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.
Scene: a football game in 2013 between the Seattle Seahawks and some other team. The Seahawks bring out their ferocious NASCAR package on a critical third down. Just before the ball is snapped, so proximate in time to the snapping of the ball that proper chronology can’t be obviously determined, several flags are thrown skywards, and the Referee blows his whistle.
Referee: “There are four penalties on this play. Offsides: Defense, No. 51 – that penalty is Declined. Offsides: Defense, No. 91 – that penalty is Declined. Offsides: Defense, No. 56 – that penalty is Declined. Offsides: Defense, No. 72 – Five Yard Penalty; First Down.”
CLink crowd: *dies*
In many respects, the 2013 regular season was both vast and loud in its instructiveness. Quarterbacks from that year, and onwards, learned that, when playing against the Seahawks, they had two clear choices: they could protect themselves, or they could protect the football. But they could not do both. Because therein lay the essential difference between Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. One of them wore tiny shoulder pads, reminiscent in style of women’s blazers circa 1982, and was the twitchiest of hybrid defensive linemen in the game, who could only be stopped by being held and so diminished every opportunity for holding that he could; and the other was a preeminent illusionist, time and again tricking opposing QBs into thinking that they held onto the ball when, in fact, he had taken it from them mere moments before. Even the most formidable of gunslingers couldn’t help but be dazzled, if only momentarily, by the prospect of one or both of them geysering through a hapless offensive line, a duality of Pascals offering the barest hope of choice. Thankfully (for them!), a moment was all they needed to commune with their patron spirits, of Collapsing and of Bending, respectively, their talents a grimoire of enchantments that so confused and bedazzled that even the fabric and nature and ineluctability of reality itself came into question and …
And then you were sacked. Or forced to fumble. There never was any choice, and if you believed otherwise you were fooling yourself, a testament to the sublime bliss of ignoranc-
Wait, hold that. You were just sacked again.
In the time it takes to contemplate the cleverest way in which to portray them as barbaric for their love of *sacking*, you were just sacked a third time. Your Drive is now Dead. Long live The Drive.
Here, it was not only what the Seahawks did by intent that gave pause, but what they did by illumination. In 2013, the Seahawks demonstrated how much could be accomplished by a talented, but not star-heavy, rotation of pass-rushers, improving on its 2012 sack rate by +1.5%, to 7.6%, a rate that just kept them out of the top-5 (though that rate varies by different calculi). And while yes, we now know that pressures — that surlier and more complicated sibling of sacks, the one that won’t go on to do as good or better things but who’s probably smarter, really — are a better metric for determining the efficacy of pass rush, they themselves suffer from terrible vagaries of definition, for which reason (at least in part) it’s more difficult to determine how contributory they are to a team’s overall pass defense (particularly more than three years ago). Moreover, while losses in free agency after the 2013 season — including players who were considered starters but who were perhaps better as part of rotation — dropped the 2014 sack rate to around 7%, a movement from 7th best to just around league-average, both squads relied on relatively equal amounts of pressure and sacks from the interior, and the sack differential between those years was more exaggerated than the QB hit differential.
The vision that inspired the Seahawks’ pass rush — a cacophony as terrifying to opposing quarterbacks as his portrait was to Dorian Gray, with the voices of banshees, conjurers of madness whose screaming turned what had seemed a moment before orderly, the gradual development of an offensive play, into something resembling a Jackson Pollack, frenetic in its scattering of its composite parts into a storm of weirdness — was as dualistic as it was oracular. Disdaining sacks as little more than a distracting spectacle for plebians — representations as conceived by Debord, as common and significant as nonsense in a Lacan writing — that fearsome pass rush sought always to confound, dialecticians offering a false choice between throwing into pressure or, well, not throwing. Indeed, the wisdom that has become the sigil of a modern offense — the neutralization of pass rush by means of a quick passing game — was learned precisely as a consequence of that vision. No, the true culprit, as it would turn out, was imitation: for whatever the Seahawks could do in 2013, so could other teams mimic, as the 2015 Broncos did.
It was this fear of repetition that propelled the league into action. For the doings of the Competition Committee, implicitly at least, had long since evinced the increasing manifestation of a view that a team’s quarterback was its most important resource, bar none, and that the protection of that asset was utterly essential. (Notably, 12-2-9 establishes roughing the passer as the only penalty for which a player may be disqualified, if the penalty is flagrant, regardless of the location of the hit.) League sources have confidentially revealed excerpts of a memo drafted by a few executives, one of whom was purported to be Kraft, which contains the following phraseology: “… if even f*cking John Elway can figure this sh*t out, then we’re all f*cked.” Indeed, though not alleged to be among the signatories of that memo, a separate writing that supposedly came from the executive offices of the Philadelphia Eagles contained a similar sentiment: “… if an *sshole like Elway can do this sh*t, then I sure as f*ck don’t deserve to be here if I can’t do the same”. As a consequence of the sheer stupidity behind that imitation, starting in 2016, the Competition Committee introduced and passed a Point of Emphasis, requiring stricter enforcement of roughing the passer penalties, particularly on hits to a quarterback’s lower body.
