Sunday, December 29, 2013

Seattle slump

Seahawk players and coaches have hewn admirably to the party line, insisting that the team's recent woes do not constitute a crisis.

Most analysts continue to rank Seattle as the league's top team.

In Vegas, we opened the week as 10-point favorites over St. Louis, and have since grown to 12-point favorites.

The fact is that the Seahawks are in a slump, having dropped two of the last three games.

I was not shaken by the loss in San Francisco 3 weeks ago. Seattle nearly beat a potent opponent on the road. The 49ers were fortunate to escape with a win.

However, last week's shattering debacle should have rattled even the most fervent diehard. Puzzling failures on offense and special teams squandered a heroic performance by the defense.

Wasted chances

How do you lose a game when the defense picks off Arizona's quarterback four times? Answer: When an anemic offense fails to capitalize on those turnovers. The payoff for those four picks was four kicks: two punts, one shanked chip shot, and a successful field goal for a grand total of three points. Pathetic.

When the habitually clutch choke...

That failed field goal still rankles. Stephen Hauschka entered the game as the most accurate placekicker in the NFL, having nailed 30 of 31 field goals (97%). He had not missed a field goal from under 40 yards since the 2011 season finale. That inhuman accuracy is testimony to the consistent clutchness of the entire placekicking unit: it takes good blocking, dead-on deep snapping and remarkable dexterity on the part of the holder routinely to create optimal opportunities for the kicker.

In this case, clutchness morphed into putzness as Clint Gresham fired back a high snap. Jon Ryan deftly caught the errant ball and got it on the ground, but his heroics created a split-second delay in his choreography with Hauschka, who choked and shanked the kick, sending the pigskin clanging ominously off the left upright.

We also choked on kick returns. The coaches did not choose running back Robert Turbin to return kickoffs because he is a threat to break a big one and take it to the house; he isn't. Rather, they gave him the job due solely to his knack for ball security. Before last Sunday, Turbo had never fumbled even once in his 2-year NFL career over the course of 182 touches (150 rushes, 27 receptions, 5 kick returns). However, at home against the Cardinals last week, Turbo chose to choke by carrying the ball loosely and fumbling not once, but twice. An Arizona penalty erased his first fumble, but his second giveaway stood, leading to Turbin's abrupt termination as kick returner.

 Everyone chokes sometimes, even the clutchest players. Normally, a good team can overcome a few isolated chokes. However, on the same day that our clutchest special teams player choked, many of the team's clutchest offensive players also choked.

Quarterback Russell Wilson, one of the league's most accurate passers, choked by missing several open receivers.

Our wide receivers choked by not getting open.

Doug Baldwin entered the game as the NFL's most reliable wideouts, with a 2013 catch rate of 74% (i.e., 49 receptions in 66 targets). Uncharacteristically, he choked against Arizona, catching only only one pass in 6 targets (17%) against Arizona. Baldwin earned partial redemption through two nice kickoff returns in relief of Turbo.

The offensive line choked, struggling with run blocking and failing to protect Wilson from a tough Cardinals pass rush.

When coaches fail

Our offensive coaches failed by...

1) Failing to exploit Arizona's notorious inability to stop tight ends. Zach Miller was one of the top receiving tight ends in the league before he came to Seattle. Unfortunately for him, he's also a capable blocker. The Seahawks tend to relegate him to blocking duties and deny him opportunities to catch the ball. Although on the field for 48 snaps, he grabbed only one reception on three targets. Backup tight ends Luke Willson and Kellen Davis combined for 17 snaps and one reception on one target.

2) Failing to use our fullbacks. We fielded a fullback on only 6 of our 52 offensive snaps. The team has two good blocking backs in Michael Robinson and Derrick Coleman. Fullbacks open holes for running backs, protect the quarterback on passing downs, and can catch the ball out of the backfield.

3) Failing to throw the ball to Marshawn Lynch. Beast Mode has emerged as a capable receiver this year. Using running backs as outlet receivers is a great way to punish overeager pass rushers and counter smothering coverage of your wideouts.

4) Failing to use Christine Michael. He is rarely active on game days, but he was active last week, and the kid can run the ball when given the chance. Before the season began, I dreamt of a relentless rotation of big running backs with fresh legs wearing down opposing defenses: Beast Mode, Turbo, Michael, Beast Mode, Turbo, Michael, etc. Given Turbo's problems with ball security, I understand why he was limited to one offensive snap, but failing to use Michael was incomprehensible.

5) Sticking to a game plan that wasn't working. From the beginning of the game, Seattle came out in three receiver sets, presumably trying to exploit something we saw in the Arizona defense. But our receivers couldn't get open against a deep and talented Cardinals secondary. Still, the Seahawks stubbornly stuck to that game plan throughout the contest. When it became clear that wasn't working, why not try something else? Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." The collective offensive failure gave Arizona almost a 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession. When an offense loses time of possession that badly, even the world's best football defense gets worn down.

