Retro Running Diary: Super Bowl XLIXPatrick Semansky/AP
Super Bowl XLIX was like the last episode of The Sopranos (and I’m not the only one who thought so). I will always remember watching it, I will always be dumbfounded by the ending and I needed 48 hours to figure out what I thought happened. What was Bill Belichick doing? What was Seattle doing? What was EVERYONE doing? This isn’t a retro diary, it’s a retro retro diary. It’s time to relive, regurgitate, recelebrate and re-heart-attack the final 12 minutes of Super Bowl XLIX.
A quick recap: With five minutes left in the third quarter, Seattle took a 10-point lead after Doug Baldwin’s touchdown catch featured the following subplots: the umpire/evil WWE referee picked off Darrelle Revis in the end zone, allowing Baldwin to escape from Revis Island for the only time all night; Seattle covered the “same team will score three times in a row” prop; Baldwin earned a 15-yard penalty for stealing Adam Carolla’s poop-the-football touchdown celebration gimmick (conspicuously omitted from NBC’s live NBC telecast!); Richard Sherman mocked the Patriots by yelling “Twenty-four!” to the sideline cameras twice (seemingly, once for Revis and once for Seattle’s score); and every Pats fan briefly thought I just don’t want to get blown out before rallying and shifting into “COME ON, WE HAVE TOM FAWKIN’ BRADY!” mode.
New England’s next drive: three-and-out.
And just when it looked like Seattle was pulling away, it left two game-clinching drives on the table. The first one fell apart after Jermaine Kearse dropped a gorgeous lob pass on New England’s 20, followed by Golden Tate screaming somewhere in Michigan, “I don’t care if that was a fairly tough catch, I would have caught that!” The Pats went three-and-out after LeGarrette Blount summoned the Super Bowl ghosts of Laurence Maroney and BenJarvus Green-Ellis by getting stuffed two yards behind the line on third-and-1. The Seahawks responded with an even uglier three-and-out.1
This left the Patriots with 12 minutes to score twice while knowing …
• They just went interception-punt-punt on their first three second-half possessions, and now they were trying to become the first team to win the Super Bowl after being down by eight or more in the fourth quarter.
• They were 12 minutes away from being tortured by eternally annoying story lines like “No Super Bowl wins since Spygate,” “Can’t win when the QB throws normally inflated footballs,” “Would have gone 1-5 in the Super Bowl if two plays went differently” and even just “CHEATERS!”
• If Brady were to rally back from 10 down, he would clinch GOAT status and foil Seattle’s chance for back-to-back titles (a semi-impossibility in the salary-cap era). If he were to fall short, it would mean three straight Super Bowl losses and a winter-spring-summer of “Maybe it’s time to change the offense so we’re not asking a 37-year-old quarterback to string together impeccable 13-play drives for four straight quarters on big stages because we can never run the ball when it matters and we haven’t had a deep threat since Randy Moss left” conversations. Forget about the “On to Cincinnati” joke. We would have been “On to a new offense.”
On a personal note, this was the first Belichick-Brady Super Bowl I missed in person. Unexpected family obligations made up 90 percent of the reason why I stayed. The other 10 percent: I didn’t want to go back to Glendale.
No! NO! Actually, I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to return to the place that reminds me of my dad’s 60th Birthday Party Weekend That Went To Hell, the Pat O’Brien–Brady handshake, the Helmet Catch, Brady’s third-down Hail Mary that went 80 yards in the air and missed catching Moss in stride by six inches, the 19-0 season going up in smoke and giddy New York fans reacting like they were just rescued from being trapped in a well. My God. That city, and that stadium, will always be the Scene of the Crime. At least for me. I have never witnessed a more devastating Boston loss in person.
So I stayed in California. And with 12 minutes to play, I wasn’t exactly regretting it. Time for the retro diary. We’re shifting to present tense for as much as possible.
12:10 (First-and-10, NE 32): After Brady got sacked on first down and threw a four-yard out on second down, the reeling Pats are facing an uber-crucial third-and-14 on New England’s 28. Does the normally superb NBC crew use this specific moment to bring up Deflategate, question Brady’s integrity and show Roger Goodell sitting glumly in his suite? Of course it does! Here’s how it sounds.
Cris Collinsworth: “I said, ‘Tom, look me in the eye … ’”
(Look me in the eye? What are you, his ninth grade principal? Didn’t you already tell us this story in the pregame show? And why are you bringing this up right before the biggest third down of my season?)
Collinsworth: “‘ … and tell me you couldn’t have possibly said anything to a ball boy, an assistant coach, somebody in the organization to lead them to believe that you wanted air let out of the football.’”
