Measuring recent playoff exits or the current crop of young players against the championship group of years past misses the excellent squad competing for a Super Bowl this year
I had been intending all offseason to take a look at how the Seattle Seahawks’ pass defense performed in 2016 relative to past years, using adjusted net yards per pass attempt allowed like I did in my first-ever post for Field Gulls. Last year I compared season-long ANY/A differential to combat the narrative that Seattle’s pass coverage had a poor year in 2015 compared to the standards established by the Legion of Boom from 2011-2014.
Unfortunately, the follow up is about what you’d expect: The Seahawks in 2016 were great with Earl Thomas and bad without him, which tells us everything and nothing. Specifically, the overall differential tumbled to within 0.3 yards of league average ending the streak of four straight years with a margin more than a yard per attempt superior to the rest of the league.
Yes you can slice it to show Seattle was good enough with Thomas for 10 games (4.8 ANY/A, a full 1.4 yards better than league average 6.2 in 2016) that it was actually on pace in that segment for its best rate since 2013. And you can even see one alternate ending where the pass defense rather improves on that figure down the stretch, since Michael Bennett was just returning from missing five games after surgery when Thomas went out (the Seahawks allowed 3.7 ANY/A with its full complement of coverage and pressure before Bennett’s swollen knee sidelined him—approaching the ridiculous 3.2 adjusted net yards per pass play from 2013). Like similar studies analyzing the cost of Thomas’s absence, those contrasts are revealing but they’re also picking from smaller and smaller samples.
It’s tempting and even fair in abstract to insist the defense performed as “designed” when at full strength, but the truth was the team’s contingency for losing a key player didn’t meet the group’s standard—which may be a hyper expectation but is part of the intention built into that word design.
Folks still sometimes blame Chris Clemons’s torn ACL for how the 2012 season finished, after all; an injury that helped prompt the front office to go get Cliff Avril and Bennett, and although there was no comparable casualty to Thomas in 2013 part of what made 2013 worth reminiscing over was how exceptionally the defense was stacked. By 2016, the Seahawks’ depth couldn’t bear witness to that fitness.
So I started wondering instead about the purpose of all this continual circulation back to 2013—the comparisons to contemporary teams and any attendant anxiety for Seattle to “return” to its form and even recreate the formula that produced such a championship roster.
On one face that’s obvious and natural. 2013 was the greatest, most successful year in the franchise. Many of the same pieces and planners are in place, so it’s not an outrageous expectation. Plus this is a league where most teams still try to win with passing, so it makes sense to try to have good pass defense. That’s what ANY/A measures—not a shallow ambition to match a historically-great unit, but a signal of how well the defense is stopping the pass today. Same with Kenneth Arthur’s demand to create more takeaways, among other indicators of good play. You can want the team to play well—play better!—without being hung up on the past. You can.
But I saw over the offseason a troubling framework emerging, for example during the free agency period when there was interest in bringing back Russell Okung to stabilize the tackle spot, or even asking what if the Seahawks had paid to keep their original championship line together? And look I’m not dragging those articles. These were fair questions with substantial deliberations; John Gilbert’s piece is a thought experiment, critical analysis of salary cap process—not manic nostalgia—and the answer was that, no, paying a premium for that mediocre line would have been a mistake. Nobody is really proposing the (impossible even if it were desirable) task of putting back together the whole 2013 roster. Yet those same answers speak to a living concern among fans that the only way out of a supposedly closing window for Seattle is somehow through the past. It reminds me of the bittersweet end to Ghanaian writer Kofi Awoonor’s classic novel of exile, This Earth, My Brother: “On this dunghill we will search among the rubble for our talisman of hope.”
Seahawks have drafted at a league-average level (when adjusting for draft position) since 2013 so it’s not like they’ve been great recently
— bvm (@_BVM) April 29, 2017
The reason I say it’s troubling to think this way is because it permits a mindset that not only presumes the Seahawks are in decline but also seems to elevate a certain recipe for success that must be reproduced piece for piece. It’s like the theories that Seattle can’t win without a single dominant running back like Marshawn Lynch, or without a tight end used primarily as a blocker, or what we heard last year about bringing back a derelict Brandon Browner somehow reinstilling a warrior mentality and bully identity for the defense.
