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What if the Seahawks ran the football with Marshawn Lynch in Super Bowl 49 against the Patriots?

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It’s theme week at SB Nation, so let’s take a look at one of the greatest ‘What if...’ scenarios in NFL history.

Super Bowl XLIX - New England Patriots v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

SB Nation is having another theme week, and the topic this time is ‘What if...’ — all week long, we will take a look at different scenarios, and we’ll kick things off with one of the most discussed plays in NFL history.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t believe the call,” Cris Collinsworth said.

“Me neither,” Al Michaels replied.

“I cannot believe the call,” Cris Collinsworth continued. “You got Marshawn Lynch in the backfield; you got a guy that’s been borderline unstoppable in this part of the field. I can’t believe the call.”

The majority of you has heard those lines before — either live or in one of the countless replays since. The scene that left Al Michaels and especially Cris Collinsworth wondering about ‘the call’ came in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 49 between the defending champion Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. Down 28-24, Seattle was one yard away from taking the lead with under half a minute left in the game.

On 2nd and goal and with only one timeout left in the pocket, the team decided to throw the football. The rest, as they say, is history: undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler undercut the route to intercept the football and secure the Patriots’ first title in a decade. But what if he never got that chance? What if the Seahawks did what Cris Collinsworth wanted them to do, namely handing the ball off to running back Marshawn Lynch?

Let’s travel down that rabbit hole.

To properly evaluate the scenario, we will have to start by looking at the player at the core of it all: Marshawn Lynch, who was voted to the Pro Bowl during the 2014 season and led the league in touchdowns. If Seattle wanted to hand off the ball one yard away from back-to-back Super Bowl wins, he would have been their choice. And why wouldn’t he be, considering that he had already gained 102 yards and a touchdown on 24 attempts.

Picking up a single yard would have been easy for the ‘guy that’s been borderline unstoppable in this part of the field,’ right? Well, not quite. While Lynch was very good in situations similar to the 2nd and goal play in question, he was stoppable from time to time:

Marshawn Lynch with 1 yard to gain, 2014

Rushing attempts Conversions Failed Conversions Conversion %
Rushing attempts Conversions Failed Conversions Conversion %
28 20 8 71.4%

As can be seen, running the football with Lynch to pick up one yard was no given. He turned most of his attempts either into new downs or scores, yes, but he was not as automatic as Collinsworth made him out to be — something the Seahawks found out earlier in Super Bowl 49: on a 3rd and 1 early in the third quarter, Lynch was stuffed for no gain by Rob Ninkovich. It was one of two short-yardage attempts for him that day, with the other being converted on a 3-yard run.

Lynch’s success rate 59 minutes and 30 seconds into Super Bowl 49 was only 50%, albeit on a limited sample size. However, chances are that this percentage would have looked even worse had the Seahawks handed him the ball on the 2nd and 1 play that turned into Butler’s interception. After all, the Patriots aligned in a goal-line package that would have made it near-impossible for Lynch to get through the line of scrimmage and into the end zone.

When the Seahawks originally aligned, this is what they saw:

(c) NBC

The Patriots used a defensive package they had not run all year: a three-cornerback goal line look with four defensive tackles as the down-linemen and three stand-up linebackers/linemen on the line of scrimmage; fellow linebacker Dont’a Hightower aligned deep over the center. The Patriots were in run-stuffing mode and had the Seahawks out-numbered at the point of attack in case of a hand-off to Lynch.

New England was smart to use this look considering that the defense was relatively pedestrian in short-yardage running situations heading into the Super Bowl:

Patriots run defense with 1 yard to gain, 2014

Rushing attempts Conversions Failed Conversions Conversion %
Rushing attempts Conversions Failed Conversions Conversion %
37 29 8 78.4%

Could Lynch have gained the one yard needed against this Patriots front? Nothing is impossible — just look at Butler’s ascension from undrafted rookie to Super Bowl hero — but given the circumstances it would have been pretty hard. If the Seahawks had run the ball on 2nd and goal in Super Bowl 49, therefore, they likely would not have gained any yards. And to make matters worse, they would have needed to burn their third and final timeout.

This, in turn, would have left the team with only one realistic option on the subsequent third down: a pass. New England would have known this given the situation — 3rd and goal from around the 1-yard line with 20 seconds left and no offensive timeouts available — and also would have been prepared to defend it properly: lest we forget, the Patriots fielded one of the NFL’s best pass defenses in 2014.

Running the ball on second down might have just delayed the inevitable.

So what could the Seahawks have done in this situation to come away victoriously or at least position themselves better for potential third and fourth down attempts? It’s simple: use a better pass play on 2nd and goal. The inside slant might have worked for the NFC champions regularly over the course of the 2014 season, but it was still a rather risky play call considering how much traffic there was in the target area.

For the Patriots, on the other hand, it was the perfect storm: they had the right personnel package on the field to discourage Seattle from attempting a run, while weak-side cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Brandon Browner played the down perfectly. New England put itself in the best possible situation to defend 2nd and goal from the 1 — even though nobody could have predicted the eventual outcome of the play.