(Hold on, we’re on the edge of our seats. I don’t even care that my entire football season is on the line with THE CURRENT F’N PLAY. What did Brady say? Did he confess? I really hope he confessed, because I can’t think of another reason you’re bringing this up right now.)
Collinsworth: “And he said, ‘Absolutely not.’ He could not have been more emphatic.”
(Great. Great news. Also, if this were about Peyton Manning, Collinsworth would have thrown in, “And I wasn’t even a little surprised, because someday, we’re going to use Peyton Manning’s hemoglobin to cure cancer.”)
As the word “emphatic” hangs in the air, Brady steps up in the pocket and drills a fastball to Julian Edelman for a 21-yard first down that (a) saves the 2014 season, and (b) may have concussed Edelman. See, Kam Chancellor annihilated him with what seemed to be a helmet-to-helmet hit … except NBC never showed us the right replay even though it had 367 cameras there. The AP later reported that Edelman was checked by doctors “after that series” and “cleared to return.” After that series. The NFL is hilarious.
9:52 (First-and-10, NE 49): A delayed screen to Shane Vereen for nine yards is followed by a senseless late-hit penalty by Earl Thomas for another 15. The Seahawks defense has clearly gone into “Game Settings” and tried to turn the penalties off.
9:36 (First-and-10, Seattle 27): Brady misses on a deep ball to Brandon LaFell (an unabashed “Let’s see how much Tharold Simon sucks”2 pass), followed by a 2-yard Vereen run that sets up another big third down. I say the words, “Just don’t take a sack here.” Worst-case scenario: sack, 48-yard Stephen Gostkowski shank. But Brady steps up in the pocket AGAIN and finds a wide-open Edelman over the middle for 21 yards. Unfortunately, Edelman thinks his name is “Julius” right now, but still … first-and-goal, Patriots!
8:38: With Edelman slow to get up, Al Michaels reminds us that Edelman is being “bothered by a hip.” Or a concussion. It’s one or the other. Just never forget: Michaels was the first announcer to save words on injury descriptions by only saying the body part itself. Had he been announcing the last scene of the “Red Wedding,” he would have said that Catelyn Stark was “out with a throat.” Seven catches and 97 yards for Edelman, by the way.
8:04 (First-and-goal, Seattle 4): Edelman runs the fake-inside-slant-pivot-outside-curl play (or as it’s unofficially known, “The Welker”), beats Simon by two yards … and Brady fires the football 275 mph and nearly decapitates him. Incomplete. There are vague flashbacks to Brady missing a wide-open Welker in Super Bowl XLVI — just because they were two frisky, possibly concussed white guys who were wide-open and got overthrown, but still. “That’s as open as you will ever get down at the goal line,” Collinsworth says. Ugh.
8:00: Fighting off more Welker/Super Bowl XLVI flashbacks. If we settle for a field goal here …
Off a halfhearted play-action fake, Brady finds Danny Amendola over the middle … TOUCHDOWN! (Fellow Pats fan Jay Jaroch pointed this out: Amendola caught 10 balls for 129 yards and three touchdowns in the Baltimore and Seattle nail-biters. Together that adds up to J.D. Drew’s $14 million grand slam in 2007, right?) It’s a nine-play season-saver for Brady that is punctuated by Collinsworth yelping, “Woooo! This game is turning into something” and Michaels alluding to the pick ’em point spread. Anyone who parlayed “Brady will throw over 2.5 passing touchdowns to break Joe Montana’s record for career Super Bowl touchdowns” with “Al Michaels will make a gambling reference” is high-fiving.
New score: Seattle 24, New England 21, Times I Texted My Dad Just To Make Sure He Wasn’t Keeled Over: Seven.
7:55 (First-and-10, Seattle 20): Wilson throws to a seemingly wide-open Dontelle Lockette off a nice play-action fake, only Lockette falls down and can’t grab it. The replay shows that Malcolm “Future Dave Roberts 2.0” Butler tripped and then slyly tripped up Lockette with his right hand … NO CALL! We’re finally even for end zone official Earl Hebner running that pick play on Revis. (By the way, I’m making up fake first names for these anonymous Seattle receivers all column. Like you’d heard of any of them before Sunday. You didn’t even blink when I typed “Dontelle Lockette,” admit it.)
7:48 (Second-and-10, Seattle 20): Lynch rambles for 5 before getting tackled by 18 Patriots.
