Studying the film of his team's 35-6 victory over the Ravens during the flight back from Baltimore, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll saw something that made him regret a decision in that game, despite such an impressive performance from his team.
When Russell Wilson was flushed out of the pocket in the third quarter, he lofted a high pass to the back of the end zone that at first looked like it might just be a throw-away to avoid a sack, but Doug Baldwin actually caught the ball as he went out of bounds. At full speed, it appeared that there was no way Baldwin caught the ball in bounds, so despite a brief protest from Baldwin when officials ruled as much, Carroll kept his red challenge flag in his pocket. Two plays later, Wilson connected with Baldwin for a 22-yard score anyway, so that incomplete pass was inconsequential both to the outcome of the game and to those players' statistics, but when Carroll turned on the film on the way home and saw that Baldwin appeared to have gotten both feet in bounds, completing a spectacular catch, he was upset anyway that he didn't throw the flag just to reward such a great throw and catch.
"I missed that one," Carroll said. "I missed it. We looked back, we were sitting on the plane, Doug and I are sitting on the plane, we dig it out, stopping it, and I think he's in. When I saw it full speed, I didn't think he was in. I'm just kicking myself in the head. Nobody saw it, and the board didn't give you many shots at it either, so we didn't get any support, but I think he was in bounds. That was a phenomenal throw and catch and I wish we could have nailed that one. I don't know if it would have been conclusive, even with what we saw. From our side we thought it was in."
Baldwin, who has a number of spectacular, toe-dragging catches to his credit during his career, thought he had another one, but wasn't able to convince his coach of it.
"I felt like I did," he said. "When the ball was in the air, I was going to body catch it at first because I felt the defensive back close, and I wanted to protect it. Once I realized how close I was to the sideline, I just went up and tried to make a play on it. I felt like I did get both feet in bounds, you could tell by my reaction once I landed. Unfortunately, we didn't get a good look at it in the review.
"I said something to (Carroll) about it, but he was very adamant. He thought that I was pushed out of bounds."
While that particular decision not to challenge had no impact on the game, it was an example of how difficult the decision to challenge a call can be for a coach given the limited amount of both time and information available to make the decision.
Teams usually have one assistant coach in charge of letting the head coach know if the play should be challenged, but that coach—in Seattle's case, quarterbacks coach Carl Smith—is only going off the same network feed that fans at home are watching on TV. In the case of Baldwin's sideline grab, the first replay was from a high angle that didn't show anything conclusive, then the next angle cut off Baldwin's feet with on-screen graphics, making it impossible to know if he made the catch or not. So if the TV feed or the in-stadium video board doesn't show a conclusive shot, a coach is left going off the word of his players or his gut, or some combination of the two.
"A lot of that has to do with feel at the time, and also the reaction of the player," Carroll said. "Sometimes they can see a guy bobble the ball, so that gives us added incentive to go ahead look deeper. We try to stall when we need to, and guys are scrambling upstairs. I'm talking to both sides of the ball upstairs to see what they can see, maybe somebody saw something else, other than what the other guys saw. I just kind of weigh out that wave of information in the time that we have and make a decision. I used to not think (replay) was a very good aspect of the game, but really it's kind of fun because you've got to figure a lot of stuff out in a short amount of time. I do kick myself for not giving him a shot at that one."
Following any given controversial call, a moment that is both fun and chaotic can follow for Carroll. Players will happily share their opinions, Smith is giving his, and any other coach with a headset might also chime in, all trying to influence Carroll before the ball is snapped for the next play.
"(Smith) is kind of using everybody's information upstairs," Carroll said. "I'll click to the defense and see if they have an opinion too. Sometimes, they're all hollering it, you can hear it through the headsets anyways. It's kind of a cool moment trying to figure that stuff out. Carl is really the best guy for me to go to, and we have the best background to make sense of stuff. He's been really instrumental."
Sometimes that process produces an obvious decision for Carroll, but he admits that at times "it's kind of from the seat of your pants" if a replay doesn't come quickly enough or if it isn't conclusive. And while players try to be honest influencing their coach, they will tend to remember a play happening in a way that favors them.
"They're always honest," Carroll said. "They tell you exactly what they think. I don't think they're dishonest. They may not be right, that's the point. They'll tell you what they feel, and often there's been a number of times when our guys can see a ball bobble, a ball kind of hits the ground a bit, that nobody could see from anywhere. They're the ones that are telling you, it kind of activates the whole process and we kick into it even with more intent. I trust what they're telling me, that they think they saw it that way. We always see this stuff going our way. That's not dishonest, that's just rooting for your team. I'm the same way, that's why I'm mad at myself for not doing one on Doug. I should have done it anyway."