The longest yard

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The loneliest man in football was shell-shocked and disoriented, but he already knew what everyone thought. Pete Carroll had just lost the Super Bowl. He just had lost the Super Bowl with a decision that he could never explain well enough, a decision that even his players didn’t really understand, a decision that sports fans will talk about for as long as Super Bowls are played.

He already knew. This Sunday in Arizona had been a crazy fireworks display: four touchdown passes from Tom Brady; bulldozer running from Marshawn Lynch; impossible receptions from an unknown named Chris Matthews; the most ridiculous Super Bowl catch since a guy named David Tyree clamped a football to his helmet; dancing sharks; crass celebrations; melancholy commercials; a flying Katy Perry. It was this dense day, too many things happening, and then, suddenly, everything else was gone.

And all that was left was the loneliest man in football trying to explain.

“All the things that happened before (the play) are meaningless to you now,” Carroll said as he began an explanation he knew would satisfy exactly no one. He looked tired. He looked time-worn. Pete Carroll has long been one of those people who, despite the gray hair, seemed younger than his age of 63. In this moment, though, his face showed every one of his years.

“Let me just tell you what happened,” he said.

* * *

The happiest man in football looked unhappy, but everybody knows that’s Bill Belichick’s shtick by now. He can’t look happy. It wouldn’t be appropriate, not after all these years of monotone grumpiness. Richard Petty always wears his cowboy hat. Bono always wears his sunglasses. Steve Jobs always wore a black mock turtleneck. And Bill Belichick wears a hoodie and a scowl that tells you he’d rather be watching film somewhere. It’s his thing.

But underneath, he was happy; he had to be happy. It had been 10 years since his Patriots had won a Super Bowl, 10 long years where he had been called cheater in many different languages, when the cultural references to him had evolved from Darth Vader to Voldemort.

He celebrated the last Super Bowl with his father, Steve, a coach’s coach, the man who had taught him everything worth knowing. Steve died later that year. “I’m sure he was watching,” Bill said after this Super Bowl victory, after the Patriots beat Seattle 28-24 Sunday. He got just slightly teary eyed. Then the scowl returned.

“What would you have done if you had been in Seattle’s position, hypothetically?” he was asked, referring to the play that had won him his fourth Super Bowl.

“I don’t deal in hypotheticals,” he grumped.

The only time Bill Belichick smiled was when he said that he planned to celebrate this victory with his son who is a member of the team’s staff. Bill’s son is also named Steve.

* * *

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The Seahawks had the ball at the 1-yard line, they trailed by four points, and the clock was winding down. There was less than a minute left, then there were 45 seconds left, then 30 seconds, and the Seahawks wanted the clock to keep running. They did not want to leave any time on the clock for Tom Brady and the Patriots after they scored the go-ahead touchdown.

There was absolutely no doubt what the Seahawks would do: They would give the ball to the best goal-line running back in the NFL, Marshawn Lynch. There was no other option. Lynch led the NFL in rushing touchdowns in each of the last two seasons. He is a bowling-ball runner, one of the toughest men in NFL history to tackle. And Lynch was famous for being at his Beast Mode best in the fourth quarter. “One thing we know about him,” Patriots safety Patrick Chung had said in the days leading up to the game, “is that he gets stronger as the game goes along.”

The Patriots sent out their goal-line defense, of course, but for some reason, this surprised the Seahawks. Seattle had sent out a spread offense with three receivers, one of them a 28-year-old, well traveled receiver named Ricardo Lockette. He had caught 11 passes all season. The Seahawks had hoped that Belichick and Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia would send out defensive backs to match with those receivers. Instead the Patriots put eight men in the middle of the field and intended to do the best they could to keep Marshawn Lynch out of the end zone.

The Patriots’ defensive strategy popped a few fuses in the mind of Pete Carroll.

The loneliest man in the football decided Seattle would throw the ball.

“We threw the ball so we wouldn’t be outmatched,” Pete Carroll said, and even while he was saying it you wondered if he believed it himself.

