Simmons also spoke with a couple of N.E. guys (“two of my Patriots sources”) in addition to rewatching the end several times. “A long, fascinating email from a poker player helped” as well, explains Simmons, who then goes into a further elaboration of Kilgore’s idea that by not calling the timeout, Belichick invited Seattle to consider other options when it came to that second down play call, options which in the frenzied, pressurized atmosphere of the moment perhaps became trickier to evaluate.

In other words, the idea Simmons pursues is that by not calling the TO, Belichick did something that momentarily perplexed an opponent that had expected him to do just that. “He wanted confusion and chaos,” opines Simmons. “He wanted that in-game pressure to tilt Seattle’s way.... [He] felt that in-stadium energy shifting after Lynch’s first-down run [the previous play],” and so in the moment decided not to stop the clock and thereby mess with Seattle’s collective head.

The decision also had a concrete purpose -- to elicit the possibility of a particular pass play (the slant) against which New England had specifically prepared to defend. In any event, it sounds like the poker player (who? I wonder) helped Simmons put the whole situation into terms that made Belichick’s move not only seem understandable, but truly inspired.

“This was now a poker game,” writes Simmons. “What do you do when you know you have the lousier hand? You bluff.”

I like the analogy, and not just because Belichick often wears a hoodie. The Pats absolutely had “the lousier hand” in that spot, although I’m not sure I’d describe the non-action of not calling a timeout as a “bluff.” Rather it was just an unexpected play that suddenly put the pressure on Seattle when deciding how to answer -- as though one player has made a confident bet that looks like it will be enough to win the pot, then another makes a surprising all-in push that forces the first into a much-harder-than-expected decision.

I mean, folding seemed the right play, if we want to regard calling the TO there thusly. Heck, announcer Chris Collinsworth was even bringing up the “let them score and get the ball back” idea, which of course would have represented another kind of folding in this spot.

But no, Belichick didn’t fold. He shoved. By not stopping the clock, he made it clear the game was going to end on this hand, and there would be no next one.

If you’re still thinking about the game and that crazy ending, I recommend spending a short while reading Simmons’s story of it. His lyrical conclusion regarding Belichick’s persona, reputation, and possible legacy works well, and is somewhat persuasive, too -- so much so that even this non-Pats fan couldn’t help but appreciate it.

Whether or not Belichick knew exactly what he was accomplishing by not calling that timeout, I’m convinced it wasn’t simply a momentary lapse or something done without purpose. He absolutely meant not to call the TO, all right, although I’m not quite ready to allow that he knew what would happen next with as much precision as Simmons appears ready to believe.

It was assuredly a poker game, that ending. And good gosh, what a river.

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Blogger timpramas said...

If the Patriots used a timeout after the first down run to the one, then Seattle likely would have run on second down instead of passing. If the Patriots stop that run and use their last timeout, then Seattle can run on third down. If Seattle were again unsuccessful on a running play, New England is out of timeouts and Seattle could have run the game clock down before using its final timeout before fourth down. So the time was coming off the clock regardless of whether New England used its timeouts.

The tough decision was not whether to use the timeouts, but whether to let Seattle score a touchdown once it got to the one yard line on second down. Belichick's belief is that if the other team needs a touchdown, you don't concede it because your defense might keep the other team out of the end zone. But, if the other team can win with a field goal no longer than typical extra point and run the clock out (like the Giants in the 2012 Super Bowl),then you concede the touchdown so you can maximize the time remaining for your offense to get the ball back.

One of the pivotal plays was Seattle needing to use its second timeout after the long pass completion to Kearse. With only one timeout left, Seattle decided it needed to pass once if it wanted to be sure to have a full set of downs to try and score a touchdown.

2/06/2015 3:25 PM  

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