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.

Game 6: Seattle @ St. Louis — “Arch” Enemy

Sports clichés are like horoscopes.  They are so broad and so bland, they can be applied to anybody in any situation no matter what the circumstances.  To illustrate this, I present two sports clichés below and provide explanations as to how they apply to the Seahawks’ upcoming game against the Rams.

Must Win Game
The reason “must win game” is a label that can be slapped onto any matchup is because there is always an ambiguous tacit condition at the end.  A playoffs game is a “must win game or the season is over” (including the Super Bowl); many a late season game is a “must win game to stay in the playoff race” or a “must win game to control your own destiny“; a coach might have a “must win game or he’s going to be fired“.  Any game is a “must win game”, if you assume the appropriate implicit condition.  (Contrarily, no game is a “must win game”, if your condition is or the world will come to an end.)

In the case of the Seahawks against the Rams, there are two “must win” conditions.  One is or the Seahawks’ playoff chances will plummet again.  Last week’s loss to the Cowboys resulted in a drop in the Seahawks’ playoff odds of nearly 20 percentage points – from 89.2% to 69.5%.  A loss to the Rams this Sunday would almost certainly result in another precipitous decline.  The ‘Hawks have a “Wiford Brimley schedule” here in 2014: It’s tough and hard on the outside, soft and warm on the inside.  We are now at the inside part.  Over the Seahawks’ next five games — Rams, Panthers, Raiders, Giants, Chiefs — they probably have to go something close to 5-0 to retain pole position in the NFC West.  A loss to the Rams would obviously make it difficult to achieve this goal.  This is a sneakily important game.

The other condition is or the fans and media will freak the fuck out.  Who wants to read the bevy of “What’s Wrong with the Seahawks?” and “Super Bowl Hangover!” articles that are sure to follow a Rams upset?  Nobody — well, nobody sane, at least.  So if nothing else, the ‘Hawks need to win, just so we can avoid this sure-to-be-annoying sports media and social network hysteria.

When These Two Teams Meet, You Can Throw the Records Out the Window
Looking back through the annals of Seahawks-Rams games, I see, objectively, that there have been plenty of games in which one team has squashed the other.  But to the subjective fan in me, it feels like every game in which these two teams play is nerve-rackingly close, regardless of their respective spots in the standings at the time.  There’s certainly some recency bias in play, as in 2012 the two teams split the season series with a pair of games that each came down to the final drive, and then last year we were all tortured by the greatest (i.e., worst) “I Can’t Believe the ‘Hawks Won That Game” game in franchise history, in which Seattle was outgained 135 to 339 and Russell Wilson was sacked seven times in a 14-9 victory.

So the Rams make me very nervous.  And it’s not completely irrational.  The Rams are a bad team overall, but they aren’t consistently bad.  They play quite well in stretches — like when they went up 14-0 on the 49ers Monday night.  And then they totally blow it — like when they gave up an 80-yard touchdown pass to those same 49ers with a minute left in the first half, on a play in which they inexplicably had no safety help on the outside and even more inexplicably their cornerback, Janoris Jenkins, bit on a double move by Brandon Lloyd (there’s a minute left!  they’re 80 yards away!  how can you possibly be duped by a double move?!).  My fear is that the “up 14-0 Rams” come to play on Sunday and stick around the entire game (unlike Monday night).

Coming into the season, the Rams were a decent “sleeper” pick to “make the jump” from mediocrity into the playoffs — just like they have been every other year the past five years.  And just like every other year, it hasn’t panned out that way at all.  Offensively, the Rams are bad at throwing the ball (this tends to happen with a bad pass-blocking line and an undrafted rookie at quarterback — even one as plucky as Austin Davis), and they aren’t much better at running it.  The offensive line has done a decent job run blocking, but Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham are just OK backs — they’re nothing special.  And nothing special is pretty much what everybody expected from the Rams O, in general.  That they rank toward the bottom of the pack in DVOA is not surprising.  What is surprising is how the Rams have fared on the other side of the ball.

With Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Aaron Donald, and Chris Long, the Rams were set to begin the season with the only D-line in the history of the NFL comprised entirely of first-round draft choices.  Long was put on IR before he took a snap, but still the unit (with Kendall Langford and William Hayes also in the mix) look poised to wreck havoc.  Instead they have one sack.  Not one sack each, one sack total.  Donald sacked Tampa Bay’s Josh McCown in their only win of the year, and that’s been it.  Of all the weird stuff that’s happened in the NFL this season, the lack of St. Louis pass rush might be the most confounding.

The good news, if you’re a Rams fan, is that the Seahawks haven’t been very good at protecting the passer.  (Also, Max Unger is likely out again and Russell Okung is playing hurt.)  They’ve relied mostly on Russell Wilson’s escapability to avoid pressure and make plays: Sometimes it works (Washington); sometimes it doesn’t (Dallas).  In general, the Seahawks O, seems just a bit off — not bad (except last week; it was bad then) just a tad askew.  A theory floated by analyst Bucky Brooks is that Darrell Bevell has his sights set on a head coaching job, and so instead of going with the vanilla offense that works, he’s trying to dazzle everybody with complicated game plans that involve exotic sets and men in motion and wide receiver option reverses and stuff like that.  I don’t know if there is even a shred of truth in that or not, but I do know what the Seahawks do best offensively: It’s Marshawn Lynch, Marshawn Lynch,  Marshawn Lynch, Russell Wilson on a keeper,  Marshawn Lynch, play-action pass deep.  And that’s not really what we’ve been seeing over the past few weeks.  In Bevell’s defense, however, it is difficult to pound the rock when you aren’t on the field.  The ‘Hawks have struggled at times to sustain drives (far too many three-and-outs), which probably contributes more to Beast Mode’s lack of carries than does the specifics of the game plan (Bevell sorta says as much in this article).  Also, it should be noted that the thing the Rams do best is stuff the run, so maybe this isn’t the game to try to get Lynch 30 carries.

Overall, I don’t have a good feeling about this game, but I had a very good feeling last week, so obviously my feelings don’t have much bearing on the outcomes of professional football games.  I’ll just go with the what the numbers suggest instead: an 8.5-point victory for Seattle.  Let’s say Seahawks 25.5, Rams 17.  Actually, let’s go ahead and round it: Seahawks 26, Rams 17.

[Update: Chris Long was actually hurt in the first game of the season, not before taking a snap as I said above.  Also, Robert Mays has an article up at Grantland about the missing pass rushes of both the Rams and Seahawks.]

[Update update: What the what?  Who saw this one coming?  I think it's a preemptive salary dump.]

Game 5: Dallas 30, Seahawks 23 — Unfun Football

During last year’s NFC Championship Game, when Colin Kaepernick was driving for the potential game-winning touchdown, at no point did I think he was going to be successful.  At no point — not after the 4th-and-2 conversion to Frank Gore, not after the big sideline completion to Michael Crabtree, not after the final first down to Vernon Davis — did I think the 49ers were actually going to score a touchdown and win the game.  Today, watching Tony Romo march the Cowboys down the field in the fourth quarter for the go-ahead score, I felt the exact opposite.  Partly this is because DirecTV’s live stream flashed an update that DeMarco Murray had a scored a 15-yard touchdown before they actually showed the touchdown “live” (thanks for that, assholes).  But mainly it’s because the Seahawks weren’t playing very well and the Cowboys were.  I’m not prescient; I just watched the first 55 minutes of the game.

The isn’t really much to say about this one.  Actually, there probably is, but it’s not very fun to talk in depth about the Seahawks after they lose.  Suffice it to say, nobody on the ‘Hawks played particularly well.  The defense was mediocre and the offense was … I don’t even know how to describe it: uninspired? lackluster? horrid? appalling?  You can pick whatever adjective for “not good” you prefer (odious is a strong choice).  If not for a few special team gaffes by the Cowboys (leaving Doug Baldwin completely unblocked, muffing a punt), this game probably would have been Dallas in a landslide.  It was mostly brutal to watch, especially when the Seahawks had the ball.  I don’t know if this was the worst game of Russell Wilson‘s career, but it was up there.  And outside of one big gain, the run game sputtered against a terrible run defense.  During the first half, I didn’t understand why Marshawn Lynch wasn’t getting the ball more, but then when he did get more carries in the second half, he had a lot more two- and three-yard gains than he did six- and seven-yarders.  If you want to sum up the Seahawks offensive performance using quotes from classic coaching rants, then it would apt to say they “couldn’t do diddly-poo” today.

