Welcome (very belatedly) to our bye week, that sometimes terrifying, sometimes glorious moment lodged somewhere between the months of September and January, when the universe commands us to not talk about the Seahawks. The universe, it must be said, though, ought to know better.
Through six weeks, the Seahawks have a record of 5-0, which they share with just two other teams, one led by a decrepit predator, and also Jadeveon Clowney’s team. (The only other team which had a chance to continue its undefeated record for one more week, doing their best impression of the 2018 Rams, were foiled by a performance in which Aaron Rodgers showed his true Jared Goff colors; you hate to see it.) That said, the Seahawks only have a +34 point differential, which places them behind: NFCW rivals Los Angeles and Arizona; the Floridian retirement home of Tom Brady, as well as the Floridian half-way house of FitzMagic; Andy Reid’s Chiefs, who are so far ahead of the rest of the league offensively that they are in the midst of finally proving that the pass can set up the run; and half of both the AFC North and South, including both other undefeated teams. Moreover, with a win expectation percentile of almost exactly 63%, they are only expected to win 10.081 games. Looking at their remaining schedule, the Seahawks splitting their NFCW games and losing in Buffalo, which seems plausible if not reasonable, would put them very close to this expectation; somehow losing a it-hurts-you-in-your-soul game, in some tragically shocking way, to one of the Eagles, Giants, Jets, or the Unnamed Washington team, would put them (and us) over the edge (though in two very different ways).
But here’s the thing: among the Seattle faithful, whether we know it or not, we’re Kantists (absent the racism). I say this because, like Kant, we can’t help but distinguish between what we see — in Kant’s terms, the phenomenal world — and what we suspect. In Kant’s terms, that’s the transcendent noumenal world, whose existence is proved by our human capacity for what he calls pure reason, in which all things are totally themselves, defined often by Kant as thing-in-itself-ness. In Kant’s view, the two worlds are linked by virtue of the objects of the phenomenal world being mere representations and their counterparts in the noumenal world. However, because of their significant dissimilarity, our ability to comprehend the noumenal world is forever limited and imperfect. In the parlance of football, we know and can see and thus understanding evident, sensible things, like a team’s record, a comparison of the number of points it has scored in each game against the number of points its opponent has also scored in those same games. Things like wins and losses and points scored and points allowed are of the phenomenal world. But the noumenal realm? That’s where football exists unencumbered by things like wins, losses, and points — it is where teams are just good, or not good. And, unlike most fanbases, we know better than to trust the dubiety of such meaningless measures; we scoff at the absurdity of thinking a team is good or not because of how many points or wins it has, and bask in our deeper and more profound recognition that a team’s goodness is, at a certain level of transcendental, a priori even, understanding, unknowable, a total mystery. No, if there is any joy to be had in football, it lies not in rooting for a team that scores points and wins games, but rather in that searching and striving, that infinite but impossible quest to know, knowing all the same that we can’t ever truly know, if a team is actually good.
In recognition of this ineffable truth, the wise sages of Football Outsiders have bequeathed to us DVOA; being true initiates of this highest pinnacle of footballdom, it is thus the altar upon which we pray. With a DVOA score of 24.6%, the Seahawks are the fifth best team with their opponents’ value added, a feat they’ve accomplished on the back of the best offense in the league, itself comprised of the 3rd best pass offense and the 8th best run offense, but at the expense of the 26th ranked defense, where the Seahawks are 9th best against the run but 29th best against the pass.
On the face of it, though, none of this tells us if the Seahawks are actually good; it only tells us that 27 other teams have simply played less well than the Seahawks against their opponents. Obviously, we’ve all watched them win all of their games, and it’s evident they have done so by leaning on the All-Pro arm of Russell Wilson, his fearsome brace of receiving weapons, and an OL that, for perhaps the first team in his career, is good at pass protection. But we’ve also watched three of those five games come down, at least theoretically, to the last play of the game, two of those games requiring Wilson to lead go-ahead scoring drives in the fourth quarter; all in all, it’s sufficient to tell us that, if we can accept Mahomes, Wilson, and Jackson as the three best consensus QBs in the league right now, the seventh best is probably whoever is tossing passes against the Seahawks’ own secondary. If we’re being fair to ourselves, then, we must conclude that the Seahawks are at once both good and not good simultaneously. The real answer, then, must lie somewhere in the depths of how good their opponents truly are.
Oh, to be a hapless fan in Atlanta. The world demands balance, and what it has forced upon Atlanta is an exchange: to be the setting of the best show in the world for being the city of the most luckless football team.
