Memory is a strange beast.
On September 29, 2018, after weeks and months of being pressured to acquiesce to a destiny in which what our house really needs is a fourth animal, my wife showed me a picture of a cat in need of a new home. Now, please understand that this cat looked almost identical to our oldest animal, the chillest cat a person could hope to love, the inimitable Julius. (Named after Caesar, which is gross, but that was before I was in the picture, so whatever.)
This eight-week-old kitten had almost the same wild eyes (different only in color), the same unruly ear-hair, the same manic, tuxedo-colored face; in every way, he seemed like a replication of my favorite cat from fifteen years ago. With the wisdom that comes from learning, there are some arguments you cannot win, particularly in matrimony. I did nothing to preclude our driving out to Federal Way, meeting the kitten, and immediately bringing it home. While I perhaps could have done something, there’s a kind of comfort in the notion of the fatal – an idea, certainly not unique to me but one in which I’ve often found consolation, that certain things will be what they were supposed to become, regardless of circumstances.
The next day, Earl Thomas broke his leg. Like the injury from two years ago, it was a freak accident (though it now appears to have been compounded by that previous injury), and stole from us whatever joy we could hope to find in a pointless victory. Obliterating a Cam-Newton-led team, though, was more satisfying than a Cardinals squad that probably knows its best chance for success is a high draft pick in, what, six months? Unless, of course, Josh Rosen ends up being good, and deigns to torment us for another decade or two.
Thinking about it, I struggle to find any good words – the most acutely true things have already been said; that Glendale is a graveyard for happy Seahawks memories; that Earl Thomas was the last legionnaire, and his Legion now exists only as a matter of history; that, setting aside the intrinsic possibility that almost all things are ultimately possible, that was Earl Thomas’ last game as a Seahawk. While I would be shocked to not see Earl Thomas play another game, the gestures with which he concluded this season were so fitting for a player like him: an alchemy of fury and intensity that made any kind of repression wholly impossible.
I don’t believe in reincarnation, and of course Earl Thomas is still perfectly well alive, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his spirit now resides in my new kitten. I suspect that, in proportion, my hands probably now resemble Gronk’s ribs after ET used his body to literally obliterate the last vestiges of human consciousness from Gronk’s mind. Like our beloved safety, my new kitten moves with a kind of instinct that is impossible to comprehend, as if he knows where my hand is going to be before I do. Attuned to the particular kung fu with which Earl caused all manner of players to fumble all manner of footballs, my kitten has already been the cause of many dropped things. His eyes are haunting and, on occasion, cause me to take acts other than what I was originally intending.
What’s truly bizarre, though, is that coincidence of those two events links my memories of them. While I don’t want to think that I will ever forget Earl Thomas, I now know that I’ll be reminded of him every time that cat incises one of my fingers, or propels me to a futile quest for cover. And don’t tell my wife, but be certain that, privately, the kitten’s nickname is 29.
But football is and always has been a mercenary business, and our resident condottieri Pete Carroll must call for his next general. In many ways, it’s fitting that the proverbial next man up, Bobby Wagner, is being substituted for Pete’s longest tenured defensive superstar, and is thus now Pete’s new longest tenured defensive superstar (who isn’t injured). Long considered the on-field leader of the defense anyways, Bobby Wagner is now very obviously the best player on Carroll’s defense and, insofar as the defense is and always has been the fundament of Carroll’s philosophy, is thus also basically his favorite kid. And why not? Bobby Wagner plays with a similar kind of prescience to Earl Thomas, sniffing out plays before they can develop, and wrecking them. Of course you’d want this guy leading things from here on out.
As fans, we’ve come to expect a degree of ineptitude on the offensive side of the ball. Between Bevell’s conservative playcalling, which was occasionally stale, or perhaps ill-suited to an offense that lacked any truly uncoverable receiving talent aside from sometimes Doug Baldwin, sometimes Jimmy Graham, and Cable’s assurance that he could teach anyone how to block (he meant on Twitter), the Seahawks’ offenses of Carroll’s tenure have been, while often incredibly efficient, rarely domineering. Now that Schotty has replaced Bevell (WE CAN STILL GET HIM BACK, RIGHT?), we can see this as a total reaffirmation of Carroll’s autocracy: a return to the bullying, bruising Carrollball that focuses on running, body blows, tiring out opposing defenses, setting up third and manageable, and, when exhaustion or mental error intrudes, striking downfield with explosive plays.
