The Dynasty That Never Could Be: Part III

Welcome to the Dynasty That Never Could Be, a Quasi-Oral History, in Six Scenes, narrated by Seth Wickersham, Greg Bishop and Robert Klemko. Come back daily to see the plot advance, as a new portion will be published every day this week.

If you haven’t already, click here to read Part II before continuing on.

Scene Four

“He interfered!”  – Michael Crabtree, to his parents, friends, teammates, coaches, refs, strangers in lines for things, mail carriers, workers at retail locations in which he’s buying something, reporters of news, anyone who was not fully cognizant of football until 2014 or later, etc.

Mere mention of the mere word “tip”, or better yet The Tip, is endorphinergic for Seahawks fans, a thrilling invocation sure to resurrect memories of what was the greatest single play in the past decade of Seahawksdom, and one of the greatest plays in the franchise’s history.  But look attentively enough at that play, watch the All-22 as it eclipses the highlight reels, and you’ll see what’s already canon within the Gospels of the LOB: Sherm’s talents weren’t limited to athleticism, or length, or the safety blanket provided by Earl Thomas (RIP @bestguyaround).  They included, perhaps first and foremost, a preeminent talent for playing physical press coverage. Sherm redefined what it meant to be a shutdown corner because receivers quite simply couldn’t get past him. His presence on the field was looming, a tower that gifted the advantage of permanent higher ground.  Not only did he lead the league in interceptions since 2011, but so too would he lead the league in passer rating allowed since that year, at 47.7, and in completion percentage when targeted, 48.1% (per PFF). Indeed, his skill at the position and the ferocity of his play were matched only by his capacity for emotional outbursts and causing insult, making him the most relatable football player to play the game, ever.  (Indeed, the greatest moment of The Tip was not when Smith intercepted the failed pass, but when Crabtree was flagged for smacking Sherm in the helmet, hapless and pathetic.)

In this case, the League was unwilling to delay at all, fearing that Sherman’s relentless defense, and subsequent insults*, may damage the fragile egos of opposing quarterbacks, a vast and mighty tumult of emotional boo-boos that could revert those heroes of the game to the screaming toddlers they actually are in secret.  Thus starting in 2014, the League instructed its officiants to begin much more strictly enforcing holding and illegal contact, hugely diminishing the ability of any pass-defender to make any play on a receiver or the ball within 5 yards from the line of scrimmage (8-5-3 and 12-1-6, as well as 8-4-2, 3, respectively).  Significantly, both penalties would result in an automatic first down; when coupled with first downs being set at the spot of the foul for defensive pass interference (8-5-4), offenses were highly incentivized to throw more, with incomplete passes and defensive fouls becoming almost equally possible outcomes, especially for the home team.  Of the change, Referee Ed Hochuli noted that defenders would only have a right to their spot if they remained stationary; any movement by the defender meant that the onus would be on him, not the receiver, to not hold or make illegal contact.  Later speaking off the record, sources claim that Hochuli commented “over there in Seattle, it’s gonna be f—ing hailing yellow flags.

* While other defensive backs have attempted to mimic the efficiency of Sherm’s taunting, notably Josh Norman and Jalen Ramsey, none of them seem to be as good as their predecessor at actually defending receivers.

While the success of this new point of emphasis was such that the League almost even took under consideration whether it had gone too far, the ending of Super Bowl XLIX persuaded them to let the matter lie, for the time being at least.  Bearing witness to* a conclusion that resulted in the success of the very play the Seahawks claimed was consistently and unfairly being called against them, they had washed their hands of any appearance of impropriety.

* Or having engineered … ?