Point Differential: -22, win expectation record 6.8 to 9.2
DVOA: 23rd total, 22nd on offense and 25th on defense
EPA/play tiering: part of a five-team amalgamated mass in the 4th tier, though near the 3rd (slightly above average offense, below average defense)
The struggle in looking at the Falcons is that it is impossible to determine if they are bad or if they just pissed off the wrong deity. While the question of whether the Cowboys are good or not will be taken up later, the Falcons have also lost to the Bears, Packers, and Panthers, which between the three of them comprise at least one and a half good teams. But what truly stands out are the 86 second-half points the Falcons have surrendered between weeks 2 and 6, which catapulted the Cowboys and Bears to stunning, come-from-behind victories in games that the Falcons very well could have, and perhaps even should have, won.
Maybe the trick was firing Dan Quinn?
While the Falcons haven’t moved much in DVOA rankings from their opener, the only notable trend is a downward one in terms of offense. Based on the defensive rankings of their opponents, one would expect improvement, or at least stability, after facing a good Bears defense. With Matt Ryan under center, and still playing efficiently if not accurately, an OL that just misses being in the bottom third in terms of PBWR, and one of the best receiving duos in the NFC, one could be excused from expecting that the Falcons could, more than once, score so many points that it would be an impossible feat for their opponent to score more points.
Whatever the reason, perhaps even the ghost of 2016 that still hasn’t been exorcized, the Falcons remain not a good team.
New England Patriots
Point Differential: -1, win expectation record 7.9 to 8.1
DVOA: 22nd total, 25th on offense and 14th on defense
EPA/play tiering: just barely in the third tier (above average defense, below average offense)
We all wondered which really and truly came first, the Bill Belichick or the Tom Brady. We hoped that 2020 would answer that question. Then, 2020 brought us a global pandemic: Belichick signed Cam Newton but lost two of his best defensive players, and nothing will ever convince me that Belichick convinced his players to defect so that he would have that excuse in his back pocket should anyone remember that question.
Are the Patriots good? Should we feel good about beating them? Probably?
The Patriots beat the Dolphins when the Dolphins were bad, beat the Raiders before the Raiders momentarily became good by beating the Chiefs, lost to the Chiefs without Newton, and then lost to the Broncos with Newton.
Honestly, we will learn nothing from this Patriots team, which is probably just what Belichick wants. He wins again. Too bad he isn’t this good at winning football games.
Let’s pause for a moment to mourn for Dak Prescott’s 2020 season, what was supposed to be a year in which he would prove his worth, and if not prove at least go a long ways towards demonstrating that Jerry Jones is dumb. (Let’s also take a second moment to cast aspersions on everyone who thinks Dak is being unreasonable in his demand to get paid what he believes he deserves in light of the fact that Jerry is worth approximately $8.4 billion, that’s $8,400,000,000, which is just more than 247 times greater than what Dak would like to make per year, and 4,148 times more than what Dak would have made from a full 2020 season.) Because I refuse to spend any amount of time writing or thinking about a back-up QB with hair the color of Bruce Arians’ face, this bit looks only at the first 5 weeks.
Point Differential: -17, win expectation record 7 to 9
DVOA: 16th total, 11th on offense and 26th on defense
EPA/play tiering: in the same five-team amalgamated mass in the 4th tier as the Falcons
The poor Cowboys. Couldn’t make the easiest decision in the world to extend Dak, then got grifted by McCarthy. Drafting Lamb who quite literally fell into their laps to pair with Cooper and Gallup seemed to offer a ray of light. But that light in the proverbial tunnel was from a train, which became a wreck.
Through five weeks, the Cowboys lost to a good Rams team (though really let’s stipulate that any team with good pass protection and McVay scripting plays on offense would be at least good*), cursed the Falcons (for which see above), lost to the Browns (?), and then barely beat the Giants. What’s strange, though, has been the relative stability of the Cowboys through those five weeks. By DVOA, they’ve never been higher than 14th, never lower than 16th, and their offense hasn’t fluctuated beyond the 11th or 12th spot. You’d think that, with a bad defense not helped by a bad secondary and almost no pass rush, a head coach that can’t help but want to run the ball, and a scheme that underutilizes a very good QB with elite upside, they’re trying to go for the 2019 Seahawks strategy. Just goes to show, not everyone can Pete Carroll the way Pete Carrolls.
