Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Difference Between Opportunistic and Good

Prior to 2010, I read something from Rob Staton that captured the picture of Seattle's 2010 offense before it happened. Something about Seattle's 2010 offseason and how it didn't fit what new OC Jeremy Bates wanted to do on offense. I couldn't find the exact quote, but it went along the lines of: "The new emphasis on the deep ball will be good for the occasional explosive play, but there won't be a consistent scoring threat. You can't build an offense off that."

I've found that to be a fitting description of the Seahawks during Pete Carroll's inaugural year.

Seattle is not a good football team, on either side of the ball. Hasn't been for three years. It wasn't a good team in 2010 when it was gifted a playoff berth by the even-worse NFC West. Many of its greatest accomplishments, while exciting, came through circumstance and poor competition. 2009's abortion of a season got a lot of fans complaining that we never got any "lucky breaks", any favorable bounces of the football. Well, in 2010, those breaks came, and our record improved. But I can't say that statistically, fundamentally, or absolutely, that the 2010 team looked any better than the 2009 team.

Unpleasant as it may be, we have to start our discussion there, because there are deceiving appearances to cut through. The 2010 Seahawks did somehow look more EXCITING. There were bigger plays, long bombs, a few bruising runs, and a smattering of defensive turnovers. It looked like the promise of growth, but it wasn't enough.

Big Play Players

Most Seattle fans know Jordan Babineaux's nickname: "Big Play Babs". The educated fan also knows that he wasn't much of a starting defensive back. He was a great role-player, but great role-players can turn awful when asked to linchpin a defense. That's the nature of the game. Babs will never lose his legacy in Seattle: the Bledsoe interception, the Romo fumble, a few others. But as a starter subbing for injury, his big plays weren't enough.

There are a couple of other familiar names that fall into this category. Think Nate Burleson. His route-running was never good by NFL standards, his production modest for a supposed "playmaker". But he had a knack for staying in the play long enough to bail out Seattle's quarterbacks should they stay upright long enough, and when defenses allowed it, Burleson would produce. Good player, but not really.

Michael Boulware is another. Wonderfully timely turnovers, big hits, close victories attributed to him, yet terrible coverage and constantly giving up the deep ball. A warrior and a liability in the same player. Some of the same qualities can be seen, frustratingly enough, in the otherwise excellent David Hawthorne.


This, to me, is the profile of the 2010 Seahawks. It's the only explanation for the eyebrow-raising breakthroughs that didn't help its record one little bit.

All those deep bombs to Mike Williams and Ben Obomanu were terrific to watch, yet the team couldn't break into the end zone to save its life. It's something like 2009's running game - there were some thrilling big rushes (and Justin Forsett even managed a few against GOOD defenses), but we Seahawks fans know quite well what a real running game looks like. The 2009 version was too feast-or-famine to sustain momentum.

Seattle's defensive ends notched 23 sacks between them. That's pretty good amongst the league's 4-3 defensive lines. Yet the team's pass defense ranked amongst the league's worst. How is that possible with so many sacks? The answer is that defensive ends get their sacks more through opportunity. Some downs and situations favor them, some don't. Defensive tackles, on the other hand, should be bringing more consistent pressure, denting pockets and flushing QB's out of their nice little pockets. None of Seattle's DT's did much of that. Ergo, Seattle's pass rush was entirely of an opportunistic nature, and opposing QB's were able to shrug off the sacks and bounce back the next play, because the threat wouldn't be repeated at all. The sack numbers became irrelevant.

Another iteration of this was Tim Ruskell's "bend-but-don't-break" defense, which unlike Carroll's, was designed that way on purpose. It relied on speedy, instinctive players and heavy zone defense in the hope of producing turnovers. Sounds good in theory. On the field, it amounted to giving up truckloads of big plays while sitting around waiting for the QB to make a mistake. Does that sound like a winning strategy? It did in 2007, when those mistakes happily granted themselves. Then in 2008, when good QB's came along, the illusion evaporated like so much Seattle mist.

(EDIT: Scratch that. Seattle mist doesn't evaporate. Or go away in any fashion. Bad analogy.)

Boom or Bust

So for the last two years, the Seahawks' success has been boom-or-bust. That's akin to owning a car that only starts once a week. Yeah, you can do something on that lucky day, but if you work ten miles away, you need it to start EVERY day. Your goal relies on consistency.

That's how the truly great NFL teams do it. The perennial contenders have disciplined, fundamentally good play from every unit on every series. On defense, it's stifling coverage, constant QB pressure, solid tackling, hawk-eyed awareness, communication, intelligence. It's found in the smaller, unremarkable plays that most fans overlook. That boring one-yard run stuff on 1st and 10 can be just as game-changing as an interception if it happens five times every drive.

On offense, you want a franchise QB who can make any throw, threaten safeties down the middle, beat corners with deep outs, protect the ball with his decisions, read defenses, elude pressure, and make big plays in the face of it. He needs receivers who are able to get separation, fight for contested throws, and stretch the field against faster defenders. Offensive lines and running backs are of slightly less importance than they're assigned these days, but they still have their role to play, most of it predicated upon toughness and physicality.

