Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

18 Sep 2007

Seattle Plays the Blame Game

Who is to blame for the Seahawks' botched exchange last Sunday -- a play that almost certainly cost them a win against the Arizona Cardinals?

First, a brief recap. After rallying from a 17-0 deficit, the Seahawks have tied the game at 20-20 with less than two minutes to play, and have driven to the Cardinals' 36-yard line. Seattle placekicker Josh "Clutch" Brown is warming up on the sidelines, preparing to earn his franchise paycheck, but the Hawks obviously would like to get closer to make his life easier. So head coach Mike Holmgren radios in an off-right tackle run to Shaun Alexander, with fullback Mack Strong leading the block. Bread, meet butter.

Then, something goes wrong -- horribly, horribly wrong. As Hasselbeck turns to hand him the ball, Alexander looks confused and stops, almost as if he'd heard a whistle, and fails to take the ball. Hasselbeck, also confused, freezes up. Meanwhile, Cardinals linebacker Gerald Hayes charges through the right side of the line and whacks the football out of Hasselbeck's hands. It bounces for 15 yards before being recovered by Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. The Seahawks then go into collective shock, the Cardinals drive down the field -- while Holmgren inexplicably refuses to call a timeout -- and Neil Rackers kicks the game-winning field goal in the final seconds. And just like that, the Seahawks are in third place in the NFC West.

So someone on the Seahawks quite clearly screwed up. And that someone sure looks a lot like Tiki Barber's other twin brother, Shaun Alexander. Here's Alexander's post-game explanation for the botched play (according to Frank Hughes, the reporter who covers the Seahawks for the Tacoma News-Tribune): "First, he thought it was an audible. Then, everybody knew it was a run play, including him. Then, when he saw Hayes in the backfield he thought it was an audible."

Audible? What audible? Well, it turns out Matt Hasselbeck called a fake audible at the line of scrimmage, one that apparently confused Alexander into thinking Hasselbeck had switched to a pass play. Thus, Hasselbeck is blaming himself for the botched play, because "it's not my job to confuse anybody. Obviously, I did that and that's tough because I take that one and I put that right on me for not executing the play that was called."

But Hasselbeck is not alone in taking credit for dropping the ball. Here's Mike Holmgren, trying to get in on the fun: "I said it a little, but I didn't say it enough going out in the two-minute warning -- at a particular point you're no longer really playing an opponent, you're playing the clock. You're not going to go to a lot of audibles. You're going to keep it straight and simple, and had I given that little speech a little more firmly, then I might not have put the players in a tough spot." (Previous two quotes courtesy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

With all the evidence now in, let's summarize what we know:

1. Holmgren instructed the team during the two-minute warning that "they weren't going to do a lot of audibles."
2. Hasselbeck called a fake audible that, per (1) everyone should have known was fake.
3. Alexander knows (or should know) the difference between a fake and real audible.

Hasselbeck and Holmgren may be trying to share the blame, but there's one person who's responsible, and he has yet to own up to his mistake.

Posted by: Ben Riley on 18 Sep 2007

44 comments, Last at 21 Sep 2007, 2:16am by Bam Bam


by Sundown (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 7:00pm

On the positive side, as far as fake audibles go, this was about as good as it gets.

by Podge (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 7:07pm


I think we have an early winner in this thread.

by JasonK (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 7:12pm

I agree completely-- get that fumble assigned to Alexander, damnit! That freaking play cost me a fantasy win this week.

When I went to bed last night as the Skins were kneeling out the MNF game, Matt Hasselbeck had earned me 17 points and I was leading 104-103. When I woke up this morning, the fumble had been officially attributed to Hasselbeck, and I was behind 102-103.

by Fire Millen (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 7:13pm

It is good to see two people, who know they didn't screw up, stand-up for a team mate.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 7:16pm

No, the perfect fake audible is one that the defensive players recognize as fake, leaving them in their original call, but which fools the offensive players into thinking their assignments have changed, including the qb, who is so convincing in his fake that he fools himself, and executes the new, fake, play, to perfection, along with his utterly fooled teammates, while the defense remains thinking that it was all a fake, resulting in a touchdown. Or something.

by Steve Sandvik (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 7:18pm

Come on, the Barber brothers don't take blame. Who are you kidding? Just look at Tiki.

