The Elephant in the Locker Room: A Visit With the Ghosts of Playoffs Past and Present
(Or, A Seahawks Carroll, with Apologies to Charles Dickens)
By Greg Wright
The Seahawks are not dead, to begin with.
While we all may be grossly disappointed that it’s Atlanta representing the NFC in tomorrow’s NFL extravaganza, I suppose we can take solace that
a.) Ex-Seahawk Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn coaches Atlanta, so we are represented, in a way;
b.) We lost to Atlanta, so we could still argue that we were this close to making it back to the big show;
c.) Three out the last four Super Bowls have featured at least one Bennett brother;
d.) The Seahawks have won at least one playoff game each of their last six trips to the playoffs; and
e.) They’ve gone to the playoffs six of the last seven years.
So even the Ghosts of Playoffs Past look pretty good when you compare the track records of most other NFL franchises.
No, Pete Carroll’s Hawks are not dead yet, not by a long shot. And there’s plenty of reason to believe that the Ghost of Playoffs Future will not be ghastly, either.
Yet there is the matter of the Ghost of Playoffs Present to deal with as I conclude my columns for this season, and I’m afraid that’s going to feel like a bit of Bah, humbug.
First, there is the matter of turnovers. Counting the playoffs, the Hawks finished the season with a turnover margin in negative territory for the first time under Pete Carroll. As I noted in both preseason this year and in my playoff preview, this is one of the most alarming trends to emerge. And I will say it again. “This predictor alone disqualifies the Hawks from contention.”
The problem is not that the Hawks are giving the ball away more than they have in the past. It’s that they’re not taking the ball away as often. Granted, a lot of that has to do with how the ball bounces, and you can’t really control that. But you do also “make your own luck,” and Pete knows that. That’s why the Seahawks focus on creating turnovers during one practice each week. The more times you can force your opponent to put the ball on the ground, the more opportunities you have to recover the ball.
In their championship season, the Hawks took the ball away almost two times more per game than they did this year. Think about that, and consider how differently this season would have turned out with that kind of game-changing impact.
Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, and DeShawn Shead will be keys to turning that trend around next season. Aside from Kam and Earl, who have not lost their touch for creating mayhem, these three account for the lion’s share of the defense’s downfield tackles. In Seattle’s Super Bowl seasons, you may remember the regularity with which Brandon Browner and Byron Maxwell created turnovers with their tackling technique. With reflection, you may also remember that Browner’s and Maxwell’s first instincts were not to get their man to the ground. It was to rip the ball out.
You may also remember that it was right about this time that, in the interests of reducing closed head injuries, the Seahawks started perfecting (and promoting) new tackling techniques… which have been stunningly effective for Wagner and Wright, in particular. But with the number of times those two in particular get close to the ball, now that they have their technique down they would do well to start looking for more opportunities to rip the ball loose. This more than any other factor has the greatest chance of turning around the turnover downturn.
Second, it’s about time that the coaching staff starts practicing what it preaches when it comes to “always compete.”
I’m sure I’m not the only one who noticed the lack of competitive urge at the end of the first half against Atlanta. With 43 seconds to go, Seattle didn’t even try to get in position for a field goal–this despite being down by 9 points, despite the fact that Atlanta would be getting the ball to start the second half, and despite the fact that the Seahawks are perfectly capable of scoring touchdowns with less time on the clock. We know that because we’ve seen them do it.
As the rest of the playoffs ground on, however, any TV viewer could see plenty of evidence that other playoff teams made better use of the final minute of the first half than Pete Carroll and Darrell Bevell did. I’m sure Pete’s players noticed that, too. And that failure to compete at the end of the half sends a message to the team: “They’ve got us on our heels.” Ouch.
No, it’s time to compete. Your playoff life is at stake. It’s not time to retreat. Always compete. Never retreat.
And I suspect this creepingly protectionist mindset in the coaching staff has been behind Richard Sherman’s rants this season. I suspect he’s been thinking, “If we’re gonna lose, let’s lose attacking rather than dropping back into soft zones. We can man-up on these dudes. Let’s compete.”
I’ve noted earlier this season that the defense seems to have rested on its technique and high rankings while steadily slipping in its ability to actually control the tempo of the game. And I think Kam and Richard suspect they could do a better job of coaching than the guy who replaced Dan Quinn.
And I suspect they might be right. That’s what can happen when your stars become elder statesmen.
I think it’s time for Pete to look long and hard at his coaching staff and ask whether there might be coaches outside of Seattle who are better than the coaches inside Seattle. Coaches who can command the respect of headstrong all-pros.
If starting players can be challenged by bringing in outside talent, why can’t “starting” coaches?
As good as Darrell Bevell and Kris Richard demonstrably are, I’ll just bet a little competition might do them good.
Gus Bradley and Kyle Shanahan are already off the market; but there are still free agents out there.
There’s always some key issue that’s getting glossed over. It’s the elephant in the locker room, if you will, and gosh darn if I’ll let that ride. Join us weekly for a little closer look at our NFC West Champions.