Game 3: Seahawks 26, Broncos 20 — Seahawks Blow It, Then Don’t

Quick rundown of the Seattle sports scene on this Sunday evening: Seahawks, winning; Mariners, losing; Sounders, don’t know; Sonics, still don’t exist.

On a macro level, the Seahawks-Broncos game played out very much as I expected.  In fact, I was only a point off for each team in my prediction of the final score (I said 27-19).  But, the devil, as they say, is in the details, and the details of this game were particularly surreal.  One detail is that the ‘Hawks defense held a Peyton Manning-led offense to a respectable 18 points and 332 total yards (just 4.7 yards-per-play).  Another detail is that they turned the Broncos over twice, including a seemingly game-clinching interception by Kam Chancellor.  Yet another detail is that the Broncos amazingly drove 80 yards in the final minute of regulation, with no timeouts, to score the game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion.  They did this on just three pass completions, and on each one the receiver who caught the ball ran the same basic route: a waggle fly down the sideline while the underneath receiver “cleared out” the coverage.*  For some reason, the Seahawks weren’t ready for this and got burned on plays in which Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas, and Jacob Tamme were very open.  Phil Simms seemed to think the Broncos were doing something especially exotic (paraphrase: “I assure you the Seahawks D has never seen plays like this.”), but it just looked like blown coverages to me.

In the end, however, it doesn’t really matter because of the big final detail: Russell Wilson atoned for his fourth-quarter interception by driving the ‘Hawks 80 yards for a game-winning touchdown on the first possession of overtime.  Marshawn Lynch was the one who actually plunged into the end zone to end it, but the drive was vintage Wilson: finding the open receiver for a successful gain or tucking the ball away and running for six yards if there isn’t one.  (This drive was very reminiscent of the late-game drives against the Bears two years ago and the Texans last year.)  It seems like Wilson saves his legs for the moments he really needs them — like a baseball ace who doesn’t reveal his out pitch unless he’s really in a jam.  Whatever the case, it’s a spectacular show.  Russell Wilson clearly isn’t the best quarterback in the league (… yet), but there is nobody I’d rather watch with the game on the line.  There is something about the scrambling QB (the Steve McNair types) that makes them more enjoyable to root for than the surgeons like Manning and Philip Rivers.

So, the outcome of this game was precisely what I expected.  But if you only saw the outcome, you missed all the fun.  On Sunday Night Football Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison were talking how this is a moral victory for the Broncos.  And I thought to myself: Isn’t it nice to be on the side that gets the actual victory and not the moral victory?  And then I answered myself that it is.

Oh, but before I go, I would be remiss if I didn’t bemoan Pete Carroll’s most recent ultraconservative (i.e., stupid) play call.  He’s good for at least one a game.  This one came in the third quarter when Russell Wilson found Paul Richardson for seven yards on 3rd-and-8.  Up 17-3 against the high octane Broncos, the ‘Hawks punted on 4th-and-1 from the 50 yard line.  This is a situation where you go for dagger, no?  After all, this and Steven Hauschka‘s missed field goal (it happens) are really what enabled the comeback.  If Seattle scores on either of these two possessions, there likely isn’t even a minute left for Manning at the end.  That’s the thing about spineless football.  It isn’t “conservative” — unless conservative means putting off a sticky situation now for a worse one down the road.  Because that’s generally what happens.

Thankfully, however, John Fox out-gutless-ed Pete Carroll on the Broncos ensuing possession by punting on 4th-and-1 near midfield down 14 points.  How anybody can think punting in this situation increases their chances of winning, I have no idea.  But I do know that this is the same man who punted on the opponent’s side of the field down 29 points in the Super Bowl.  So, I think it’s safe to say, nobody will ever confuse John Fox with John Nash.

*This probably isn’t the correct football-coach terminology, but you get the idea.

Game 3: Denver @ Seattle — Less Than 50% Chance Seahawks Win 43-8 Again

Of all the possible outcomes of this week’s Super Bowl rematch, one I think we can completely rule out is the Seahawks winning by the exact score of 43-8 again.  It’s a very odd score; so odd, in fact, that Super Bowl XLVIII is the only game in football’s annals that has ever ended in it.  Even a score of 43-x, where x can be any number is an unusual final score.  But it’s not one that’s unheard of.  The Seahawks’ Super Bowl beatdown was the third time in their franchise history that they scored exactly 43 points in game.  In 1987, they whupped the lowly Chiefs 43-14 at the Kingdome, and then a year later they went to LA and beat the Raiders 43-37, with the division title on the line.  It was one of Dave Krieg‘s finest moments (four touchdowns!).