The bright side?  The Seahawks are still pretty good at football.  They’re not as good as they were last year, but no team in the past 15 years was as good as the Seahawks were last year.  That’s not a realistic standard.  They are still (hopefully) one of the five best teams in the league.  I mean, despite playing relatively poorly on both sides of the ball, the Seahawks actually had the lead in the fourth quarter.  And it took a damn near miraculous 3rd-and-20 conversion for the Cowboys to sustain their game-winning drive.  If Terrance Williams doesn’t skim the top of the turf with his toes on that play, the Seahawks likely win.  But he did, and they didn’t.  That’s just the NFL, no?

Troy Aikman said during his commentary that the Seahawks hadn’t been outplayed at home like this in a long time.  But that’s not exactly true.  Last year in Week 8 they got whupped for a half by the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers and were losing 0-21 before somehow pulling it out in the end.  They won that game, yes, but they also gave up 217 rushing yards (including a cool 153 to Mike James) and needed overtime to beat a team that came into the game 0-8.  Given that the season ended with a bucket of Gatorade being poured on Pete Carroll and the scoreboard reading 43-8, it’s weird to think that this Tampa Bay game actually happened, but it did.  So did today’s game.  And maybe, in the end, it will turn out to be equally meaningless.  Or maybe the Seahawks aren’t as good I think.  We shall see.

Game 5: Dallas @ Seattle — Cowboys Come to Clink in Pursuit of Past Glory …

Few things in life are funnier than when an old person says something inadvertently filthy.  In grad school, I had a math professor who, before presenting the key point of an intricate proof, would pause and announce, “and here comes the money shot!”  Then once I was watching the Mariners with my friend and his mom — the M’s had scored 15 runs the night before, but were currently being shutout — and my friend’s mom proclaimed, “I hope the Mariners didn’t blow their load last night!”  I found both of these quite amusing, but neither can hold a candle to the instant-classic by Jerry Jones below:

Now that is some inadvertent smut!

A possible return by the Cowboys to their glory hole days has been an unexpected topic of conversation through the first five weeks of the season by people who like to talk about football.  In the preseason, many expected Dallas to be among the dregs of the NFC, but instead they’ve been highly competent, good even.  They currently sit at 4-1, and that record is not a fluke.  Yes, they eked out close wins against St. Louis and Houston (and were beaten handily by the 49ers in their only loss), but they also whupped the Titans and the Saints.  They are 12th in DVOA, which seems about right.

Everybody seems to think that it’s been the offense that has been carrying the Cowboys, particularly the running offense, and everybody is right.  DeMarco Murray, despite treating the football like he’s that Australian kid with the first iPhone 6, has been arguably the most effective running back in the league thus far (although you could make a case for his counterpart in this game, Marshawn Lynch, as well).  And the much ballyhooed o-line has lived up to the hype, particularly in the power run game.

On the other side of the ball, a defense that before the season was being propped up (propped down?) as a potentially historically bad unit has been nothing close.  They’ve been solidly below average (24th in DVOA), but there is a big difference between solidly below average and abjectly awful.  It’s the difference between a C- and an F.  You can skate by with a C- defense (well, you can if you have Murray, Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and five maulers up front all clicking on offense); you can’t with an F.

So, overall, the Cowboys are a decent football team.  The problem for them is that they match-up very poorly against the Seahawks.  For starters, the game is in Seattle, where visiting teams are 1-17 over the last three seasons.  It’s an evident disadvantage (or advantage if you’re a Seattleite) before any actual “football” analysis is carried out.  It’s like a game of Scrabble in which one player starts with both blanks on his or her rack.  But beyond this — beyond home-field advantage — the actual x-versus-y, gridiron match-ups lean in Seattle’s favor.  Two in particular standout:

