Pearls of Faux: Deliberately Untitled

Conventional wisdom tells us that there are two ways to be good at football.  The first, of course, is to simply possess so much talent, and to execute so well, that it almost doesn’t matter what the opposing team does.  The Chiefs offense is a good example, particularly when including Andy Reid’s ability to scheme plays in a way that so well complements Patrick Mahomes’ many skills, to an extent that Kansas City’s losses almost feel accidental, the universe shrugging.  The other – an option that is harder, but more seductive, especially in light of the NFL’s obsession with parity – is to excel at doing not what your opponent thinks you will do.  It’s so obvious that it really doesn’t warrant explanation.

For teams that know themselves well enough to abandon the first approach, third downs are dangerous.  Given the simple reality of the game as it presently stands, passing plays are both more likely to succeed and to gain more yards than rushing plays.  Thus, when a team finds itself facing a third down, it is supposed to be either very difficult or easy to succeed; both teams know what’s coming, and suddenly that second path narrows, the proverbial rust belt White Working Class demographic of football.

I submit that it is nothing more complex than this duality that has fueled both fans’ calls to Let Russ Cook and Pete Carroll’s adaptation.  Because even while we acknowledge that Russell Wilson is one of the best quarterbacks in the game right now, the Seahawks have rarely fielded a team with that most perfect alchemy of technical pass protection, wideout skill, and offensive playcalling that makes an offense seem unstoppable.  And yet, in 2020, that seems to have finally changed.  The Seahawks offensive line is tied for 5th best in pass block win rate; the Seahawks have one of the best WR tandems in the game, both with a skillset so complimentary of Wilson’s; and Schotty is dialing up plays that not only seamlessly cohere with Russ’ strengths, but also do wonders to help him identify opposing coverages.  And the last piece to this puzzle, the most elusive, has always been to pass smarter, not just more.  This final point, the endgame, must, in fact, be confusion: by calling upon Russell Wilson to throw unpredictably, the Seahawks finally don’t need him to be perfect.

Which is good, and which is why the Seahawks offense is so much better in 2020.  Consider: on first and second downs, the Seahawks rank 3rd in the league with a dropback EPA/play of 0.307, and 5th with a dropback success rate of 55.8%.  However, on third downs, those metrics drop precipitously, to 25th by EPA/play (-0.136, a differential of +0.443, which is two times better than DeShaun Watson’s score) and 20th by success rate (43.2%).  These statistics reflect a broad but obvious truth: Russell Wilson is better at getting say 8 to 12 yards on a passing down when he has two or three chances to succeed than when he has one.  And last Sunday was actually no different: on neutral downs, Russell Wilson threw 24 for 31 (77.4% completion rate) for 354 yards (11.4 Y/A); if you include the three sacks, his completion percentage drops just 6%, and his Y/A to 10.  Indeed, the Seahawks neutral down 0.473 dropback EPA/play was even better than their season total, and their third down -0.969 EPA/play was better than only the Lions.

Of course, there is a shape to the causality of this logic, and it is a spiral.  By dropback EPA/play, the Seahawks defense ranks 28th (0.245), and 29th by dropback success rate (54.3%).  Yet, on third downs alone, those rankings somehow drop even further, to 31st by EPA/play (0.424) and 30th by success rate (54.3%).  While it doesn’t make perfect sense to extrapolate too much from these declines, it’s worth wondering if a fundamental problem of our beloved 2020 Seahawks is that they are just terrible both: at executing when the opponent expects them to do a thing, which would be fine if not ideal; and at stopping their opponents from executing when they know what that opponent will do, which when combined with the former, is bleak news.

But out of bleakness comes hope.  Sometime in the second millennium of the ancient world, not the common era but the pre-common era, Zarathustra emerged from the vast Iranian Plateau, with a missive of enlightenment.  What we now call Zoroastrianism, among the oldest religions still in practice, has at its heart both duality and freedom.  It speaks of the struggle between the ahuras and the daevas, and of the competing and balancing forces asha and druj that originate in them.  Yet it also speaks, perhaps most significantly, of humankind’s free will to choose which of those orders of beings we worship, to elect that force to which we thus commend ourselves, to be free of the enormities of prior religions’ gods, whose greatness is so much more vast than we are, to such a degree that freedom becomes itself an alien concept.

From Zarathustra’s lips to our ears.  You’ll forgive me, I hope, for being snide.  As I wrote in the secret lost chapter of Pearls of Faux (Editor’s Note: Whoops), blame is the grittier underbelly of causality, tinged by grief or wrath.  And Z has rewarded us with another duality: what to blame.  Because we must blame something, right?  We can’t let a thing be what it is.  Blame must be targeted.  Blame that disperses to all of its applicable targets dissipates, loses its edge, empties.  We can’t have an equitable pantheon; atop that divine hierarchy is the final subject of our blame.

