Fake Game 4: Seahawks @ Raiders — Friday Morning Rebuttal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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