Game 11: Arizona @ Seattle — This Game … This is the Game

As expected, the Seahawks playoff odds dropped precipitously after last Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs.  Football Outsiders has them at 43% (down nearly 25% from a week ago), and theirs is not the only model that gives less than 50-50 odds.  FiveThirtyEight pegs them at 47%, and this site (which I just found through a Google search) has them at 46%.  The way the rack of pool balls that is the NFL season has broken, things are not as rosy as they could be (or perhaps should be) for the Seahawks right now.  Part of this is, of course, that the Seahawks are not a great team this year (they are still decent though, and no team in the NFL has been consistently great this year).  And part of it is just the stochastic nature of professional football.  The teams with which the ‘Hawks are competing for a playoff spot have been fortunate up to this point, which in turn means the ‘Hawks have been unfortunate.  It’s all relative.  And Seattle has been relatively unlucky thus far.

As a quick and dirty illustration of what I’m talking about, we can use Pro Football Reference’s Expected W-L stat.  Of the seven teams vying for the five NFC playoffs positions (excluding the putrid NFC South’s automatic bid), the Packers and Seahawks have been right on their expected win totals, while the Cowboys, Eagles, Lions, Cardinals, and 49ers have all significantly outperformed their expected win totals (by between 0.8 wins (Dallas) and 2.3 wins (Arizona); you can click on a team’s home page at PFR for more details).  In fact, these five teams combine are six games over what they probably “should” be.  Take away six wins randomly from this group, and Seattle’s playoff picture is drastically improved.  Other nerd stats tell a similar story, as the ‘Hawks ranked second in the NFC by both Weighted DVOA and by ELO (link above), and yet they only have the seventh best record.

And you don’t even need numbers to tell you this if you’ve watched enough football this season.  If you saw the Chargers blow a two-score, fourth-quarter lead to the Cards in Week 1, or Philly squeak by Indy and Washington by field goals in consecutive weeks, or the Falcons Noonan it against the Lions in London, or the Saints forget to cover a 49ers receiver 50 yards downfield on 4th-and-10 — if you saw any of these games (among others) — you already know, without looking at a single advanced stat, that 2014 is not shaping up to be the year of the Seahawk.

Of course, if the ‘Hawks were a transcendent team like they were last year, they could make it their year, other teams be damned — but they aren’t.  This year, they are just your typical fighting-for-a-postseason-berth NFL team, and these types of teams need some cosmic football love; they can’t get by on talent alone.  The ‘Hawks aren’t getting much love, and it’s unlikely to get better, as they have an extremely tough schedule the rest of the way, by far the hardest among the playoff hopefuls — Arizona, @San Francisco, @Philadelphia, San Francisco, @Arizona, St. Louis — not a gimme in the bunch.

But one thing the ‘Hawks do have in their favor is that it’s the right kind of hard schedule.  Five of the six games are against their direct competition, which means they still very much control their own destiny.  If they run the table, they will likely take the division; if they go 5-1, they will almost certainly make the playoffs; if they go 4-2, and it’s the right 4-2 (including wins over Philly and SF twice), they will probably make the playoffs; and if they go 3-3 or worse, well … there’s always next year … and YouTube.

So basically, the ‘Hawks just need to win (crack analysis), and their first opportunity to do so will be this Sunday against Arizona at The Clink.  The Cardinals are having a season that makes old-school types scoff at advanced metrics.  They have the best record in football by two games, and yet they are in the bottom half of the league by overall DVOA.  I won’t try to reconcile these things (Aaron Schotz delves into it briefly in the above link).  I will point out, however, that everybody (including the numbers) agrees on one thing: The Cardinals have an awesome defense.

Despite losing important pieces from last year’s excellent unit (namely Daryl Washington, Karlos Dansby, John Abraham, and Darnell Dockett), the Cardinals have picked up defensively where they left off in 2013.  The results are the same, but they are doing it differently this year … at least I think they are doing it differently this year; to be honest I can’t really figure out the Arizona D.  They regularly play six defensive backs, yet their specialty is stopping the run.  And although they have big names like Patrick Peterson and Calais Campbell, it’s the lesser known guys like Rashad Johnson, Jerraud Powers, and Alex Okafor (not to mention the terrific week-in-week-out scheming of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles) who are making this squad tick.  It’s definitely a “whole is bigger than the sum of its parts” defense, and they are good enough to give even the best offenses trouble.  The Seahawks running game has been ridiculously good over the past few weeks (and really the entire season), but the Cardinals haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in like two years (and Max Unger is out), so it might be tough sledding for Marshawn Lynch.  The talking heads have been dogging Russell Wilson and the Seahawks receivers this year (mainly the latter), so they might have to hush some critics for the ‘Hawks to score points on Sunday.

On the offense, the Cardinals seem to score with smoke and mirrors, but it’s actually more like smoke and bombs.  They wing it downfield and hope for the best.  John Brown, Malcolm Floyd, and (a slightly over-the-hill) Larry Fitzgerald aren’t the greatest trio of receivers in the league, but they are all dangerous on the deep ball.  And if there is one thing Drew Stanton can do, it’s deliver it long, which is why Cardinals fans weren’t too distraught when Carson Palmer went down with a season-ending knee injury.  The Seahawks D hasn’t been great against the pass this year, but for some reason I’m cautiously optimistic that L.O.B. II (the sequel is never as good as the original, is it?) can keep the Arizona passing game at bay.  I don’t know, call it a hunch.  The Cards have been really bad at running the ball this year (Andre Ellington is only going for 3.4 yards-per-carry), so, at the very least, we shouldn’t see a repeat of last week’s run-defense-optional debacle.