The apocatastatic tenor of this discussion comes I suspect because after two straight appearances in Super Bowls fans tended to forget the natural flow from one football season to the next that for 31 teams each year involves a catastrophic but predictable disappointment in between. It’s an experience like how Norm Macdonald once described the Celebrity Jeopardy sketch on Saturday Night Live, as “a rhythm piece, as each disaster was signaled by the sound of a buzzer, and each new category signified more, new, hope.” Instead of fake game show questions, it’s new football autumns, but you get the idea. That pair of championship tilts disrupted the circadian punctuation of the sports calendar, throwing our instinctive resilience to playoff defeats into disarray.
Remember how that Browner-style attitude revival was the theme of the whole 2016 offseason after the divisional round loss to the Carolina Panthers? The radio shows all talked about recreating a brand that was maybe as psychological as physical, which had characterized the superior 2013 squad. A year later and the subject seemed more fixed to the gaps of depth exposed in the intervening season by whatever—injury, salary attrition, organizational misguidance in recent drafts. It’s more technical than teleological. But it still places the Seahawks in a vicious calamity of that process, tortured by the hardship of paying the contracts on the talent that made Seattle so powerful to begin this period.
And the undercurrent is the same: “Remember back in the day…”
The concern about salary cap management is a real issue that could be foreseen before even the Super Bowl run. At some point, we all expected, some of our favorite players would have to get let go or traded. A year ago before week 1 I mentioned how I didn’t want Seattle to become like the New England Patriots. I wanted them to be a dynasty in multiple decades, of course, but I said, “I don’t want the only continuity between championships be coach and quarterback and the colors on the sleeves. I want this whole team to keep winning together.” This was wishful, but what I was getting at was really more about the protraction of time between titles than Belichickian roster strategy.
Indeed, I rather admire Belichick’s advanced approach to flipping peak assets into long-dividend resources (capital and draft picks). It’s cutthroat, but it’s clearly a team-assembly innovation that works in 21st-century pro football. Yet John Schneider and the Seahawks have opted mainly to reenlist the most key players from their successful term—especially on defense: Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, even Jeremy Lane. That’s eight of 11 (current) starters!
This is admirable loyalty, possibly helpful in maintaining the team’s bonds and its famous “culture”. Pus it’s nice for sentimental fans like me. But look, we all celebrate Rosa Parks’s contributions to history and still shouldn’t forget what André 3000 said on “Rosa Parks”: “Baby boy you only funky as your last cut; you focus on the past, your ass will be a has-butt.”
In the case of these contracts, keeping the recipe from 2013 appears like one of Seattle’s greatest limitations against restoring that greatness. Belichick knows. For example, I will always defend Richard Sherman—even his criticism of the team—but a combination of renewed cap freedom with maybe multiple/high draft picks in return made even me ponder during March and April if trading Sherman might have been in fact the best thing for the Seahawks’ future, purely from a salary management standpoint. (The other narrative, the team turmoil jangle, also relies on being too hung up on the past.)
Even so, to say Seattle has stood as still as a painted ship on a painted ocean, or like the Seahawks in 2017 should more accurately be named for another sea-bird, i.e. the Albatrosses, means you’ve been reading too much Coleridge:
Since 2010 SEA has only given 2nd contracts to six draft picks (Kam, ET, Wagz, KJ, Sherm, Russ) https://t.co/hMtJGNUZkt
— Fresh Primp Of Blair (@karatemanchan37) April 26, 2017
Since that tweet, the team also gave an extension to Justin Britt, plus a third contract to Chancellor (deciding several of the team’s looming choices for the future). As a descriptor of total front office behavior it doesn’t either count second deals extended to free agents like Bennett and Avril, undrafted folks like Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, or for instance Athyba Rubin’s second Seahawks contract in 2016. Still, it reminds us Schneider has parted with the likes of Okung, Browner, Golden Tate, Walter Thurmond, James Carpenter, Byron Maxwell, Malcolm Smith, J.R. Sweezy and Bruce Irvin, among many other lesser lumps.
