Saturday, January 14, 2012

Why 2011 Isn't Over for the Seahawks...and Why We Might Cheer for the 49ers

If you're a fan of the Seattle Seahawks, you should be deeply engrossed in this year's playoffs. The 'Hawks themselves may not be in contention anymore, but the contests between the remaining teams have a lot to say about the current state of the NFL and the vision that Pete Carroll has for this team. Even if the Seahawks aren't auditioning for a Lombardi, the model upon which Carroll is building them is.

So the 12th Man should be paying attention.

More specifically, that blueprint is auditioning in the body of teams that share it, like San Francisco and Baltimore. These are teams built around rock-solid defense, smashmouth running games, and a limited quarterback, much like the direction Seattle is heading. There's obviously talent here; the question is how it's deployed, to what goals. And, of course, whether those teams have the ability to stop or out-race the juggernaut passing offenses of the reigning Super Bowl kings: Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady.

In a way, the NFL playoffs is a showdown, not just between teams, but between team-building philosophies.

Mike Sando, in an earlier piece, named the New York Jets as the pinnacle of the everything-but-the-QB model, and indeed the Jets have gone to two AFC championships in previous years. The Ravens show up in the playoffs regularly. The 49ers have remained grounded for years due to their ability to adapt to their struggles at QB, and now that they have their first head coach in seven years who recognizes that Alex Smith is not Peyton Manning and should not be deployed as such (a recognition for which Jim Harbaugh is receiving Coach of the Year accolades, as if nobody else could ever figure out such a thing), San Francisco is a genuine division boss.

So defense and running games can make some noises without overbearing talent at QB. That needs to be recognized, and it's been an adjustment for me. I've become less dogmatic in the last year about what it takes to build a playoffs team.

But I don't care about playoffs team. I care about being a championship team.
So...which model truly produces championship teams?

(Note: anyone who mentions the words "Dilfer" or "Johnson" during this discussion will be shot, tarred and feathered, dragged through the streets, and then forced to watch the Browns game for 28 hours. Ever seen Clockwork Orange? Yeah. Like that. We're talking about trends here, not exceptions.)

Track Records

The Jets' decline this year could be a temporary thing, more related to character issues than anything else. Or it could be a verdict on the everything-but-the-QB strategy, a commentary on the difficulty of sustaining its winning. Once the run game ground to a halt, Mark Sanchez was quickly exposed as the highly inconsistent player he is, and losses started to crop up. (Reality check for Lynch fans: running games aren't known for their longevity right now.)

The Ravens did well in the playoffs last year but ultimately floundered when they reached a certain point that seems all too common in the NFL: the defense and run game were taken out of the equation and Flacco had to win. And he couldn't. It seems an all too common story with that team, and Flacco is exiting his grace period with the fans. When are they going to take the next step?

The 49ers are being crowned right and left, but couldn't we wait and see if they can survive in the playoffs before we commit our teams' future to the model they're built on? They haven't even started a playoff game yet.

The Falcons, another team Carroll has quoted as his guidepost, aren't going anywhere so far.

If you're looking for a truly complete team, the Steelers seem to closely resemble Carroll's watermark. But their quarterback is a much bigger component of the team's contention than many people give them credit for.

Backing Up or Shoring Up?

The thing I've observed with teams whose quarterbacks rely on surrounding talent to succeed, is that such a setup is more fragile than you'd think. Nobody likes the "eggs in one basket" approach - a team build around the abilities of one player, the quarterback - and advocates a uniformly strong roster to avoid it. Makes sense on the surface.

But when that roster struggles, the limited QB seems awfully quick to follow. It seems sometimes that such a QB needs everything to go right in order to succeed, and when something else breaks down, problems surface quickly. Do limited QB's depend on excellence from some of their surrounding roster, or from all of it? (That is an honest question, by the way, not an intractable belief disguised as a question. I don't have an answer yet.)

And in the modern NFL, you can be sure that things will break down. Age, injury, free agency - they all happen. In many ways, NFL roster construction is a race against attrition. Just look at the 2005 Seahawks, an offense very much reliant on the entire roster (although Matt Hasselbeck's role remains underrated to this day). Everything was clicking as the Seahawks reached XL, everyone was contributing.

Then a wave of attrition hit - not just Hutch, but injury, age-related decline, and it fell apart more quickly than you'd have expected from a team not built around the QB. Matt Hasselbeck was statistically terrible the following year. The Seahawks did experience a taste of being the Colts in 2007 when Hasselbeck peaked as a player and carried the team to the playoffs - and it was all him, as that defense's 2008 collapse retroactively proved. But after that, once he entered his twilight, the only Colts experience Seattle was tasting was the 2011 one.