Confession: Lynch won me over during Super Bowl week when he infuriated the MAWGM (Middle-Aged White Guy Media) by stonewalling them at media day, then double-downing on the F.U. with an unexpectedly gregarious performance as Gronk’s costar in Conan’s epic Mortal Kombat bit. What’s better than an athlete effectively admitting, “I’m actually entertaining and hilarious when I want to be, but I refuse to waste it on sports media assholes”?3 You have my full support, Marshawn. Come to the Pats this spring! The only quote you’ll ever have to say before and after games is “On to (the next opponent).” And we’ll give you and Gronk a reality show. You can’t lose. Name your price.
7:06 (Third-and-5, Seattle 25): Coming off an NBC/Collinsworth “Russell Wilson is so great!” montage that conveniently omits Wilson going 9-for-24 for 94 yards with zero touchdowns and four picks with only three minutes to go in the NFC title game, Wilson misses a wide-open Lynch for what should have been a 20-yard completion.
Important tangent: 2014 opponents killed the Patriots with the wheel route to running backs coming out of the backfield. In Friday’s Super Bag, I even picked “Lynch over 21.5 receiving yards” as one of my prop picks knowing Seattle was saving that play. Watching live with multiple Pats fans at my friend Jimmy’s house, we all agreed during the fourth quarter, “They haven’t run the wheel route yet, you know it’s coming.” Well, it came. Lynch came out of the backfield, pretended to run a slant, faked out Jamie Collins, turned it upfield … and for whatever reason, froze before continuing the route (and Wilson missed him).
“He didn’t really believe (Wilson) was gonna throw it to him, I guess,” Collinsworth says. BECAUSE RUSSELL WILSON WOULD NEVER MAKE A MISTAKE! AND HE’D NEVER LOOK ME IN THE EYE AND LIE!!!!!4
7:00 (Fourth-and-5, Seattle 25): Punt, fair catch by Edelman on New England’s 36. What a lucky three-and-out: The Pats got away with pass interference and survived their biggest Kryptonite play. They’re 64 yards from taking the lead (glass half-full), 30 yards from field goal range (glass half-empty) and minutes from the worst turnover of Brady’s career (glass totally empty).
This is one of my favorite Super Bowl wrinkles: Every two or three years, there’s that one real-time moment where you realize, Wow, this moment is bigger than the game … and this is the biggest game we have. This was one of those times. You could feel it.
6:52 (First-and-10, NE 36): Brady throws over the middle to Vereen … one-handed catch! “It is Shane Vereen time in this game,” Collinsworth says. I’m glad he brings this up.
Super Bowl XLII: Laurence Maroney — 14 carries, 36 yards, 1 TD
Super Bowl XLVI: BenJarvus Green-Ellis — 10 carries, 44 yards, 0 TD
Super Bowl XLIX: LeGarrette Blount — 14 carries, 40 yards, 0 TD
Just 38 carries for 120 rushing yards total in the last three Super Bowls? But wait …
Super Bowl XLII: Kevin Faulk — 7 catches, 52 yards, 0 TD
Super Bowl XLVI: Danny Woodhead — 4 catches, 42 yards, 1 TD
Super Bowl XLIX: Shane Vereen — 11 catches, 64 yards, 0 TD
The new-wave Patriots treat swing passes, screens and quick slants for that Faulk/Woodhead/Vereen target as pseudo-runs. They don’t care how their backs get yards, just that they’re getting yards. Check this out:
Vereen/Blount: 29 touches, 117 yards, 0 TD, 5 first downs
Lynch/Robert Turbin: 27 touches, 154 yards, 1 TD, 4 first downs
(The lesson, as always: This is why Belichick doesn’t spend money on running backs. I am not holding out hope for the Marshawn Lynch era.)
6:13 (Second-and-2, NE 44): Vereen for five more yards. First down. By the way, say good-bye to the Seahawks pass rush — they were already thin before Cliff Avril’s game-ending concussion, which allowed the Pats to neutralize a havoc-wreaking Michael Bennett shortly after he became the favorite in everyone’s “Which Player From Super Bowl XLIX Is Most Likely To Fail A Postgame PED Test?” office pool.
5:32 (First-and-10, NE 49): Edelman turns a short pass into a nine-yard gain by doing that crazy-low-to-the-ground-hop-forward thing. We don’t spend enough time figuring out how Belichick cloned Wes Welker with Edelman. Forget about Deflategate — that’s going to be the scandal that brings down the Belichick Patriots.
4:55 (Second-and-1, Seattle 42): Swing pass to Vereen for another first down … but wait! They call an illegal downfield block on Amendola even though (a) Seattle is setting more picks than Wes Unseld, and (b) again, SEATTLE SCORED BECAUSE THE UMPIRE RAN A PICK PLAY. Whatever.