So if 43-8 is likely out, as is 43 to anything, then what is a more realistic score? Let’s say Seahawks 27, Broncos 19.  That’s my prediction.  I think the ‘Hawks will be able to move the ball on the Broncos.  With the notably exception of the final drive (in which he was behind the 8-ball from the get-go) Russell Wilson played pretty well last week.  We can apparently count on Percy Harvin to do at least one awesome thing every game.  And Marshawn Lynch, for the most part, has looked his usual Beast Modey self so far.  Although I’m not quite sure what to make of his mysterious back injury.  A few years ago, Carroll & Co. pulled Lynch from a game (well, you can kinda call this a game, anyway) during warmups when nobody even knew he was hurt.  So we will see how things play out on Sunday.  Maybe Christine Michael will make his 2014 debut.

On defense, I’m expecting a bend-but-don’t-break type of game (hence the 19 points — four field goals).  Peyton Manning will likely be able to move the ball because, well, because he’s Peyton Manning (even in the Super Bowl the two teams were close in net yardage), but I think the ‘Hawks (with the help of the 12th Man, of course) will get some stops when it matters and probably a turnover or two.  It will be interesting to see if Wes Welker plays, and if so, whether or not he gets regular snaps straightway after returning from a concussion.  We all know that playing a professional football game against any team is bad for your brain, but I imagine this is especially true against the Seahawks.  And, who knows, Welker might just collapse on the field untouched as The Clink induces an LOB flashback.

Like most Seahawks fans, I’ll be raptly watching the game Sunday afternoon.  Like most NFL fans, I’ll also have another game on in the background.  (NFL games have so many commercials, watching a single game is like eating popcorn one kernel at a time; it’s still good, but it’s kind of annoying, as well.)  This week there is a particularly interesting NFC West matchup to keep one eye on: San Francisco at Arizona.  And it brings up a bit of a conundrum: For whom should Seahawks fans root?

On the one hand, the Cardinals are 2-0, and a win, coupled with a Seattle loss (not inconceivable, by any means — again, we’re talking about Peyton Manning), would drop the ‘Hawks to two games back in the division.  Although it seems unlikely a team quarterbacked by Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton could actually win the division, let’s keep in mind that they were pretty good last year, and they did beat the Seahawks in Seattle, so … yeah.  The Cardinals could be a legit threat.

On the other hand, how can any ‘Hawks fan be against rooting against the 49ers?  Watching Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall (and, truthfully, the referees) carve up the Niners D, while Colin Kaepernick imploded last Sunday evening was so enjoyable, I don’t think I have the willpower to not cheer for something similar happening again.

Maybe this is one of those situations where you just watch and enjoy without a rooting interesting.  If it’s true that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then there is no way ‘Hawks fans can lose with this one.  Unless, of course, they tie.

Game 2: Seattle 21, San Diego 30 — ‘Hawks Play Worse Than Opponent, Lose

In my preview (and I use that term loosely), I suggested that Philip Rivers, right now, might be the second best quarterback in the league.  One game, of course, doesn’t prove anything definitively, but if it did, I would have pinned the bolo tie on the bumpkin with this one (or something like that).*  If the notion that Rivers is better than, say, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, seemed absurd on Friday, it seems just a tiny bit less so Sunday evening.  Rivers was phenomenal against the Seahawks.  He continually made the correct read pre-snap (or so it seemed to my untrained eyes); he continually found the open receiver; and his passes couldn’t have been placed better if he walked them over to his intended targets instead of throwing them.  He even looked mobile — in his own cardboard cutout way — side-stepping the pass rush to shotput the ball to a check-down guy or scramble for the first down.  He out-Russell-Wilsoned Russell Wilson, which is a bigger shocker than Brian Hoyer playing Breesier than Drew Brees.

To me, River’s hyper-efficient performance brought back memories of the 2012 ‘Hawks D.  It was like watching a cross between the Detroit and Miami games.  The defense wasn’t terrible, but they simply could not get enough stops on third down (San Diego was 10 for 17) to be the dominant unit they can be.  The pass rush was a step slow — in part because the San Diego scheme was keeping tired players on the field (and because it was, apparently, really fucking hot) — and the coverage couldn’t bail them out (Richard Sherman had a poor, if overblown, game).  Even when the coverage was sound, Rivers would throw a perfect lob to Antonio Gates who would channel his inner 2006 self and snatch it out of the air.  K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner, and Kam Chancellor, good as they are, were no match for vintage Rivers-to-Gates.  It also didn’t help that Earl Thomas had to sit out a bunch of snaps with cramps.

On offense, the ‘Hawks looked fine until they got desperate at the end.  Wilson was bothered by the pass rush a bit, but he made enough plays to keep the team in it basically the entire game.  Seattle got lucky on the Percy Harvin stepped-out-of-bounds touchdown run, but I’d like to think they would have scored on that drive anyway — plus, the Chargers got lucky by recovering four of the five fumbles in the game (and having another one by Donald Brown go out-of-bounds).  Luck wasn’t a huge factor one way of the other.