However, the beginning of the 2016 season showed that the League’s efforts were insufficient, punctuated from the very start by Cliff Avril’s tackling from behind Tony Romo, a legal and blameless act that tragically resulted in Romo’s de facto career-ending injury. (Sources have further revealed that Jerry Jones, facing the probability of having to start rookie Dak Prescott in Romo’s place, threatened alternatively to fund: the secession of Texas from the United States; an enormous saw that would be used to physically cut Texas apart from the rest of the Union; and/or an Archimedean device of physically impossible proportions that would allow him to press a lever, which would hurl the city of Austin into New York, crushing most of its inhabitants, including Goodell.) As a result, the Committee in 2017 again made pass rushing (here disguised as pass roughing) a renewed Point of Emphasis, this time removing the language “passing posture” from the 2016 counterpart, enhancing the protections offered to a quarterback when within the pocket, regardless of his position or posture within.
Yet the 2017 season further demonstrated that the imitability of the Seahawks’ fearsome pass-rush was not only intrinsic, but subject to proliferation, even exponentially. For even teams that had been hapless the year before (notably the 7-9 Eagles and the 3-13 Jaguars) could transmogrify themselves into ruthless post-season contenders by that simple addition, a pronouncement of dominance that ascended to its greatest pinnacle when, in the last play of the League’s Biggest Game, Brandon Graham beat a double-team to almost sack Brady, producing a hypothetical conclusion so anathematic to Kraft and Belichick that it almost destroyed the multiverse.
And so, even in spite of the harrowing career-ending injury suffered by Avril, a portent of the final withering of an epochal defense, for a last time in 2018 the Committee further extended protections to quarterbacks. This time, the Point of Emphasis restricted pass-rushers even when opposing signal callers were outside of the pocket, making it incumbent on a defender to circumvent the laws of gravity by not “us[ing] all or part of his body weight to land on the quarterback.”
Between 2016 and 2018, roughing the passer penalties have increased by 20%, with the substance of that increase occurring between the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Similarly, yards gained by such penalties have increased by nearly 17%. However, while the increase was not as dramatic as defensive penalties by holding and pass interference, the yards per penalty was greater — 13.66 in 2016, 13.83 in 2017, and 13.04 in 2018. This is particularly significant given that the difference between the likely outcome of an offensive play not benefited by holding or pass interference and one not benefited by roughing the passer is an incomplete pass as opposed to a sack, setting a net benefit of closer to almost 20 yards per penalty. While it would be impossible to make accurate predictions as to the efficiency of such a net gain without considering down and field position, it is very probably substantially better than the 2017 average +0.10 EPA for passing plays.
It is known that the House Words of Carroll, Warden of Cover-3 have long been: Bend, don’t Break. Of course, that tactic only works when the players are not, themselves, broken; and though the Seahawks were broken not once but twice on that haunting, elegiac November night in Glendale, an Ide, the Ide, of 2017, it is perhaps ironic — an irony that is at once simultaneously horrifying — that the inevitable Bending of the season came at the hands of he who worshiped at that spirit’s altar. For just as there can be no yin without yang, no fire without water, no Pete Carroll without straightforward and direct candor, so can there be no Collapsing without Bending, and Avril’s injury presaged the diminishing of Michael Bennett.
But it was no diminishment of talent; no, this was a diminishment of selfhood. For Bennett — ever considered divisive by those who would confuse a black man’s confidence, intelligence, or sense of self-worth for arrogance — was the Muhammed Ali to Sherm’s Iscariot, a fighter who wouldn’t stop fighting, a Collapser of Pockets who couldn’t help but be himself, who in so doing was given his edge by a vast historiography of institutional oppression, and was inculcated in the mysteries of what makes those institutions uncomfortable. For in being oneself, there is honesty, a reckoning between every theft of a cop’s bike, every fight against an offensive lineman who stepped on you and knows he can get away with far more, every salute to John Carlos, and the multitude of alternatives in which those events never happened and were mere whispers of those veiled futurities of who one could have been.
Michael Bennett, along with the rest of them, was promised that dream of selfhood, a disputation against the conventional wisdom that footballers must be uniform in their acquiescence to hierarchy, and that coaches must first control their players. Yet the danger of dreams is not and never has been their irreality so much as their fragility; they are only ever the imaginings of a liberated mind, and can be returned to oblivion in an instant. Of them all, Bennett was most confronted by the salience of this conflict: that while Awakening, as an idea, often conveys some kind of betterment, an improvement of consciousness, or of self, it is at odds with the requirement that such an act be destructive.