As a Seahawks fan, I figure we were due to lose one on a late field goal after the number of narrow escapes the last 2 years. If it becomes a habit, then I'll get concerned, but right now this is essentially just regression to the mean. A team that wins 4 games on last second field goals is lucky more than good, and we all know that here. Incidentally, how hard would it be to figure out the change in DVOA/DAVE if they had managed to run the ball down to the 30 or so and kick a field goal?

by sythe (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 7:19pm

According to the same Tacoma New-Tribune blog mentioned in the article, the Seahawks Insider, Ben Riley owes an apology to Shaun Alexander:

"Alexander wasn't the only player who did not fully know what was going on. Holmgren said Mack Strong and "two receivers" were also confused."

by CA (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 7:28pm

Seattle placekicker Josh “Clutch� Brown

What is this, MMQB? Sports Guy's World?

by Unshakable Optimist (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 7:32pm

I didn't see the play, but I can't seem to get the image of that Tony Romo commercial out of my head.

by JonL (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 7:33pm

The receivers don't really need to know, though, do they? (Mack Strong probably does) I remember reading/hearing about how P. Manning audibles at the line, and he'll only tell the three-four players who need to know. If the receivers don't know, then conceivably they'll sell the fake audible even better.

My beef is with this: "at a particular point you’re no longer really playing an opponent, you’re playing the clock"

If that's true, then perhaps stopping the clock, with a timeout, would help you, wouldn't it Holmgren?

by John Morgan (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 7:53pm

The whole ugly spectacle stunk of broken play, starting with Mack Strong cutting off Matt Hasselbeck's path and then running into the flat while Gerald Hayes stormed through the B gap untouched. I've watched the play several times and though Shaun Alexander froze, it was Strong who blew his assignment allowing Hayes to force the fumble. Alexander hardly handled himself with poise in a pressure situation, but I think Strong was the perpetrator of the greatest gaffe. Even if Alexander had taken the ball, he would have been immediately tackled for a loss of four. Not that a futile run would have been much of a change for the Hawks' once good, now burdensome, $62 million dollar man.

by Unshakable Optimist (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 8:00pm

The receivers don’t really need to know, though, do they?

Well if they heard the "audible" and were confused, couldn't that imply that maybe Hasselbeck phrased it wrong?

by Gerald Hayes (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 8:50pm

I'll tell you who screwed up: the guys who should have been blocking me! Gahahahaha!

by Ben Riley :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 8:53pm

7, 11, 12:

I agree that Strong may have screwed up too, though I will need to watch the play again tonight to be sure. But even if Strong made a mistake, that doesn't excuse Alexander from making the (much larger) mistake of not grabbing the ball that Hasselbeck was handing to him, does it?

by bubqr (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 8:54pm

#11 I agree. Mack Strong was really lost too.

But whatever, take the ball, jump on the ground, and that's it. Don't take 2 sec to look at your teammates eyes wondering "WTF ?"

#10 They do have to know, blocking a CB when ur supposed to run a route is not the best thing to gain separation. The other way around is fine.

by Led (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 9:14pm

I didn't see the play so maybe this is way off, but when Hasselback saw it was a broken play shouldn't he have run it into the line or gotten on the ground rather than just stand there and wait to be stripped?

by DolFan 316 (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 9:40pm

I agree with #13, someone should have blocked Gerald Hayes regardless. Maybe the fake audible confused the offensive line too?

