Pete Carroll and Darrell Bevell of the Seahawks may forever be known for the single dumbest play call in Super Bowl history, when they called for a pass instead of a run from the 1 yard line at the end of Super Bowl XLIX, leading to a Malcolm Butler interception and handing the Patriots a championship.
But Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan of the Falcons gave that inexplicable decision a run for its money on Sunday night.
Their brain-frozen play calling with four minutes left in Super Bowl LI snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and gift-wrapped a championship opportunity to the Patriots again. In a span of three mind-boggling plays, they went from being well within range of a game-sealing field goal to punting the ball away and putting it back in Tom Brady's hands.
That's not the only reason they made history by blowing a 28-3 lead and losing to the Patriots in overtime, 34-28, but it's a big part of why the Patriots' greatest comeback in Super Bowl history was also perhaps the NFL's greatest choke.
The situation was this: The Falcons, having gone conservative with their offense after opening up a 28-3 third quarter lead, had let the Patriots crawl back into the game and were only leading 28-20 late in the fourth quarter. But Matt Ryan moved the Falcons down the field and Julio Jones made an absolutely spectacular catch on the sidelines and kept both feet inbounds at the Patriots' 22 with 4:40 to play.
So right there, they're looking at a 40 yard field goal to put them up by 10. And if they run three times before doing it they could either run the clock down to about three minutes or force the Patriots to use their timeouts.
It's a total no-brainer. But neither Quinn nor Shanahan, his offensive coordinator, used their brains on what came next. On first down, they ran and Devonta Freeman lost a yard. That was fine. The clock continued to move. But on second down they called for a pass and Ryan, unable to get rid of the ball, took a 12-yard sack and the Patriots called timeout.
And even still the game was salvageable. They were only at the 35 -- probably at the edge of Matt Bryant's field goal range, around 53 yards. A short run there, on 3rd and 23, puts them in striking distance and continues to move a clock that was stopped at 3:50.
But the Falcons pass again -- and though they get a nine-yard completion, they also get a holding penalty that pushes them back to the Patriots' 45, stopping the clock at 3:44. Then on 3rd and 33 they pass again -- an incompletion that stops the clock again at 3:38.
Those last three plays pushed them backwards 22 yards and ate up just 18 seconds. That put the ball back in Brady's hands with 3:30 left and an opportunity to tie the game -- which he, of course, did.
Asked if he thought the Falcons were a little too aggressive there, Ryan balked. "Too aggressive?" he said. "No. I thought Kyle did a good job. I thought we played the way that we play. We always play aggressive and play to win."
There's something to the idea that a team should play to its strengths, but it's crazy how many coaches lose sight of the big picture in big moments like that. Sometimes the game is simple and not all about matching up personnel like it's all some souped-up chess match. There was no need to pass there. The possible bad results far outweighed the good.
And the potential good was great. At best the Falcons kick a field goal that gives them an insurmountable 10-point lead in the waning moments of a Super Bowl. At worst they end up with nothing but they give the ball back to the Patriots with 90 fewer seconds or maybe one or two fewer timeouts.
That wasn't the only fourth quarter blunder by the Falcons coaches, either. On the previous drive, with 8:31 remaining, they had a 3rd and 1 at their own 36. They were up 28-12 at the time, so a clock-eating run seemed the most sensible thing to do.
Instead? They passed -- or at least they tried. Ryan was sacked and fumbled and the Patriots recovered at the Atlanta 25. Five plays later they scored a touchdown making it an eight-point game. Quinn said "we thought we'd have a good look based on the personnel" and talked about the "trust" he has in his passing offense. He insisted that "I don't second-guess our play-calling or wanting to throw it."
Carroll refused to second-guess his decision or his offensive coordinator (Bevell) two years ago, too.
And so now all of them are Super losers, consigned to the bin of coaches who outsmarted themselves in the biggest of spots. That doesn't take away anything from the greatness of the Patriots dynasty or the remarkable comeback they made on Sunday night. In fact, it validates them in some way -- Belichick for being the ultimate chess master, tactically waiting to pounce on an opponents' critical mistake, and Brady for being the king of seizing opportunities.
It won't be remembered that way in Atlanta, though, just like it wasn't remembered that way two years ago in Seattle. For the Falcons, this isn't just the one they lost or the opportunity they lit slip through their fingers. This was completely avoidable if only someone in charge was thinking straight.
They weren't. As a result, Super Bowl LI turned into the biggest choke of all.