And yet, much to the chagrin of the Competition Committee, the Seahawks’ pass defenses of 2014 and 2015 continued to dominate, demonstrating that the core of the LOB, rooted in its technique as much as its players, was sufficient to ensure that the other eight defenders sharing the field with them, whoever they were, would enjoy the benefits of their inviolability.  Indeed, this was evinced not only by many of the Legions’ ancillary players earning lucrative second contracts with other teams, but also by the Seahawks’ willingness to draft, and insert into the starting roster as rookies, cornerbacks without any particular distinction, production, or pedigree, seemingly with abandon. For perhaps the greatest shared strength of the LOB — setting aside the commonality its players shared in benefitting from the excellent DB coaching of Carroll and in possessing similar physical traits — was its adaptability.  Facing a new era that removed by penalty their preference for press coverage, the Seahawks back four, then five, and maybe six could still overwhelm opposing offenses with clever scheming, speed, and a calm penchant for downfield playmaking that impeded all but the most improbable success in opponents’ explosive passing attempts. Indeed, during both years, not only was the pass defense ranked nos. 3 by DVOA, but so too did it allow the least and ninth least, respectively, explosive (20+ yards) passing plays.

It is worth noting that 2016 was also shaping up to perpetuate this trend until it transformed into a cautionary tale, originating in the saddest ironies of this history, when one of Chancellor’s last and most powerful SRfBs/T was produced upon his own teammate, Earl Thomas, in Week 12, finally answering the question of what happens when hammer and anvil interconnect without a medium, and precipitating the Week 14 blowout loss to the Packers.  This last detail is not significant, except for the role that that victory played, as a league source* would later reveal, in finally precluding any need for what would become an increasingly convoluted conspiracy to conceal by any means the growing evidence of decline in Aaron Rodgers’ play.  Of course, even to the casual observer, that loss by Seattle owed far more to the cold and a multitude of Seahawks seemingly struck by a sudden inability to avoid supine positions, playing with all of the artless grace of a bunch of overweight and terrified fourth-graders engaged in a game of dodgeball, than it did to any of the diminishing talents of Packer No. 12, whose smugness epitomizes the default position of tall white dudes who begin on the proverbial third base of life, amazed at the laggardness of their fellow players who did not start on that base.  That conspiracy, however, would be revived, Christ-like, in the 2017 season home-opener, when referees engaged in a clever revisionism that replaced an actual act (Davante Adams grabbing Jeremy Lane’s facemask) with a phantom one (Jeremy Lane throwing a punch), to nullify Rodgers’ second career pick-six thrown at Lambeau Field. (It needn’t be said that, by then, Russell Wilson had thrown no pick-sixes at home.) That conspiracy expanded after Rodgers’ injury-riddled 2017 season to encompass a 2018 season that was the surest signifier of decline yet, by casting the ultimate blame on McCarthy, and making it abundantly clear which one of them was really in charge, after all.  But I digress.

* While the name of this courageous whistleblower will remain forever unknown, it is understood that the growing number of tasks he was expected to perform on Rodgers behalf, as a liaison responsible for keeping the quarterback informed about the progress of the league’s efforts, included: maintaining Rodgers’ impressive docket of restraining orders and injunctions against various members of his own family; transcribing Rodgers’ recordings of his own interviews; finding acting coaches to assist the beloved QB in his various State Farm Insurance televised commercials; and working with Microsoft to build and deploy an algorithm onto Green Bay Surface tablets that would detect whenever Rodgers threw a device at a player or offending bench, and automatically order another one.  Allegedly, the last task became unsustainable, as Rodgers would often throw a tablet at a target but miss, which defeated the algorithm; eventually, when Microsoft threatened to pull out of their agreement with the entire NFL, the compromise was an innovative cover for Rodgers’ Surface Tablets that was literally unbreakable.

But having failed to embarrass the Seahawks defense sufficiently for them to both bend and break, the Committee re-dedicated itself to its previous officiating machinations, requiring stricter enforcement of downfield contact in 2017, particularly grabbing.  Sources confirm that Kraft and Belichick were again the partisans of this new point of emphasis, as a result of DeShawn Shead’s interception of a Tom Brady pass*, the first of Brady’s 2016 season, after serving a four-game suspension for illegally deflating footballs prior to games.

* While no one from the League or even the Patriots organization was available for comment on the connection between the interception and the new point of emphasis, former players have revealed that the aging QB was already feeling pretty down about having just lost a team-sponsored handsomest QB competition to Garoppolo.  Thus, the question about how invested Belichick truly was in the change is a legitimate, though unanswerable, one.  Nevertheless, insisting that Malcolm Mitchell was out of position due to holding, Kraft, never one for lesser counter-measures, allegedly called in a favor among his connections with the cosmic fates, who propelled Trump to the office of the Presidency the following day.

