War and Peace (and Football): Part I

Just the other day, I was thinking to myself thusly: “Jesse (this is me talking to myself, but silently), why the fuck do John and Mike still give you a platform to write these dumb and often pointless things?”

To deflect from this painful question — one that, if we’re being honest, I can’t answer, at least in part because I am neither John nor Mike — I did it again, categorizing the great Seattle Seahawk NFC West rivalries of the Russell Wilson era as periods of history, and the individual games of those great rivalries as famous battles. What follows is both cutting-edge and lunacy.

The Fierce Rivalry of 2012 – 2013: The San Francisco team that is so bad at naming things that they just used a number, Subtitled the World of Antiquity

If we know anything about the World of Antiquity, it was marked by a bunch of clever Grecians learning how to sail and then sailing around the globe*, stealing a bunch of cool ideas from various parts of what was, to them, the eastern world. Everyone philosophized too much, peaking with the duality of: on the one hand, Heraclitus, the “Weeping Philosopher”, insisting that change was the fundamental principle of the universe; and on the other Zeno of Elea, inventor of the dialectic and of questionable sanity, insisting that change was an illusion. Then, the Romans stole all that stuff from the Greeks. But they added running water and corporal punishment! Julius Caesar, infant that he was, threw a tantrum that changed about nineteen centuries of human history.

* Really just Phoenicia

By the beginning of 2012, the read option reigned supreme; like the supremacy of the Phoenicians, it was rooted more in cultural adoption than identity, a tendency more than a fixity, the delivery of a blow both unobserved and fatal. Colin Kaepernick paraded in glory, ascendant to the dizzying heights of a great and vast platform engineered by a khaki-clad maniac, bellicose in his screaming fury — a whirlwind of throwing and upending things, a field marshal bearing the surname Harbaugh whose talent for victory rested equally in terror and brilliance. Supported by a cast of players whose collective excellence was nearly epochal (more on that later), this team flexed with such grace and assurity that the hatred they endured was so clearly a byproduct of envy, which served as a reagent of more fire and wrath, and so more envy, and thus more hatred, and, and. With complexity and intricacy hardwired into every itinerant part of their ground game, stopping that force, that reckoning, was about as easy as fighting the wind, armed with a multitude of knives.

Enter our own clever Grecian Thief, John Schneider, who looked at this little guy named Russell Wilson and was like (paraphrasing): “woah, this kid could slay.” Pete Carroll wasn’t thrilled, but the more and more he considered how he could construct a Wall of Defense, an impenetrable barrier against which all of the gusting winds and knives would be useless, helmed by a speedy little dude with a cannon for an arm, the more he considered the possibility of obtaining points in much the same way a volcano wins (against people, cities, etc.), the more and more of his face that smirk occupied, until it was so permanently fixed in place as to be unbearable.

Sing to me, O Muse …

October 18, 2012 – Battle of Thermopylae

Wait, this makes no sense. Is that, … could it be, … Alex Smith? Why oh why did the 49ers play Alex Smith when they had Kaep?

In fact, it turns out that it makes perfect sense. Harbaugh, his genius at once both elusive and daunting, saw so deeply into the fundament of Peter Clay Carroll that he knew, really and truly knew, that by playing Smith and winning 13-6, he could so powerfully and metaconsciously taunt Carroll, make the deepest part of his very soul seethe with the idea of Alex Smith as the QB, the quintessence of quarterbacking, as to drive his opponent mad. Trapped in a fever-dream of pure id, Harbaugh knew that Carroll couldn’t possibly resist the allure of a good loss, couldn’t possibly not want what Harbaugh had, and in that bondage would become blind to the awesome talent of one Russell Carrington Wilson for, oh, I dunno, let’s say, a numerologically pleasing seven years.