Except, as the increasingly specific and mountainous evidence suggests, maybe this isn’t the best way of scoring points, which is, we sometimes need to remind Pete, the way you actually win actual football games. Moreover, the first four weeks of the season have demonstrated that this amalgamation of Carrollosophy with Schottycalling may, in fact, be bad; in some ways, as dispiriting as the losses were, the wins may be just as instructive. Consider, for example, that just over 62% of the third downs faced by the Seahawks in Week 3 needed six or more yards; their ability to convert 40% of those was a top-5 performance that week. As if to prove the unsustainability as forcibly as possible, the following week they converted 0% of those, or any, third downs.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of a bot named Ben Baldwin, in which case you don’t need me to tell you anything about EPA/play and how much more valuable completed passes are than designed runs by that metric (tl;dr: a whole lot). Indeed, even if measuring solely by rate of first down success, in Weeks 3 and 4 the Seahawks were more successful passing than running (30%-23%), and yet ran the ball 57% of the time. In those same weeks, the Cowboys allowed two explosive runs and two explosive passes, at rates of 5% and 7%, and the Cardinals surrendered six explosive rushes and one explosive pass, the latter at a rate of 4%. And lest anyone want to attribute these victories to dominant Seahawks’ performances, keep in mind that the defenses they faced rank 20th and 11th by DVOA, with the Dallas pass defense at a further 26th and the Arizona run defense at 18th.
But all of this is to be expected, and the dawning realization for those of us who clung to hope is that, like the dawn itself, hope can be blinding: we were probably in error to have had too much hope to begin with.
Since Pete Carroll assumed control of the Seahawks defense, they ranked by DVOA 10, 2, 1, 1, 4, 5, and 13; properly speaking, with injuries to Kam, Sherm, Avril, Bennett, Wagner, and Thomas, that last ranking deserves at least six asterisks. Our faith in Coach Pete, and indeed probably the basis of his faith in his own style of coaching, has long rested in an inviolate defense, the storied bend-but-do-not-break discipline which laughs in the face of any prospect that opposing teams will score more than 20 points.
And yet, again. What if the reliable commonality of all those legacy seasons was, simply, Earl Thomas? What if the mere presence of Earl Thomas in centerfield was the lynchpin for Carroll’s inestimable Cover-3, the North Star to Carroll’s navigation, the Athena to our trickster coach, the voice of Siri to our diminishing human brains?
Taking this as our premise, and assuming from the available evidence that Carroll did not intend on having the services of Earl Thomas for the entire year, I’m left with an unalterable conclusion: Carroll is in uncharted territory. Because, the only other reasonable conclusion is perhaps less consoling: that Pete Carroll actually believes that he can replace Earl Thomas with a mortal denizen of the football desert, a journeyman fellow traveler whose appearance of quickness and instinct is only visible in Earl Thomas’ absence, itself a phantom reminder of the firmament to which Carroll’s once-might defenses screamed in wild glory. Will Carroll became the latest fallen hero in the long-storied tragedy of hubris? Or perhaps Carroll is possessed by delusion instead of arrogance, such that his love of the run game has infected the defensive part of his mind, and the shift from Earl Thomas to Bobby Wagner marks instead a transformation from death by safety to death by linebacker, destroyer of running backs, who are themselves the heralds of victory?
I’ve long held that the best kind of thinking (and writing!) delights in questions over answers. So here’s another: what if there is a final possibility that Pete Carroll is a kind of Keyser Söze; the pretender to a decrepitude that conceals a master plan both genius and vengeful; the possessor of a magic that is hidden and ancient? I mean, as faithful spectators, we’ll eventually find out. But, as it turns out, as strange as memory is, hope is the stranger beast.