4:47 (Second-and-11, NE 48): Seattle sends five guys … and an under-pressure Brady burns them with a Gronking To Remember over the middle for 20 huge yards. First down, field goal range. (Brady picked on the kind-of-secretly-overrated Chancellor for much of this drive, by the way.) That’s followed by a Vereen swing pass for no gain that Michaels describes verbatim like this …
“Brady will sling it out, Vereen, and there’s Richard Sherman, whose girlfriend is pregnant, she’s due in about two weeks, but she’s here. He’s ready to go to the hospital in uniform if need be.”
Hearing that reminds me of one of my favorite Jeff Cesario bits — about former NBC announcer Curt Gowdy’s penchant to throw obscure facts into the biggest moments of his broadcasts — so I make a mental note to find it on YouTube after the game. Of course, I find it because EVERYTHING is on YouTube.
Three seconds left in the game, Nordquist back to pass … HE WAS BORN IN A VOLVO … he’s scrambling …
4:05 (Second-and-10, Seattle 32): Gronk spreads out wide and dusts Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright for another first down. It remains unclear why the Pats didn’t just spread Gronk wide on every play this season just hoping that the other team would defend him with a linebacker or strong safety. He would have finished with 476 catches for 5,245 yards and 56 TDs.
3:34 (First-and-10, Seattle 19): Shotgun, stacked line of scrimmage, Seattle’s linebackers on their heels and playing five yards off the line … and Vereen slices through the line for seven yards. For the record — this will be remembered as one of the most important Patriots drives of all time (and a signature moment for Brady’s career), but this was one of their BEST drives ever, too. They worked Seattle’s much-ballyhooed defense like a speed bag for five solid minutes. Vintage Brady. I have been watching football for 40 years — for me, I would have wanted only Brady or Montana in this specific spot. Nobody else.
2:57 (Second-and-3, Seattle 12): Seattle switches to zone, so Brady finds an uncovered LaFell for seven yards. That’s followed by the play clock running down, a seemingly unimportant timeout by Brady (hold this thought), and Blount’s first-down run for two yards. In the moment, I would have bet anything on one of two play calls:
• Gronk spread wide, quick slant over the middle, tough catch in traffic while fending off borderline pass interference that never gets called, because Gronk gets officiated like NBA refs used to treat Shaq in the early 2000s. (I’m in full homer mode right now. Sorry.)
• Edelman dekes Simon with the same fake-the-slant-and-spin-outside move that already worked for Edelman’s previous almost-TD.
(Well, they didn’t spread Gronk out, so … )
2:06: Touchdown, Edelman!5 Patriots 28, Seahawks 24.
Brady’s last two drives: 13-for-15, 124 yards, 2 TDs. Brady on the second drive: 8-for-8. For the second time in his life, he can grab QB GOAT status if his defense can just hold for two minutes in Glendale, Arizona. This isn’t weird at all.
Quick tangent on Edelman (nine catches, 109 yards, one TD): Last winter, Edelman passed up more lucrative free-agent offers to stay with New England, and only because he was smart enough to realize, “My quarterback is Tom Freaking Brady.” He could have spent the past season in Jacksonville risking his body and brain to catch a never-ending slew of Blake Bortles wobblers over the middle; we never would have thought about him again. (See: Decker, Eric.) Instead, he’s a Super Bowl hero. A possibly groggy Super Bowl hero, but a Super Bowl hero.
I wrote about this story before, but after I ran into him with mutual friends during that shit-or-get-off-the-pot point of his free agency, Edelman raved about Brady for 10 solid minutes like John Travolta talking about David Miscavige. I came away thinking, That dude knows he won the wide receiver lottery. He’s not going anywhere. Well done, Edelman. He’s no longer just a good receiver with a name that makes him sound like the villain in a 1980s James Spader movie. He’s a Super Bowl champ, a perfect example of the whole “grass isn’t always greener” philosophy. And now, he gets to make up that lost money with his own cooking show. GIVE THIS MAN A SHOW! Screw it … I’m offering him a Grantland show! Name your price, Julian.
2:02: New England 28, Seattle 24. My emotions in this exact order …
1. Holy shit!!!!
2. TOM FAWKIN’ BRADY!!!!!!!!!!
3. Wait, I kinda wish we had scored AFTER the two-minute warning.
4. Does this game have to be in Glendale, Arizona?
5. How much time was left when Eli got the ball in Super Bowl XLII?6
6. (Looking around.) Who has cigarettes?
2:02: Collinsworth tells a story about Wilson remembering the time he held up his first Lombardi Trophy, immediately wanted one more and then decided he wanted six (like Michael Jordan). Did you ask him to look you in the eye before he told you that story, Cris? Holy mackerel, we have a lot of healing to do.