The only problems I — the diligent amateur blogger — had with the offense were a few bad play calls.  I think Pete Carroll really erred by not going for it on 4th-and-2 from his own 36 with about 8:00 left in the game.  As Bill Barnwell frequently points out, eschewing a manageable 4th-down opportunity midway through the fourth quarter usually just results in a more difficult try later in the game: Smash cut to Russell Wilson overthrowing Jermaine Kearse on perhaps the worst 4th-down try I’ve ever seen.  I also didn’t like the play call on the jet sweep that effectively set up that situation in the first place.  The ‘Hawks were too deep in their own zone to run a play that develops that far behind the line of scrimmage.  Plus, everybody has seen that play many times now; the element of surprise was completely absent.  The fake jet sweep roll-out, pass-run option, on the other hand, that would have been the play — or maybe that’s just a “hindsight is 20-20″ type of thing.

So the Seahawks take a loss.  It happens.  It’s early.  But it doesn’t get much easier next week when Peyton Manning comes to The Clink.  It was a bad night for Seattle sports fans overall.  The Mariners lost as well, and their playoff hopes are slowly slipping away (actually, more accurately, they are flaking off in big chucks, but you get the idea).  And like the ‘Hawks who next have to deal with the high-octane Broncos, the M’s start a four-game series tomorrow against the best team in baseball.  Things sure seemed rosier last week, didn’t they?

*Also, I ask the reader to ignore the fact I also said Rivers could be ranked as low as the 13th best QB in the league…  So I basically said nothing at all.

Game 2: Seattle @ San Diego — No. 1 D Against No. x QB (2 <= x <= 13)

Impossible-to-answer question of the day:  How good is Philip Rivers?  That is, if you were a new NFL GM, and you inherited an offense with every position in place except the quarterback, and you had no knowledge about the players at the other positions or about your coaching staff or your offensive system or anything like that — it’s all a blank slate —  and you had to pick a quarterback from all the quarterbacks in the league based on their “true” ability right now, how many names would you call out before Philip Rivers?

For me, the answer is four: Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady.  But the only one I feel completely confident with is Peyton Manning.  If it seems absurd that I would even contemplate putting Rivers ahead of Rodgers, Brees, and Brady, I would say this: Look at the numbers.  Last year, by DYAR, Rivers was the second most effective passer in the NFL behind Manning — and that wasn’t a fluke.  Other than an aberrant 2012 season, statistically Rivers has ranked with the big boys every year since his first as a starter in 2006 (note, for example, in the link to his pro-football-reference page, that he led the NFL in Y/A each year from ’08-’10).

But, of course, as the saying goes, “football isn’t played on paper”.  Now, I, like any good stat-nerd, have always hated that cliché, but I will say that in a game with 11 players per side on the field at all times,* in which each player is completely dependent on his teammates, one’s individual stats probably will never be able to tell anything close to the definitive story of how “good” he is.  The best we can do, in my opinion, is use stats (and our eyeballs) to apply the nebulous “Reasonable Human Test”.  The Reasonable Human Test works like this: We can say Philip Rivers is better than Chad Henne, because no reasonable human would argue otherwise; likewise, we can say he’s not as good as Peyton Manning for the same reason.  But compared to a guy like, say, Tom Brady, it’s reasonable to say Rivers is better (right now — Brady clearly has had the superior career), but it’s also reasonable to say he’s worse.  It’s almost a matter of taste.  You will get a different answer depending on which criteria you think is most important.**

With all that said, I think you could reasonably argue Philip Rivers is the second best QB in the league right now (I wouldn’t, but I don’t think it’s a ludicrous statement).  And I also think you could reasonably argue he’s the thirteenth best quarterback in the league behind Manning, Rodgers, Brees, Brady, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Tony Romo, and Eli Manning.  (I only included Lil’ Manning because he has a penchant for leading his team to a Super Bowl victory as soon as everybody is convinced he sucks.)  So there’s my completely useless, cop-out answer to the question “How good is Philip Rivers”: somewhere between number two and number 13 on the list of NFL quarterbacks.

And this Sunday Rivers will be at home against the definitively best defense in the league.  He is 0-1 against Pete Caroll’s Seahawks lifetime; in 2010, the ‘Hawks stunned the Bolts (fresh off a 13-3 season) with a Week 3 upset, 27-20.  This week’s game will probably play out a bit differently.  I mean, I could definitely see Seattle getting two kick return touchdowns (“Lord have mercy, it’s Percy”), and I could see Earl Thomas sealing the victory with an interception.  But I doubt Rivers throws for 455 yards again.  But if he does — if he lights up this historically great pass defense — would it be reasonable to move him up to number one on the QB list?  Probably not.  But it would be damn impressive.  And I hope it doesn’t happen.

*Unless a team accidentally leaves a player off like Dallas did on Tony Dorsett’s famous 99-yard run.  But you get what I’m saying.