In other words, your offense needs guys who can repeatedly overcome adversity. You need guys who can answer any challenge they're given, not just pull off the occasional lucky play and then fold the rest of the half. We saw how well that worked against playoff-caliber teams last year: it didn't.

You Twelves know what real football looks like. Shaun Alexander and his O-line were once a threat to break off an eight-yard run on any given play. They had their game down to a science, and opponents had nothing to say about it. Matt Hasselbeck, in 2007, had such rhythm and accuracy to his game, and such chemistry with his receivers, that Mike Holmgren could wave a flag saying "we're just going to pass now" for all the league to see and still get away with it. It wasn't a cobbled-together pastiche of big plays. It was an engine, an ongoing force, a sustained attack.

Since then, however, Seattle has been enjoying success only when dictated to. Turnovers happen, but the offense can't do anything with it. Big plays happen on offense, only to be negated when the drive stalls in the red zone. The exceptions happen mostly against bad teams. It's not consistent, sustainable success; it's opportunistic success.

Opportunistic success is like throwing bricks at an oncoming truck. It's hit-or-miss. Yeah, you dent the truck, and a few lucky shots might go through the windshield and take out the driver. But your odds aren't in favor of success, and the penalty for missing is high.

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense slams a brick wall down in front of the truck and stops it cold. Violently. It's a thing of beauty to watch offenses flail and choke in the grip of that defense. Nothing can be done. All their options, or enough of them to matter, are simply cut off by solid play on every down and in every phase. There's nowhere to go.

Carroll's Response

Is Carroll unaware of all this? I'm happy to say that he doesn't look content with 2010 at all. The acquisition of Sidney Rice, Zach Miller, Robert Gallery, and a more prominent Leon Washington should inject new dynamics into this offense. It looks like an attempt to flood the field with honest-to-God playmakers and reliable production.

The strategy for the defense is more long-term. Success there is largely reliant on a real #1 CB and 3-tech emerging. But that may have to wait until another high draft pick; it often does at those positions. In the meantime, the secondary is now in full-time development mode and plays with a ferocious press emphasis that can cut a receiver's game off at its very roots. Seattle's backup LB corps reveals an understanding of the starters' deficiencies, which should eventually get them fixed. The crucial Brandon Mebane is being moved around to more favorable stations.

Carroll's coaching staff is also all about fundamentals. Tom Cable we already know. He'll fix the line. Ken Norton, the linebacking coach, has a reputation as an enforcer and a stickler for good tackling. The drills Carroll has introduced to camp, such as tip drills, have a ring of targeted creativity and usefulness. And at the very least, Carroll has prioritized tools like height and physicality in his players, raising the floor of performance at least a little bit from Ruskell's entirely unremarkable profile.

None of this is to say that big plays don't have their place. They certainly do. Philip Rivers, in his recent dismissal of ESPN's new QBR rating system, said that it's really just all about the turnover battle. That's very provable, and it's something Carroll has repeatedly emphasized. So by all means, get those turnovers. And long runs or passes on offense have a stretching, demoralizing effect on a defense. Only pure West Coast offenses thrive without them, and that system is pretty much extinct at this point. So by all means, throw deep.

It's just that big plays aren't enough to fuel an offense by themselves. You need smaller stuff in between the cracks to keep the other team honest. You need bland seven-yard slants and repetitive four-yard runs. You need good, plain, old-fashioned tackles. You need constant QB pressures that don't actually put them on the ground, because they'll still panic and unsettle a QB mentally. I actually get worried about sacks when they aren't preceded and followed by other almost-sacks. Such isolated sacks could mean that Chris Clemons just got lucky, and won't next time.

You can't build a successful team off pure opportunity and feast-or-famine play.  Only when a team becomes a threat on every series and every down will they become true contenders. We'll know it when it happens. It was only a few short years ago that we were notorious for it. Let's hope the turnaround is quick.


  1. Nicely written article. It was a good read.

  2. Nice article as usual.

    Sometime after the bye I'm hoping the run game gels into the constant threat you allude to. But the run game & short passing game will more likely be a work in progress, heading in the right direction.

  3. I get the impression that any defense Pete is in charge of will make big plays and surrender big plays and make big plays. The very nature of press coverage involves some amount of gambling.
    Some of his NFL loaded rosters at SC gave up huge point totals from time to time.

    Pete preaches a pretty simple game. Don't turn it over on offense, take it away on defense. Stat dudes use a formula where each turnover takes 55 yards off of your offensive stats.

    We are a year or two removed from an offense that is as good as we wish, and I'm not sure we will ever have a Pittsburgh style wall in Seattle. Not with Pete, anyway.

  4. That "simple game" worries me. It sounds as if Pete really does prefer a "game manager" type QB.

  5. A really nice aticle. Very intelligent, very insightful, very entertaining :)

    Keep up the good work.