Meanwhile, the 2000's Patriots and Colts got along just fine for years and years on end, despite very much having all their eggs in one basket. Their counterparts from the NFC have arisen now in the Packers and Saints, teams who have reached passing-enabled stratospheres. Their quarterbacks are good enough to be their identity, no matter what anyone says. They elevate mediocre weapons into stars. They allow their defenses to play differently. They take responsibility for dealing with pressure and make some terrible O-lines look awesome (yes, folks, pass protection is a two-way street and David Carr sucked because he sucked too).

Passing the Buck

As for the losers - are they struggling because their QB's aren't supported well enough, or because they're just not good enough to hack it when the game inevitably demands it?

Seattle's got a lot of talent right now, but if you're looking for the perfect roster that demands nothing from its QB, you'll be looking for a long time. Running games will be shucked aside due to circumstance, Brandon Browner will give up a deep pass or two, and there will be times when the only guy who can win the game is the QB. Blame Browner all you want for the Redskins loss, but elite signal-callers have racked up countless wins in such games, overcoming very flawed rosters in the process (see: Peyton Manning).

There's a difference between backing up a QB and shoring up a QB, because close games, third-quarter deficits, and pass-happy playoff opponents are known for taking away shoring elements like the run and the defense. Who's going to find himself on the hot seat then?

It's not like there's no reasonable explanation for this. The pass averages almost twice as much YPA as the run, is protected by numerous and sometimes maddening contact and interference rules (like dual possession to the receiver), and stops the clock when it fails. It's the weapon of choice when time is short, for good reason. The emerging class of dominant QB is a mobile one, skilled at improvising, dissecting minute windows in coverage, and avoiding even interior pass rush with their legs. They just...make things happen. Defense is becoming marginalized.

Any team talented enough at QB to completely build the offense around the pass is thus automatically placed on an greased upward chute. They're placed there by a league hungry for ratings and the epic slow-motion fade-pass touchdowns that solicit them, and by a game whose nature tends to bring the pass to the forefront on third downs, in the fourth quarter, and any time you're trailing. As much as people talk of football as a "team sport", its nature has an under-recognized way of funneling responsibility to the quarterback, and that has to be accounted for.

Dueling Philosophies

In my eyes, the 2011 playoffs season is a huge chapter in this ongoing debate. The 49ers have as good a chance as anyone of stopping the Saints, but how important is defense anymore? Can Brees be stopped, or can he only be out-raced? That's how we beat him a year ago - not with the Beastquake, really, but with the four touchdowns Matt Hasselbeck threw before it. That's a tall order for Alex Smith.

Does winning still have anything to do with being a complete team, or is it just becoming a quarterback duel at the upper levels?

Seahawks fans hope not. Otherwise, it means Seattle ultimately isn't going anywhere without a Brees of their own, and those are hard to find. And so we set about arguing over the importance of the run game and defense, perusing the statistics for clues as to their significance, sometimes even revising history (James Starks was not the spark behind Green Bay's championship run last year, people).

Because such clues would give us hope. They'd mean that Carroll's vision has some real potential. They'd mean defense and running backs are still relevant in a pass-drunk league in which some of the very worst defenses have cruised right to the top of the pile this year.

We need hope for this whole-roster model of Carroll's.

So I'm gonna say it:



*deep breath*

I, for one, would therefore be very happy to see the 49ers beat the Saints.


Yes, they're division rivals. Yes, their coach is a butthead. Yes, I'd hate to see Alex Smith get any kind of "told you so" moment.



If the 49ers can beat the offensive machine that is Drew Brees, if they can find a way to keep every aspect of football relevant - well, then the Seahawks have hope, too.

Because our teams are being constructed the same way. Smashmouth identity, tough defense, strong running game, and a QB who merely answers the calls that come up instead of being the entire show. And is therefore much more easily obtainable.

This isn't about the 49ers. This is about team-building and balances of power in the modern NFL. It might be time for the 12th Man to live vicariously through the 49ers, because if they can prosper in the shark-infested waters of the NFL playoffs, then so can the Seahawks.

So, as much as I hate to say it...




GO 49ERS!!!!

Blehhhhhh...*triple projectile vomit* about taking one for the team.


  1. Great post, Brandon. And with the Niners' win, perhaps there's hope. Of course the shootout in the last three minutes was a little different than Harbaugh drew it up.

    Today's matchup shows the difference between pre-draft assessment, however, and what a team gets in the long run. Alex Smith was a #1 overall, whereas Brees was a top-of-round 2 guy. Now Smith is the limited manager, Brees the star. (At least today the game manager rose to the occasion.)

    Aaron Rodgers was drafted a little lower than Joe Flacco, but Rodgers is the star, Flacco the limited manager. Mark Sanchez was drafted before both by over half a round, but he'd love to be up to Flacco's level.

    Matt Ryan is a #1 overall, but seems a little better than Flacco, very manager-ish. Tom Brady? We all know the story.