Last year, as you might recall, this game was an ugly, rugged, closely-contested affair.  I don’t expect this Sunday’s game to be much different — but hopefully this time the result goes the other way.  If it doesn’t, the Seahawks’ season could effectively be over before Black Friday.  Nobody would have imagined such a scenario on opening night, but, as Marshawn Lynch put it — tritely, but accurately — “Sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce your way.”

Game 10: Seahawks 20, Chiefs 24 — Almost Good Enough

If you want a decent recap of this game, just go back and read my preview.  I pretty much nailed it.  (Right down to the part about special teams being the “X-factor”.)  I said that the two teams were closely matched and that this was basically a “pick ‘em” game.  And so it was.  Or at least so it was, approximately.  I do think the Chiefs played a bit better.  If I was scoring this game as a boxing round, I would have given it to KC 10-9, but if somebody had it the other way, I wouldn’t have insisted the gaming commission carry out a corruption investigation.  From a football karma standpoint, the “right” team won.  From the vantage of a middle-aged football fan who lived the first 27 years of his life on the shores of the Puget Sound, every was wrong.

And the biggest thing that was wrong was the Seahawks run defense.  I knew they would struggle, but I didn’t think they would 6.3 yards-per-rush struggle.  I didn’t think they would Jamaal Charles for 159 and two touchdowns struggle.  That was unexpected  And it was brutal to watch.  Brandon Mebane‘s absence was obviously a factor, but I think missing Bobby Wagner was even more negatively impactful for the ‘Hawks.  The Chiefs, with Charles and De’Anthony Thomas, are so good at running counters and sweeps and misdirections that a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine would have been more valuable this game than a nugget in the middle.  Without Wagner, Seattle was particularly susceptible to any sort of stretch play, and the Chiefs, to their credit, took full advantage.

In general, the Chiefs executed a very Chiefs game plan.  They ran the ball extremely well; they threw nothing but short, high-percentage throws (11-16, for 108 yards); and they committed almost no penalties (just three for six yards).  With the notably exception of the two fumbles (both recovered by the ‘Hawks), it was an Alex Smith and Andy Reid KC masterpiece.

And yet the Seahawks were right there with a decent chance to win at the end and just couldn’t quite do it.  They almost out-Chiefed the Chiefs.  They ran exceptionally well (Marshawn Lynch went for 124 and Russell Wilson added 71 more), made a few big completions, and put together some impressive, long drives.  The offense played pretty well, and if they could have converted on one of their two 4th-and-shorts, they could have stolen this one.  Alas.

About those fourth-down plays: it was absolutely the correct call in each case to go for it, but I didn’t like the play call for either one.  I wish they would have swapped them.  I wanted to see Marshawn Lynch up the gut on the first one — being 4th-and-2, the Chiefs were anticipating pass.  And I wanted to see a pass on the second one.  Actually, I wanted to see anything but Lynch up the gut.  The Seahawks offense is weirdly bad at playing smashmouth football in short-yardage situations.  They have been for years.  (Not to mention Max Unger was out with injury.)  The play I would have called there is for Wilson to fake the run to Lynch, pull it back, and then have the option of running or throwing to a receiver in the flat.  This isn’t hindsight either — I was saying this to my TV at the time.  Unfortunately, however, the only person around to hear it was my two-year son, and he is not Darrell Bevel.

So this was a rough one, and it probably will drop the ‘Hawks back to playoff-underdog status, considering the Cardinals, 49ers, and Packers all won.  (This is the only time I wish Seattle was a southern city.)  But if you want some optimism, here’s my Mr. Brightside pitch: The Seahawks this year remind me much more of the 2012 team than last year’s team, and the 2012 team came within a half-minute defensive lapse of making the NFC Championship Game.  What’s more, two years ago, the ‘Hawks were a mediocre 6-5 after losing a heartbreaker to an AFC team 21-24 (sound familiar?).  And then they ran the regular-season table.  The ‘Hawks still have four games left against the 49ers and the Cardinals and two more against the Eagles and the Rams.  Each of those games will be loaded with playoff implications.  The Seahawks are still very much in it.  It just might not feel that way right now.

Game 10: Seattle @ Kansas City — No Nugget In Pick ‘Em Game

Some years ago I heard and NFL talking head — I can’t remember whom, Mark Schlereth maybe — describe ‘Hawks defensive linemen Brandon Mebane as a “nugget”.  It was meant as a compliment — a valuable hunk of dense matter positioned in the middle of the field to disrupt the opposing team’s run game.  I still remember this today because it struck me as the perfect way to describe Mebane.  He was just there, taking up space, clogging holes.  He was a big reason why the ‘Hawks have been so good against the run this season.  And I say “was” not “is” because, as you probably heard, Mebane tore his hamstring last Sunday and will miss the entire rest of the season.  Bummer — no more belly rolls in 2014.

There is never a good time to lose a good player to injury, but Mebane would have been particularly useful for this Sunday’s game against Kansas City.  Although the Chiefs beat the Bills last game 17-13, by all accounts they were outplayed by Buffalo (I only watched the highlights) and the win was somewhat fluky.  In particular, the Bills D-line apparently dominated the KC O-line, exposing a potential Chiefs weakness.  Unfortunately for 12s, however, the Seahawks are ill-suited to exploit this weakness, even with Mebane in the lineup; without him, it will be extremely, extremely difficult.  Seattle just doesn’t have the players Buffalo has up front.  Buffalo has in-their-primes Kyle Williams and Mario Williams; Seattle has an over-the-hill Kevin Williams.  Buffalo’s Marcell Dareus has 10 sacks; Seattle has 12 sacks total.  You get the idea.  This is when I really miss Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald — well, this and the entire season up to this point.