Catastrophic officiating

Even with all of the choking and the bad coaching, Seattle could have won the game if the referees had ruled properly.

I do not mean the Rashard Mendenhall fumble that the officials refused to recognize. Their refusal was understandable, given the technological limitations currently in place. From one view, you could see the ball coming loose but not whether his knee had yet touched down. From the other vantage, you could see his knee touching down, but not where the ball was at the time. A simple technological fix could resolve the matter: If the footage were accompanied by a running clock showing minutes, seconds and tenths of seconds, then the clock could help the officials establish the relative timing of the two events.

No, I mean the absurd ruling that ended Seattle's final drive of the game. With more than two minutes remaining, I had every faith that DangeRuss would rise to the occasion, and the Seahawks would drive down the field and score a touchdown to tie the game and send the contest into overtime. Unfortunately, when a ball intended for Baldwin bounced off the turf and into the arms of a Cardinals defensive back, the referees chose to call that an interception. Perhaps the officials thought they were officiating a 19th-century baseball game, where a one-hop catch put the batter out. The replay clearly showed a cloud of Field Turf fragments erupting from the spot where the ball hit the ground, but apparently that wasn't indisputable visual evidence for the learned referees. Nor did the officials possess the rudimentary knowledge of physics to tell them that the ball's lively bounce was explicable only if it had rebounded from the turf. If the ball had bounced off of Baldwin's arm, as they claimed, it would have hardly bounced at all. I can't believe I managed to finish that paragraph without resort to multiple expletives.

All in all, last week's game was an exceedingly improbable perfect storm of chokage by athletes, coaches and officials. It takes a village to orchestrate a home loss for the Seahawks.

The cost of failure

Let us count the costs imposed by last week's defeat:

1) Seattle could forfeit pole position in the postseason. The Seahawks can still win the division and secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs by beating St. Louis today. However, if we lose and San Francisco beats the Cardinals in Arizona, then the 49ers win the division and Seattle would drop to the #5 seed as a wild card team.

2) Now people think they can win in Seahawks Stadium. For nearly two years, we built the myth that with the 12th Man behind them, Seattle was invincible. That reputation is now shot. Our home field advantage just became a lot less advantageous. The probability of a road win in Seattle for any visitor just grew from impossible to merely difficult. It will take many months to rebuild the mystique.

3) Russell Wilson will not be the league MVP. Probably nothing could have stopped Peyton Manning from receiving his fifth recognition as the league's most valuable player. This is unfortunate, because Manning doesn't deserve it this year. Yes, his record-setting performance caps a heroic comeback from a devastating injury, but that team was built around him. Any decent quarterback would thrive behind that line with that all-star cast of receivers. But no other quarterback in the world could have done what DangeRuss did in Seattle this year, leading his team to 11 victories while running for his life behind an injury-wracked offensive line and an injury-depleted receiving corps. People were starting to notice, but that one bad game took Wilson out of MVP contention.

4) Seattle keeps getting outcoached on offense. When offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is in a playcalling groove, and when DangeRuss is executing like Robespierre during the Reign of Terror, Seattle's offense has appeared unstoppable. While opposing defenses could load the box to limit Beast Mode, they couldn't seem to figure out how to contain Wilson in the pocket, and seemed perpetually astonished by his ability to defeat the blitz and find open receivers. However, twice this month--in San Francisco and against Arizona last week--it looked like defenses had figured out our offense. Under pressure, yet unable to escape the pocket, our quarterback often could not find open receivers. Sometimes, it seemed that defenders knew where Wilson was going to throw the ball before he or his receivers did. Our opponents will follow this formula until the Seahawks find a way to defeat it.

Silver linings

Even in defeat, Seattle keeps it close. If we lose, we lose narrowly. The Seahawks haven't lost a game by more than a 7-point margin since November 6, 2011 in Dallas.

Seattle tends to rally after losses. The last time Seattle lost two consecutive games was in October 2012, and those were road games in San Francisco and Detroit. The last time the Seahawks lost two home games in a row was in October 2011 (to Atlanta and Cincinnati, splitting two road games in between). The last time Seattle lost two back-to-back home games was in November 2008, the season of Mike Holmgren's dirgelike swan song.
The Seahawks have owned the Rams, winning 16 of the last 18 contests against St. Louis. Unfortunately, Jeff Fisher is a great coach presiding over a very talented roster. We barely beat the Rams earlier this year. St. Louis sacked Wilson seven times and took Lynch down from Beast Mode to Kitten Mode, holding him to 23 yards and the team as a whole to merely 44 yards on the ground.

It should be a good game, but I'm praying for a cathartic beatdown to put the league on notice and restore some of the lost luster to Seahawks Stadium and the 12th Man.

Go, Hawks!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Stray musings of a delinquent blogger

The team element is my favorite aspect of sports. Golden Tate chopping down a pressing cornerback to clear the perimeter for a run by Marshawn Lynch. Reserve defensive back Jeremy Lane blocking downfield to clear the path to the end zone for a teammate's pick six.