This sure isn't your father's football, or even your older brother's football what with all the signals and fake audibles and who knows what else? And people say you don't need to be smart to play this game...HA!!!

by eli face (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 10:19pm

ever consider football is fixed ?

by Trevor (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 10:31pm

someone should have blocked hayes, it was a jailbreak. but more importantly, I'M SO GLAD THE ARIZONA CARDINALS WERE NOT ON THE LOSSING END OF THIS PLAY. It's about time they got some of these screwups back, freaking great! Remembering chuck's quote about "what does should have won mean", they're 1-1 if this doesn't happen and eric green isn't a terrorist. i'll take that.

by cd6 (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 10:43pm

I will tell you this... the local guys on Fox, immediately after the game, basically just tore Alexander a new one for the next half hour.

by inkakola (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 10:48pm

how come no link to tmq this week? because it criticizes beli-cheat?

by zip (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 10:57pm


Because it probably sucks?

by Alex (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 11:02pm

#10 They do have to know, blocking a CB when ur supposed to run a route is not the best thing to gain separation. The other way around is fine.

I think that's one of the reasons the Colts WRs don't do as much blocking as most other WRs do, even on running plays. It helps sell the fake, and it allows the QB to audible to a run without the WRs knowing.

It does make it harder for the RB to break free for long gains, because some DB in the area will be unblocked, but the DB will usually be drawn far enough away by the WR he's covering that the RB can gain 4-5 yards.

by register_allocation (not verified) :: Tue, 09/18/2007 - 11:39pm

the Seahawks’ botched fumble last Sunday

Surely it was the exchange that was botched? The fumble came off without a hitch.

by Luke (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 12:18am

everyone loves to stick the boot into Alexander. He does come off as a girly airhead some times, but a well meaning one. I thought I heard him say "it was my fault" at some point during the post game interview.

by Ben Riley :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 12:38am


That's been bugging me since I posted this XP. And now I've fixed it -- thanks.

by coltrane23 (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 12:46am

#1 and #24 both made me laugh out loud.

Alexander is an easy target for 'Hawks fans as a "soft" RB, similar to the argument of Marvin Harrison as "soft," but it's hard to argue with the results (well, prior to last year's broken foot, anyway). I'm not an Alexander fan, and wasn't crazy about the multi-year contract because I've often thought he was a product of the stellar O-line. And his effort . . . well, he shows a lot of effort in the red zone, at least.

However, on multiple views of the play, it sure looks like he wasn't the only one confused by the fake audible. I first thought that Strong was blocking for an off-tackle run, but he could just as easily be headed for the flat as a receiver. He sure wasn't looking like a lead blocker into the G/T gap that Hayes shot through.

That said, it sure looks like Alexander had yet another vapor lock. Hasselbeck wasn't in a position to see the clusterf**k unfolding behind him, but Alexander had a front row seat and acted like the ball was a rabid ferret.

by Dan (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 1:06am

#27 "acted like the ball was a rabid ferret." LOL as that image plays in my head! Of all the reactions a RB should have to someone handing you a football, grabbing it is about as basic an instinct as you can get, right?

by Bobman (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 1:10am

Will #5, my brain just melted.

Actually, I THINK (repeat, THINK) you may be onto something. A QB calls a play, then gets to the LOS and sees a perfect opportunity for a naked boot around the left side. He audibles for a sweep to the right. 21 men on the field play the sweep to the right, QB yanks the ball from his RB's gut and gallops 33 yards to the end zone. Nobody this side of Mars expects it.

Manning vs Buffalo circa 2000.

by Balaji (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 1:34am

I hate to say it, but when I saw the title of this column I thought it would involve Holmgren whining about the officiating.

by tic toc (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 2:45am

I keep hearing people complain about holmgren not calling a timeout after the fumble. The problem is the seattle D needs to make a stop for the T.O. to be of any use. Here is the play-by-play:

1st and 10 at SEA 46 (1:48) E.James up the middle to SEA 40 for 6 yards (J.Peterson).
2nd and 4 at SEA 40 (1:12) E.James up the middle to SEA 33 for 7 yards (R.Bernard).
1st and 10 at SEA 33 (:28) E.James up the middle to SEA 26 for 7 yards (M.Trufant, L.Tatupu).

2nd and 3 at SEA 26 (:16) E.James up the middle to SEA 24 for 2 yards (L.Tatupu).
1st and 10 at SEA 23 (:04) N.Rackers 42 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-N.Hodel, Holder-M.Barr.