  1. Seahawks run offense versus the Cowboys run defense.  The worst part about Dallas’ defense, nay, the worst part about Dallas’ team overall is their run defense.  They rank 32nd against the run by DVOA, and there are exactly 32 teams in the NFL, so you can do the math on that one.  The Seahawks, as you probably know, have a very good ground game, and it’s not just Beast Mode.  Russell Wilson and Percy Harvin have been the best running quarterback and wide receiver, respectively, in the league this year.  And it’s not like Dallas can pack the box and try to stop the run with impunity.  Their pass D, although not awful, is still shaky and Seattle can throw the ball effectively, if need be.  (As Aaron Schatz points out they have a “sneaky good” balanced offense.)  The only way I see the Cowboys consistently getting stops on D is if the ‘Hawks get up by two scores and go into their inexplicable “comfortable lead offensive malaise” like they did Monday night against Washington.  It’s maddening, but at least it means they’re winning.
  2. Cowboys run offense versus the Seahawks run defense.  As discussed, the Cowboys can run the ball.  The problem for them is that the Seahawks have been really good thus far at stopping the run.  In fact, they’ve been the best in league by a significant margin.  If the ‘Hawks are able to slow down Murray, they could force out Bad Tony Romo (think Week 1), and if Bad Tony Romo shows up at The Clink things could get ugly … and awesome — they could get awesomely ugly.

My prediction for this game is Seahawks 34, Cowboys 20.  Dallas will move the ball enough to make it kind of interesting.  But in the end, well, this is a good metaphor for what I expect to happen in the end.

Game 4: Seattle 27, Washington 17 — Seahawks Dodge Barrage of Yellow Projectiles, Win

One bad thing about keeping a blog that nobody reads is that it can’t always be a top priority.  This is especially true during the work week.  A Monday night 11:45 end time makes a lengthy, timely recap quite difficult, and so I’m going to have to go lightning round here.  A good thing about keeping a blog that nobody reads is that I’m not disappointing anybody by doing this.

  • This game went mostly as I expected with one big exception: penalties.  It was brutal.  The Seahawks were in 2nd-and-20 seemingly every play.  There were a few questionable calls — did Percy Harvin really false start, or was he in motion?  why was James Carpenter flagged for pinning a player to the ground? — but mostly it was the ‘Hawks being “sloppy” (TM: Bureau of Sports Clichés).  Lots of false start and offside penalties — the worst types of penalties.  Not only did they hurt the ‘Hawks, they turned the game into a slog at times.
  • Speaking of penalties, I thought for sure the ‘Hawks were going to be flagged for holding on Russell Wilson‘s ridiculous, game-clinching scramble-and-flip to Marshawn Lynch.  In a game in which they were nearly penalized into submission, they got away with one at the most crucial time.  Although as Jon Gruden pointed out, a Washington defender straight-up tackled Harvin during his route, and that also wasn’t called.  Plus, Pierre Garcon mauled Richard Sherman on at least two plays, including one in which he grabbed his face mask, and was never flagged.
  • I think Kirk Cousins played better than I expected — but that might just be because the Washington offense wasn’t the Apocalypse Now battle scene that it was last week.  He hit two nice deep balls to DeSean Jackson (especially the second one) and put together a good drive at the end.  But still, Washington punted eight times and went 3-for-12 on 3rd down, so it’s not like Cousins was Joe Theismann out there.
  • In the same vein as the previous bullet, it seemed like the ‘Hawks D was not very dominant, but that might just be perception.  They didn’t get a turnover (turnovers can be fickle) and recorded just one sack.  But they continually pressured Cousins into inaccurate or short throws.  The defense didn’t look impressive — they weren’t a good fantasy play — but they mostly kept their opponent from driving and scoring, which is the main purpose of a defense.
  • The most frustrating part of watching the Seahawks is when their offense inexplicably goes stagnant after they get an early lead.  This happens far too frequently, and I can’t explain it — hence the adverb inexplicably.
  • The second most frustrating part is watching Carroll & Co. get overly conservative on 4th-and-short.  Although he sure flipped the scripted last night!  A fake field goal?  With the punter as the ball carrier?  Jon Ryan for MVP!
  • But what were the ‘Hawks thinking throwing the day on their final 3rd down?  The upside is minimal and the downside is, well, maybe not big, but surely not worth the risk.  Taking a knee is better than dropping back to pass in that situation.  Here’s an interesting hypothetical:  If the Seahawks ran the ball there to set up, let’s say 4th-and-2, is it better to go for it, or try the field goal?  What’s more probable, turning the ball over on downs and having Washington score from seventy yards out with twenty seconds left and no timeouts, or missing the field goal / having it blocked and Washington subsequently scoring that way?  I’m not sure.
  • Russell Wilson is fucking awesome.  I said it before, but it bears repeating: He’s not the best quarterback in the league (… yet), but there is nobody I’d rather watch run an offense.  What’s more fun, Peyton Manning reading the defense pre-snap and then wobbling a pass to a wide open receiver, or Russell Wilson dodging rushers, running up to the line-of-scrimmage, curling back around, and then flicking the ball downfield for a 19-yard gain?  It’s not even a question.
  • The trope about Russell Wilson “never taking a big hit” is not exactly true.  He got hammered pretty hard this game.  And this probably explains why he doesn’t run the ball the consistently every game, even through it seems like he could.  He really does have to pick his spots; it’s a survival mechanism.
  • He really is fucking awesome though.

