The strategic move that decides Super Bowl 49?
Something tells me we’ve got no idea.
During the two weeks since the Seattle Seahawks learned they’d take on the New England Patriots for the NFL championship, every variable has been dissected, every intangible has been analyzed.
And yet, now that kickoff is almost here, I’m getting the sense that an evenly matched Super Bowl offering all anybody could want will turn on one of those plays nobody saw coming.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and his Patriots counterpart, Bill Belichick, share little in common other than an ability to motivate pro athletes decades younger than they are. But despite their disparate personalities, both coaches are unapologetic advocates of using any and every gimmick in the book.
Trailing 16-0, the Seahawks were running on empty in the NFC Championship Game as Steven Hauschka lined up for a third-quarter field goal against the Green Bay Packers. But when holder Jon Ryan took the snap, rolled out to the left and tossed a touchdown pass to tackle Garry Gilliam, it set the tone for an epic comeback.
A few hours later in the AFC championship, the Patriots scored a touchdown during a tackle-eligible sequence so tricky even the officials were deceived.
The question isn’t whether Carroll and Belichick are bold enough to roll the dice on a high-risk, high-reward trick play. The question is: How many trick plays will be attempted?
The other day, NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci stressed the importance of beating the opponent to the punch, as trick plays tend to be limited to one per game.
“I don’t agree,” said Carroll. “I don’t know what that means. This overall, arching thought that once a trick play has happened you can’t do another one, I don’t think that way at all.”
As for minimizing the consequences of an opponent’s trick play, Carroll stressed that it’s all about awareness.
“We always have to be attentive to it. It really comes down to fundamentals on the defensive side and special teams,” he said. “You must cover your bases and know what’s coming.”
In other words, the Seahawks must be more vigilant against New England than their 2005 predecessors were against Pittsburgh. Leading 14-10 in a game that still was up for grabs with more than nine minutes remaining, the Steelers sealed things on a play disguised as a reverse to wide receiver Antwaan Randle-El.
Because the defense had bitten on the reverse, receiver Hines Ward had no trouble getting past single coverage on the 43-yard touchdown reception that left no doubt. It was a brilliant call — Randle-El was a former quarterback at Indiana — with little chance of backfiring.
The 2009 New Orleans Saints took much more of a gamble against the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl 44. Down 10-6, New Orleans began the second half with an onside kick — the first (and, to date, only) onside kick attempted before the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl.
Although the Saints had made the onside kick a focal point of their practices preceding the game, punter Thomas Morstead realized the stakes of allowing the Colts to recover at midfield.
“I wasn’t worried,” Morstead said afterward. “I was terrified.”
The 15-yard kick — known by Saints fans as “Ambush” — bounced off the facemask of Colts receiver Hank Baskett and into a scrum that took more than a minute to disassemble. At the bottom of it was New Orleans safety Chris Reis.
Limited to a pair of field goals in the first half, the Saints seemed to be liberated by the brash decision of coach Sean Peyton. It took them only six plays to finally score a touchdown en route to a 31-17 victory.
“I make some tough decisions every day,” President Barack Obama told Peyton during the Saints visit to the White House, “but I’ve never decided on an onside kick in the second half of the Super Bowl. That took some guts.”
In retrospect, it was the ideal time to surprise Indianapolis, a bit sluggish after an extended halftime break that included The Who performing a medley of its hits.
Last song of the set?
“Won’t Get Fooled Again.”