The cards never faced a third down and kicked the FG on first down! At best the timeouts force arizona to run two more plays (sea had 2 to's) which based on the earlier "botched fumble" (sorry, too funny) they would have probably just kneeled down.

by tic toc (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 2:51am

I cut myself off. My point is, I understand there is no harm in calling the timeouts so why not, but it really would not have changed anything. Had the hawks forced a third down then I sure he would have used them.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 4:47am

Tic toc, as a coach wouldn't you hope and assume your guys will force a 3rd down somewhere along the line? So you call a TO in anticipation? We've seen plenty of coaches burn all 3 TOs on D in that situation.

Of course you also probably want to save one for yor own offensive use, but don't NEED to.

That's all theory; in practical terms, I think you are right. Without a stop, the other team just keeps running plays until you burn all your TOs.

by masocc (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 5:31am

RE #32. Try telling that to Sebastian Janikowski. Assuming he can understand you in his drunken stupor, of course.

by RickD (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 8:25am

re: tic toc
When a defense is giving up 6+ yards per rushing play, it's never a bad idea to call a timeout if you need time on the clock. Not only would it have stopped the clock, but the defense probably could have used a 30-second breather. Perhaps if the Seahawks had called a timeout after the first run, the Cardinals would not have gained so much on the second run?

by Quincy Magoo (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 9:13am

I haven't seen this play, but based on the descriptions it sounds like Alexander was in a tough spot. Yeah, he should have realized the audible was a fake, but it doesn't sound like he was the only guy to make that mistake.

Assuming Alexander thought it was now a pass play, it may have been his responsibility to pick up the untouched blitzer. I don't think many players would have been able to sort out the 'right' action (secure the ball vs. pick up the blitzer) quickly enough.

by B (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 9:41am

The blame game sucks, let's play hungry hungry hippos.

by lagfish (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 10:59am

Re 21
It's probably a bandwidth issue lol. Belicheat, love it.

by Tony Romo (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 12:45pm

I feel much better now.

by Jacob Stevens (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 1:20pm

#12/Anyone interested:

In the Seahawks' system, their audibles are a color/number system. "Red 98, Red 98." They audible plays are designated by a number, and the color designates whether it's "hot" or a fake audible. I think they go with one hot color, and at least two fake colors, but I don't really know the numbers of either, it's just my impression. I have wondered, just one hot color? Would that be easy then, to figure out? But I suppose, if you're the defense, when a play is audibled, then run, how can you know whether it was the actual audible called, or the original play called in?

Anyway, they've all attributed the backfield's misunderstanding to it being a real audible based on two things: the noise, and the fact that Hasselbeck did NOT turn around to yell the audible at Alexander/Strong. Just to the line.

The play was 92 blast -- off tackle run to the right. Alexander should expect, that if a play that involved him like that were to be changed to something, Hasselbeck would have yelled it back to him & Strong, as well. He always normally would, in that situation, so there's no confusion about whether it would be necessary to, if he's audibling to a pass. He would.

He did, even, in the immediately prior play. Te same play was called in, 92 blast. They were running out the clock, no need to get fancy as Holmgren said. Hasselbeck liked the way the defense lined up against that play, so he called a hot, real audible, and passed to Burleson on a fade route. Incomplete. Bad pass. Burleson perhaps also should have been in better position -- hard to say, but if the pass had connected, he would have been in good position for close to a 10 yard gain, maybe even a little more...I couldn't see where the safeties were.

OK, so it didn't work. Was a good idea, but bad execution. So, Seahawks line up in the same I formation, same play called. 92 blast. Cardinals line up the exact same way, as well. Even though that fade route pass didn't work, this is a textbook-perfect time to fake-audible to the same play -- the number is the same, the defense will probably pick up on that.

It was all very good design. Alexander & Strong ought to have known. 4 different people not knowing, must make the not knowing understandable, perhaps the noise really did make a difference, but I blame Alexander above all who did not initially run the play that was called. I think that's the rule; you have to run the play called, unless you KNOW. Strong ran the play called, but abandoned it, apparently out of uncertainty as to whether the audible was real/fake, when Hayes busted through.

