Point Blank – February 3
“The Play’s the Thing” - Pete Carroll* (*actually, Darrell Bevell) wasn’t wrong…The Hornets sting again, without Kemba…Cooking up a Stew in Logan…
Now time to finish off the splendid Shakespearean drama of the Super Bowl that was, one that will be discussed for the ages, but possibly over time viewed differently than the fires first lit by the Sports Mediaverse in the immediate aftermath. There was such a surreal aspect to it that I thought that perhaps I had been wrong all along as a doubter, and that there really was something to those “vortexes” around Sedona, with them perhaps drifting their way towards Glendale late on Sunday evening. But having been sobered by sitting through so many surreal visions, it is time to steer back towards reality.
(By the way, I love Sedona; the area is beautiful; vortexes are nonsense).
I understand deadline pressure, having worked for several years as a newspaper reporter many moons ago, and have benefitted greatly by learning those disciplines. I also understand that in the 2015 media world, many feel compelled to shout so that they can be heard. It is when folks shout too quickly that distortions take place, and there have been more than enough of them since the game ended. Like the absurd number of headlines, sound bytes, tweets, and forum postings lambasting Carroll. Was running the ball, instead of that Russell Wilson pass, really “the most obvious play call in the history of Super Bowls”, as a writer exclaimed at ESPN.com? One would think that a team with a big lead kneeling down in the final seconds, which has happened dozens of times, might logically be considered as a bit more “obvious” But such were the nature of the shouts. Now that they have died down, time to talk some actual Football Science.
Second-and-goal at the one-yard line, less than a minute to play, down four. The top priority, of course, is to score a touchdown to take the lead. The second priority is to sequence the plays so that you can get off all three available snaps. The third is to reduce the clock to limit the prospects of the Patriots getting the ball back down by three, only needing a FG to take the game to OT.
The Seahawks were positioning themselves to accomplish all three goals. But because Bill Belichick allowed the clock to run, instead of using time outs of his own, it became a sequence that was far from clear-cut on the play that will go down in history. So while you may have read such journalistic delights as TIME’s “Pete Carroll’s Horrendous Play Call Cost Seahawks Players $3 Million”, one of my favorites from that Vortex period of alternative reality (never mind that Carroll did not even call the play, which was sent in by OC Bevell), let’s start with one of the basics –
Item: Seattle was going to need to throw at least one pass
OK, it can be debated about whether snapping the second-down play at 26 seconds, instead of leaving a few more ticks on the clock, was savvy. That is a good discussion, but would make this treatise run too long. But by going at 0:26, Carroll kept all goals in play. Score, and Tom Brady gets the ball with about 20 seconds remaining. Not bad. But by taking it down to 0:26, it was going to force a pass play into the sequence. Three runs, even with a time-out, would have been tough. A failed run on second-down would force the final Seattle time-out at about those same 20 seconds as the projected New England possession, and while you can run twice in that time, it is not easy – the second run would come with the clock ticking, and the players would be forced to scramble to line up quickly and properly, since an offensive penalty would call for a run-off to end the game. That is not the best way for an OL to get leverage for a running play.
This matters - on second down, the defense can not commit fully to the run or the pass, but if a run fails, and a time-out is called, on third down the defense is allowed to think more pass than run. So if you need to throw, second down is the most favorable. Even when you have Marshawn Lynch.
Item: Carroll has seen every rush from the “Beast Mode”…
...but apparently many in the Sports Mediaverse have not. There are all of these visions of Lynch running over defenders that make it seem like such a natural to go to him in that situation. But over his career he has carried the ball 35 times from the one-yard line, and only scored on 15 occasions, including just once in five tries this season. Over the time-span of his five NFL campaigns, 39 RBs have had at least 10 carries from the one, and Lynch only rates #30 in conversion rate. He is indeed a Beast when he gets up to speed and can bull his way through defenders, but it is the process of getting up to speed that matters near the goal line, especially against the likes of Vince Woolfork and the eight DL/LB goal line package that Belichick sent in for the play.
