The Seattle Seahawks loss last night will live in infamy for as long as the NFL football is played. But while wide receiver Ricardo Lockette will be remembered—at least on video—for being the target of quarterback Russell Wilson’s awful pass that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, it is fellow wideout Doug Baldwin who deserves to be castigated by football historians for a single, senseless, selfish act that changed the course of a game decided by the flimsiest of margins.
Doug Baldwin’s stat line in Super Bowl XLIX is short but not insignificant: one reception, a 3-yard touchdown. But you have to read the play-by-play to garner the full context of his contribution. After scoring his TD, Baldwin’s endzone celebration attracted a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Without that penalty, it’s quite possible that this morning the Seahawks would have woken up as repeat champions, rather than the most memorable losers the big game has seen.
Baldwin’s penalty forced Seahawks placekicker Doug Hauschka’s ensuing kickoff to be taken at the Seahawks’ 20-yard line, rather than the 35. As a result, Hauschka had no chance to kick the ball into the Patriots’ endzone for a touchback, which would have forced the Pats to start the ensuing drive at their own 20. Instead, Hauschka’s kick reached only the Pats’ 14-yard line and was returned by Danny Amendola to the Pats’ 35.
At this point in the game there was 4:48 left to play in the 3rd quarter and the Seahawks led 24-14. So when the Pats went 3-and-out and punted the ball into the Seahawks’ endzone, it seemed Baldwin’s douchery was inconsequential. And but for chaos, it might have been.
In its most simplified terms, chaos theory tells us that in any complicated system even the smallest alterations can bring about perhaps unforeseeable, and potentially huge, consequences. The most famous formulation of chaos theory may be “the butterfly effect,” the theoretical possibility that particular flaps of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the world might play into a causal chain resulting in a tornado on the other side of the world, whereas different flaps would have played into the causal chain differently, perhaps resulting in a future without that particular tornado, with a slightly different version of that tornado, etc. In a highly complex system, the theory goes, it’s impossible to predict exactly what effects result from a given action.
While it seems that Baldwin’s endzone celebration, which consisted of a mime of his pulling down his pants, then squatting over the ball (laying an egg? shitting?), had a negligible effect on the game, there is really no way to know. What is certain is that what happened from that point forward would not have happened exactly the same way had Hauschka kicked off from the 35. If he had, the Pats would probably have started their next drive from a different part of the field. This might have led to the Pats calling different plays, either by original design or by quarterback Tom Brady’s pre-snap changes at the line of scrimmage, choices made on the spot based on the quarterback’s perspective in the present moment.
Because the Pats went 3-and-out, it seems the causation resulting from Baldwin’s penalty might have benefitted the Seahawks indirectly, since 3-and-out is about as good a result as a defense can force on a particular drive. But who knows? Without Baldwin’s penalty, maybe Brady throws an interception that gets returned for a TD, giving the Seahawks seven more points. Or maybe the difference is less dramatic. Maybe the Pats still go 3-and-out but aren’t able to punt the ball away into the Seahawks’ endzone, an alteration in the flow of the game that precipitates a long Seattle drive that pays off in points a few minutes later.
As it happened, the Seahawks never again scored, while the Patriots put up two more touchdowns. Then came what everyone will remember: the final drive, the fluky catch by Jermaine Kearse, and what may be the worst pass in Super Bowl history.
But none of this happens exactly that way without Baldwin’s penalty. Maybe the Seahawks wouldn’t even have been in a position to get the final score they seemed sure to get had they run Marshawn Lynch from the 1. Maybe they wouldn’t have needed it. The only sure thing is that the ending would have been different.
Immanuel Kant offers a fairly straightforward way of deciding how to act in a chaotic world, a world in which the consequences of a given action are not always predictable. In the realm of Kantian ethics, one is duty bound to do the right thing in the moment, without regard to what will ensue. How far he goes with that belief is made clear in his essay “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives”. His answer is that there is no such right, at least if you believe (like Kant) that telling the truth is “a sacred and absolutely commanding decree of reason.” You do the right thing in the moment, Kant says, come what may.
Doug Baldwin is a pedestrian NFL player, but even pedestrian players know that you’re supposed to help your team win. In principle, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, which set your team back 15 yards a pop, don’t do that. They’re called “penalties” for a reason. They hurt. An NFL equivalent of a Kantian categorical imperative would be something along the lines of Avoid penalties whenever you can, particularly penalties such as unsportsmanlike conduct, which can in no way be rationalized as necessary in the moment (as opposed, say, to a defensive back grabbing a receiver who’s beaten him so as to prevent a likely touchdown).
But Baldwin didn’t care. Or he cared more about getting someone’s goat (he didn’t say whose) than not hurting his team. After his one big moment on the NFL’s biggest stage, he felt the need to pretend to pull down his pants and poop a football. It was gesture that was guaranteed to draw a flag, and thus to alter the course of the game.
Maybe the difference was negligible. But in a game that came down literally to the last seconds, a game that culminated in one particular decision made in at specific moment in response to one particular set of circumstances, there is almost no way in which the game does not end differently if Baldwin keeps his pants on.
So while everyone’s blaming Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson and maybe even Ricardo Lockette for the greatest gaffe in Super Bowl history, save a little blame for Doug Baldwin. Because but for Doug Baldwin, there might be a helluva party happening in Seattle right about now.
Love and formic acid,
(Image: Matt Slocum)