One thing interesting about Kansas City is that they have yet to throw a touchdown pass to a wide receiver.  In fact, their wide outs account for just 40% of their receptions, a remarkably low number, and it drops to an even more remarkably low 18%, if you remove leading receiver Dwayne Bowe from the mix.  The ‘Hawks should be expecting a slew of screen passes (running back Jamaal Charles is really good, if you didn’t know) and short-to-medium range throws to tight ends, particularly Travis Kelce.  The ‘Hawks haven’t been great this year at defending these types of plays, but they haven’t been terrible either.  Getting Malcolm Smith and Kam Chancellor back and healthy would obviously be a huge boon to the intermediate passing D (as would Bobby Wagner‘s return, but I suspect that’s still a few weeks away).  Because the ‘Hawks don’t force a ton of turnovers, a dink-and-dunk game plan can work against them.  Andy Reid is a very good offensive coach, and Alex Smith is particularly effective at keep drives alive.  I could see KC putting together a few eight-minute, 15-play drives, on which they convert 3rd-and-manageable over and over again.  It could be a frustrating one for Seahawks fans to watch when the Chiefs have the ball, is what I’m saying.

Another interesting thing about Kansas City is that they haven’t given up a rushing touchdown all season.  This is also a very misleading thing about Kansas City.  Despite their knack for keeping opponents out of the end zone on the ground, they have not been particularly good at stopping the run.  They are giving up 4.7 yards-per-carry, second most in the league, and they rank solidly in the bottom half of the league in run defense DVOA.  Given what we saw last week, expect the ‘Hawks to try to pound it some more.  I doubt the Chiefs will repeatedly give up containment on Russell Wilson the way the Giants did.  But even if they spy him, he can sometimes beat the spy one-on-one (like he did on a key third down in the Giants game), and committing a man on the edge to the Wilson will surely soften up the middle for Marshawn Lynch.  If it was easy to stop the Seahawks’ ground game, they wouldn’t rank at the top of the list using both old school and new school stats.  Now, if only the passing game didn’t suck …

On paper, the Chiefs have a big special teams advantage, and, to use an awful sports cliché, it could be the X-factor in this game.  (One of the biggest plays in the Chiefs-Bills game was a KC recovery of a muffed punt.)  But, to use an even worse sports cliché, the game isn’t played on paper, and the ‘Hawks special teams might be significantly improved now that guys like Jeremy Lane are healthy again.

Overall, this is a really evenly matched game.  Both teams are pretty good, but have evident flaws.  My feeling is the ‘Hawks are a touch better, but this is negated by the fact the game is being played at Arrowhead.  I’m predicting it will be a 26-23 overtime victory for … hold on, let me get a coin … [flip] … the ‘Hawks!  Sweet!  I was hoping they would win.

Game 9: Seahawks 38, Giants 17 — All Offense in One Quarter

What started out as a close game and remained that way through the first three and a half quarters quickly turned into a bacchanalia of free ball-carriers wearing blue and highlighter green jerseys, as the Seahawks set a new single-game rushing record and beat the New York Giants by 21 points.  Marshawn Lynch went for a beastly 140; Russell Wilson added 107 of his own (his third 100-yard game of the season); Christine Michael ran for 71 yards on just four carries (including 18 on a key 3rd-and-1); and Robert Turbin had six carries each of exactly five or six yards for another 32.  It just takes some simple arithmetic and a quick query of pro-football-reference.com to arrive at 350 total rushing yards and a new Seahawks record.  I guess it was nice to get Russell Okung and Max Unger back.

A 21-point victory washes away a lot sins, but the truth of the matter is that a lot of the problems that have plagued the ‘Hawks all season were still present this afternoon.  In fact, the first half very much reminded me of the Chargers game.  The offense was keeping it close, but the defense was consistently a day late and a buck short.  They weren’t getting to Eli Manning quickly, and he was burning them with pinpoint passes both underneath and down field and keeping drives alive on third down (a la Philip Rivers in Week 2).  Despite the final score, Little Brother played pretty well today.  He dropped in some pretty throws to Odell Beckham, and his only real mistake was trying Richard Sherman on the deep ball that Earl Thomas intercepted.  And that was only a mistake because of circumstance — if it’s 3rd-and-10 and you’re losing by two scores, that’s an acceptable throw, but it was 1st-and-10 and the game was tied.

In the fourth quarter, once the Seahawks got a lead, they were able to ratchet up the pressure a bit and force some inaccurate throws and even get a few sacks (sacks?!).  Kam Chancellor and Bobby Wagner are still sorely missed (I doubt Andre Williams bullies his way into the end zone on his touchdown if they’re on the field) and Brandon Mebane, the team’s best run stopper, tweaked his hamstring and had to leave the game early.  But the D is hanging in there.  They aren’t amazing like they were last year, but they are solidly above average.  And that’s how they played today.

On the other side of the ball, DangeRuss is still struggling with his accuracy a bit.  He badly overthrew Jermaine Kearse on a should-have-been touchdown in the first quarter, and he uncharacteristically threw two interceptions (and had a fumble that the ‘Hawks recovered — they had the fumble luck today).  And it’s not like the passes bounced off the receivers’ hands or anything like that; they were legit mistakes/bad throws by Wilson.  But — there is almost always a but with Wilson — he made a few big throws when he needed to, including a big 4th-and-3 conversion and a bigger 3rd-and-7 conversion (both to Kearse).  Oh, and he also had all those rushing yards.  It’s nice to root for a quarterback whose “bad” day includes over 100 yards rushing and a touchdown.

So the ‘Hawks ultimately win big, and it was needed.  Somehow each of their playoff competitors also won (well, technically the Packers haven’t won yet — they are only leading 42-0 at half time; and the Eagles haven’t won yet either, but they are playing the lousy Panthers), so this game won’t advance their postseason chances much, but a loss would have been a devastating blow.