With both the second-down/third-down scenario making a pass on the first play more likely to take advantage of the defense, and Lynch’s track record for these plays weighed against going into the teeth of a loaded-up Patriot defensive front, one can make a genuine case that not only was it not “the most ill advised pass in NFL history”, which one scribe ludicrously labeled it in the USA Today (the headline read “Bill Belichick ingeniously baited Seattle into that Super Bowl-losing pass”), but that the percentages may well have made it the savvy call.
Item: About that Belichick “genius”…
I didn’t agree with the Belichick strategy of not using either of his two time-outs, after Lynch ran to the one on first down. As the clock ticked down it was rather simple – the weight of the Super Bowl was put on his defense to stop the Seahawks from scoring with three chances to snap the ball a yard away from the goal line. Brady’s season was declared over. Had time-outs been used, a Seattle TD on second down would have given the New England offense the ball and a time-out at around 50 seconds, and a TD on third down would mean possession with no time-outs and around 44-45 seconds. The only way the Patriots would not have seen the ball again was if the game came down to one last snap, on fourth down (after a failed third-down play, Seattle would have let the clock run down, before calling a time-out). Either way, New England was going to have to stop three plays, but by using the time-outs there was still at least a chance if the Seahawks scored on second- or third-down. By not using them, any such opportunity was traded away, in exchange for what we will deal with in a moment.
It should also be noted that the other prime reason that Belichick did not use his time-outs is because he only had two, having inexplicably burned one on that first-and-goal setting with 2:57 remaining. That time-out followed a short pass completion of seven yards to Brandon LaFell, which should not have caused any disruption in the flow of the drive. It had a chance to be a significant mistake, but it will not be remembered.
OK, Belichick is a genius at this sport. Accepted. But those that try to attribute this win to the genius of his particular strategy have to deal with the cards that he played on second down. As for “baiting” the Seahawks into a mistake, how did the play unfold? Seattle spread the field to throw against that goal-line defense, with all three WRs isolated one-on-one. The choice that Wilson made was to go to the 6-2 Robert Lockette against 5-11 Malcom Butler, as in the "undrafted rookie that had only been on the field for 194 defensive snaps all season" Butler, on a variation of a “rub” play. At the snap, it was set up ideally for Seattle, the offense having a chance to exploit a defense that was in the wrong personnel grouping for what that was coming. So much for baiting…
As a quick aside, any pundit could have also written that Belichick was baiting Carroll had he used his time-outs. The claim would be that it would have forced the Seahawks to run on second down, in order to burn off the final Patriot stoppage, and hence make the play call easier to anticipate. It would have been easy to ascribe genius regardless of which strategy was taken, which enables a rubber-stamp post-game narrative. Confirmation Bias. As long as it worked, of course. This one did, but not necessarily for the right reasons.
Belichick ended up pushing his chips all-in on a weak hand, but he managed to draw a favorable card. That happens. The Pats were in the wrong defensive package on the most likely down of the sequence for the Seahawks to throw the ball, with only three DBs, and with the championship on the line had a play directed against arguably the weakest defender they had on the field. How much of an “inside straight” was this? There were 108 passes thrown from the one-yard line in the NFL this season - 66 were completed for TDs, and none were intercepted. Wilson's career INT rate in the red zone is bettered only by Aaron Rodgers. This was not the genius of design, it was an inexperienced CB stepping up and making an unlikely play (a real key, and one that will not be recognized nearly enough, was Brandon Browner not getting pushed back into the end zone by Jermaine Kearse, which is what enabled Butler to go right to the spot of the throw, instead of having to loop around Browner, the forced maneuver that Seattle had in mind). Had Wilson read Butler’s anticipation and pump-faked, Lockette would have run all alone to the middle of the end zone; there were no defenders left…
The Seahawks beat the Patriots on the play call. They just did not beat them on the play.
