GLENDALE, Ariz. – They had three chances to go three feet. They had 26 seconds to win a Super Bowl. They had Marshawn Lynch.
They passed the ball.
It was beyond stunning, inexplicable even in the split-second that it took place: Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson lined up in the shotgun and threw an interception to Malcolm Butler in the end zone and it was over. No repeat. No dynasty. No nothing. New England Patriots win, 28-24. Seahawks left with a lifetime of wondering.
Moments after the decision, thousands of fans in green and blue meandered from their seats at University of Phoenix Stadium, eyes glazed and faces drawn.
"Why would you pass the ball?" one yelled.
"What the [expletive] was that?!" another yelled, even louder.
There was no good explanation. There was no leaning on the gargantuan effort that took the Seahawks to the brink of a title.
"Let me just tell you what happened," coach Pete Carroll said afterward. "Because as you know, the game comes right down and all the things that happened before are meaningless."
He was sadly right: Everything else became meaningless because of that single decision. A head coach known for swashbuckling moves and imaginative ways had made one of the worst choices in pro football history.
Some of his players tried to reason it away. Some did not.
"I don't believe it happened," said receiver Doug Baldwin, showing the same look in his eye that all the 12s in the stands had. "I still haven't figured it out yet."
He tried. Baldwin tried to figure it out. He looked around and up at the ceiling and offered a few words. Then he stopped himself.
"I'm just trying to make up an explanation."
There is none. Not really.
Here's what Carroll said: "We sent in our personnel, they sent in their goal-line [unit]. It was not the right matchup for us to run the football, so on second down we throw the ball to really kind of waste that play. If we score, we do, if we don't, then we run it on third and fourth down."
Waste that play. Those words are almost as stunning as the call itself. There were 26 seconds left.
The Seahawks did waste the play. They also wasted the season.
Of course the Patriots would send in their goal-line unit. The play was on the goal line. And the play would have been on the goal line again if Lynch was stopped. And the same on fourth down. This is a running back who is known as "Beast Mode" because he runs over much larger people consistently and unyieldingly. There was a near certainty he would run over just one or two more, and give Seattle a championship.
It was the ultimate in a coaching staff out-thinking itself. Carroll is known for being clever – remember the brilliant fake field goal in the NFC championship? – and yet here he was far too clever. Hand the ball to Lynch. Win the title.
Instead there was a play that worked in theory: Normally, the receiver will seal off the defender. Normally, Wilson will find a way to either complete the pass or throw it out of harm's way. Normally, the Seahawks find some magic and never get burned. That's how it has been for so many months now: Everything works out. The team believes, and then belief becomes reality.
"When we were up 10," cornerback Tharold Simon said, "we really thought we would win the game."
That's for sure. Baldwin scored a touchdown and made a vulgar display of himself. Over on the sideline, Richard Sherman found the nearest TV camera and signaled "two-four" as a way of mocking Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis. The Seahawks always get away with that. The Seahawks never eat crow.
Until they did. In the largest possible moment. Carroll called it a "miraculous play," and it was, but it wasn't.
"It shouldn't have come down to one play," Baldwin said.
It should have come down to three: all Lynch rushes.
"We'd waste a play against their goal-line guys," Carroll said. "It was a clear thought. It didn't work out."
What Carroll has going for him here is his personality and his accountability. He is a great leader, and he led even after his failure in leadership. He owned it – standing there in front of the media just like he stood in front of the team only moments before.
"There's really nobody to blame but me," Carroll said. "And I told them that clearly. And I don't want them to think anything other than that."
Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell also took heat. "I make all the play calls," he said. As for that play call? "It's something we felt really comfortable with," he said.
It seemed that nobody on the Seahawks sideline imagined anything other than a successful outcome. Carroll even called Butler's interception "an incredible play that nobody would ever think he could do."
That's the confidence that has made them champions, and it's suddenly the overconfidence that made them losers.
The soul-searching will go on for days and long nights and longer months. There is no forgetting this. There may yet be another championship or even several, but there is no getting away from losing the Super Bowl when it was right there. Just ask the Patriots, who were thought to be the greatest team of all time when they came in to this building in 2008 and left as another footnote after losing to the New York Giants. You can move forward; you can't move on.
"I think we need to be real with ourselves," Baldwin said. "It pretty much is what it is."
They had three chances to go 3 feet. They had 26 seconds to win a Super Bowl. They had Marshawn Lynch.
They passed the ball.
The game is over. The season is over. But that decision will never be over.