More recently, he got out of the Kearse deal for what NBA general managers would call an expiring contract (and as we know, also cut Rubin). Indeed, the Max Unger trade is probably the most salient example of a Patriots-style choice to move on from a player the team still had use for. The difference is that in Sheldon Richardson and Jimmy Graham Seattle absorbed even bigger cap hits, but Schneider has been adept at collecting plenty of extra draft picks through other means. And it shows that even with the accumulation of superstar contracts, he’s found ways to bring in impactful veteran talent outside of free agency. He’s not Belichick, but he’s still an innovator.
For sure, one of the parts I like best about this Seahawks regime has been how it changes the shape of NFL thinking. Pete Carroll will surely remain faithful to the principles of his schemes and football philosophy, and this might be expressed in the team’s construction as well as its play—signing Eddie Lacy, another misfit pounder moving into his “veteran” phase, looks something like trading for Marshawn Lynch did in 2010—but even this throwback dependence on rushing and valuing defense seems avant-garde in the cyclical climate of pro football.
More interesting to me, though, is how Carroll lets creativity complement those fundamentals. We know how one of Schneider’s other big splashes Percy Harvin didn’t work out, but I liked the move at the time not just for what talent Harvin added but more particularly the way his unique skills could help transform an offense that was already moving in new directions thanks to Russell Wilson’s improvisation and Darrell Bevell’s will to adapt.
I’m likewise hoping the Seahawks bring back Marcel Reece after a week or two chiefly because, even though he’s an old man, as a fullback who can split wide he brings a similar shape-shifting element to the attack. Maybe a healthy C.J. Prosise, or even J.D. McKissic, can contribute the same dynamics. It’s why I was enamored with Tyrone Swoopes. Either way I don’t want or expect Seattle’s offense to look like it did in 2013.
Even the thwarted Browner comeback, to me, was exciting not because of reverence for bygone gulliness but how it promised to update and complicate the defense with optional new packages. Now Kris Richard gets to do that at last with Bradley McDougald. I don’t need to see the same old Legion of Boom from five years ago; I want Seattle to be breaking boundaries with its play on the field. “It’s evolution, right?” South African comedian Kagiso Lediga said in the documentary You’ll laugh but it’s true. “At the end of the day the propeller airplane is always going to be looking at the jet engine going, ‘Motherfucker you’re taking my business away!’”
That leads me to the most controversial aspect of the Seahawks’ departure from their earlier form, the one fans spend most time fretting over. As we addressed at the beginning, Seattle dismantled its offensive line and most people believe the strategy for rebuilding it has been either a mistake or a depressing consequence of those salary constraints. Yes the line has been bad, and I’m sure it is because of the cap limitations. But I don’t agree the experiment has been depressing or a mistake.
Earlier this summer our own Ben B examined over at Grid(Fe) the relationship between quality of offensive line play and overall team efficiency, plotted his results on some nice-looking charts, and concluded that while “offensive line play is very important to team success” it is also true that “teams with elite defenses or QBs have the possibility of being good regardless of o-line play”. This is an important clarification and I think one inference you can apply to the Seahawks is that Carroll and Schneider hope they can simply get away with light investment in blocking thanks to the superiority of Wilson and the talent on defense. However I imagine the implementation of this strategy is more sophisticated than merely balancing strengths.
Carroll searches for ways to compete everywhere; he doesn’t just accept the edges of performance. I bet Carroll calculated that Bevell together with Tom Cable can devise an offense using Wilson’s special abilities and certain other tools (Prosise, et c.) that doesn’t only mitigate the need for a good line in the ordinary fashion—but actually attempts to neutralize the traditional performance of lineman in offensive scheme. In other words, not cover weakness, but convert devalued attributes into strengths similar to how scheme innovations have let defenses grow smaller and faster at the line of scrimmage and bigger on the perimeter.