And so the NFL season comes to an end, and a largely misunderstood ending at that. But one of the consistent themes throughout this season is to use the Sports Mediaverse as a tool in the process of getting ahead of the game. When false perceptions get published, and occasionally go viral, they often make their way into the thought processes of the marketplace, which then creates opportunities. There will not be anything from Sunday’s takeaway that leads to that, but it does offer a classic setting of just how much information gets into the mainstream without much genuine thought or analysis. We may pick on the folks that do that at times, but we whole-heartedly love the fact that they are there.
About Last Night…
Charlotte is now sitting in the #8 slot in the Eastern Conference off of last night’s 92-88 win at Washington, just a half-game behind #7 Miami, and while the longer-term surge has reached 10-3, including six road wins, what is becoming intriguing, and also a potential conundrum, is the recent run without Kemba Walker, who leads the team in minutes, points, assists and steals per game. He has missed five of the last seven outings, and in those five the Hornets went 4-1 SU and 5-0 ATS, beating the market expectations by a rather stunning 67.5 points.
Without Walker on the floor the ball is moving well – last night five players scored between 12-18 points, and there were only 11 turnovers. In the previous win at Denver six players reached double figures, and there were only 10 turnovers. And note that those last two wins came despite a horrific 4-26 from beyond the arc. When a team shoots that poorly from long range, and still wins a pair on the road, they are doing a lot of things right.
But now consider this – the run began on January 3, a 5-0 SU and ATS in which Walker averaged 30.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists. In that stretch, he was playing the best basketball of his career. But while he does lead the team in scoring, it has come at a 39.9 success rate from the field. Does the confidence that the others are now developing mean that he can be more of a distributor and less of a shooter on his return? In his college career, Walker was more about winning than personal numbers, and it led to a National Championship with Connecticut. With the Hornets, there had always been a fine line between him dominating the ball on offense because that was his game, or because the other options simply were not there. Those options are now developing, which means putting his return under the microscope to see if the proper chemistry can be developed. There is upside here, if the pieces can fit.
In the Sights…
Back on New Year’s eve there was a take on “’Capping the Coaches”, and how there are particular matchups that can be found that the markets do not factor for properly, if at all. There is just such a setting tonight, one that brings no adjustment at all from some of the base numbers, as #546 Utah State is placed in the home underdog role vs. Boise State. Stew Morrill’s motion offense has been difficult for Leon Rice to decipher, and that may well be the case again.
Morrill is 5-1 SU and 6-0 ATS in head-to-heads vs. Rice, beating the closing-line expectations by 42 points in the process, a meaningful 7.0 per game. So while the markets shade Boise just a bit for having revenge from that earlier 62-61 home loss to the Aggies, this is anything but a confident favorite in this matchup. It isn’t just Morrill vs. Rice in particular that can impact the mind-set, but fact that the Broncos are 0-18 all-time at Dee Glen Smith Spectrum that can play a part. Yes, the current Boise players contributed precious little to that run, but it is what they are going to read about in the morning papers, and does not help their collective psyche at all.
Here is what also matters – a savvy guy like Morrill can be at his best in second-look situations, because of his library of options on offense (truly one of the deepest playbooks in the nation; we will miss him when he retires after this season), and experience at motivating players. So is the Boise revenge a major factor? Not if Morrill can install a revenge aspect into this team as well. Here is the takeaway he is handing his players from that first win – “Maybe we should have lost … When you look at the (last) 10 minutes where we played so poorly, we just can’t let that happen again.”
You can find both Side and Total value here, with a +2 and Over 129 only needing the Aggies to get to 64 points to guarantee a split, and making you alive to win both tickets. They have averaged 72.3 ppg in the Morrill/Rice head-to-heads, and note that while the first meeting only played to 123, that was a game in which there were precious few whistles (only 20 FT attempts), with a 72-point first half slowing way down at crunch time – the game was sitting on 100 with 9:46 to play. In a key setting in the Mountain West race, where only two games separate #1 from #7, expect both sides to scramble hard late, not willing to go down without a fight, which could make the end-game flow far different from the first encounter. A 50-50 Dog & Over ticket creates opportunity.
This Week at Point Blank
Monday: What a “Bettor Better Know” – Weekend Starting Five