2:02: Kickoff … touchback. Now Seattle has three timeouts AND the two-minute warning. No squib kick there? Wait, am I questioning Belichick? My bad.
2:02 (First-and-10, Seattle 20): Seattle smartly spreads Lynch wide (oh God), where he pretends to run a slant (oh no), turns it outside (oh Jesus) and beats Jamie Collins down the sideline for 31 what-the-hell-just-happened yards. Why 2014 opponents didn’t figure out different ways to send their backs deep against New England’s linebackers over and over again will always be the third-biggest mystery of the 2014 Patriots season, narrowly trailing Deflategate and the fact that they spent their first-round pick on a guy with no ACLs. I was never NOT terrified of that situation. Two-minute warning.
(The dirty secret of the Belichick era: For whatever reason, his Pats kept giving up backbreaking drives at the end of Super Bowls. The 2002 Rams, the 2003 Panthers, the 2007 and 2011 Giants, now the 2015 Hawks … basically, every team they played except the one with an out-of-shape Donovan McNabb running the first-ever 10-minute drill.)
1:55 (First-and-10, NE 49): Wilson to Kearse deep over the middle … broken up perfectly by Malcolm “I’m About to Be Famous But You Don’t Realize It Yet” Butler. That’s followed by Wilson taking too much time and being forced to burn a timeout. HUGE MISTAKE. Collinsworth kills time by making a good point: Seattle has been practicing two-minute drills all season, only without no-name turned hero receiver Dave Matthews7 involved (four big catches, 109 yards, one TD, working in a Foot Locker earlier this season). Is that a disadvantage here? Maybe.
Speaking of disadvantages, every Pats fan is secretly bracing for (a) the wheel route to Lynch, or (b) the try-to-get-a–Brandon Browner–pass-interference play call that Seattle hasn’t uncorked from its pull-big-plays-out-of-our-asses wine bottle yet. Or as it’s more commonly known, The Eli Playbook. One of those plays is coming.
1:50 (Second-and-10, NE 49): And there it is! Broken up by Browner in the end zone! No flags! Wilson had time,8 couldn’t find anyone, then realized, Wait, I’ll try to get a flag on Browner and heaved it to Matthews. Incomplete, no flags. (Exhale.) That’s one of the things I will remember about the 2014 season: Anytime an opponent threw deep and I realized Browner was involved, dread lingered somewhere between “Uh-oh, I can’t find my wallet” and “Uh-oh, my child is being dangled off a balcony.”
1:41 (Third-and-10, NE 49): Wilson hits Frank Lockette for a crucial first down thanks to a rattled Logan Ryan playing six yards off the line of scrimmage and running backward at the snap. Poor Ryan lost his confidence in the first half,9 inspired a round of bitter “We should take Ryan out and put in Ras-I Dowling” jokes all across New England and it only got worse from there. Was Logan Ryan the poor man’s Tharold Simon of Super Bowl XLIX, or was Tharold Simon the poor man’s Logan Ryan? It’s hard to say.
1:25: Collinsworth breaks down the whole Ryan debacle as we see a close-up of Ryan defending Antonio Lockette, then adds, “Lockette’s a guy with brilliant speed, so Ryan has to be careful.” And as those words are ripping the oxygen from my lungs …
1:14 (First-and-10, NE 38): A quick recap of my emotions during this play …
1. Oh, no, he’s throwing deep.
2. Good, that’s not Ryan or Browner.
3. What a play by Butler!
4. Why did it seem like Kearse caught it even though Michaels just said it got broken up?
5. Why did Butler hop up and desperately push Kearse out of bounds?
6. Why does Michaels seem so excited all of a sudden?
7. Wait …
And then everything went numb.
For like three minutes.
Couldn’t react. Couldn’t feel anything.
People were yelling in disbelief all around me … I couldn’t move. They showed the replay. The football bounced off Kearse’s hands, Ryan’s hands and back up into the air. As Kearse fell on his back and tried to find the ball, safety Duron Harmon jumped over his head. Naturally, the football plopped back down off Kearse’s left leg and then his right leg, buying him time to tip it with his right hand, then it fell into his hands as he remained on his back. Also, he gave birth to a nine-pound baby just because everything else wasn’t unbelievable enough.
It’s like God decided, “What could be worse than the Helmet Catch? What if I created a catch under the exact same circumstances, with the exact same stakes, in the exact same building, with the exact same defense out there, only this time, the football hits seven body parts before it’s caught? Would that clinch Tyree 2.0 status? Should I throw in a couple more body parts, or are we good with seven?”