Richard Sherman blamed poor officiating for our narrow loss to the 49ers. There were a few maddeningly inconsistent calls, and those can make the difference in a tight game. However, when your primary strategy in pass defense is to get more physical than the rules allow and dare the refs to flag it, you have few grounds for complaint when the officials call your bluff. Every ref and every crew calls the game a little differently. Coaches and players need to adapt to those differences.

If I were Eli Manning and I already led the league in interceptions, I would not dare to challenge The Shermanator. The Giants QB completed as many passes to Sherman as he did against him. His coaches were cruel to keep him in the game long enough to throw five interceptions. He looked utterly lost and broken by the second pick.

The Cardinals are hot. This Sunday should be a good dress rehearsal for a home playoff game.

The other 12th Man

December 6, 2013

I am of course eager to blog about Monday's glorious decanonization of the Saints and Sunday's showdown in San Fran, but I have to get something else off my chest, first.

Mike Tomlin is a cheater. I don't normally blog on non-Seahawk matters, but it's sickening how many NFL coaches, players and analysts are claiming that the Steelers head coach made an innocent mistake on Thanksgiving when he trespassed on the playing field and impeded the progress of Ravens returner Jacoby Jones.

If you watch the entire play from the end zone view behind Jones, you can see that Tomlin started the play off the field on the sidelines behind the white buffer reserved for the officials, with his back to the play, watching the action on the stadium JumboTron. After Baltimore's return team set up its blocks and opened a clear path for Jones up the Steelers' sideline, Tomlin crossed the white strip and planted a foot on the field of play, thus becoming Pittsburgh's literal 12th Man, the only Steeler on the field between the returner and the end zone. Jones veered slightly to avoid the coach, which helped one of Pittsburgh's legal players to overtake and tackle him. Tomlin's illegal act robbed the Ravens of yards and possibly points. (The drive ended with a Baltimore field goal.)

Throughout the action, Tomlin kept his back to the play and his eyes on the big screen to disguise his cheating as an innocent error.

This is preposterous. JumboTrons are HUGE and are mounted high. Nothing impeded Tomlin's view of the screen from his starting position. Thus, there was no need for him to move onto the field, except to cheat. Like any highly capable coach, Tomlin is totally focused and in his element on the sideline. At all times, he knows exactly where he is and what he's doing during games. He cheated. On purpose. We need to dispense with disingenuous politeness and frankly acknowledge the problem of cheating in sports.

Sports should be where adults and kids learn to compete within the rules, not a place where cheating is modeled and taught and rewarded.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Bad bye

Seattle has seemed bulletproof so far this year.
Reshuffled linebackers? No problem: the younglings can play.

Extreme attrition on the O-Line? No problem: Beast Mode can run through people, and when his escape artistry fails, DangeRuss can absorb surprising doses of punishment

Losing our #1 wideout to injury? No problem. Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse can take up the slack.

Pulled groin for our #2 cornerback? No problem; Walter Thurmond may be better, anyway.

Despite all of that adversity, the Seahawks entered the bye at 10-1, with the best record in the NFL.

We were flying so high into the bye that I knew--knew--something would go wrong. I felt this foreboding in the Calvinist marrow of my Scottish bones, sensed the Ragnarokian doom in the dread-drenched depths of my Scandinavian soul, and recognized from a lifetime of learning, the seeds of Greek tragedy and the trials of Job.

It's hard to screw up a bye, but the Seahawks managed the feat.

A week of rest should restore the bodies and souls of our gridiron gladiators, but Percy Harvin's hip has grown worse, not better. Did we trade a first-round pick for irretrievably damaged goods?

Worse, the NFL busted Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond for smoking weed, two key members left the Legion of Boom for the Legion of Doob.Is this simply a case of stoners loving chronic more than championships, or were they toking ganja to mask their use of other performance-enhancing drugs? Do we have to worry again that Seattle is a dirty program of juiced athletes?

The timing is terrible. Drew Brees is the league's most accurate passer, and a wizard at reading defenses, running through his progressions and putting the ball where only his receiver can catch it. He is not the sort of quarterback you want to face with a discombobulated secondary. Reserve cornerbacks Eric Lane and Byron Maxwell have played capably when thrust into starting roles in the past, but if there are vulnerabilities in the reconstituted (recombobulated?) Legion of Boom, then Brees will expose and exploit them mercilessly.

Can the 12th Man and a fierce pass rush even the odds? Can our punt and kick coverage units hold up with less help from Lane and Maxwell?.Can the recently returned starters on the O-line recover the chemistry that eluded them against Minnesota before the bye? Can Beast Mode chew up the clock to deny New Orleans scoring opportunities? Can DangeRuss best Brees, his midget quarterback mentor? Will Seattle seize home field advantage?

Go, Hawks!