This weekend featured lots of interesting strategy calls, from far more traditional fourth down decisions to Mike Smith not choosing to go for two after two consecutive offsides would have put it 18 inches away from the goal, and his team up 19 at the time. Then, there was the rare decision facing Pete Carroll at the end of the wild game in Atlanta–try for a record setting field goal attempt from 65 yards, or throw a hail mary pass with Russell Wilson. It’s rare because it requires both that the team be in that no man’s land of a really long field goal attempt, and have a score margin where the decision is legitimate.
We often chide coaches for decisions, so here, I’m going to say that even though the longshot did not pay off this time, Carroll made the clear right decision by attempting the hail mary.
People have asked me what the chances of the hail mary were. That’s a hard question to answer specifically, but we can try, using play by play data. The difficulty is identifying whether the quarterback was attempting a throw to the end zone based on the description. I pulled all cases since 2000 where (a) a team was tied or trailing by one score with 7 seconds or less remaining, (b) had the ball between their own 45 and the opponent’s 40, and (c) did not run another play, or throw a shorter pass as noted by the play by play. If the description did not note it as a deep pass or short pass, I included it. I also included all sacks in these situations.
Only 64 cases that fit all of those criteria have happened since 2000, including Sunday. Seven resulted in sacks, ten of them were intercepted, and four were caught, with three of those being caught for touchdowns. Those successful hail mary passes were Tim Couch to Quincy Morgan for 50 yards against Jacksonville, David Garrard to Mike Thomas for 50 yards against Houston, and Shaun Hill to Titus Young for 46 yards against Tennessee. The unsuccessful attempt that was caught just short traveled 49 yards (needing 53) from Ben Roethlisberger.
Using that, the likelihood of a successful hail mary from the Atlanta 47 was about 5-6%. The question is then whether Seattle had anywhere near that by trying the field goal.
The problem with just looking at field goal rates for kicks above 60 yards is that no one has made a 65 yard attempt ever, and there is even a selection bias problem in who gets to attempt them. Sebastian Janikowski has attempted more than anyone. Rob Bironas has tried several. Greg Zuerlein tried two really long ones unsuccessfully this year. Aging kickers with weaker legs don’t get to even try, to pull the percentages down even further. Thus, me telling you that kickers went 3 of 11 on kicks of 62-63 yards, and 0 for 11 from 64 to 66 yards provides little.
Ryan Longwell is 38 years old and had not played all year. Kudos for not trying the impossible with him. You might be tempted to think that the dome changes this, but actually, the longest kicks have all come outdoors anyway, in temperate weather. The controlled conditions of domes are good for long field goal attempts of 50 yards (like Bryant nailed to give Atlanta the lead). The holds are easier, the planting is easier, the weather is stable. However, for a really long kick, it actually helps to be wind aided and have air conditions that will allow more carry. To illustrate, only four kicks over 55 yards have even been attempted in Atlanta since 2000. Michael Koenen (58 yards) and Mason Crosby (56 yards) are the only two who have made a kick that long in the Georgia Dome.
I don’t think Ryan Longwell was the kicker to challenge the all-time record, and to get a kick seven yards longer than any other in the same arena. We’ll never know what Longwell’s range was, though Carroll likely had a good estimate from warmups and practices. I’m guessing it was not close to 65 yards, and the chances were basically nil. Every yard gained would have also impacted the likelihood of a successful touchdown pass, and I suspect they had to get at least 10 more yards, perhaps a few more, to make it a truly difficult decision.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]