Hasselbeck said when Alexander wasn't there when he ought, to take the handoff, he thought there must have been a whistle he didn't hear. For Hayes to bust in so fast, and Alexander to have as far as he knew, aborted his run to take the handoff, it must have looked like a false start call, or something, so Hasselbeck just stopped. That was his mistake. Should have protected the ball, until he KNEW.

The Seahawks game before, the Tampa game, Tampa's punter thought he heard a whistle, so he just stopped. Play gets blown up, Seahawks think they blocked the punt, but the ref says to Holmgren, "I have to let them have a do-over. He thought he heard a whistle."

I think that must have had some sort of effect, on Hasselbeck's thinking, when he's in a position where it seems like a whistle must have been blown, by his teammates' behavior, and his consideration of the consequences of being wrong.

But that part is just speculation.

Sorry for the long post, I hardly think the subject at hand constitutes it, but I'm known for being verbose.

by Ben Riley :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 2:17pm


Verbose, but insightful. I too wondered if the bizarre Tampa "do over" call might have conciously or subconciously affected the botched exchange. We'll never know, of course, but it does seem weird to have two plays like that in two weeks.

by sythe (not verified) :: Wed, 09/19/2007 - 4:09pm


Sorry if this is obvious, but I'm very curious. How does one find out that a team had such and such play called (like 92 blast), when they instead call an audible and run a different play?

by Jacob Stevens (not verified) :: Thu, 09/20/2007 - 1:59pm

That was from former QB Hugh Millen, he who was instrumental in bringing Jim Mora to Seattle's coaching staff, you might remember. His insight is indispensible.

He said it was 92 blast, off tackle run, on Sunday. This morning, he said, he's not sure, now, whether the play was off-tackle run, designed to hit the 6 gap/hole (the edge of the line, to the outside of the right tackle) or the "8 hole" which would be a stretch play, possible cutbacks but basically the backs would be running far wide right of the tackle.

That's more how the play looks, I think. Mack Strong was taking off in that direction. Had Alexander been right behind him as he should have, when Gerald Hayes busted through, that would have been to the Hawks' advantage -- he'd be out of the play. Hayes ran through a big hole, and it didn't look like a blown assignment on the line. So why Strong suddenly cut over to try to chip Hayes, if he'd be out of the play, I don't know. I guess, either because he also was 2nd guessing about the audible, or perhaps it was a running play to the 5 or 6, which would mean Hayes could still be in the play, and would need to be blocked out of it. He's also been around a long time, has good football sense, maybe he could tell something wasn't right.

Some new things, this morning, from Hugh Millen and Clare Farnsworth: apparently, Hasselbeck used the real audible, AND hand signals, to indicate it's still a fake audible. So now I do think, that's getting a little too cute. Still a very good way to use audibles, I think, considering the prior play, and it's the end of the game so by then they might have been hip to what colors were hot (Hugh confirmed they do use more than one hot color). Leaves me a little more impressed with Hasselbeck -- although I don't have a frame of reference to know how many other QBs pull these kind of things with regularity -- but I agree now that the situation constituted a little more simplicity. They were already 2 yards closer than what Josh Brown told them to get him (he said, get us to the 38, I'll be fine. They were on the 36).

The other thing is, Farnsworth said, asking Deion Branch, Strong, and the other guys, they all said they weren't confused about the audible; they knew what the play was supposed to be.

So they're surmising that Holmgren saying a few guys were confused, is covering for Alexander, who only spoke on Sunday and claimed he had the audible correct on his first step but 2nd guessed it when he saw Hayes coming through, and Hasselbeck hesitating -- not true; Alexander is the only guy on the team who moves to the left, initially -- while Strong must have been running the correct play, so it was more off-tackle than a stretch.

What an over-analyzed fumble. Ocho Cinco said he's going to kiss a Seahawk cheerleader when he scores. Let's talk about that instead now!

by Bam Bam (not verified) :: Fri, 09/21/2007 - 2:16am

Kissing a cheerleader could be considered assault...seriously.

Ocho Cinco kissing his ass goodbye would be a better trick.