**Like I did in this analysis, which unfortunately doesn’t even include Rivers.  Hey, he was coming off an awful year.

Real Game 1: Seahawks 36, Packers 16 — ‘Hawks, M’s Simultaneously Relevant For First Time Ever (Literally)

As nights go, Thursday was a pretty good one for Seattle sports fan.  The Seattle football team dispatched the Green Bay Packers — widely considered one of the best teams in the NFC — in typical Seattle football team fashion: excellent coverage in the secondary, a timely pass rush, a bulldozing run game, and a handful of big plays from Russell Wilson.  Meanwhile the Seattle baseball team, led by $200-million man Robinson Cano hammered the hapless Rangers 10-2 to win their third straight game — a streak they would extend to five games to reestablish themselves as a coin-flip contender in the AL playoff race.  It all got me thinking: When was the last time the Seahawks and Mariners were relevant at the same time?  The answer, I came to find, is never.

At first blush, being that both teams have been around for nearly 40 years, this sounds like it can’t possibly be true.  But once one remembers that the Mariners weren’t even involved in a playoff race until 1995, it becomes easier to believe.  The early M’s were bad — and not just normal bad, among-the-worst-franchises-ever bad.  Occasionally the Mariners’ marketing department of yesteryear was able to snooker the Seattle fan base into believing a successful season was on the horizon (“I’m a Lefebvre Believre”, anyone?), but the jig was when up once the team was 11 games out first by June.

And by the the time the M’s finally did get good, the ‘Hawks were entering the malaise of the Dennis Erickson years (which was actually a step up from where they had been previously).  In 1999, under new coach Mike Holmgren and new QB Jon Kitna, the Seahawks started the season 8-2 (including a notable whooping of Green Bay in Lambeau on Monday Night Football) generating legitimate Seahawks buzz.  But the Mariners, despite having Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, and Ken Griffey Jr. all in their primes, were somehow a losing team in ’99 (and that somehow was named Jeff Fassero and Jose Mesa).  Plus the Seahawks faded down the stretch and lost a home playoff game to the Miami Dolphins who in turn lost in the next round to the Jacksonville Jaguars … 62-7.

Then the Seahawks turned back to mediocrity, and the Mariners got really good.  And then the Mariners sucked and the Seahawks were awesome.  And never did the twain meet.  It was never the case that the Mariners and Seahawks were good simultaneously.  Until now. So sure the M’s only have a 50-50 chance of playing a wild card game (a 50-50 proposition itself, even with King Felix Hernandez on the mound), but it’s still the playoffs.  The Mariners could realistically play in the postseason this year.  And the Seahawks are reigning Super Bowl champions.  These two things are true at the same time.  It’s an unprecedented time for Seattle sports fans.  Let’s not get too picky now.

Briefly, my thoughts on the game itself:

  • The Seahawks did exactly what everybody should have expected them to do.  It sounds weird to say this, but I think the ‘Hawks might be a bit underrated right now.  They aren’t a “normal” Super Bowl winner.  It seems like a lot of people are expecting them to fall off or “regress to the mean” or something, but they probably won’t.  Their mean just might be “Best Team in the NFC by a Wide Margin”.
  • If the ‘Hawks are looking to transition away from Marshawn Lynch, they didn’t show it Thursday.  Robert Turbin didn’t get “time share” reps and Christine Michael is now officially the most talented player in football who, for some reason, never actually plays.  (To use an analogy that keeps in line with the Seahawks-Mariners theme, Michael’s ability to run the football is like Ichiro Suzuki‘s legendary ability, back in the day, to hit 30 home runs a season, if he wanted to.)
  • The D-line did look a bit worse than last year (a lot of new faces: Cassius Marsh was getting significant run, among others), but the O-line looked much better.  It’s too early to draw any sweeping conclusions though.
  • The biggest play of the game, in terms of win probability added, was Percy Harvin‘s 33-yard reception in the second quarter (+9.5%).
  • My favorite play was Luke Willson‘s only reception of the game — a one-yard strike from Russell Wilson.  Great job by the field general keeping everybody involved in the game.
  • I agree with everybody but apparently Pete Carroll.  Earl Thomas should not be doing punt returns.  The masses aren’t always right.  But sometimes they are.  The ‘Hawks are carrying, like, 10 wide receivers on their roster; let one of them field punts.  Let that white guy do it all the time from now on.
  • Or let Percy Harvin do it.  Percy Harvin is fast.

Fake Game 4: Seahawks @ Raiders — Friday Morning Rebuttal

Two Seahawks stories in the news I want to touch on.  The first, of course, is “extra practice-gate”, in which the Seahawks organization and Pete Carroll specifically were fined around $300,000 total by the NFL and stripped of two minicamp practices next year for violating the CBA with respect to contact regulations during practice.  This possibly stems from an in-practice fight between Richard Sherman and Phil Bates.  There isn’t really much more to say about this.  The Seahawks broke a player-safety rule and are being punished accordingly.  Nobody will be talking about this come Thursday night … if they even are now.

