The thing about time that’s pretty neat is that it changes things. (Time does not in fact change anything; it is the medium in which things are changed, or change. Space is also such a medium, so it’s not unique to time. I was tempted to write spacetime, but alas; for this failure I apologize.)
Last week, a whole lot of Seahawks faithful looked ahead to Week 11 without much confidence. I count myself among them, and submit that we were in sympathetic, if not good, company. But if the thing about time that’s pretty neat has something to do with the fluctuational, then the thing that’s neat about this team has something to do with resilience. The Seahawks’ organizational capacity to rebuild themselves is so easy and strange that it is its own magic. For all of that, though, it is also very human: when looking from the outside in, despair has long seemed to be a defense mechanism, subject to that fatal flaw of impermanence.
The Seahawks came into Thursday Night Football in desperate need of a win. A loss would have moved them perhaps irreparably into second place in their own division, and may have shattered whatever shape to which their old confidence had sunk. But they didn’t lose; but perhaps even more interestingly, they won smartly. Some may say tentatively. Cautiously. And those things may also be true, but this was a team that trusted its own strengths, did not overcomplicate things. And it was perhaps the team’s most dominant victory of the season.
As a demonstration, I’m going to engage in something that makes me hate myself a little bit. But this isn’t purely historical revisionism, it’s a revisionism of variance.
1st Quarter, 2:35 – Damian Lewis has the audacity to be knocked over and, presumably grabbing something as a desperate effort to stay upright, “holds” a Cardinal defender. This was a dumb penalty that shouldn’t have been called; with DK Metcalf being pushed out of bounds at ARI 31, this drive likely would have ended in field goal or TD, so let’s say +3 or 7 Seahawks.
P.S. Incidentally, the very next play was a questionable non-call on a deep pass to Carlos Hyde that, if called, would have set the Seahawks around ARI 34 or 33.)
2nd Quarter, 0:11 – Oh, DK Metcalf. I know, I know, Russell Wilson is a second baseman first, QB second, and loves his fastballs, but you can’t basket-catch a pass aimed at your face. This, if caught, is +4 Seahawks.
3rd Quarter, 13:41 – I can’t quantify how fast Diggs was running, but there only looks to be about two, maybe two and a half yards separating him from Hopkins when the pass sails wide, and then less than a yard when Hopkins turns his head just in time to catch Diggs’ helmet somewhere between his ear and shoulder. I understand that, by technical considerations, this is a penalty, but it’s a very subjective one, and for Diggs to avoid a penalty he would have had to defy at least some laws of physics. This is a 3rd and 11 play, so if no penalty is called, the Cardinals punt. We’ll call that Cardinals -7.
4th Quarter, 2:31 – want to try to explain institutional racism to a casual acquaintance? Explain how QBs like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers get the protection of a yellow flag when a DL so much as sneezes on them, whereas certain, uh, “mobile” QBs never enjoy that equality. Here is an exhibit, somewhere in the hundreds now, of Russell Wilson not being graced with yellow even when a defender smacks him in the face. Of course there’s no guarantee that the Seahawks would have scored a TD if this 3rd and 18 play would have ended in roughing the passer and an automatic first down, but giving the Seahawks three chances to score from 7 yards out … I’d take those odds. So let’s call this ~Seahawks +4.
Now, the thing about variance is that it never is automatic. Even if one of those calls turns out differently, you’re maybe talking about the following possible scores: 31-21, 35-21, 32-21, 28-14, or 32-21. If the Seahawks win the variance game in every one of those calls: 43-14. Even the median Seahawks score rounds to 36. The point isn’t that we should engage in a discourse concerning variance to adduce how dominant the win should have been so much as how dominant the win could have been. It was a close game, and the Seahawks won the game in large part because of a stalwart defensive performance, including the Cardinals’ last drive; but, if some bad calls, or even one bad call, would have been transformed into [a] good call[s], the outcome could have been different. And don’t mistake this for the kind of bemoaning revisionism in which many fans engage when their favorite team simply isn’t as good as it should be; this is a revisionism that imagines equally possible but fairer outcomes. And, here at least, it isn’t meaningless.
There are also some critical takeaways that we should bear in mind when considering what the Seahawks record could or should look like for the remainder of the season. Football is a more random sport than most, but it’s hard to imagine the Seahawks playing to these strengths and losing more than 1 or 2 games from here on out. Indeed, by 538 playoff predictions, if the Seahawks win their remaining games against the bad NFCE teams, they are almost certain to make the playoffs, have a 68% chance of winning the division, and a 42% chance of securing a first round bye. (The fact that the Rams and Cardinals still face each other twice makes it difficult to make any conclusive predictions – if they split that exchange, the Seahawks chance of winning the division and securing a first-round bye increase to 75% and 47%, respectively; even if the Rams sweep the exchange, the Week 16 game at Seattle will be monumentally telling.)
First, let’s acknowledge, by repeating for the thousandth time, to whoever needs to hear it, an audience seemingly as enamoured of listening without understanding as Shahyar from One Thousand and One Nights: the point of Let Russ Cook was never merely to throw more or run less. The point was to take advantage of the existence of an exceptional QB who can do more and better when throwing passes on early downs, when passes are less expected. Each component of that sentence is critical; even when Russ was playing at his best, in 2015, the Seahawks 3rd down conversion rate was a mere 46.5%. Through 11 weeks, the Seahawks lead the league in early down neutral EPA/play, with 0.198; in terms of overall success rate, dropback EPA/play, dropback success rate, rush EPA/play, and rush success rate, they rank 1st (53%), 3rd (0.277), 5th (57.3%), 2nd (0.03), and 4th (44.1%).