And if that weren’t enough …
After two gut-wrenching replays sandwiched the déjà vu shot of a stunned Brady looking on in disbelief, Michaels smartly remembered, “This was where Tyree had the helmet catch — this is the scene of the crime” as NBC rolled off the Helmet Catch replay.
I mean, what are the odds? Seriously?
Would you believe a Gone Girl sequel in which Ben Affleck’s character gets framed for the murder of his second wife, Amazing Emily, who turns out to be just as crazy in all the same ways as Amazing Amy? You’d never buy this in a million years, right? Well, the Lap Dance Catch happened.10 The Lap Dance Catch somehow trumped the Helmet Catch. It was even MORE ridiculous. My god. Why do we follow sports? Why do we do this to ourselves?
And no, I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had gone to the game. I can’t even imagine. Thank god I didn’t go to the game.
(Or so I thought at the time … )
(And as I was thinking all of these things, I didn’t even realize that Seattle had blown its second timeout. Or that Belichick was standing there for three idle minutes playing out all the possible scenarios in his head.)
1:06 (First-and-goal, NE 5): Beast Mode rambles left and heads for the end zone (I’ll admit it: I absolutely wanted him to score) before Patrick Chung (shoestring grab to slow him down) and Dont’a Hightower (got there just in time) bring him down at the 1.11 Timeout, Patriots. Also, I’m still dead inside. This is what Hannibal Lecter felt like after Murder Victim No. 12, when he was running out of ways to stay interested and started telling himself things like, “Maybe I could EAT the victims.” I am dead inside. I can’t feel anything.
0:58 (Second-and-goal, NE 1): Wait, they’re not calling timeout.
0:56: Call timeout.
0:50: CALL TIMEOUT!!!!!!!
0:48: I AM NO LONGER DEAD INSIDE!
0:45: WHAT IS HAPPENING?
0:40: I AM HAVING A STROKE!
0:32: OK, let’s shift into present-day mode. We know what happened now, but it made no sense at the time (and took me nearly 24 hours to understand). This Washington Post piece helped. A long, fascinating email from a poker player helped. Talking to two of my Patriots sources helped. Watching the game tape over and over again definitely helped.
Here’s what we know: Seattle had already wasted two timeouts, so it had to pass on second or third down. If it ran Lynch on second down and didn’t score, it would have had to burn the third timeout and pass on third down, too.
But the Seahawks were expecting Belichick to call timeout. Only he didn’t. Remember that seemingly unimportant timeout that Brady wasted? That made it impossible for New England to stop the clock three times. This was now a poker game. What do you do when you know you have the lousier hand? You bluff.
I believe he hatched this plan during Seattle’s second timeout: If Lynch doesn’t score on first down, here’s what I am doing next. He liked having those 50-50 pass odds on second down. He wanted the game to speed up. He wanted confusion and chaos. He wanted that in-game pressure to tilt Seattle’s way. If you’ve ever been at the Super Bowl for a big win-or-go-home drive inside the 10, it’s more chaotic than you’d ever imagine. I remember being there when the 2012 Niners drove for a first-and-goal against the Ravens, seemed like they were scoring, failed on first down and then, suddenly, the energy in the building changed. Everything got tense. You could feel it. Like being on a speedboat that’s going a little too fast.
Belichick made an emergency plan, felt that in-stadium energy shifting after Lynch’s first-down run, then thought to himself, One timeout, one yard to go. They’re passing — either a quick slant or Wilson rolling out. We spent the whole week practicing how to defend both plays. We can absolutely stop this.12 Remember, Butler told reporters afterward that they’d specifically practiced to defend THIS PASS PLAY. And remember …
Door A: Goal-line stand, Pats win or lose.
Door B: Timeout, New England. The Seahawks get to regroup, talk it over and think of their perfect play. If they score on second down, Brady has to dink-and-dunk for 55 yards in less than 50 seconds, against the league’s best secondary, with one timeout and no deep threats. If they don’t score (and Belichick uses his last timeout), but they score on third down, now Brady’s probably-doomed dink-and-dunk routine is happening in less than 45 seconds with NO timeouts. (And Gostkowski needs to nail his field goal. And overtime needs to go the right way …)
Don’t forget — Belichick created the defensive plan that stymied the 1990 Bills. He helped Bill Parcells drag Vinny Testaverde to a freaking AFC Championship Game. He went 5-11 in his first Pats season, and from that point on, he has gone 170-54 in the regular season and 21-8 in the playoffs (including Sunday). He has the most playoff wins ever. He’s one of two head coaches to win four Super Bowls. He has coached a record six Super Bowl teams. He has won 11 of the last 12 AFC East titles. He’s the only coach to ever finish 16-0 in the regular season. He’s the only active member of the 200-win club (only seven people in the club, by the way), the only active coach with more than 170 wins, and one of four coaches who won 100 more games than they lost. The last time Belichick finished below .500, Bill Clinton was president.