The second, is this week’s “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” article by Gregg Easterbrook of ESPN (link below).  Troll-reading TMQ used to be a simple pleasure of mine back in the day, but sadly I haven’t had much time to devote to it in recent years — just a random article and some snarky thoughts here and there.  Easterbrook is a quintessential oldish-school, half-hack sportswriter — the kind of which FireJoeMorgan used to hilariously pan regularly.  He makes “bold” “counter-conventional” claims and then attempts to back them up with quasi-statistical analysis.  But he (obviously) knows very little about actual statistics, so what comes out is usually a bunch of specious drivel.

Case in point: History in Seattle’s Way; NFC Preview.  Here’s how the article begins:

The 2013 NFL season ended with the Seattle Seahawks crushing Denver in the Super Bowl. But will they even reach the playoffs this season?

Recent precedent says no. The two prior Super Bowl victors, the Ravens and Giants, failed to reach the postseason the following year. Those two clubs were a combined 17-15 in the seasons following their confetti shower after the final contest.

Problem number one, obviously, is that he’s drawing an inference about a future event (the Seahawks making the playoffs) from a sample size of two that he created with a completely arbitrary endpoint.  It’s fortunate that “recent precedent” apparently only goes back two years, or else he would have had to include the Green Bay Packers who went 15-1 in 2011 after winning the Super Bowl the previous year, and then his point would have been hurt — lucky that.

What’s more is that the ’12 Ravens and ’11 Giants were both very fluky Super Bowl victors who just happened to win in back-to-back years.  Neither one was dominant during the regular season (remarkably the Giants were actually outscored by their opponents overall), and both relied on unsustainably good play (e.g., Joe Flacco‘s 11 TD and 0 INT) and lucky breaks (e.g., the Eli Manning to Hakeem Nicks Hail Mary and the Kyle Williams skinned-knee muffed punt) to get to and win the Super Bowl.  Easterbrook acknowledges this, but then adds:

Lady Luck smiled on the Seahawks in 2013 and perhaps will again this year — but don’t count on it.

What a strange (i.e., dumb) thing to say.  Not only were the Seahawks the best team in the league last year, they were one of the best teams ever.  And they won the Super Bowl.  What’s “Lady Luck” got to do with it?  If the Seahawks winning the championship last season is considered lucky, then you can chalk up just about any accomplishment any NFL team has ever achieved to luck.

Easterbrook goes on to make his (weak) case against a Seattle repeat:

Conventional wisdom holds that first- and second-round draft selections are the essence of football success. Yet the Seahawks won the Super Bowl the past season with the league’s second-lowest total of games played by first- and second-round selections; only Miami had fewer 2013 games by first- or second-round picks

Let’s break this down.  I agree with his point on conventional wisdom.  But let’s think about why it’s true: why are first- and second-round draft selections the essence of football success?  Is it because they are early round picks — do players magically get better if they are picked in the first or second round?  Or are they generally good players and are therefore selected in the early rounds?  I’m going to go ahead and answer for everybody: it’s the latter.  And so is the key variable to a team’s sustained success the number of contributing first- and second-rounders on their team, or rather the number of good young players?  Again, the latter.  So does it matter that Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Kam Chancellor, and Richard Sherman weren’t first or second round picks?  Of course not.  All that matters is that they are good, young and on the team — which they are.  Easterbrook commits a classic “correlation doesn’t equal causation” fallacy in his first- and second-rounder argument and the result is a fatuous waste of time and digital memory.  (Don’t ask what it says about me that I just spent 1,000 words debunking it.)

One of Easterbrook’s implications, however, is true: the Seahawks are unlikely to win the championship again this year.  Of course this is true for every team, every year in every major American sports league, so it’s not really such an insightful tidbit.  As for making the playoffs, the ‘Hawks are actually quite likely to do so, despite what “recent history” tells us.  FiveThirtyEight puts the odds at 65% (based on Vegas point spreads), which initially seemed too low to me, but now seems about right.  Each year — what? — five, six teams are knocked out of the running due to injuries alone (e.g., last year’s Falcons).  So you should knock off about 20% from the get-go just based on the fact that the Jenga tower might collapse at any moment.

In the case of the ’14 Seahawks, that leaves about a 15% probability of a non-injury-plagued, non-playoff season.  What type of events could conspire to case such a nosedive?  In other words, why wouldn’t the ‘Hawks make the playoffs other than devastating injuries?   Here are the three most likely reasons, in my opinion:

  1.  Harder schedule, other teams in the NFC, particularly the NFC West are better.
    This was a bigger worry a few months ago.  San Francisco is poised be good again: they should lose a little on D with the NaVorro Bowman injury and possible Aldon Smith suspension, but they should gain a little on O with a healthy Michael Crabtree.  The Cardinals and Rams, on the other hand, are looking no better than they were last season.  The Cardinals once formidable defense has been drastically downgraded with the loss of several key players (e.g., Daryl Washington, Darnell Dockett, and Karlos Dansby) and the Rams are trotting out journeyman Shaun Hill at quarterback.  Elsewhere in the NFC, things look roughly the same as last year overall.  For every team poised to take a step forward (Tampa Bay), there is a team poised to take a step backward (Carolina).  The NFC doesn’t looked markedly better to me.
  2. Marshaw Lynch catches SOSAD (Sudden Onset Shaun Alexander Disorder).
    Because in recent years the running back position has been (correctly) assessed as having been previously overrated (teams don’t commit the same resources to running backs as they used to — or at least smart teams don’t), it is perhaps the case that really good running backs have, in a way, become underappreciated.  It is perhaps also the case that Marshawn Lynch is one of these really good running backs.  Given the number of tackles Beast Mode broke last season behind a mostly crummy O-line and given that Robert Turbin has been the epitome of a JAG (Just A Guy) in his young career and Christine Michael has almost no NFL experience, the offense likely sputters without Lynch.  In the linked FiveThirtyEight article above, the author debunks the “heavy workload” myth surrounding Lynch, but it also points out that he’s a year older than he was last season, and running backs age like bananas in the sun.  SOSAD is definite possibility.
  3. The Front Seven Isn’t Dominant.
    Red Bryant, Clinton McDonald, and Chris Clemons weren’t the best players on the team by any means, but they were part of a very good D-line rotation.  We’ve seen what happens when the Seahawks struggle to get to the quarterback and can’t stop the run: they get beat by good teams and by not-so-good teams.  If the front seven isn’t solid, the ‘Hawks likely go from spectacular to adequate on D, which would inevitably lead to an increase in Ls.

So in conclusion, TMQ makes very unconvincing arguments, and the Seahawks will likely make the playoffs, but if they don’t it will probably be due to catastrophic injury or one of the three things I list above.

Oh, and the Seahawks play the Raiders tonight in the final preseason game of the year.  Enjoy, if that’s your type of thing.

Fake Game 3: Seahawks vs. Bears — Let’s Harken Back to 2006 (2007, Technically)

Friday night, the Seahawks square off against the Chicago Bears in week three of the 2014 preseason.  Since preseason football has now been mathematically proven to be meaningless, I can use this opportunity to talk about my favorite Seahawks playoff loss of all-time.

The date was January 14, 2007.  The location was Soldier Field, Chicago.  The event was the Seattle Seahawks versus the Chicago Bears in the divisional round of the 2006 NFL Playoffs.  The Seahawks were the defending NFC champions, but on this occasion they were 8.5 point underdogs.  Suffering from a severe Super Bowl katzenjammer, the ’06 ‘Hawks were simply not a very good team.  They won an extremely weak NFC West with a 9-7 record and a negative point differential.  By DVOA they ranked a lowly 24 — one spot below the 6-10 Minnesota Vikings.   With the same basic personnel as the year prior, the defense inexplicably went from being an above average unit in 2005 to being a well below average one in 2006.  And the offense fell even harder.  The ’05 O was the best in the league; the ’06 unit was the sixth worst.

The reasons for the offensive plummet are many, but the biggest one was Shaun Alexander contracting a rare football disorder that would later bear his name: Sudden Onset Shaun Alexander Disorder (SOSAD, for short).  SOSAD is a disorder in which a great running back suddenly becomes a terrible one.  It is often caused by aging and injury and can be aggravated by the loss of a good offensive lineman; it’s symptoms include decreased speed and power, which are often manifested by a reduction in touchdowns and rushing yards-per-carry.  In Alexander’s case, he went from being league MVP and setting the single-season touchdown record in ’05 to making Seahawks fans pine for the days of Derrick Fenner in ’06.  SOSAD indeed.

In the ’06 wild card round, Seattle hosted Dallas.  The Cowboys were a superior team by nearly every measure, and they probably should have won the game, but this happened, and the ‘Hawks advanced to play the Bears in the divisional round — a Bears team who, I might add, pummeled them 37-6 in the regular season.  The Bears were led by an elite D, featuring in-their-primes Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.  On offense, they had a decent running game, and their quarterback, Rex Grossman, although he would later become a punchline, was not that awful.  At least he wasn’t consistently that awful — he certainly had a penchant for turning the ball over, but he could also sling it deep (see clip below), which, given the Bears’ trio of downfield receivers (Bernard Berrian, Muhsin Muhammad, and Rashied Davis), was a useful skill.  I fully expected the Bears to crush the ‘Hawks like they did before.

But they didn’t.  And that’s what made this game so great.  The Seahawks stepped up and went toe-to-toe with the best team in the NFC, losing 24-21 on an overtime field goal by Robbie Gould.  And but for a failed 4th-and-1 attempt late in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks almost certainly would have won.  Every time the Bears punched the Seahawks counter-punched, until the very end.  If you were trying to pick a “karmic winner” based on which team played better, you wouldn’t have been able to — it was a dead heat.  Watching Gould’s kick hook through the uprights was excruciating (especially since I was watching with two Bears fans) but also weirdly satisfying.  It was a bit like seeing Rocky go the distance with Apollo Creed — only instead of Burgess Meredith, we had Mike Holmgren, and instead of Talia Shire, a fat man with a Sea-Fence sign.