Game 4: Seattle @ Washington — Time for a Fake History Lesson

On Monday night the Seattle Seahawks will be in Washington D.C. — Landover, Maryland, if you want to get technical about it — to play a football game.  If recent history has has taught us anything, it is that Washington will win this game because it is being played during the regular season.

That is how I would open this post if I were a hack sportswriter.  Hack sportswriters love taking random trends and presenting them as if they are something meaningful (at least my stereotype of hack sportswriters do).  And I stumbled across a very eye-catching random trend involving the NFL teams of Seattle and Washington D.C.:  Since the Seahawks joined the NFC in 2002, they are 3-0 against Washington in the postseason and 0-5 against them in the regular season.  Now, of course, this tells us absolutely nothing about Monday’s game (contrary to what my imaginary hack sportswriters would have you believe), but it is a nice bit of trivia, so before we move on, let’s have a look back at a few of these games.

Washington 27, Seattle 20: November 9, 2003
The Seahawks were a playoff team in 2003 (this was the “We want the ball, and we’re gonna score” year), but they were not exceptionally good.  Washington, in the second (and final) year of the Steve Spurrier Experiment, were even worse.  But on this particular Sunday Patrick Ramsey and Laveranues Coles were too much for the ‘Hawks to overcome.  And Washington sealed the deal on a trick play, in which wide receiver Rod Gardner threw a touchdown pass to running back Trung Canidate.  Spurrier, Ramsey, Coles, Gardner, and Candidate — how 2003 is that octet?

Washington 20, Seattle 17: October 2, 2005
In route to Super Bowl XL, the ‘Hawks lost just two regular season games in which they played their starters.  The second one was at the hands of a Joe Gibbs-led Washington squad.  After Darrell Jackson caught a late TD to tie it, Kelly Herndon intercepted Mark Brunell to set up a 47-yard, last play, game-winning field goal attempt by Josh Brown.  He missed it (as I recall it hit an upright), and Washington won in OT.  By missing a makeable field goal, perhaps Brown was just preparing us for what was to come in the Super Bowl.

Seattle 20, Washington 10: January 14, 2006
Seattle, however, extracted their revenge in the playoffs by handling Washington fairly easily in the divisional round.  With soon-to-be MVP Shaun Alexander temporarily on the shelf, the great double valid Mack Strong delivered the dagger with a 32-yard rumble on 3rd-and-6 to put the ‘Hawks in field goal range to go up two scores with under 3:00 on the clock.

Washington 23, Seattle 17: November 27, 2011
The Seahawks were just 4-6 heading into a Week 12 home game against Washington, but the sprouts of a good team were starting to poke through the dirt.  I secretly harbored fantasies that they would win out and take a Wild Card spot.  In retrospect, I wasn’t too delusional, but it didn’t take long for my hopes to be dashed.  Although the ‘Hawks held a 17-7 lead in the fourth quarter, they struggled in the endgame, and Washington, with its high-powered offense led by the venerable trio of Rex Grossman, Anthony Armstrong, and Roy Helu, overpowered the ‘Hawks down the stretch and stole the game.