Pardon my French, but I’m going out on a limb and saying it wasn’t a fucking accident that Belichick never called timeout. He said to himself, We have a better chance of stoning them than we do of getting that field goal.13 He redirected the pressure to Seattle’s side and hoped they’d implode. Well …
0:30: There’s still confusion on Seattle’s side. Lynch is on the right and Wilson tells him to shift to the left. So he does. Seattle is about to run a slant pass out of a three-receiver set against an eight-man front and three cornerbacks … in other words, it’s the right defense for this specific situation. Belichick knows it. Pete Carroll doesn’t realize it. Leading to …
0:26 (Second-and-goal, NE 1): “Pass is … INTERCEPTED AT THE GOAL LINE BY MALCOLM BUTLER! UNREAL!!!!”14
My scattered thoughts …
1. I actually think the Butler pick was bigger than the Roberts steal. It’s the single biggest either/or play in the history of Boston sports … and probably NFL history, too. If Butler picks it off, the Patriots win the Super Bowl. If he’s a split-second late, or he doesn’t hold on to the ball, they probably lose the Super Bowl. There’s no in-between. It’s either the greatest or the second-greatest interception in Super Bowl history, depending on how you feel about James Harrison’s 100-yard scamper. You could make a legitimate case that it’s the most important defensive play in NFL history. Other than that, no big deal.
2. There’s a short list of unlikely Boston heroes who helped win titles (Butler, Gerald Henderson, Dave Roberts, Glenn McDonald) and a not-quite-as-short list of unforgettable plays in big moments (Hendu’s homer, Fisk’s homer, Henderson’s steal, Bird’s steal, Orr’s Cup winner, Vinatieri’s 48-yarder in Super Bowl XXXVI, Ortiz’s game winners in Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS, etc., etc.). Butler lives on both lists for the rest of eternity. He’s football Dave Roberts crossed with Gerald Henderson, but with a little Hendu thrown in, only if you super-sized all three plays.
3. As for the fan side of this whole thing, here’s a great email from Vermont reader Ben Finer: “The last three plays [of Seattle’s last drive] were like the Aaron Boone home run in 2003 followed by the 0-3 comeback back in 2004, but without the 12 months in between.” Exactly.
4. The Seahawks took too much heat for the final play call; statistically, it’s slightly less likely to throw a pick than fumble from the 1 (according to 2014 data, anyway). You also had Carroll’s lingering 2006 Rose Bowl shadow (the generic fourth-and-2 call to LenDale White that got stuffed and cost USC the game), as well as their balls-to-the-wall attitude in general (the same mentality that got the Seahawks that end-of-the-first-half touchdown and the fake field goal touchdown two weeks ago). That’s not a switch you shut off in big moments. You are who you are.
Their biggest mistake (in my opinion) was not rolling Wilson out for a safer run/throw/throw-it-away play. Throwing a quick slant to a below-average receiver (Lockette) carried too much unnecessary risk. This wasn’t Randall Cobb or Edelman or Dez Bryant. What if the ball bounced off Lockette’s hands or shoulder pads and went popping up in the air? What if the ball got tipped? This wasn’t a stupid call as much as an arrogant one. Then again, look at this …
If you’re Wilson, don’t you happily throw that ball every time? Can’t we just say that Butler made an all-time unbelievable play? If Revis made it, wouldn’t it have been treated differently?
5. Put it this way: At least 12 Patriots fans/friends sent me some variation of the “It took 17 years, but Pete Carroll finally came through for us!” joke. About two weeks from now, after I am finished digesting every other angle of this game, I will be ready to savor the Coach Fredo–related subplots from this game. Super Bowl XLIX was like a Paul Thomas Anderson movie; you need to watch it 12 times before you can process everything.
6. An email from last week’s Super Bag …
“Q: Lions lose in gut wrenching fashion to Cowboys.
Cowboys lose in gut wrenching fashion to Packers.
Packers lose in gut wrenching fashion to Seahawks.
Seahawks lose in gut wrenching fashion to Pats.
(I mean … )
0:20 (First-and-10, NE 1): Do you take the safety here? No way. You have Brady sneak it forward, even as Ampipe High’s goal-line fumble in All the Right Moves loomed over everything. But before he took the snap, Brady and Belichick had one more masterstroke up their sleeve … the hard count! Did Bennett bite? Of course he did! Game, set, match. Only one play was left: Seattle started an Anchorman brawl on Brady’s next kneel, with only one Seahawk getting thrown out even though Gronk fended them off by punching multiple attackers and killing someone with a trident. Stay classy, Seattle.