This game was also memorable because it was Shaun Alexander’s last hurrah.  He went for 108 yards on 26 carries and two touchdowns, including a late third quarter score from 13 yards out on a 3rd-and-10 draw play.  At that point, Alexander’s disorder was an open secret among Seahawks fans; we knew he probably didn’t have much time left in football, so watching him dance around a stout defense once last time reminded us fondly of the running back we used to have oh so long ago, the year before.

Fake Game 2: Seahawks vs. Chargers (But First … Baseball!)

If you’re a Seattle sports fan and you’re going to watch tomorrow night’s Seahawks game, you’ve got problems … or you’re not a baseball fan, in which case you’ve got even bigger problems.  There is no way anybody should pick a preseason NFL game over a meaningful Major League Baseball game, and furthermore … Wait, what?  The Seahawks and Mariners games aren’t at the same time?  Huh.  How about that.  Well, OK then, you can watch the Seahawks in good faith, but you had better not switch off the M’s game if it’s close and it hasn’t ended by kickoff.

Even with the Seahawks’ glorious, glorious, and glorious Super Bowl victory still relatively fresh in my memory, it’s hard to really get into football right now.  In part this is because, well, preseason, but also it’s because the Mariners are relevant this late in the year for the first time since Edgar Martinez had a “little project”.  Sure the playoffs are still 50-50 at best, and even if they do make it, it will almost certainly be a potential one-and-done scenario on the road.  But that is more a function of the M’s happening to play in the same division as the two best teams in baseball than it is an indictment on their overall performance this year.

The truth is, the Mariners deserve to make the playoffs this season: They have a top-five run differential, and they have been historically good at preventing runs (all hail King Felix Hernandez!).  Also, with the additions of Austin Jackson, Kendrys Morales, and Chris Taylor, and the “breakout” of Dustin Ackley (hopefully … maybe … please?), the M’s actually have something resembling a major league offense.  It’s not quite there, but it’s a serviceable substitute.  It’s like Sizzlean (timely reference) — almost real bacon, just a bit leaner.

So let’s all put the Mariners first right now.  They’re legitimately good, and they’re fun to watch (or if you’re like me, they’re fun to follow on my iPhone via text generated on a mini baseball diamond with crude accompanying graphics).*  There will plenty of time to discuss Russell Wilson‘s charity work, Marshawn Lynch‘ disgruntlement, Kam Chancellor‘s recovery (did you know he had hip surgery this offseason?), and Justin Britt’s development in the future.  For now, to paraphrase one-time Seattle Pilots manager Joe Schultz: Let’s beat those Tigers and pound that Budweiser!  Actually, I’d prefer to do a nice craft beer from one of the many fine microbreweries in the area instead of Budweiser.  But you get the idea.

*Is there anything more pathetic than sitting on the edge of your seat as you watch the little animated fly ball move toward the “fence”: “C’mon, c’mon, get out!”

Fake Game 1: Seahawks @ Broncos — All Sizzle, No Steak

Are you ready for some football?!  Great, just wait one more month, and it will be here.  Today’s NFL is roughly 50% legitimate football and 50% vapid hype.  And August is the boom season for the latter.  The fact that Goddell & Co. treat preseason games as actual football events that, say, season ticket holders must attend (or at least pay admission), is ridiculous.  The only thing more ridiculous is that fans buy into it!  I bet Mile High Stadium will be packed tonight, and TV ratings will be strong from the PNW to the greater Denver area.  Preseason football is the guy at the party with the popped collar and the guitar playing tortured John Mayer covers.  You think to yourself nobody could possibly want to be in the presence of such a trite fellow, and yet he’s got three good-looking women by his side, singing along with him.  It only reinforces his bad behavior.

I mean, if you want to know how meaningless preseason football is, just look at last year’s Seahawks-Broncos game: The ‘Hawks harried Peyton Manning, forced turnovers, scored a defensive touchdown, moved the ball efficiently on offense, and jumped out to an early lead, before cruising to a 30-point blowout victory.  Such a game tells us absolutely nothing about what would happen if the two teams played when it actually mattered, and … Wait, bad example.  Scratch that.

So I don’t recommend it, but if you must watch the game tonight, here are some things to consider:

  • Do Terrelle Pryor or B.J. Daniels have a shot at supplanting Tarvaris Jackson as clipboard holder #1?
  • Is Christine Michael ready to regain the top spot on the depth chart at the “Guy Everybody Says Can Play Who Never Actually Plays” position or is Tharold Simon going to beat him out for it?
  • Are the Seahawks going to use a right tackle this season, or are they going to invent a new formation that eliminates the position altogether?
  • What Canadian team is going to sign Keith Price?
  • Is Mike Morgan the greatest ever Seahawks player who shares a name with an ex-Mariner?*

Enjoy.