Overall, it was a satisfying, if imperfect, win.  New York played admirably for three quarters, but they couldn’t hang in there the entire game.  Troy Aikman got it right when he said, “The Seahawks are just a better team.”

Game 9: New York (NFC) @ Seattle — ‘Hawks Getting Bunch of Guys Back, Golden Tate Probably Not One of Them

Pete Carroll, fearless leader of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, said the other day that his squad might get “six or seven” guys back for this Sunday’s game against the New York Giants.  Unfortunately, Golden Tate will probably not be one of them.  I did a little research, and it turns out he plays for an entirely different team now.  Chances are Tate will not be rejoining the Seahawks ever.  Bummer.  They could really use a stud receiver right now.

As Vince Verhei points out in this article (and as all Seahawks fans already know, but it bears repeating) the ‘Hawks really erred in thinking Percy Harvin was much better than Golden Tate.  I mean, imagine if the Seahawks had just given some of the money allotted to Harvin to Tate and kept all their draft picks.  We probably would be seeing a lot fewer passes in which you can’t tell who the intended receiver is.  I swear, Russell Wilson had about five throws last Sunday in which two receivers were covered, so he just threw it to an open area between them.  That didn’t seem to happen when Tate was the no. 1 receiver… But of course this all falls under the category of “hindsight is 20/20″.  My verdict on the first Percy Harvin deal when it happened was “ambivalence”, and I thought the ‘Hawks were right not to resign Tate.  I don’t think I was alone in these conclusions.

But anyway, let’s talk about the players the Seahawks will actually be getting back on Sunday — or hopefully getting back anyway.  Reports are that Max Unger and Kam Chancellor will likely return and possibly Russell Okung as well; these are the biggest and most important names.  Jeremy Lane is eligible to come off IR, and he could be a sneakily big factor if he can go full-tilt on defense and special teams.  And then Jeron Johnson and Jordan Hill could provide some depth on D.  Getting Bobby Wagner, Malcolm Smith, and Byron Maxwell back would obviously be a major boon, but my suspicion is that all three will be out at least one more week.  The bottom line: The ‘Hawks are injured, but they are just normal NFL injured, not absurdly crazily injured like they were last week.

And speaking of injured: Here come the New York Giants!  Bill Barwell covered the Giants uncanny injury woes last year, and this season they’ve pick up where they left off.  Starters Jon Beason, Victor Cruz, Prince Amukamara, and Walter Thurmond (remember him?) are all on IR.  Running back Rashad Jennings is still out, and defensive starters Mathias Kiwanuka and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are questionable.  Even the Giants’ punter is showing up on the injury report.  They are hurting at least as much as the ‘Hawks.

Of all the names listed above, Jennings’ absence is probably the most impactful.  The free agent acquisition was having a fine year before he went down with a knee injury a few weeks ago.  Without him (and the also injured David Wilson), the Giants running game has foundered.  Currently their tailbacks are Peyton Hillis — 2014 Peyton Hillis, the Giants didn’t somehow bend the spacetime continuum and get the version who appeared on the cover of Madden – and somebody named Andre who is averaging 3.0 yards-per-carry.  Being that the ‘Hawks have been very good at stopping the run this year, I don’t see the Giants moving the ball on the ground with much consistency.

And unfortunately for Giants fans, the passing game hasn’t been that much better.  Eli Manning has actually been decent-to-pretty-good this year (so don’t expect another five-pick shutout by the ‘Hawks D), but the line is just mediocre, and he doesn’t have a whole lot in the way of weapons.  Larry Donnell has been a nice find, and Odell Beckham might be really good someday, but at the moment they aren’t exactly the second comings of Mark Bavaro and Frank Gifford.  The Giants offense is basically what the Seahawks offense would be if they didn’t have Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson was a slow, goofy-looking, white guy.  Just chew on that one for a minute.

On the other side of the ball, the Giants are about as good defensively as they are offensively — somewhere between mediocre and below average.  Same goes for special teams.  The Giants are not a terrible team, but there is nothing they do particularly well.  They are something like the 20th best team in the league in all categories across the board.  This is a game the Seahawks — if they are who we thought they were — will win comfortably.

And a win is paramount.  As I’ve said before, the 2014 ‘Hawks have a Wilford Brimley schedule — tough on the outside, soft on the inside, and this is the last of the soft games.  Starting next week when the ‘Hawks go to Arrowhead to take on the Chiefs, things get crusty again.  They need to take advantage of the warm interior of their outwardly curmudgeonly schedule while they still can.

Game 8: Seattle 30, Oakland 24 — ‘Hawks Finally Avenge Loss in 1983 AFC Championship Game

The 2014 Seahawks — as everybody is quick to point out — are not the 2013 Seahawks.  But for a few drives in the first half of this afternoon’s game against the Raiders, they did a decent impression.  They turned the Raiders over on three straight possessions, including a pick-six by Bruce Irvin, and put together two touchdown-scoring drives of their own, each one of more than 70 yards, to stake out a 24-3 lead at halftime.  From there, well, from there they hung on to win the game.  That’s just about all you can say about what happened from there.

Here’s the rundown.

The Good: Turnovers
There were the three turnovers in the first half that I just mentioned.  Other than that, the run D was stout — Darren McFadden was the Raiders’ leading rusher with just 20 yards on 13 carries.  And then … what else?  Uh … the 49ers lost.  That’s always good.

The Bad: Special Teams
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, one area in which injuries and a lack of depth have really hurt the Seahawks is special teams.  Derrick Coleman, Jeremy Lane, and Heath Farwell, big-time special teams contributors last season, are all on IR.  And then when starters are out (like Bobby Wagner and Byron Maxwell) or banged up (like Kam Chancellor), it pushes everybody up the depth chart, and guys who would normally only be playing special teams are also (or only) playing D, and guys who would normally be on the bench are playing special teams.

