In the heat of action and in a close game, the line between bravery and stupidity in the NFL is thin. Sometimes said line is blindingly bright, and crossing it makes no sense whatsoever.
Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll often likes to let loose a hearty chuckle and then lower his head while charging toward the line, flirting with danger. Monday night against the Atlanta Falcons, his daredevil ways cost his team a much better chance at a critical late-season win.
A Seahawks defense crippled by injuries (most notably missing defensive backs Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor) still did enough to keep the game close, even though a suddenly surging Falcons offense scored 34 points on the road at CenturyLink Field, a place where November road wins usually go to die.
And quarterback Russell Wilson did his usual late-game hero act, which generally consists of spinning around until something awesome happens. He finished with 86 rushing yards, 258 passing yards and three total touchdowns (one rushing, two passing). His performance was highlighted by a five-play touchdown drive that took 49 seconds late in the fourth quarter and brought the Seahawks to within a field goal.
Miraculously, he also set up kicker Blair Walsh with a game-tying opportunity. But the 52-yard attempt Walsh faced was far from a chip shot in the tough Seattle conditions, and it fell just short to hand the Falcons their 34-31 win.
The Seahawks had a chance to force overtime thanks to Wilson's brilliance and a defense that did plenty of bending but didn't break. More importantly, they had a chance to take the NFC West lead and generally improve their playoff standing—and not be leapfrogged by the Falcons.
But in the end, their coach's gambling was too much to overcome.
Carroll made several egregious errors. The most glaring was an inexplicable fake field-goal attempt to end the first half.
The Seahawks were down 24-17 at the time and had worked their way to the Falcons' 17-yard line, powered by Wilson's usual whirling and scrambling. He ran for 29 yards on the drive and had set up his team to go into halftime down by only four points.
Walsh has gone through some recent shakiness, most notably missing three field goals in Week 9. But he was facing the kicking equivalent of a gimme putt for any kicker worthy of NFL employment.
Carroll knew that, and he could also glance up at the clock to see only seven seconds remained in the half. He needed only one yard to move the chains on fourth down, but common sense should have told him to be overjoyed with three points. Because his options were three or zero.
There was no benefit to trickery. Yet there Carroll went, strapping on his bungee rope and getting that sweet, sweet jolt of danger adrenaline.
With so little time left, success didn't mean just getting that one yard. No, the shovel pass to tight end Luke Willson had to result in 17 yards and a touchdown unless he got tackled quickly so the Seahawks could use their final timeout.
Instead, it ended with the Seahawks going backward, losing both four yards and three points. A low-percentage play inevitably ended in failure during a game in which points were precious.
After the contest, Willson answered to the throng of media members who surely asked questions like "why?" and "what?!?" His response was optimistic but mostly just baffling:
That was the most damaging blow delivered by Carroll's overly aggressive ways in a game eventually decided by three points. A bizarre fourth-quarter challenge also contributed to the mind-numbing misery.
That came when the usually sure-handed wide receiver Doug Baldwin dropped what should have been a routine third-down catch early in the fourth quarter. The Seahawks had already carelessly burned a timeout at the beginning of the half. Now Carroll decided risking another one was a wise decision, even with his offense far from scoring position on its own 19-yard line.
Or, as Carroll tells it, via NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal, he essentially let his player make the decision:
Another dice roll failed, and in the process, the Seahawks roasted a second timeout.
That brings us back to Walsh, the jittery kicker who faced a frighteningly long field goal late in the chilly Seattle night. Once again, there were seven seconds left in a half, and once again, the kicker was trying to secure three crucial points.
And once again, Walsh missed in a pressure-filled moment, this time by mere inches.
If the Seahawks had one more timeout, they could have advanced farther and given Walsh a more realistic shot. Even better, they could have pressed on with Wilson's galloping and spinning and tried to win the game with a touchdown.
Instead they were left stranded by a coach who loves to give risk a big ol' hug. But when you do that too much, sometimes it won't hug you back.
Now a team that's had its defensive foundation rocked by injuries faces a difficult fight for a playoff spot, one made more challenging because the Falcons offense is finally finding its rhythm. Tough games remain on Seattle's schedule, including dates against the juggernaut Philadelphia Eagles, the Los Angeles Rams and their white-hot offense and the Jacksonville Jaguars' shutdown defense.
The Seahawks couldn't afford to have an opportunity for a late-season win ripped away as the playoff push intensifies. But that's what happened during a game that wasn't lost to the Falcons.
No, the Seahawks and their head coach lost to overthinking—and to themselves.