*The answer is no.  1980s linebacker Michael Jackson is the greatest ever Seahawks player to share a name with an ex-Mariner.

Zombie Lies, NFL Addition — Russell Wilson, Game Manager

Since real football is still about a month away (enough with this Hall of Fame Game nonsense), we need to entertain ourselves with some inane football-related prattle.  To this end, let’s talk about Russell Wilson and some silly rumors swirling around him.  Don’t worry, they have nothing to do with Golden Tate, infidelity, nor divorce.

On his show Real Time, Bill Maher has a segment called “Zombie Lies” in which he exposes false narratives that continue to persist among the general population (and among many “experts”) no matter the abundance of objective evidence that piles up against them.  The reason these untruths never die is because they serve a preconceived political ideology.  In sports there are zombie lies as well.  And usually the reason is just as partisan.  We all have our favorite teams and favorite players and our least favorite teams and our least favorite players, and all too often too many of us view sports not as how it is, but as how we wish it was.  This leads to fallacies that people believe because they want to believe them, and then if a critical mass of people believe them, they gain momentum and more people believe them because everybody else believes.

Google “Russell Wilson Game Manager” if you want an example.  I still come across articles that purport this Zombie Lie, and I still frequently read comments by people online averring it as well (I know, it’s my fault for even reading these comments in the first place).  But it’s not true.  And not only is it not true, it’s diametrically not true.  Russell Wilson is the exact opposite of a game manager.  I give two general lines of reasoning to make my case: The Numbers Test and the Eyeball Test.

But first we need a working definition of “game manager”.  Wikipedia defines a game manager as “a quarterback who, despite relatively poor individual statistics such as passing yards and touchdowns, manages to perform well enough to win games”, which I think is a good enough starting point.  Let’s add that game managers typically: (1) make relatively few big plays, (2) utilize a very low-risk (and low-reward) style of play that includes avoiding turnovers at the expense of not moving the ball (and as a corollary, not scoring), (3) win games mostly because they have a good defense and a good running game, not because of things they do.

Now let’s look at why Russell Wilson fits these criteria, if only they were exactly opposite.

The Numbers Test

  1. Little known fact: The 2013 Seahawks offense relied heavily on big plays from the passing game.  According to SportingCharts.com, the Seahawks had the fifth most big plays of any passing game in the league.  And if you look at the percentage of their offense generated from big plays, they move up to second on the list.  Furthermore, Russell Wilson averaged 8.2 yards-per-attempt, fourth most in the league.  He was better at making big plays than slingers like Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Matthew Stafford, and Andrew Luck, let alone a stereotypical game manager like Alex Smith.
  2. It’s true that Russell Wilson didn’t throw many interceptions (9 on the season), and that in a few games (e.g., the Saints playoff game) the focus seemed to be on not making a mistake more so than on attempting to move the ball downfield.  But if this was an overarching trend, and not just an occasional, situationally specific game plan, then surely it would be reflected in the numbers.  And yet the numbers tell a contrary story.  When it comes to moving the ball and scoring, Wilson was at least a top-10 quarterback (and even better if you consider his running).  He finished ninth in DYAR (770) and ninth in touchdowns (26).  Those aren’t game manager stats; those are plain good quarterback stats.
  3. The Seahawks defense and running game last season was (obviously) awesome, but it doesn’t therefore follow that Russell Wilson wasn’t awesome.  It could be that all three of these things were awesome.  And in fact that’s what the numbers suggest, and they further suggest that Wilson had a huge hand in the Seahawks Super Bowl season.  The three stats that most make this case: (1) Wilson’s Approximate Value was 16, the third highest of any player (not just quarterback) in the NFL; (2) Wilson led five game-winning drives, no quarterback led more; (3) Wilson had four fourth-quarter comebacks, only one quarterback had more (Tom Brady).  The fact is, when the time came to make a play, Wilson made it almost every time.

The Eyeball Test

Watch the Seahawks!  And if you don’t have time at least watch this.  Russell Wilson plays nothing like a game manager.

Bonus Test

Below are the most stereotypical game manager-y seasons I could think of: Trent Dilfer ’00, Tom Brady ’01, Mark Sanchez ’10, and Alex Smith ’11.  I put their stats in the table below with Russell Wilson’s last year.

Quarterback Year Win Loss Yards TD INT Y/A DVOA DVOA Rank
Trent Dilfer 2000 7 1 1502 12 11 6.6 -22.8 39
Tom Brady 2001 11 3 2843 18 12 6.9 5.4 12
Mark Sanchez 2010 11 5 3291 17 13 6.5 -4.3 28
Alex Smith 2011 13 3 3144 17 5 7.1 3.1 14
Russell Wilson 2013 13 3 3357 26 9 8.2 15.6 8

Which of these things is much better than the others?