Seattle 24, Washington 14: January 6, 2013
This was a playoff game that occurred less than two years ago, so you probably remember it fairly well, but in case you don’t, allow me to refresh your memory: Washington dominants for two drives goes up 14-0; Robert Griffin III tweaks previously injured leg, plays erratically, and disappears intermittently into sideline shed throughout game; Marshawn Lynch runs wild, Seahawks dominate rest of game, take lead in fourth quarter; RGIII severely injures knee on crucial fumble; Seahawks win; Washington fans turn on the Shanahans faster than Greg Valentine turned on Brutus Beefcake in Wrestlemania III.

Seattle 37, Washington 16: October 6, 2014
As you might notice, this is not the score of a game that has already happened; this is my prediction for Monday night’s game.  I’m going Seahawks and Seahawks big … or at least Seahawks by a comfortable margin.  I don’t see any way Washington can win.  Well, I do; I mean, they could “NFL” the ‘Hawks — win by upset because it’s the NFL and upsets happen every week.  But I don’t see any way other than total fluke Washington can win.  They are significantly inferior to the ‘Hawks in all three phases of the game.  Home field advantage isn’t going to be enough.

For Washington offensively, I think it’s safe to say Kirk Cousins is who we thought he was.  And whom did we think he was?  A solid backup quarterback and a below-average, if non-disastrous starter.  He plays well against bad defenses and plays shakily against decent ones.  The Seahawks have a decent defense, so I don’t expect Cousins to have a good game.  And if Cousins doesn’t have a good game, the Washington offense likely stalls.  That’s how football works, right?

If you want a good comp for Kirk Cousins, you can actually look at the Seahawks sideline — not at their starter, of course, but at their backup.  Kirk Cousins is like a younger, blonder Tarvaris Jackson — that’s about where I put his skill level.  So, if the Seahawks want to make this a fair fight, they should just play T-Jax the entire game.  But I’m guessing they actually don’t want to do that, and so Russell Wilson (aka Nelson Muntz) will be out there.  That’s a huge advantage for the ‘Hawks, no matter how Washington talking heads might try to spin it (although after last week, the Cousins love affair is apparently on hold).  The Washington defense probably isn’t as bad as it looked last Thursday nor is it as bad as it was last year — their front seven in particular has been perfectly cromulent this year — but I would be quite surprised if they consistently bottle up Wilson & Co.  I fully expect Beast Mode to get his — plus a couple of other players’ for good measure — this game.

This leaves special teams — which actually only worsens Washington’s prospects at victory.  They have been dreadful on special teams this season, and it’s almost certainly not just small sample noise, as they were even worst last year.  A big part of their problem comes in defending kickoff and punt returns.  Their kickoff man Tress Way forces touchbacks on just 50% of his kicks, so Percy Harvin might get a legit chance or two at a return — a pleasant thought for Seahawks fans.  Or perhaps Washington will do pooch kicks or squib kicks or something else to keep Harvin at bay, but that’s good for the Seahawks as well because it concedes a bunch of field position.*  The bottom line: the Seahawks are much better than Washington at special teams.  They are much better at offense and defense too.  I expect them to win handily.

*An underrated factor in the Seahawks upset over the Saints in the Beastquake game is that the ‘Hawks consistently had short fields because Sean Payton was overly scared of a big return by Leon Washington.

Bye Week B.S.: 2014 MLB Double Valid All-Stars

With the Seahawks’ season going to bye and the Mariners’ season just going bye, Seattle sports fans could use a little distraction.  I have just such a distraction: The 2014 MLB Double Valid All-Stars.  What’s a double valid?  It’s a player whose first and last names are both non-proper English words, that is, valid plays in the board game Scrabble.  For example, Prince Fielder is a double valid since prince and fielder are both English words.  Rougned Odor is not a double valid because only odor is an actual word.  Robinson Cano is also not a double valid since neither robinson nor cano are valid English words (if only his name was Rob Canoe).  Got it?  Of course.  Do you care?  Less certain.  But let’s continue as if you do.

Here are your 2014 MLB Double Valid All-Stars.

Starting Pitcher: Matt Shoemaker
The rookie gets the nod here.  After toiling in the minors for seven seasons — and I do mean toiling; his career minor league ERA is 4.52 — Shoemaker was an unlikely candidate to stabilize the Angels rotation after injuries to Garrett Richards and Jered Weaver.  But stabilize it he did, going 16-4 with a 3.04 ERA and an excellent 5.17 K/BB ratio.  How does a 28-year-old (by the way, Happy birthday, Mr. Shoemaker) pitch much better in his first full season in the majors than he ever did in the minors, even at the lowest levels?  Baseball — that’s how.