    I know the odds, the statistics, listed ad nauseum by smart bloggers, places like here and Seahawks Draft Blog, that you have to pick high to get your guy. (Matthew Stafford and Peyton Manning prove this--just don't think too much about Jamarcus Russell, Tim Couch, or David Carr.) But the frightening thing is that sometimes you have to pick high to get a limited game manager, not to mention a complete bust. It's even worse for the teams that wing up a sixth round pick for QB every third year. (Sort of like what the Seahawks have done since Rick Mirer left town.)

    One side benefit from the Carroll philosophy seems to be to sign these lower-tiered players to modest contracts. That does seem to allow us to try out multiple guys who probably will be game managers, but just might morph into Brees, Brady, Rodgers. If you ink a big prospect to the contract, you're stuck with him for a while. Maybe we draft guys in rounds 2 and 6, and "always compete," and get lucky.

  2. Outstanding write-up as always, but screw the 49ers. My only hope is that their bus crashes on the way to the stadium and Harbaugh somehow spontaneously combusts while he's trying to save Vernon Davis...who is already on fire. I like that the NFC West is relevant nationally, but how in hell can you possibly root for the 49ers.

  3. Always look forward to your input. Thanks again for a great piece.
    One thought that occurs to me is: does it really have to be an either or decision? I suppose we don't have anywhere close to the WR arsenal that the Packers or Saints have, but it does seem that while right now we closely approximate the model of the 9ers, we still are getting pretty strong at that position and seem to be building up all the team (with admittedly the Defense showing the most improvement at this stage). I'm just wondering what you think about a more middle of the road, or perhaps it would be better phrased as a "Balanced" approach somewhere between the two extremes?

  4. In those last three minutes Alex Smith looked like more than a game manager. He was making some very nice throws.

    We might need to revisit our assessment of him, because this might have been his breakout game.

  5. Like it or not he did make some game winning throws when he needed to, a few times this season... WEIRD!!!

  6. I'd have to see some serious consistency of that more-than-a-game-manager performance before changing my opinion of Smith.

  7. Kyle - Rob @ SDB and I are mostly just advocating drafting in the first round, not necessarily the top ten. And I really feel that the overriding question has to be not whether the QB is expensive, but whether he can win. "Failing for cheaper" won't get us anywhere, and a winning QB will validate almost any price tag.

    Anon - Obviously every team wants to be complete in every phase of the game, but that's impossible to do. The crapshoot of the draft creates limitations in some players that lead to other phases being focused on and strengthened. There's trade-offs everywhere.

    Fish - I would like to agree that Smith has "grown up" as a QB as of yesterday, but any SF fan could tell you that that's been the narrative every time he's beaten a team in the fourth quarter. It's never stuck...until now. This year, Smith has pulled out a few fourth-quarter wins and seems much more comfortable. He's validated either himself or the profile of the game manager, one of the two.

  8. Brandon, I'm on board with that; a winning QB does make every other decision look good, in hindsight. And I'm sure Paul Allen doesn't mind spending the money. I just wonder if, because there's such a dropoff after Luck (and I suppose RGIII), that committing to "their guy" may handcuff them to a mediocrity.

    Let's say they get the top guy on their board at 12. That's a message that he's "their guy." That's Jay Cutler/Matt Leinart territory, in terms of draft spot (Christian Ponder too, alas). He will stay on the roster, no matter how he performs.

    What if the Seahawks traded down to 25, or to 35 in round 2, picked up a QB, then picked up another one in round 3 or 4? Given "always compete," the bottom round 1 guy would know he could get cut, given he's gotta beat out Josh Portis and this newcomer to compete with TJack. If he rises to the occasion, great, but the team isn't committed to him unless he at least flashes something in training camp/preseason.

    So I guess I'm seeing a method to Pete's madness in this case. I certainly do know that this team's short list of QBs last year didn't excite me, but am willing to suspend judgment for a bit.

  9. I am reassessing Smith right now. I think for the first time in his life, Smith is a leader at QB. Maybe that happened in the off season, when he acted like the QB for the Niners when he was not even under contract. Whatever happened, you can see the man growing up and finally taking advantage of the tools he has always had and seemingly ignoring the voices he has always heard. He has never been cool under pressure, but he has never had coaching that didn't flinch in the face of pressure either. Until now.

  10. Brandon, great write-up! However, I disagree with the notion that the Ravens and Niners are the models we are specifically building off of where the QB is limited. I think you're unintentionally creating a false caricature of current NFL offenses as either limited QB game-managers or elite QBs that carry it. You're overlooking successful franchises such as the Steelers and more recently the Texans who also have great defense and a heavy run game. But I would hardly call Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Schaub 'game-managers'. Those are guys who have the potential to win you games (admittedly Schaub isn't as proven as Ben in this respect) and can really challenge their opponents secondarys. I suspect these team models are more consistent with what PC & JS have in mind. Just because they're not counting on an elite Aaron Rodgers or a Drew Brees doesn't mean their settling for a game-managing Alex Smith or a Joe Flacco.