As much as our collective memory of the sacred pass leading unto Thermopylae soars with glorious recollections of a brave 300 (but ignores the 2,000 non-Spartans) that fought and died, it forgets that they also lost. But they did not merely lose; they were invited to lose, and accepted that offer to perish as readily as John Elway loves tall white kids. The parallel between Xerxes’ victory over the Greeks and Harbaugh’s styming of the Seahawks was their mutual ease, a buffet of glory, transforming Alex Smith into a kind of tantalizing agent of madness that had Petey drooling while keeping him blind to the razors and poison scattered within, a reduction of an entire franchise into a myopic frenzy of ire.

And yet, the simplicity of Xerxes’ victory has since been forgotten because, even in his triumph, he bled. (I mean, not him personally.) As much as Xerxes’ psychopathy was revealed in victory — he ordered his troops to whip a body of water when a storm waylaid his passage — so was Harbaugh’s compulsiveness illuminated. And like Xerxes’ pathology, it was a thing that could be exploited. For Harbaugh’s victory could not be an achievement in itself; it had to be a product of the best possible form of victory. Even at the end, he couldn’t decide whether the game should conclude in a safety or a turnover on downs, failing to see that the method didn’t matter, was moot and in every sense of the term, pointless. Even in triumph, he had lost.

December 23, 2012 – Battle of the Granicus

A profound fallacy intrinsic to the strategies of smart people is that they often expect other people to use the same methodologies that they do to conceive of smart things.

In the first of three major battles of Alexander of Macedon’s campaign in Anatolia, the Persian satraps were convinced both: that the Hellenic phalanxes would not break their formation in crossing the Granicus; and that any formidable assault would come from Alexander’s position itself. It is, after all, what they would have done. The strategy of Alexander — a commander whose ostensible genius was largely contingent on taking advantage of simple and obvious opportunities — was thus laid out before him, as easy to read as a McVay play scripted for Goff, drawn in crayon and with lots of exclamation points and other positive reinforcers. Alexander did what they did not think he would do – he sent his terrifying phalangites across the river, formations be damned, against the Persian right flank. Except this was a feint, and the true attack, which the Persians then thought was another feint but what actually wasn’t, was a massed cavalry charge against their center, all while Alexander sat astride his horse, smugly no doubt, on his own right side, idly watching the slow descent of the Persian front from confidence to confusion to terror to flight. Without so much as touching a weapon, Alexander broke the Immortal Army, which handed to the Macedonian wunderkind his first victory in Asia Minor.

In case the importance of his shoes wasn’t a clear signifier, Pete Carroll’s patron demigod is and has long been Hermes. Not in his capacity as messenger, protector of travellers, or father of sorcery and alchemy, but as the trickster “god of boundaries and the transgression of boundaries.” In hindsight, it often appears that Carroll has made a career of zigging while others zagged. This is, however, wrong, a trick of his own devising that is only possible because of the compulsive reverence with which erstwhile masters of the game treat boundaries, deserving because it always has been deserved. Pete has continued walking in the same direction for all of his 40+ years of coaching, somehow whistling while chewing gum, oblivious to that apparent impossibility. To the eternal optimist, every path appears ideal, and ever since Russell Wilson was gifted to him on a silver platter, he has been free to admire the scenery that much more. Where other coaches would exhaust themselves, conjuring the most fantastical designs and schemes for a hypertalented QB, old Petey has seen no need for deviation, firmly confident in his secret wisdom: that the most efficient path is a straight one, inviolate in its linearity.

Much as there would have been no Alexander the Great without Granicus, so would there never have been a Seahawks as we know them without this Week 16 annihilation.  Where Harbaugh won the first contest with careful planning, a cleverly-scripted and perfectly executed creation, Pete Carroll won the next in all the wrong ways, with mania, clockwork smashed to bits, all of the hues and cries, more avalanche than sculpture.

Also, if you want to know what a cavalry charge feels like, imagine the thumping Kam Chancellor visited on Vernon Davis, multiplied by about 2,500.