Catcher: Hank Conger
hank n. – Nautical A ring on a stay attached to the head of a jib or staysail
conger n. — a large marine eel, reaching up to 10 ft. (3 m.), used for food.
So a fisherman might fasten a hank to his sail before catching a conger.  Or if he’s a baseball fan, he might watch Matt Shoemaker pitch to Hank Conger, like in this game here.

First Base: Nick Swisher
The injury to Prince Fielder gave the other double valid first basemen a chance at this honor, and Nick Swisher stepped up … by which I mean he was arguably the worst player in the league this year (-1.6 WAR).  Always a good hitter and a bad fielder, Swisher flipped the script this year and was a terrible hitter (like .208/.278/.331, 74 OPS+ terrible) and a good field- … uh, hold on, sorry, I was looking at Nick Punto‘s defensive numbers; Swisher was a terrible fielder this season also.

Second Base: Tommy La Stella
Technically he’s a triple valid, but that still counts in my book … or my blog, as it were.  You’ve got tommy (a British soldier), la (the sixth note on the diatonic scale), and stella (a former coin of the U.S.), and when you put them all together what have you got?  A pretty lousy second baseman whose only attractive quality (other than his triple valid name, of course) is the fact that he’s not Dan Uggla.

Third Base: Brock Holt
Last season he was a Double Valid All-Star by default; this season he was actually a decent player (2.2 WAR).  And his name still means “badger grove”, which is kind of a real thing, so a few bonus points for that.

Shortstop: Brad Miller
When the Mariners traded Nick Franklin midseason, they lost half of a potentially potent double-valid double-play tandem, but they still retain the shortstop part of it.  Although, given Miller’s season at the plate (.220/.288/.363, 88 OPS+), they might wish they didn’t.

Left Field: Junior Lake
After a promising rookie campaign, Junior Lake’s chance at stardom has completely cratered (you might say he’s crater Lake).  He still might be a good player someday, but not if he continues to strikeout eight times for every one time he walks.  That’s not a joke, by the way, he’s struck out 110 times this year, while walking only 14 times.  The only player who has ever had a worse single-season ratio is Wily Mo Branyan, and he’s not even a real person; he’s a cross between Wily Mo Pena and Russell Branyan that I just invented right now.  So, yeah, Lake’s batting eye needs some work.

Center Field: Mike Trout
There has been much written about where Mike Trout’s terrific start to his career ranks among the all-time great starts.  But I have a more interesting question: Where does Mike Trout rank among baseball players with fish last names?  Among fellow Trout, he’s ahead of Steve Trout, but hasn’t yet caught Steve’s father Dizzy Trout — a hurler from the ’40s with borderline Hall of Fame credentials.  Mike Trout is certainly better than Mike Carp and Brandon Bass, and he’s even surpassed 14-year vet Kevin Bass.  Frank Hake is no match for him nor is Art Herring.  But Tim Salmon is ahead of him just based on longevity.  So all told, I rank Mike Trout fourth on the “Last Name Is a Fish” list.  He’s behind only Dizzy Trout, Tim Salmon, and Kevin Bass’ avatar on R.B.I. Baseball.

Right Field: Hunter Pence
Next question: Where does Hunter Pence rank on the “Last Name is a Monetary Unit” list?  The answer is second.  He’s ahead of Dick Rand and Brad Penny, but way behind Curt Schilling.

Designated Hitter: Jerry Sands
Billy Butler‘s down year opened up this roster spot, and Jerry Sands slid right in — not with his play, he was a pretty awful DH this year (.190/.227/.333 in 22 PA), but with his name: Jerry Sands is an excellent, lively double valid.  And it’s got some historical significance.  A jerry is a German soldier, so when the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy, they were fighting on jerry sands.

Relief Pitcher: Will Smith
Will Smith is the second greatest reliever ever who has the same name as a world famous entertainer and an ex-NFL front-seven defender.  Can you name the greatest ever?  If not, you might want to take a look at the man in the mirror.