Bad special teams play was the main reason the ‘Hawks lost to the not-very-good Rams two weeks ago, and it was a major factor in why they didn’t beat the even-worse Raiders by three scores today.  Let’s quickly run down the minuses and pluses of today’s special teams performance.

Minuses

  • Missed 46-yard field goal attempt by Steven Hauschka
  • 42-yard kickoff return yielded to Travis Carrie
  • Blocked punt resulting in Oakland’s first touchdown
  • 27-yard punt return yielded to Carrie
  • 23-yard punt return yielded to Denarius Moore
  • Repeat use of the phrase “it’s not long, and it’s not high” by the commentators to describe Jon Ryan‘s punts
  • Botched onside kick recovery by Cooper Helfet

Pluses

  • Forced fumble and recovery on an Oakland kick return
  • Doug Baldwin‘s 38-yard punt return
  • Jermaine Kearse diving on a loose football to bail out Cooper Helfet who just botched an onside kick recovery

If you tally the ledger, you get a net negative for the Seahawks.  Trust me, I have an advanced mathematics degree.

The Ugly: Pass Offense
In my preview for this game, I tepidly defended the ‘Hawks offense, pointing out that the numbers were not as down on them as was popular opinion.  I don’t think I’m going to do that again next week regardless of what the numbers say (though they probably won’t be good).  I had a hunch the running game would struggle a bit — the ‘Hawks are really hurting on the O-line and the Raiders have a sneakily non-terrible front seven — but I fully expected the passing game to move the ball with some consistency.  It did not.  Russell Wilson was out of sync an inaccurate all game, and his receivers certainly didn’t help him out.  That’s a problem with not having a “true number one” receiver.  There is nobody to bail DangeRuss out with tough catches when he’s having a rough day.  Is it too much to ask for Paul Richardson to hurry up and become the next Brian Blades?  (Without the part about killing one’s cousin, of course.)

The jimmy rigged offensive line stymied a few potential big plays with penalties as well.  The back-to-back false start fouls by left tackle Alvin Bailey, the two illegal man down field penalties, and a few good old-fashioned holding calls all come to mind.  It was just a very shoddy offensive performance overall.  And the bad news for Seattle fans is that every pass defense the ‘Hawks face for the rest of the season will be better than the Raiders’.  The good news is that the NFL can be really weird sometimes and so it might not matter.

Game 8: Oakland @ Seattle — Numbers, Vegas Still Believe in Seahawks, Pundits Not so Much

Nobody should put much stock in NFL power rankings at mainstream media sites.  They are rarely an accurate representation of the current state of the league.  They should be consumed for entertainment purposes only — and even that’s pushing it.  They are entertaining the same way Archie comics are entertaining.  They are light and easy and fill your brain with some vapid banter for a few minutes, but never do you think to yourself, “Man, that was funny!  Big Moose is so dumb!  I’m going to tell all my friends about this!”  So too, never have I felt the need to ponder too deeply Peter King’s two-sentence analysis of the San Diego Chargers defense or Elliot Harrison’s witticism about the New York Jets quarterbacking situation.  You read them, forget them, wonder briefly what the point of it all is, and then do it all again next week.

With that said, I was surprised to see Mr. Harrison rank the Seahawks #6 in his rankings this week.  This is the most bullish I’ve seen anybody in the mainstream media be on the ‘Hawks right now.  King has them at 13 (with a feature on their sluggish offense); ESPN has them at 10; SB Nation 12; CBS Sports 8; Yahoo! 9; etc., etc.  The consensus is right around the 10 range.  Watching the ‘Hawks all season, this seems perfectly reasonable to me.  It’s probably about where I would put them if I was making such a list.  So it’s even more surprising to see how much the nerd numbers and Vegas still believe in Seattle: The ‘Hawks are currently the third best team in the league by both Football Outsider’s DVOA and FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ranker (which is based on Vegas betting odds).

So why the discrepancy?  And who’s right?

On the latter question, I generally trust the numbers and the people whose financial livelihoods directly depend on being right much more so than I do the people who’s gut-feeling opinions are usually forgotten five minutes after you read them.  The Seahawks, very likely, are closer to the top of the league than they are to the middle.  (But, as a Seattle sports fan, I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

On the former question, there are a few reasons why talking heads (maybe writing heads — writing hands? — is a more apt epithet) might be overstating the Seahawks’ woes this season.  The most obvious is that people often favor results over process in their evaluation process.  The Seahawks have a mediocre record (results), but in each of their losses they have had the ball with a chance to take the lead and tie in the fourth quarter (process).  They haven’t had a double-digit loss in, literally, three years.   Also, the ‘Hawks have faced a brutal schedule, which people acknowledge, but probably don’t weigh as heavily as they should.  Mainstream media power rankings almost always line-up very closely with the standings; DVOA and Elo often don’t.

Another reason is recency bias.  The Seahawks losing to the Cowboys (at home) and the not-very-good Rams and barely beating the also not-very-good Panthers is fresh in everybody’s head; them beating the good Packers and great Broncos is not.  But should a team’s most recent three or four games count more than the three or four before that?  Probably not.  There really is no such thing as momentum.

Also, I think the Seahawks are being graded on a slightly harsher scale than other teams because they won the Super Bowl last year.  You can call this the “Peyton Manning Curve”.  Manning is, in some ways, a victim of his own success.  Because he’s so good in the regular season, his postseason failures are drastically overblown.  There has been a lot of talk about how lackluster the Seahawks offense has been this year (including by the analytically-minded Bill Barnwell and Robert Mays on their Grantland NFL Podcast), and yet they rank 10th in the league in DVOA and tied for eighth in yards-per-play.  Marshawn Lynch has actually been just as Beast Mode-y as ever.  If he’s unhappy this year, he’s really not showing it on the field.