Maybe I’m just a crazy fan theorist (call it the “Cable Manifesto”) but I expect this plan to cohere into greater success sooner than later. For this reason it’s a double bummer that George Fant is lost in 2017, because cheap players like him turning into studs is crucial to the hypothesis. Seattle’s actual defense, meanwhile, supplies the largesse to let these experiments go wrong in the laboratory without ruining the enterprise in the short term.
I don’t know if such a model of line play will work or catch on more widely, but it may be a high stakes bet that could change the future of football—or really already it anticipates the future of football, as more multitool quarterbacks like Wilson, Cam Newton, Marcus Mariota, Lamar Jackson and so on, emerge in the league. It could be a radical step in the positionless revolution. At very least, such a project would be a clever way to squeeze temporary market inefficiency by going against conventional values. Rather than insisting on playing a more conservative style of football, I wouldn’t want to be standing in the way of innovation.
Of course the NFL adjusting to the Seahawks’ innovations has also led to a stiffer contest for the types of players Seattle found in its famously fruitful drafts from 2010 to 2012. You can see some of that trend illustrated in this “mock draft” ranking all the Seattle picks prior to 2017. Among the first 21 picks out of 66 Bob Condotta and Jayson Jenks selected, only three came since 2013: Tyler Lockett, Frank Clark and Britt.
The next best ones named are Paul Richardson and Germain Ifedi, not exactly the fan community’s favorite pair of prospects. With the likes of Christine Michael and Michael Bowie in the high 30s, it’s clear there’s a steep fall from there. Of later-listed players (Alex Collins, Quinton Jefferson), only Rees Odhiambo looks like any kind of contributor to the 2016 team.
With the departures of Tharold Simon and Michael during 2016, Luke Willson is the only Seahawk remaining from that 2013 draft, and he’s only on a short term contract and not exactly a premier player. It looks like a disastrous draft. Like the 2004 Detroit Pistons who chose Darko Milicic the previous summer instead of Carmelo Anthony, it was a miss you could shrug about in the short term because the team won a title anyway. Also like Seattle, those championship Pistons again reached the finals the next year only to lose in the latest moments—and now it’s fair to wonder if that group missed the chance to turn a single banner into a dynasty by passing on Anthony.
That’s the worry at issue when criticizing the front office for its later draft record. The 2016 draft is also already half gone, together with all of that class’s lauded undrafted players except Tanner McEvoy absent from the current roster. 2014 wasn’t so hot either.
Earlier this summer, Mike Chan supposed that Seattle maybe has not been quick enough to renovate its approach. “Has this Seahawks method become too routine and repetitive with their drafting process? … [Seattle has] committed to the same philosophy for the past seven drafts, with similar results happening year after year.” It’s another worthwhile critique, but again I want to bring up the possibility that the Seahawks haven’t had the same draft success because they have been altering their draft strategy. Maybe not pick-accumulation style, but perhaps they’re trying to adjust to the league’s adjustments again by looking for different things.
Either way, whether they are or need to try new things in the draft, it’s another case that Schneider and Carroll shouldn’t be beholden to the process that worked in the past. No matter whether you want to view it positively or negatively, 2013 is long gone: As Kenneth Arthur wrote last week, only 13 out of 53 Seahawks remain from that Super Bowl win and only seven of them drafted by Seattle in the cherished 2010-2012 classes.
Meanwhile, of 48 picks used from 2013 till now, the Seahawks will rely on 17 of them in 2017. Here are their names:
That list conservatively doesn’t even include Thomas Rawls, McEvoy or Fant (they weren’t draft picks, and Fant won’t play this year), or Tedric Thompson (who looks like he won’t contribute much yet) or Malik McDowell, who may recover someday. It doesn’t even count Jimmy fucking Graham. But I’m sure at least seven of these will be here five years from now.
So let us stop dwelling in 2013 already. The future of the Seahawks is right here.