The Seahawks are not exactly known for their sound decision-making during late-game, goal-line situations. But even taking that famous history into account, their delay-of-game penalty in the closing minute of the team’s 26-21 loss to the 49ers is like something out of Billy Madison: You’ll be dumber for having learned how it happened.
First, let’s back up a few plays—because the delay-of-game penalty is hardly the only baffling mistake Seattle made on its final possession. Trailing by five points with 42 seconds left and facing fourth-and-10 from San Francisco’s 12-yard line, the Seahawks were in a classic do-or-die situation. But the team didn’t turn to Tyler Lockett or D.K. Metcalf or any of its established playmakers. Instead, Russell Wilson rolled out and fired a pass to John Ursua, a rookie seventh-round wide receiver who had never caught a pass before. Ursua had just four snaps to his name coming into the night and had appeared in just two games all season. He deserves credit: On his first-ever NFL completion, he hauled the ball in just 1 yard short of the goal line then sprinted almost immediately back to the center of the field, knowing that the Seahawks had no timeouts and needed to stop the clock with a spike.
It’s wild that Ursua was even on the field for the most important play of Seattle’s season (he earned time due to a Week 16 concussion to receiver Malik Turner), much less that he was the focal point of it. But it’s the sequence of events that followed when the game seemed to really enter the Twilight Zone.
With the seconds ticking, Seattle struggled to get to the line because offensive lineman George Fant remained on the turf back where Wilson had made his fourth-down throw. When the Seahawks did get set, Wilson spiked the ball—already a questionable decision given that the Niners defense was on its heels. If the Seahawks had a play ready to go there, they might have been able to take advantage of the scrambling 49ers.
Nevertheless, second-and-goal on the half-yard line is never a bad place to be, even with just 22 seconds on the clock and no timeouts. Here the Seahawks made their most critical error. After turning to a complete nobody on their previous play, they brought in a Seahawks legend. Marshawn Lynch, who wasn’t on the field for the two-minute drill, came onto the field to a roar from the crowd. But this is when the play clock wound all the way down—with no one even close to being ready to run a play. How did it go so wrong? It’s some of the worst game mismanagement you’ll ever see:
He had a cap on because he doesn’t play in the two minute drill. It was a mad dumb scramble at the 1 because Fant was limping and I don’t even know if Marshawn was ready either— Brian Floyd (@BrianMFloyd) December 30, 2019
When asked about the mix-up later, head coach Pete Carroll said they “called the personnel” but “didn’t get it communicated with the backs.” It’s a botched substitution that cost Seattle the game.
Lynch may be a Seattle veteran, but he was also signed off the street just six days ago after having been out of football for a year. He hadn’t played with the Seahawks since 2015. He wasn’t ready to run out there during the two-minute drill because of course he wasn’t: It’s unlikely he had the familiarity with the playbook or his teammates to be reliable in a high-pressure, time-critical situation. It was weird to have Ursua out there, but it would have been even weirder to have Lynch out there.
Not only was Lynch not prepared, he wasn’t even a useful player in this situation. Yes, he can turn on his classic Beastmode abilities at the 1-yard line (as he did on a 1-yard score earlier in the quarter), but the Seahawks had no timeouts. If Lynch were to get stuffed, they’d be in a crisis (my guess is they wanted to use Lynch to bait the Niners on a play-action pass; Carroll said “we’ll never know” whether he intended to give the ball to Lynch after the game). The team’s better bet was to let their Pro Bowl, dual-threat quarterback have as many shots at the end zone as they could give him.
Instead, in the chaos, Seattle got hit with that delay of game, and took a massive hit to their chances of winning:
Wilson couldn’t connect on second or third down (to be fair, that latter play looked like a missed defensive-pass interference). On the subsequent fourth-and-the-season from the 5, Wilson found tight end Jacob Hollister in nearly the exact same place as he found Ursua … and Hollister was also short, this time by just inches after an incredible tackle by rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw.
Let’s review what not to do when a game is on the line. The Seahawks (1) threw to a player who had never caught a pass before; (2) spiked away what may have been their best chance at punching the ball in the end zone; (3) called on a player who had been signed just days before, wasn’t ready, and wouldn’t be very useful in this specific situation anyway; (4) botched a goal-line substitution; and (5) lost track of the play clock. Not all of those mistakes are equal (and no. 1 even worked for the most part), but they all add up to one bitter loss.
As a result, the Seahawks will enter wild-card weekend as the no. 5 seed, traveling to Philadelphia to play the Eagles. They would have been the no. 3 seed with a win, which wouldn’t grant the luxury of a first-round bye but would have meant hosting a playoff game in Seattle. That said, in this specific playoff scenario, it may actually be advantageous for Seattle to travel and take on a banged-up Eagles team rather than host the Vikings (though the Seahawks did beat both teams earlier this year and, coincidentally, they beat the Eagles in Philly and the Vikings in Seattle). At 9-7, the Eagles may be the worst team in the postseason.
The loss stings even more for Seattle considering how much it boosted San Francisco’s playoff fortunes. With the win, the 49ers earned the no. 1 seed in the conference, massively boosting their Super Bowl odds. As Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth outlined on Sunday Night Football, 26 of the past 34 Super Bowl participants (i.e., since the 2002 realignment) have benefited from a first-round bye. That’s more than 76 percent—and no. 1 seeds specifically have won five of the past six Super Bowls. Instead of being forced to win three consecutive road games for a shot at the Lombardi Trophy like the Seahawks will now have to, the Niners will need just two wins at home. If San Francisco does make it to the Super Bowl this year, the team can thank the Seahawks for the assist.