And, of course, now that I have written all this, Marshawn Lynch is going to put up a 10-carry, 15-yard day, and the Seahawks are going to lose to the Raiders 28-3… Okay, probably not.  The Raiders are not good.  They probably aren’t the very worst team in the league (sorry, Bucs fans), but they aren’t far from it.  They’ve had a few decent showings — they gave the Patriots all they could handle in New England and nearly beat the Chargers in a shootout — but overall, Charles Woodson said it best.

If you were going to make a case for the Raiders, you could point out that they are not much worse than the Rams (if they’re worse at all), and that their relative strengths match up with the relative weaknesses of the Seahawks.  But it’s still not a particularly convincing argument.  For example, Oakland is not terrible throwing the ball, and the ‘Hawks have only been mediocre in stopping the pass this year (and they’ve been pummeled by secondary injuries — Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, and Tharold Simon are all questionable for Sunday).  But I don’t think the rookie Derek Carr is going to come into The Clink and play like veterans Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, and Cam Newton (five-sevenths of Seattle’s opposing QBs this season).  And as for the Raiders other “weapons”, well, let’s just say I’m keeping James Jones on my fantasy bench this week.

On defense, Oakland is actually above-average against the run, and they might have the makings of decent linebacker core in Khalil Mack, Miles Burris, and Sio Moore, but they can be had through the air.  Of course, the ‘Hawks would much rather pound Lynch (and Robert Turbin and now even Christine Michael) all day, but remember, Russell Wilson destroyed the Rams D in the second half two weeks ago when he had to drop back to pass.  So, let’s just say I am putting DangeRuss in my fantasy lineup this week.

Overall, I don’t see the Raiders coming into The Clink and winning this one.  I’m going Seahawks and Seahawks big: 30-14, with the Raiders scoring two touchdowns in garbage time.  Even if my prediction is accurate, it probably won’t do much to sway people’s opinions of the ‘Hawks, and it will hardly move the needle on their playoff odds (a loss, on the other hand, would be devastating).  But it will be nice to finally get revenge for the 1983 AFC Championship Game.

Game 7: Seattle 13, Carolina 9 — ‘Hawks Don’t Play Ugliest Game of Carroll Era, Win

I used to watch a lot of football with a die-hard Chicago Bears fan.  In one particular game we watched together, the Bears were losing and in the midst of a last-minute desperation drive.  Rex Grossman completed a pass for a huge gain, but it was called back because of a penalty.  Upon hearing the referee announce the call, my normally docile friend spiked an empty beer can and cried out, “terrible fucking call!”  But the replay clearly revealed that the Bears player had in fact committed the infraction.  So I said to my friend, “uh … it looks like he actually did it.  I think it was a good call.”  And my friend, who is one of the most objective and rational people I know, responded with, “at this point, any call that goes against the Bears is a terrible fucking call.”  And, of course, I knew exactly what he meant.

There are times when, as a fan of an NFL team, you simply can’t be objective and rational.  Today, watching the Seahawks edge the Panthers, was one of those times.  It didn’t matter that I was wasting a perfectly good Sunday afternoon watching a brutally boring football game, or that the Seahawks offense was struggling against a bad Panthers D, or that I started Russell Wilson in fantasy and he had less than three points at half time.  All that mattered was a win or a loss.  Any win was a good one; any loss was a bad one.  That’s how it felt to me.

So I’m satisfied with this game, even though, now that’s it over, I can concede that it was hardly an impressive performance.  Let’s break it down, with a YouTube clip for effect:

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The Good: Second Half Defense
Pressure!  Sacks!  Turnovers!  The Seahawks can still produce these things!  After three pretty good, time-consuming drives in the first half, the ‘Hawks “figured out” Cam Newton, as they’ve done in the past, and really didn’t allow much of anything in the second half, but for one big, spectacular “what can you do about that?” reception by Kelvin Benjamin.

What was even better (or perhaps more frustrating) is that the Seahawks D really could have busted the game open, if they had capitalized on a few golden opportunities: Tharold Simon and Malcolm Smith both dropped interceptions; the ‘Hawks recovered just one of four Carolina fumbles; and Michael Bennett somehow got bucked off Newton, WWE style, on a dead-to-rights safety.  Now, you can point to these plays as evidence of a lack of execution by the ‘Hawks D, or you can say that the opportunities are positive indicators and that under slightly different cosmic circumstances, the defense ices this one for Seattle comfortably.  I’m going to go with the latter.  Whatever the case, here’s a stat all ‘Hawks fans can appreciate: Carolina was 3-13 on third and fourth downs.

Oh, and how about that 58-yard field goal by Steven Hauschka?  Money.  I told you he was the best kicker in Seahawks history.

The Bad: Lack of Finish on Offense (Except for the Actual Finish)
With the very big exception of Luke Willson‘s 23-yard touchdown catch, the Seahawks struggled to score touchdowns.  Initially, they struggled just to get first downs.  Coming up just short of a first down on each of their first two possessions set the stage for what was to come — miscue after miscue: a huge drop / misfire at the end of the first half that cost at least three, probably seven points (Wilson’s pass was catchable but that’s a tough grab for a running back like Marshawn Lynch), a back-breaking fumble in Carolina territory (how do you ground a snap when the QB is under center?), and an egregious miss of a wide open receiver (no Cooper Helfet touchdown this game).  The offense did just enough to win, but it was just enough.