* Except against Belichick
Imagine, if you will, a world in which the Seahawks most difficult opponent before bye-week was a Miami Dolphins team helmed by Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Point Differential: +47 (!), win expectation record 11.1 to 4.9
DVOA: 11th total, 14th on offense and 15th on defense
EPA/play tiering: remarkably, in the second tier (above average on both sides)
The reason why DVOA elects to factor preseason expectations into its first few weeks of rankings is because it takes at least a few weeks to know if a team is good or not. While football is ultimately a game ruled by chance, on the whole there’s an unyielding logic baked into its crust – that good teams tend to beat bad teams handily, and that better teams tend to beat good teams. With our expectations so burdened by the past, so pleasantly ignorant of the future, we imagined that the Seahawks would enter their bye having faced two or three contenders for their division; how sad that looks now.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is essentially a butterfly trapped in an endless cycle of metamorphosis: every offseason, he returns to his own personal chrysalis, a chamber constructed of others’ powers to forget how good he is, only to return, resplendent, for like 3 weeks. Unfortunately for the professional football teams on which he plays, he is also anarchic, as committed to the redistribution of footballs to all players as any Marxist is to the means of production.
The Dolphins seem to make an annual tradition of losing to the Patriots when it counts, and beating them when it doesn’t, and 2020 was no exception; they then lost to a very good Bills team, destroyed the Jags (with FitzMagic doing his best Russell Wilson impersonation, tossing two of both: incompletions and TDs), obliterated the 49ers in the Matt Breida revenge game*, and crushed the Jets. While DVOA didn’t consider any of their first few games as especially telling, the Dolphins jumped from 26 to 11 from Weeks 4 to 6By the NFL’s own logic, the Dolphins are a good (but not great) team, and as it turns out the Seahawks victory over the Dolphins was perhaps their most impressive victory of the season so far.
* While it’s important to acknowledge that Passer Rating is a pretty consensus bad statistic, it’s also worth pointing out that Jimmy G’s rating in this game was smaller than the number of passes he attempted.
Someone, somewhere should write a Tao of Football; it is a game as overtly dualistic as any other. On every play, two sets of eleven players contend with one another, those in the trenches acting as bulwark or besiegers, wideouts and backs circling one another like aerial duelists, and a few tweeners somewhere in between, variable, mysterious pieces, spies pretending to be ambassadors. But as the game has evolved, the primacy of the quarterback has become conventional wisdom, and all too often the question of whether a team is good can be reduced to the question of whether it’s QB is good. If that were the only question, this whole bit of writing would be pointless, the subject’s query answered in one unequivocal word. But it’s obviously more complicated than that, and that is nowhere more obvious than with Kirk Cousins.
Point Differential: -37, win expectation record 6 to 10
DVOA: 17th total, 20th on offense and 16th on defense
EPA/play tiering: also in the same five-team amalgamated mass in the 4th tier as the Falcons and Cowboys
The Vikings began their season with a loss to the Packers, a loss to what at the time seemed like a Colts team with an unimpeachable defense, a close loss to the undefeated Titans, a victory over the sad Texans, and then a loss to the Falcons?
The way the Vikings play, it’s almost as if they aren’t sure how to answer the question about Cousins either. By both blocking rates, the Vikings rank among the bottom – 26th in pass protection, and 24th in run blocking. Yet by EPA/play, the Vikings are 18th in the league, 16th in dropback EPA and 21st in rushing EPA. They have demonstrated that they can score points, and that Cousins can play well enough in a play action -heavy scheme to win them more games than he loses. And yet watch me turn into an ouroboros as, once again, I describe a team that wants to take the Pete Carroll approach to winning, while neglecting to recall (more significantly in their minds but less significantly in fact) that those coaches aren’t Pete Carroll, and (more significantly in fact / less significantly in their minds) that their QBs aren’t Russell Wilson.
So Are the Seahawks Good?
Yes, of course. But also maybe not. We don’t know. Probably? We can’t ever actually know. Honestly, if you think I ever write anything with clear answers, then that’s on you, not me.
But so many of our expectations are just that: ours. They are fallible and so essentially bound up and confused with relativity. We imagine the Seahawks to be a great team, and thus expect them to obliterate every opponent; but they aren’t a great team, and the evidence of this can be found in every game, in every imperfect victory. And while the formula they’ve relied upon to win is so far inviolate, there’s reason to believe that someone will figure it out and stop it without also turning the ball over with abandon; and there’s reason to suspect that Pete Carroll may want to get off this roller-coaster at some point, hop on a more child-friendly ride. By all accounts, this will probably happen say around four or five times, if not completely, then at least sufficiently.
As always, there’s another hand, smacking you upside your head: if we can’t truly know how good the Seahawks are, then we can’t truly know how good any teams are. No one will correctly predict how a team will fare from Week 1, because no one is that oracular; a team converges on its final record, and rarely controls many of the components that serve as the guardrails of that convergence.
What we do know is that they have played five games against teams that may be good, and won them all. We know that winning is fun. Beyond that, most else is moot.