September 15, 2013 – Battle of Cynoscephalae

The unprecedented military successes of Alexander had the effect of re-aligning the political world of the Hellenic League away from democracy and towards empire. Thus it came to pass that the mantle of protector of rule by the original plebians was passed to and donned by the Roman Republic. Fittingly, the dread legions began destroying every empire in their path. By the second century BCE, Macedonia had come under the dominion of the Antigonid Dynasty, one of a few successor states to Alexander’s empire, and was making trouble in those puny Grecian cities that Roman Senators endearingly but quaintly called their “client states”; enter the legions to teach the proto-barbaric Macedonians a lesson in the civics of Pax Romana: peace by war by peace. By war. By peace. By—

This battle was a truly great one. Both armies attempted to occupy a meaningless hill, but because of poor weather conditions, neither side knew that the other had had the same thought. A meaningless skirmish turned into a meaningless battle as both field commanders diverted more and more of their reserves to accomplishing an objective that was important only insofar as it would have prevented the other side from doing what it … let’s just stop. History tells us that the Romans used this battle as the ultimate vindication of their belief in the superiority of the legionnaire over the phalangite; they curiously forgot to adduce to the presence of fucking elephant cavalry, which, one imagines, may have turned the tide of battle, just a bit.

What can be, or needs to be, said about the 2013 Seahawks’ equivalent of elephant cavalry? We know it wasn’t any one thing. We know, or should know, that there was no hierarchy of talent; the comedy of assuming that any one player was only good because of another player cleverly concealed the laughable degree to which they were all so obviously good. Maybe the elephant of that enormous room was a defense of fanatical murderers; maybe it was the conjunction of phrenetic run blocking and a monstrous tailback whose sheer glee at causing harm and embarrassment was perhaps his most horrifying trait; maybe it was a QB who was just beginning to discover his own secret magic, of making plays just when his team needed him to do so; maybe it was special teams ace Chris Maragos? Who knows? Maybe it was all of them or none of them.

The point of elephant cavalry isn’t that it takes a master tactician to diagnose how or why it is successful, that much needs to be said about it at all; the point is the inevitability of it.  One does not need a strategy if one possesses elephant cavalry, because a herd of stampeding elephants is a sufficient strategy in and of itself. This game was not an assurance of things to come so much as it was oracular: a vision of the greatest charge ever mustered by the franchise, forthcoming 140 days thereafter.

December 8, 2013 – Battle of Dyrrhachium

The ascendancy of Rome meant that it would eventually have to confront itself, when it ran out of the rest of the known world.  The civil war that destroyed history’s most heralded republic was instigated by a proto-fascist called Caesar, and opposed by a bunch of Senators who, sadly, manifested that most hateful of trifectas: old, rich, and conservative; a bunch of Howard Schultzes sequestered in an opulent room, bitterly complaining about how mean everyone is.

Pete Carroll was no Caesar, but the two shared a kind of irreverence: the conviction that rules can be little more than yet another impediment, things to be broken down in the course of giving the world a gentle but firm shaking. No doubt Caesar would have applauded Carroll’s certainty that you can’t win in the first quarter. Yet some things no amount of cunning or irreverence can overcome.

Outside of Dyrrhachium, Caesar and Pompey each sent their legions to battle, identical except in numbers; the latter had more than the former, and that differential would prove to be insurmountable. Kind of like asking your offense to drive around 50 yards in under 10 seconds. Sometimes, most times, it just doesn’t work out that way, can’t work out that way. Football is like battle in that the governing principle of both is chaos, a galactic disrespect for any and all manner of planning and scheming.  And yet …

Bonus Content: January 19, 2014 – Everything Else Afterwards

After Dyrrhachium, Pompey was so convinced that Caesar was luring his forces into a trap that he stopped short, allowed Caesar to flee and regroup.  It was perhaps one of the most fateful tactical blunders in the whole long entirety of military history.

Knowing what matters is the most important thing. Pompey lost the war, and later his head! (jk he was stabbed to death.) Democracy wasn’t quite to Caesar’s liking, so he did away with it. Pete Carroll lost a game in San Francisco, but then won The Game. (Super Bowl 48 was a mere afterthought.) Harbaugh wouldn’t last more than another season.