* * *

There were a dozen times in this game when the Patriots looked done. Tom Brady threw a couple of interceptions that had tilted the game toward Seattle. New England’s defense couldn’t quite wrap up Marshawn Lynch, could not quite trap quarterback Russell Wilson, could not quite get the offense moving. Seattle led by 10 points when the third quarter ended.

But there’s something about these Patriots that Bill Belichick likes, something he saw in their embarrassing 41-14 loss to Kansas City back in September. It was after that game that people began writing eulogies for Tom Brady’s career and started to talk about the end of the Patriots’ dominance … but Belichick saw something different. Maybe he just WANTED to see something different. Coaches are like that. Belichick is like that.

“They played to the end,” Belichick said of his team that day in Kansas City. This is the sort of thing that he will build on. Now, maybe the Patriots really played hard to the end that day, maybe they didn’t, but Belichick believed it. He saw something resilient in the team. He hammered away at that theme, worked to convince them that they were special, that they never gave up, that they could overcome anything. And Belichick is convincing when he wants to be.

New England won seven in a row and cruised to the best record in the conference. When they looked down and out against Baltimore in the playoffs, they found a way to win. All week in Arizona, the players talked about how nothing can dissuade them. And when they trailed Seattle by 10 in the fourth quarter, the predictable happened. Tom Brady got hot, the defense got the ball back, New England scored two touchdowns and took back the lead.

Then came Seattle’s final drive. Russell Wilson has his own magic. He connected with Marshawn Lynch for 31 yards. On third-and-long, he connected with Lockette to keep things going. On the next play, Wilson fired a long pass to receiver Jermaine Kearse, who promptly dropped it. Only … he didn’t drop it. In this NFL year of amazing catches, this was the craziest of them all. The ball hit him in the legs, bounced over to his hands, was knocked back in the air somehow. Then he caught it.

“Incomplete,” Belichick shouted, but it wasn’t. It was, instead, impossible. There is no other word. In a week where so much of the talk was about deflated footballs, this one looked inflated like a balloon. Kearse caught the ball at the Patriots’ 5-yard line, there was just over a minute left, and every football fan in America thought back to the Tyree catch, the one that more than any other had broken Bill Belichick’s heart. It was going to happen again.

One Marshawn Lynch run later, the ball was at the 1 and the Seahawks were ready to take it in, ready to have Lynch smash the ball in and set off a mini earthquake in Arizona.

“Did you ever see a catch like that?” Belichick was asked about Kearse’s miracle.

“Yeah,” Belichick said.

* * *

From the 1, the Seahawks decided to run a little crossing pattern — sometimes called a pick play. Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had decided this play would exploit the Patriots’ goal line defense. “They had all their big guys out there,” he said. “I didn’t want to waste a run play against their goal line guys.”

As Carroll talked about it you realized: He did not even expect the pass to score a touchdown. “If we score, we do,” he said. “If we don’t then we’ll run it on third and fourth down.” Carroll, in that pressurized moment, was more worried about running time off the clock than scoring the game-crushing touchdown.

The idea of the play was a common one in the NFL: Kearse would run straight up field, directly into his defender, moving him off the spot. Lockette would then run behind him and catch the ball on a quick slant. If done right, Kearse would have his defender locked up and unable to make a play on the ball while Lockette’s defender – in this case a rookie free agent named Malcolm Butler – would not have the time to run around the traffic and get to the football.

“It’s a good play,” Bevell said. “It was the right call.”

Butler sure thought so. He knew the play was coming, sensed it because of the way the Seahwaks lined up and because of the way Wilson looked his way. He raced directly to the spot where he sensed Wilson would throw. When he got there, he fought with Lockette for the ball. It was no fight at all. Butler bumped Lockette out of the way, picked off the pass, won the game and sealed Pete Carroll’s fate. Marshawn Lynch was on the other side of the field.

“I’ll tell you again if you want to hear it again,” Carroll said as he repeated his explanation.