The counter-message isn’t one of hope, so much as exhaustion.  What you blame says more about you than something else.

So who wins your blame game?  Is it Russell Wilson?  It’s tempting; he threw a couple of interceptions, lost two fumbles on sacks, living in apostasy of Pete Carroll’s greatest cardinalities (he didn’t protect the ball).  But again, each of those brutalities was an instance of forcing the Seahawks into a difficult situation, situations in which they’ve been weirdly bad this year.  And turnovers are, of course, random, a product just as much of luck as anything else, a fact, as to the former at least, discoverable through QB Data Mine’s helpful reminder that the difference between the luckiest QB (Wentz, with a Luck Index of 23.1%) and the least lucky QB (Mayfield, with a Luck Index of 70%) is 8 interceptions, more than any DB has snagged so far.  (For whatever it’s worth, Wilson is the 5th best QB in the game so far, with an Interceptable Pass Rate of just 2.4%, and is tied for 4th lowest among starting QBs with 14 Interceptable passes.)

Or will you blame the defense?  More than just tempting, this one seems obvious – they allowed more points than any Seahawks team coached by Carroll, and through the season have allowed 243 points, more than any team other than: teams they have already beat, one team they are likely to beat in the future, and the Jaguars.  That said, 13 of those points came on three turnovers after which the Bills gained a total of 28 yards, and a 34-31 Seahawks victory would have us all … actually we’d probably still be fighting about the same thing, but with less despair.

When considering the Seahawks deplorable pass defense so far through 2020, a thing on which we should all agree: in any Pete Carroll defensive scheme, communication is key.  We know this.  We ought to be able to recall, vividly, Richard Sherman wanting to bust open Kelcie McCray’s head.  Continuity on the offensive line, so long viewed as a promised land, really should be substituted for continuity in the secondary, something that the stalwarts of the old Legion of Boom never had to question.  It bears repeating, and will continue to bear repeating, that Pete Carroll and Ken Norton have been able to rely on their intended starting secondary for precisely 5 of the 32 quarters they have played so far, or just over 15%.  And while that would be more acceptable if the Seahawks were able to field a stable roster of backups, not even that is true!  Setting aside Blair, who played well in what may have been Seattle’s best defensive performance in Week 1 (considering the talent of the opponent), the 2020 heirs apparent to our old Legion have missed 10 games in total (2 for Griffin, Dunbar, and Amadi, plus 4 for Adams), 10+ if you count Diggs’ ejection in Week 2.  This could be excused to some degree if it were isolated to a single unit, but it isn’t!  Both of the Seahawks early plans for SAM were derailed by injury, with Irvin managing 78% and 75% of defensive snaps before his season-ending injury, and Brooks playing decently in limited snaps for the first three weeks before enduring his own three-week injury.  Injury has also hampered the defensive line to some degree, but not sufficiently that it could or should outweigh the culmination of nearly four years of poor rostering decisions.

All of these somethings must count for something.  How much is a subjective answer that I won’t attempt to make; far be it for me to tell you who or how much to blame.  If you’re mad that the Seahawks lost and just want to blame something, you do you.  Pete Carroll bungled the gameplan by assuming that the very pass-happy team would run the ball when seven solid weeks’ worth of evidence showed that passing was the best most obvious easiest way to attack the Seahawks defense.  Ken Norton still doesn’t trust any four-man rush, and blitzes accordingly; the approach backfires monumentally at times.  Even Schotty’s playcalling was suspect at times in this game, a thing I didn’t expect to type unironically, ever.  The offense, collectively or some part of it, failed to diagnose and react to blitzing in surprising ways.

All of these things are true, but also, more importantly, interrelated.  Understanding that these things are all responsible for that thrashing is meaningful, if the opposite of consoling.  But these past five seasons have been an exercise in this opposite of consoling, as we’ve watched the slow decline of that manic, furious style of play that was so delightfully violent.  It started in 2015, not with any one loss, but with several of them, agonizing losses that the Seahawks simply couldn’t stop from happening, a wearing down testament to the onset of that reversal.  In 2016, it was the Packers, a 28-point blowout that almost ruined holidays.  In 2017, it was the Rams, a 35-point catastrophe that begged Pete Carroll to understand that his defense was too old, too slow, even as it ripped at his heart.  In 2018, it was to themselves, an 0-2 season opening that left the team convinced they couldn’t do what they wanted to.  In 2019, it was the Ravens, a team so alike the 2012 Seahawks that it almost seemed like they were beating themselves, again.  And now it’s 2020, when everyone is losing.  But hey, at least they scored 34 points this time.