The Elephant in the Locker Room: “What Have You Won For Me Lately?”

Hawks-150Yeah, the ‘Hawks are big news. Expectations are high, and everyone’s paying attention… including the national media. But every week it seems like there’s some key issue that’s getting glossed over–some topic that, for one reason or another, is being avoided. It’s the elephant in the locker room, if you will, and gosh darn if I’ll let that ride. Join us on Saturday mornings for a little closer look at our World Champions.

By Greg Wright

Yes, the Seahawks are a .500 ballclub. They’ve played like it, and they have the record to prove it.

The general reaction to the team’s failure to set the league on fire thus far in the 2014 campaign has, gratefully, not been panicky. The stands aren’t chanting for T-Jack (perhaps because we’ve seen that show before), Pete Carroll’s tires aren’t being slashed, and the press isn’t waxing nostalgic for the days of Chuck Knox or Mike Holmgren. That’s good.

But I also think the situation is being overanalyzed.

Yes, we can talk about sack numbers being way down on one side of the ball, and way up on the other.

Yes, we can talk about the downfield passing game being off. (I even did that last week.)

We can talk about injuries (where would you like to start?), a lack of turnovers, rules changes, and even conspiracies (if you’re Earl Thomas I, II, or III).

Or we can just remember a couple of basics.

First, football is a game of inches.

Second, Pete Carroll’s Seahawks aren’t designed to blow teams out (though they do that from time to time). They’re built on a solid ground game, a defense that wears you out, and the ability to take care of the ball. Carroll-Ball wants to keep a game low-scoring and close, and take it over in the fourth quarter. And, more often than not, the difference will turn on one or two big plays at the end of the game.

It’s a strategy that was good enough to win the division at 7-9 in Carroll’s first year–and a home playoff Beast Mode win against New Orleans. (And tell me Lynch’s legendary run wasn’t a question of eleven or so Saints being just an inch or two out of position.)

T-Jack is stripped by Larry Grant in the fourth quarter at the CLink on December 24, 2011. The 49ers recovered to preserve a come from behind 19-17 win. UPI/Jim Bryant

T-Jack is stripped by Larry Grant in the fourth quarter at the CLink on December 24, 2011. The 49ers recovered to preserve a come from behind 19-17 win. UPI/Jim Bryant

The strategy produced another 7-9 season the following year… and a whole ton of frustration watching Tarvaris Jackson and the offense repeatedly fail to capitalize on close games in the fourth quarter. Carroll’s second season made it plain that the strategy only yields winning seasons when you can actually make those fourth-quarter plays… and keep the other team from making them.

Carroll’s third season proved the point precisely. Finishing 11-5, the Hawks had 10 of their games decided by 7 points or less–winning exactly half of them. They didn’t lose a single game by more than 7 points, and their total losing margin was a mere 24 points. You might remember stirring come-from-behind victories like the “Fail Mary” against Green Bay, the “U Mad Bro” win over the Patriots, or the OT thriller in Chicago. The Carroll Way yielded perhaps the most memorable regular season in Seahawks history, a season in which literally every single game was winnable at the end–a season that featured huge come-from-behind playoff games at Washington and Atlanta, ending just seconds shy of an NFC Championship berth.

The close-game trend continued in the Superbowl Season. At 13-3, the Hawks again never lost by more than 7. But to get that record, they had to pull out OT squeakers against the Texans and the Buccaneers. Take away one or two Golden Tate receptions and a goal-line stand, and they’d have also lost two games to St. Louis. They also needed fourth-quarter heroics to open the season at Carolina, and later at home against the Titans. And they needed the “Tip Heard Round the World” to get to the Superbowl.

It’s a game of inches, and wee finger-tip differences have typically favored the Seahawks.

And from that standpoint, the Hawks were just a handful of big plays away from going undefeated in both 2012 and 2013.

Realistically speaking, the Hawks were also just a half-step away from 8-8 both seasons.

Just as realistically, our 3-3 2014 Seahawks have also been just a half-step away from 5-1. If Terrance Williams was just half a step late getting across the field on 3rd and 20, or half a step further toward the sideline. If even one official was half a step to the left or right with a better view of the anonymously-recovered fumble last Sunday.

Yes, it’s very easy to say, “Well, the game was lost much earlier because off shoddy line play, yadda, yadda, yadda…” But the fact is, Earl Thomas has it right, even though he’s wrong. No, the officials aren’t out to get Seattle. But last year, don’t you think a Seattle defensive back would’ve swatted away Romo’s pass, or don’t you think Irvin’s finger would have snagged Romo’s jersey? Last year, don’t you think Seattle would have been awarded the ball at the end of the Rams game? Don’t the Seahawks thrive on “getting a shot at it” at the end, as Thomas put it?

But this year isn’t last year. Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright, and Michael Bennett have been half a step out of position on numerous notable plays. Jerome Kearse has been half a step late to jump balls several times. Wilson and Lynch have been half a step out of position on handoffs more than once.

So we really don’t need a lot of sophisticated positional or strategic analysis at this point in the season. A lot can be explained by simple psychology. When teammates know that they can depend on each other, they can react more instinctively. That gets you into position a tenth of a second sooner, a half-step ahead of the other guy, an inch higher in the air or closer to the opposing QB when it counts.

And psychologically, the Seahawks are just a little off. You can feel it, as well as see it. Off the field, they’re making silly commercials and dealing with privacy issues. Russell’s single this year, instead of in a stable, grounding relationship. On the field, they’re having to deal with being defending champions. Many of them are now highly-paid stars having to earn their fat paychecks instead of hungry young up-and-comers out to prove something. They are playing alongside unfamiliar teammates. The Legion of Boom has become a weekly rotation of The Legion of Whom?

On top of all that, the Seahawks are still not considered an elite team. They’re good enough and notorious enough to have rule changes named after them; but they’re not legendary enough to warrant the benefit of the doubt, as the Patriots, the Steelers, the Packers, and Peyton Manning often seem to be. And I think you know what I’m saying.

Players are affected by psychology. Coaches are affected. Officials on the field are affected. Officials in the replay booths at NFL Central are affected. And fans in the stands are affected. And all you 12s know that what happens with the fans affects what happens on the field.

So the Seahawks aren’t broken. The Carroll system doesn’t need to be fixed. Everyone’s heads just aren’t quite in the right place.

This is just what things look like when the ball bounces the wrong way, and you’re a half-step late getting there.

So yes, the Seahawks are a .500 ballclub. They’ve played like it. And that’s really the way Carroll likes it: keep every game close, and win ’em at the end.

Stay the course, fans. You can bet Carroll will. The Seahawks are still just a half-step away from a Superbowl trip. “We just have to get back to make sure we’re making those plays we used to make,” said Bennett this week. “There’s no excuse. We’ve just got to get there.”

Make that handful of plays, and you’re a genius–or a champion. The Game of Inches becomes a Game of Lynches.

Don’t make those, though, and… well, you’re average.

Welcome to the NFL.

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