* * *

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Reporters often ask Bill Belichick how he feels about stuff, which is pretty pointless because even if Belichick does feel things, he isn’t about to share those feelings. When people asked him if he was hurt by all the allegations that he and the Patriots cheated by deflating footballs and spying on other teams and whatever other nefarious things he might have done, he shrugged and just said he isn’t talking about that anymore.

When he’s asked how he felt about tying Chuck Noll’s record for four Super Bowl victories as a head coach, he shrugged, talked about the respect he had for Noll and said he isn’t talking about that stuff either.

But when asked how he felt the moment that Malcolm Butler intercepted that pass, the look was a little different. His eyes lit up a little bit. His mouth curled into something that is almost a smile. Belichick might say that he would rather be up 28-24 than down but with the ball at the 1-yard line, but that’s almost certainly not true. He knew that the Seahawks were about to give the ball to Marshawn Lynch and that Lynch probably was going to score (there was even some thought the Patriots should LET him score), and that New England was going to be in a whole heap of trouble.

Instead, Malcolm Butler jumped the route and made the interception.

“What was the feeling?” Belichick was asked.

“Ecstasy,” he said quickly.

* * *

When the game ended, Pete Carroll went into the locker room and told his players that he – and he alone – had cost them the Super Bowl. He did not try to explain beyond that. There was no time for explanations and, anyway, they knew his heart. They knew how much he was hurting.

What they did not know – what they could not know – was what caused Pete Carroll to lose all sense of the moment and make the most inexplicable coaching decision since … what? Alabama’s Nick Saban trying that long field goal against Auburn? Red Sox manager Grady Little letting Pedro pitch after he had run out of gas? Red Sox manager John McNamara not pulling Bill Buckner for a defensive replacement in Game 6 of the World Series? The Soviet hockey coach pulling goalie supreme Vladislav Tretiak after the first period in the 1980 Olympics?

“I don’t understand how you don’t give it to the best back in the league on not-even the 1-yard line,” Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin said. “We were on the half-yard line, and we throw a slant. I don’t know what the offense had going on.”

“Yeah, it was a bit surprising,” Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said of not giving the ball to Marshawn Lynch there.

“I think we were all surprised,” Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin said. “We still had a timeout left and felt like we should take a shot, maybe. I don’t know, man. I’m just trying to make up an explanation.”

“I mean, I’m not the coach,” defensive end Michael Bennett said.

“I don’t know,” center Max Unger said. “I only see a couple of guys in front of me. So I don’t know.”

Well, nobody really knew – not even Pete Carroll. In the heat of one of the hottest Super Bowls, he had made an instinctual decision. Coaches are trained to take advantage of matchups. They are primed to counter their opponent’s moves. What seemed so obvious to more or less everyone else on earth – you HAVE to give the ball to Marshawn Lynch at the 1-yard line with the Super Bowl on the line – was in Carroll’s mind clouded by the moment, by the complications of football strategy, by the natural tendency every coach has to be just a little bit smarter. The Patriots dared him to pass. He passed. He lost.

“It’s just because of matchups,” he pleaded. “At this time it seems like overthinking, but they have goal-line guys on, we have three wide receivers, a tight end and one back … they’ve got extra guys at the line of scrimmage.”

The loneliest man in football explained it again and again without explaining it at all. The pass play could have worked. It almost did work. If Wilson had delivered he ball a little bit more on Lockette’s left shoulder, if Lockette had fought harder for the ball, if Malcolm Butler had not read something in Wilson’s eyes, if … if … if …

In the end, there are no do-overs. One of the most compelling Super Bowls ever ended with Malcolm Butler intercepting a pass from Russell Wilson, the Patriots running out the clock, Tom Brady accepting the MVP trophy and Bill Belichick hugging his son Steve while confetti fell on University of Phoenix Stadium.

In the bowels of the stadium, Russell Wilson told the press: “I put the blame on me. I threw it.”

A few feet away, the loneliest man in football shook his head. “There’s really no one else to blame but me,” Pete Carroll said, and all around him people nodded just like he knew they would.

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