The Ugly: The Entire First 56 Minutes
For a while, this game looked like it was going to rival the ugliest game* of the Pete Carroll Era in terms of pure unwatchability.  But in the end it was just your typical Seattle-versus-Carolina ugly — making it three years in a row.  For Seahawks fans it was a sigh of relief; for Panthers fans it was a distraught head-shaker; and for impartial fans it was … nothing because all impartial fans turned this one off in the first quarter.  I’m just glad it’s over.

*This game was so bad it needs its own nickname.  I’m thinking either the “Mistake by the Jake” or the “Cleveland Steamer”.

Game 7: Seattle @ Carolina — The Definitive Piece on the State of the Seahawks

Instead of a preview of the Seahawks’ matchup this weekend against the Carolina Panthers, recent events have brought about the need for a comprehensive “State of the Seahawks” address.  There have been some good articles written recently about the ‘Hawks — as always Grantland’s Bill Barnwell and Robert Mays are on top of all things NFL, as are the writers at Football Outsiders — but what we really need is one piece to give us the definitive answers to where the Seahawks currently stand and where they will be a few months from now.  And who better to write this piece than an amateur blogger with a readership in the single digits?  I say nobody.  So let’s get to it.

Current state: Why do the Seahawks have a 3-3 record right now instead of a 5-1 record like they did after six games last year?

There are several reasons.  By my estimation, the pie chart looks something like this:
1.  40%: The Seahawks just aren’t as good as they were last year
2.  10%: Injuries
3.  40%: Schedule
4.  9%: Random Variance
5.  1%: The Percy Harvin Fiasco

1.  If you match up the 2014 Seahawks against the 2013 Seahawks, starting lineup versus starting lineup, it’s basically a push.  The big difference comes down to depth, particularly depth on defense, and even further particularly, depth on the defensive line.  It’s been mentioned many times (including in my last post), but the Seahawks aren’t getting good pressure on the opposing QB.  The numbers I’ve heard cited are something like, last year they hurried or sacked the quarterback on 33% of pass plays (near the top of the league), and this years it’s down to 17% (near the bottom).  The most logical reason for this is the loss of Chris Clemons, Red Bryant, and Clinton McDonald.  Last season the ‘Hawks had an awesome D-line rotation; this year they don’t.  Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril can still play, but without inside help, opposing quarterbacks have been able to eluded them by stepping up in the pocket.  Also, they are probably being overused and getting tired at the end of the game, because the alternatives, guys like O’Brien Schofield and Cassius Marsh (pre-injury), just haven’t been good enough to warrant any serious rotation time.  As my high school wrestling coach (and apparently Vince Lombardi) used to say, “fatigue makes cowards of us all.”  This season it’s very likely been making cowards of the Seattle D-line.

To compound things, the secondary isn’t nearly as deep as it was last season either.  In the Football Outsiders article linked above (and again here), the authors break down exactly how teams are exploiting the non-Richard Sherman cornerbacks when they need a big play.  The Seahawks had to pay the “Super Bowl Tax” this offseason: Teams looted their good role players, giving them contracts Seattle couldn’t match.  Along with the aforementioned D-linemen, this is what happened with cornerbacks Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner.  (Although I don’t miss Browner at all: He’s a pass interference flag personified.)

2.  Of course, one way to mitigate thin depth is to not get hurt.  Unfortunately, in professional football, where 275-pound men, who can run 4.75 40s, crash into you repeatedly, avoiding injury is all but impossible.  It’s all about the Jenga tower, and right now the Seahawks’ tower is a bit wobbly.  Aside from the “big names” on offense (Max Unger, Zach Miller) and defense (Bobby Wagner, Byron Maxwell), there are the special teams mavens who have missed significant time for the ‘Hawks.  If Derrick Coleman and Jeremy Lane are on the field, maybe Benny Cunningham doesn’t return a kick for 75-yards.

But the Wagner injury is probably the one that hurts the most.  His presence as a tackling machine in the middle is an underrated and integral part of what makes the Seattle defense hum when it’s humming best.  In this article, the author does a good job explaining how the Seahawks linebackers, sans Wagner, got beat on a few mid-range runs last Sunday.  In a game that ultimately came down to a few plays here and there, not having that anchor in the middle might have been the difference.  Malcolm Smith is a fine player, and forever a legend in Seahawks lore, but Bobby is better — much better.

3.  The schedule is the silver lining for Seahawks fans: It’s been brutal thus far, but it’s set to ease up a bit over the next few weeks.  By DVOA, the Seahawks have played the most difficult schedule through Week 7, including games against the best team in the league (Denver), the third best team (Green Bay), the seventh best team (San Diego), and the eighth best team (Dallas).  That is an insanely difficult stretch, and it makes 3-3 look very non-catastrophic.  Yeah, the loss to the Rams was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as the wins over the Broncos and the Packers were good.  And the ‘Hawks are now through the toughest part of the schedule.  As Aaron Schatz puts it (in the link above):

[Seattle's] wins have been bigger than they seem, and their losses not as bad as they seem, because the Seahawks have played the toughest schedule in the league in 2014. That’s going to change significantly, starting with this week’s game against No. 25 Carolina. Seattle’s average opponent over the final ten games has -3.9% DVOA, which ranks 23rd among remaining schedules.

4.  Even if the Seahawks were as good as they were last year, even if they were completely healthy, even if they played an easy schedule, even if all this, they could still be 3-3 just by random chance.  It wouldn’t be likely, but it wouldn’t be absurd either.  It’s the NFL.  We see it every year — a team loses more games than it “should” just due to the inherent variation in stochastic processes.  If the Seahawks recover one of the fumbles against the Chargers, maybe they win; if Terrance Williams doesn’t get his toe down on that 3rd-and-20, maybe they beat Dallas; if they get that fumble at the end of the game, they have a good chance to beat the Rams.  If a few random events go differently, the Seahawks are 4-2 or 5-1.  And if a few other random events go differently, they’re 2-4 or 1-5.  Nobody, especially a typical sports fan, likes randomness as an explanation for why things are the way they are.  But sometimes it’s a big factor.  There is a mathematical term for this phenomenon: shit happens.