Moreover, an internal investigation would later reveal that it was a complaint made by Eagles’ Head Coach Doug Pederson that resulted in the League’s third amendment to its rules on pass defense, this time after the 2017 regular season.  Pederson ostensibly drafted the complaint after the Seahawks defense overwhelmed Wentz in Week 13, but the investigation showed that the complaint was first made only after Wentz’ first pass of Week 14 was intercepted. The complaint would ultimately cycle through several iterations at its height, accusing Pacific coast climatologists of pumping excessively pressurized air into both the Seahawks and Rams’ home fields as part of an effort to sabotage the sophomore quarterback, though without explaining precisely how that would be possible or, indeed, effective.  Yet by the time Pederson had completed his ritual*, the complaint’s final version focused on the Seahawks’ disturbing capacity for beating the eventual Super Bowl victor in a meaningless regular season game, and diminishing the Eagles’ 4th down conversion rate, preventing Pederson from realizing his true desire: both to win Super Bowl LII and lead the league in fourth downs made and attempted.  (The Eagles would finish 2017 season with the Lombardi and a commanding lead in the former category, but were edged out by a Packers squad desperate to succeed in spite of Rodgers’ continuing preference to smash Surface Tablets instead of throwing successful passes to receivers.) While by all accounts the League was taken at least somewhat aback by Pederson’s mystifying and heavily edited complaint, the Committee again voted to adopt another point of emphasis, requiring even more strict enforcement of downfield defenses, with new emphasis on illegal contact, contact that restricts, playing through a receiver’s back, defenders’ extending an arm against a receiver’s body, cutting off a receiver’s path by making contact, and hooking.

* Gathering of 13 wise men and performing an incantation, accompanied by the slaughter of 13 lambs, necessary to unlock the true potential of Super Bowl MVP Foles

From 2013 to 2014, defensive penalties by holding and pass interference increased by nearly 36%.  Moreover, that a significant number of those (22.5%) were declined demonstrates that the penalized defensive play likely had little to no impact on the reception itself.  Since then, numbers have largely held steady, with a slight increase in 2016, including a yards per penalty rate consistently above 11, significantly greater than leading teams’ Y/A, AY/A, NY/A, and ANY/A statistics for each year.  Additionally, the quality of overall pass defenses (by DVOA rankings) have decreased since then, with no team coming especially close to the Seahawks no. 1 pass defense of 2013 (-34.2%).

According to close friends, starting in 2015, Richard Sherman began to see, and increasingly cast himself, as the Seahawks’ own Iscariot, a villain to be reviled for an act of treachery that was itself a sacrifice.  Per sources, Sherman was able to foresee a long and unending path of nameless Seahawks, inserted almost at random in the position of RCB, the perpetual refilling of a hole whose origin was as much a subject of derision as it was unidentifiable, the inevitable product of which would be decline in a universe whose karmic balances permitted only a finite quantity of Tips.  The Unmaking of Richard Sherman was not an ill-fated slant on that wintry day in February of 2015 so much as it was the dawning realization that his attempts to galvanize his teammates were viewed as acts of petulance, a “self-inflicted” attitude that was (as) indefensible (as Doug Baldwin to opponents). The fire and fury on which they had ridden to the highest of pinnacles was now something to be ridiculed, or ignored.

No, the nebulous talents of Sherm, and those who played in his wake, were veiled combustions, a demand that fire be met with more fire, until the whole field burned in a conflagration of takeaways that incinerated all opposition; his surprise, when the great reckoning was at least revealed, and consisted of the team turning instead to a player beloved for a robotic calm, was defeating.  And yet, even in defeat, he sought what was best for his team: an act of betrayal that would awaken them anew, force them to confront the memory of what they had been.

For Sherm knew well that his teammates had a long and storied history of sharpening one another upon themselves, and that taunting them would not diminish them, as it had done with so many before; and even though that end meant exile, he was able to witness the redemptive story, from afar.