Now, there are many people who will want to claim that the Seahawks won because they ran the ball more. But the Seahawks run:pass split on early downs was 20 to 29, very close to a 40% to 60% ratio. Alternatively, some will claim that it wasn’t running more, so much as running better: they certainly seemed to run better, started an ostensibly better RB, and looked to have enjoyed better run blocking than previous weeks. However, both rushing EPA/play (-0.031) and success rate (43.8%) were down from season averages, even if they were improvements, partial or not, over Week 9 and 10 losses, and their Week 8 win. (The Seahawks best rushing performances – Weeks 4, 5, and 7 – does lend some weight to the idea that Carson and Hyde have been more effective rushers, though still as a small sample size.)
Indeed, if there was any pronounced offensive difference between the Seahawks’ Week 11 performance and their season average, it was just better execution – +0.013 in total EPA/play, +4.1% in total success rate, +0.083 in dropback EPA/play, and +8.1% in dropback success rate. And while, yes, the Seahawks 57.14% 3rd down conversion rate was a noticeable improvement over their season average (41.23%), they are still converting 3rd downs better in 2020 than in 2019 (40.18% on the season), and, perhaps more significantly, through 2020 so far the Seahawks have faced the second least third downs (114). This is far more crucial, and what so many of their offensive statistics point to: the Seahawks have been succeeding on offense by avoiding third downs, not by converting them. Requiring Russell Wilson to be a kind of miracle on third downs, an eidactic prayer in the head of Peter Carroll, is exactly what Letting Russ Cook looks to avoid; to the extent the Thursday night victory was a throwback, it was a throwback to the days when luck ruled at the Clink, n/k/a Lumen Field.
Second, let me tell you a sad story, about a man named Ken Norton, Jr. Everyone hated Ken, except for his boss. But it was problematic, because the only thing he could think to do to get other people to stop hating him may have well made his boss start hating him. It was the opposite of a Pyrrhic victory, a Pyrrhic defeat. His defensive line wasn’t getting enough pressure, and his DB play wasn’t good enough to lock down coverage for more than 3 or so seconds. He could blitz more, but then he’d be taking away from his coverage, and risk the thing his boss hated more than all the others.
The moral of the story is that, if you’re Pete Carroll in this situation, you reward your underling with a gift: a shiny, slightly used but still effective, Carlos Dunlap.
I briefly looked into where the idiom falls into place came from, because it would have been nice to begin this bit with some divertive historical anecdote about an odd idiom. No luck.
It’s tempting to think that Carlos Dunlap fixed the Seahawks defense, but the harder truth is that the Seahawks defense didn’t need too much to fix itself. Consider: with Carlos Dunlap as your LEO, you can rotate Mayowa, reduce his snap count while increasing his effectiveness. You also get Rasheem Green back, and between him, Robinson, and Collier you have three (3) effective ends who can attack the run on base downs and reduce inside on passing downs. Obviously, in any four-man rush, the numbers game works against the rushers, but even if you only have two rushers who can beat their opponent, you have the foundation for an effective pass rush. We’ll never know how good the plan was – maybe with a healthy Irvin and Taylor, you don’t need Dunlap, and the pass rush is effective from the beginning – but we can see that the new plan, so far, is working.
Take it back. Between Wagner and Wright, you have two of the most gifted, instinctual LBs in the game. But between them, even on a good day, you only have one LB with the speed to still be good in coverage or an effective blitzer. And so, the Seahawks went out and procured their Bobby Wagner version 2.0, Jordyn Brooks. While it took some time for Brooks to settle into his role, and an early injury didn’t help, the Seahawks defense is set to coast through the remainder of 2020 by making their midfield the Bobby and Jordyn show, leaving KJ free to pounce on the occasional screen, and to enjoy what may sadly be his last year as the oldest tenured Seahawk of them all, a surviving relic from the bygone era of the Legion of Boom.
Take it back, even further. There’s a healthy Jamal Adams, the defense’s Swiss Army knife if a Swiss Army knife had the power of a howitzer, finally healthy for the first time since Week 3, playing both healthy and with Diggs in a full game for just the third time so far this season. We know what these two players strengths are, and the degree to which they complement one another, when both are playing assignment-sound football, unhindered by a hamster-wheel rotation at the CB position. Speaking of which, this was the seventh CB triumvirate, and only the third time the three starting CBs were the same from one week to the next. (The Seahawks have played 0 games through the 2020 season returning the same three starting CBs for three consecutive weeks.) Listen, it’s fine to complain that the Seahawks secondary has been bad, but it’s worth contextualizing: aside from Diggs, the DB with the most playing time has been Flowers (67.60% of defensive snaps), then Quil (56.27%), and then Adams (54.00%); Dunbar (52.93%) is the last player on the better side of 50%, and eight other Seahawks have logged some defensive snaps in the secondary thereafter.
Dunlap no more fixed the Seahawks defense than the final piece fixes a puzzle, but he did seem to make, or coincide with the making of, everything fall into place. And this place is a defense that is 18th in total EPA/play, 22nd in overall success rate, 22nd in dropback EPA/play, 25th in dropback success rate, 10th in rushing EPA/play, 18th in rushing success rate, and the 23rd ranked defense by DVOA. They’re not good, but they are most assuredly not historically bad, as some have claimed with all the finesse and persuasion of a toddler throwing a tantrum. And what showed through the most clearly on Thursday was that this was a defense that knew how to communicate with one another, trusted one another. Continued improvement can and should be expected.
And now the real fun begins. Now, they play four games that they are expected to win handily, when the universe’s karmic blow to the face, if it comes, would be too much, rather than not enough, confidence, a far less pleasant experience. Because fandom, after all, is pain, except for when it isn’t; then, it is glorious.