On Identity

I’ve always loved baseball for one main, stereotypical reason: it’s a reflection of life. Sometimes you succeed and touch a glorious moment, sandwiched between many failures. You can’t swing at everything, especially the curves. Win or lose, you do it all again tomorrow, under the guise of a clean slate, which is a beautiful and beastly lie, because you and I both know the past matters.

Football, on the other hand, no doubt draws me in because of its primal belligerence. Without shame or apology, armored teams fight over real estate. That’s the game. They line up their infantries, all pretty and organized, with intricate plans, and proceed to launch violent offensives at each other, forays designed to misdirect and maim the opponent as much as acquire land, precious land. It’s war, only nicer.

That being said, people: pigskin pugilism preserves its peculiar pull on my psyche primarily through a percolating pressure which promises to puncture any and all of its protagonists’ precarious plans.

An ongoing tension lurks on the battlefield, pitting what a football team wants to do against what it can do. So, naturally, football houses a level of subterfuge you might not encounter in baseball, hockey, soccer. There’s a subterfuge about play action and screen passes and disguised blitzes, a deception that a James Harden pump fake and a Max Scherzer curveball may approach, but cannot match. Consider: If you want to throw a slider because it’s your best pitch, the batter cannot stop you from choosing it, nor from executing it to the maximum of your ability. If you want to get the ball into the post for the big guy to operate near the basket, the pesky defender will only rarely make the kind of play that impedes your goal. If you want to steal second base, usually the most salient obstacle is your own lack of athleticism. If a coach wants his lineup to launch 50 threes in a game, for various analytical reasons, it’s not a particularly hard challenge for him to scheme it to fruition.

However, if you want to run your star running back into the frothing phalanx at the line of scrimmage or around it, over and over again, that’s a different story. It might not work as smoothly as you want, as often as you want, without at least some creativity attached. Thus, a football team — and we can take this to mean the Seahawks, though surely this same tension smothers others — will find that said tension has turned inward, on the operation of the team itself, and suddenly there exists a rather forbidding crevasse separating what its generals want to accomplish from what they can accomplish.

What if a team is built to be one way, under a coach who wants to play according to a predetermined philosophy — but the evolution of the league, the rules designed to encourage passing, the arrival of a generational talent and the departure of others make it impractical to do so? What if? Surely that team would be well served to address the tension between what is desired and what is achievable.

I mean, as long as our heroes possessed a top-echelon defense, a unique playmaker at running back, an offensive line that could open running lanes, and stout special teams play, any tension was rendered moot on a macro level. Failing to execute the run-defend-pass-with-caution-and-steal-hidden-yards plan would be confined to the micro-oddity of a single game, and quickly rectified as the season resumed.

Once one or more of those key elements faded into a sunset brought on by injury, retirement or mutual parting, however, it would be immediately incumbent on the leadership to proceed with business as usual only if the incoming skills adequately replace the outgoing. Otherwise a new tension would assuredly arise, and with it a new set of questions. Hopefully, a good query, like, “Guys, can we still win the same way we used to, if the balance of talent within the squad has shifted?” The dead-end question, of course, is “How can we still squeeze out wins from the old philosophy, the tenets we spent so much capital installing and inculcating, without Earl Thomas leading the defensive charge and Marshawn Lynch carrying the running game to the promised land?” And yet, to outsiders like myself, doesn’t that appear to be exactly what Pete Carroll is asking himself, in the second phase of his Seattle tenure?

The Seahawks don’t create turnovers with their secondary anymore; they don’t intimidate quarterbacks anymore. They don’t rack up sacks like they used to; they don’t have a Beast in the backfield like they used to. Their special teams are mundane overall, and have been for some time. They’re not your father’s Seahawks; hell, they’re not even your older brother’s Seahawks.

They don’t have an LOB, and they never will again.

What they do have is a top 3 quarterback, a legitimate candidate for MVP, a signalcaller in his prime, with enough mobility to freeze linebackers, enough arm to throw over safeties, enough savvy to find the open man, and more than enough leadership to keep the troops rallied behind him. If Pete Carroll trusts his no-longer-great defense to make key stops, his no-longer great rushing attack to consistently move the chains, and his no-longer-great special teams to pitch in for the little things, he’s deceiving himself and making it harder, not easier, for the Seahawks to win games.

The tension is, as they like to say, palpable. On one hand, Carroll trusts a philosophy because it’s worked, historically. For him, for others. On the other hand, that same philosophy takes crucial in-game opportunities away from his best, most important, most influential, most reliable player. But trust has limits: not putting enough faith in Russell Wilson cost the Seahawks their last playoff game in Dallas. Trusting the defense and the special teams last week against Los Angeles, as the first half ended, cost a very preventable touchdown, and nearly swung the biggest game of the season thus far to the Rams. (Who, kindly, gave the win right back in the end, because suddenly getting even three points proved to be too steep an order.)

Taking a detour to visit New England might be great for the soul of your family on summer vacation, but has not served a Seahawks fan’s jealous soul quite as well. Tough sledding. We’re headed there anyway. Because the team with the best track record of the millennium demonstrates that if equipped with a successful strong coach, a Hall of Fame quarterback, and a positive track record, offensive philosophies can come and go without compromising wins and losses.

In Brady’s first six years, the Patriots ran the ball 45.1 percent of the time. That dropped to 43.7 percent for his middle six years, then 41.1 percent in the last six. Bill Belichick has steadily been entrusting more and more of the offense to his quarterback, moving every so slowly away from the balanced offense that supposedly spells success.

Because something many fans will have forgotten, or never known, or forgotten to know, is that Tom Brady was not always TOM BRADY. For the first third of his career, he was sloppier, less productive, more reliant on his defense — all the attributes you’d expect from a young quarterback with a questionable pedigree. Double figures in interceptions every year didn’t matter because the Patriots defense was top 2 in scoring three times.

For the second third of his career, which included Mahomesian outputs in 2007 and 2010, Brady was nigh unstoppable. He cut his interception rate to 1.8% while topping the league in TDs, passer rating and ANY/A twice.

Since then, Brady has refined his game — there’s a frightening consistency to his numbers since he turned 37, nothing fluctuating too high nor too low from season to season, only a tsunami of across-the-board statistical excellence that comes from someone who’s mastered the hardest position in American pro sports. Russell Wilson can do all of this. Maybe more.

Belichick, smartly, has ridden the inexorable Brady wave and tinkered with the roster in unpredictable ways. He’s shipped out discontents and brought them in. He’s built through the draft’s later rounds and he’s made splashy trades. He’s let the offense loose on occasion (500+ points four times), but you can always count on the Patriots to be in the top half of scoring defense (16 times), even when they’ve finished in the bottom half of yards allowed (10 times).

His philosophy appears to relieve the tension of conforming to a pre-set identity, because the identity sought is “do what it takes to win, whatever that is.” How Belichick goes about things at the other end of the country is diametrically opposed to someone who posits: “we know what it takes to win, so let’s do that, and the wins will follow.” The Hoodie understands that winning isn’t just a byproduct of doing things right, it’s the only identity worth pursuing. It’s the only identity that doesn’t, ahem, cheat your players or your fans. Look at Al Davis, still being right after all these years of being dead: Just win, you know, baby.