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.