5.  To say the Percy Harvin Experiment was a failure is both true and misleading.  It’s true in that when John Schneider & Co. traded a first round pick (and then some) for the right to pay Percy Harvin dozens of millions of dollars to play wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, they probably were expecting more of a return on investment than one spectacular game — even if that game happened to be the Super Bowl.  But it’s also misleading because it wasn’t done alone.  It’s not like the Seahawks could only sign or draft a single player and chose Percy Harvin.  They sign and draft dozens of players each season.  And they do so knowing full well that some of them will fail.  But if they are good at their jobs then the ones that succeed will outweigh the ones that fail.  That’s how investing works: It’s not about the failure (or success) of any individual transaction.  It’s about how your overall profile performs.  And winning the Super Bowl is as good as an NFL “profile” can possibly perform.

Everybody (including, presumably, the Seahawks brass) knew Percy Harvin was a high-risk, high-reward acquisition.  And the thing about such players is that sometimes only the “high-risk” part bears out — that’s the chance you take.  So if you want to criticize the Percy Harvin deal(s), fine.  But in the same breadth you should be praising the Marshawn Lynch and Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril and Matt Flynn deals.  Wait … I think my point was stronger before that last one — scratch it.

Future State:  Okay, fair enough, so then how far are the Seahawks going to do this year overall?

FiveThirtyEight puts the Seahawks playoff odds at 47% and gives them a 6% chance at winning the Super Bowl.  Football Outsiders has them at 60% and 4%, respectively.  Let’s split the difference and say 55-5: The Seahawks have a 55% chance at making the playoffs and 5% chance at winning the Super Bowl.

From what I’ve seen watching the games, and from all the statistics I’ve pored over, the ‘Hawks are still a pretty good team.  I fully expect them to play well the rest of the season and remind everybody why they were the favorites coming into the year.  The problem is that it might be too late.  It’s weird to use the phrase “too late” after only six games, but that’s just the way the numbers work right now.  The Seahawks are currently behind Arizona (5-1) and San Francisco (4-3) in the NFC West and Philadelphia (5-1) and Detroit (5-2) in the wild card spots.  Even if the ‘Hawks are the best team of this bunch — and they honestly might be — the NFL isn’t NCAA basketball.  There is no selection committee to determine who makes the postseason.  At the end of the year, to quote the great Bill Parcells, “You are what your record says you are.”  Unfortunately for all us 12s, it’s quite possible the Seahawks are really good and still don’t make the playoffs.  It’s all too likely they play dynamite football over the next ten games, go 7-3, and miss the postseason entirely.

And if that happens, well, there’s always next year … and YouTube.

Game 6: Seattle 26, St. Louis 28 — Why?

There are several angles a Seahawks fan with a blog can take after this loss.  One, certainly, is the “What’s Wrong with the Seahawks?!” angle I feared in my last post.  Another is the “silver lining” angle, which would basically just be a paean to Russell Wilson.  And yet another, the one I’m going to take, is the “why” angle.  Not “why did the Seahawks lose?”, we know why; we all watched the game.  What I want to know is, why do I care?

Bare with me, if you will, while I get self-reflective and cathartic for a moment.  I’m almost a middle-aged man; I have a wife and a young kid; I have a decent job; I have many non-sports hobbies; for the most part I live a good and happy life.  Why then do I get so bummed out by the fortunes of a professional football team to which I have no connection, other than they play their home games in a city near the city in which I grew up?  It’s not like Pete Carroll is an old family friend; it’s not like Marshawn Lynch knows who I am.  A casual fan — sure, that makes sense, it’s rational.  But to allow a loss by an NFL team to spoil my otherwise perfectly good Sunday makes no sense.  It’s not rational.  Frankly, it’s pathetic.

But, here we are.  So let’s briefly go through the game.

The good.  Russell Wilson and not a lot else.  Sure, you can toss Doug Baldwin and Cooper Helfet in there as well, if you want, but their big games were essentially just extensions of Wilson’s outstanding performance.  In this game, Wilson became the first quarterback to throw for over 300 yards and run for over 100 yards in the same game in NFL history.  In my opinion, this was either the best or second best performance of his career, depending on how you feel about the 2012 playoff game in Atlanta.  It was the same type of game too — fall down early, rally back, lose in the end.  And it was also the last time I was this bummed about a Seahawks’ loss.

The bad.  The pass rush.  It has been virtually nonexistent this season.  The Seahawks don’t blitz often; they play straight-up and rely on pressure from the front four.  They aren’t getting it.  Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril are still good (I think), but they aren’t Bruce Smith and Reggie White.  They need help, and nobody is stepping up.  The hope coming into the season was the Seahawks had the personnel to at least approximate the value of Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, and Clinton McDonald.  And so far it’s looking like they don’t.  Basically, I think the remainder of the Seahawks’ season boils down to QB pressure: If they get better — say, they move up from worst pass rush in the league to middle of the pack — they’ll probably win a lot of games.  If they don’t, they won’t.

The ugly.  Special teams, obviously.  Although, you have to hand it to the Rams, those were a couple of great play calls.  You could make the argument that the Seahawks should have been watching for a fake on that final punt, given that they have been burned by the Rams several times (including earlier in the game) by trick special teams plays in the past, but the truth is, nobody saw it coming, it was just a terrific play.  So it goes …

And so goes this up-and-down season… On to Carolina, I suppose.