0:00: Your Super Bowl XLIX champions … the New England Patriots. They were dead in Week 4. They looked dead again in Week 19. They were dead and buried at the 59-minute mark of Week 21. Every time, they rallied back. And, look, you don’t want to hear someone who just rooted for four Super Bowl champs saying anything other than, “That was awesome,” even if this title meant just as much to Patriots fans as the 2014 title meant to Spurs fans. But hear me out.
When you’ve been rooting for the same people for 15 years, at some point the stakes become greater. You want that last exclamation-point title. (Just ask Spurs fans.) You want to feel like you rooted for a dynasty, or something close to it, instead of just “a team that won a couple of times.” You want to say that you rooted for the best coach ever and the best quarterback ever, and you want to be constantly amazed that they showed up to save your sad-sack franchise at the exact same time. Patriots fans took Deflategate personally, and with reason — it was a shoddily reported story that never added up. Belichick and Robert Kraft remained defiant that the team did nothing wrong; the fans followed suit. It’s always fun to root for a champ, but when it becomes “us against them,” it resonates in a totally different way.
That exclamation-point title happened only after a legitimately astounding sequence: Kearse’s stomach-punch catch; Belichick bucking conventional wisdom and mind-f’ing Carroll; Seattle sticking with a pass play against the wrong defense, looking disorganized and plowing ahead anyway; then Butler jumping the route like he was being fast-forwarded, crushing the receiver, holding on to a bullet pass AND lurching forward to avoid the safety. This sideline camera view of the pick was incredible (I hope YouTube keeps it up) …
Check out Butler walking up to Browner and warning him what’s coming.
Check out Browner foiling the pick play by jumping right into Kearse and holding him so he doesn’t pick Butler.
Check out Butler sprinting at warp speed to the exact spot where the ball was heading. He beat Seattle’s own receiver to the spot. Think about that for a second.
And so an undrafted rookie made the biggest defensive play in Super Bowl history. But how much credit does Belichick get? People bring up his savvy game plans against the 1990 Bills and 2001 Rams, or the ballsy Brady-over-Bledsoe decision, or 11 wins without Brady in 2008, or a Super Bowl win with Troy Brown playing nickelback, or even the controversial fourth-down call against Indy that didn’t work and became The Call That Built The Sloan Conference. They bring up Spygate, his disheveled outfits, his salty press conferences, even his bad cop/good cop relationship with the Krafts. They bring up how he mastered the art of trading down in drafts and coldly dumping key players one year too soon instead of one year too late. They bring up his Rain Man–like ability to relentlessly look forward without ever dwelling on the past.
On to Baltimore. On to Indianapolis. On to Seattle.
He’s a coaching machine. There’s a human being lurking under there, someone whom his friends swear by, but Belichick never allows the public to see it. He uses Patriots fans the same way we use him and the Krafts use him. We just want to win. We don’t care that America doesn’t like him. We stay out of his way. Just don’t quit on us. Don’t retire. Don’t announce out of the blue, “I’m good, I’m done, see you later.” You can’t even compare him to other football coaches. Who was Belichick’s competition these last 15 years? Andy Reid? Tony Dungy? Bill Cowher? Tom Coughlin? Please.
And yet, Belichick never had that one signature moment. We never caught it when it happened in this Seahawks game — that’s how good this one was. We thought he fell asleep. We thought he froze. Repeat: We thought Bill Belichick froze.
You know what really happened? Belichick trusted seven months of practice and two weeks of scouting, and he trusted the fact that he’d already prepared a 24-year-old undrafted rookie to react perfectly, historically and remarkably if that slant was coming. He’ll never get credit because the whole thing seemed too improbable. After all, how could a coach behave THAT differently from every other coach in that exact same spot?
The answer: He’s not like any other coach. Of anyone — seriously, of anyone — he’s the one guy who would stand there and say, “You know what? I think Pete Carroll might screw this up. I’m not doing anything even if I don’t have the best hand. I’m gonna let him raise the pot. CHECK.” The rest was history. Whenever you’re arguing about the greatest NFL coaches of all time, just remember the final minute of Super Bowl XLIX. The man finally gave us his version of Jordan’s game winner in the ’98 Finals. And like everything else that happened with the great Bill Belichick over the years, nobody totally believed him.
Filed Under: New England Patriots, Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, Richard Sherman, Marshawn Lynch, Julian Edelman, 2015 NFL Playoffs, Super Bowl XLIX, Malcolm Butler