The Seahawks went into the weekend as an impressive, hot team kinda-sorta needing a win but not really, and came out with a statement win and a legitimate claim for best team in the NFL.
Supposed to is an odd term, in every day life but in sports in particular. A lot of things happen that aren't supposed to, a lot of things don't happen that are supposed to. The unbeaten Patriots were supposed to roll over the Giants to complete their historic perfect season. The reigning Superbowl champion Saints were supposed to beat the "pretender" Seahawks in the wildcard. The world was supposed to end 12/21/2012.
The 2012 Seahawks weren't supposed to be this good.
This was the fourth in a series of emphatic Seahawks wins. I haven't written for Field Gulls since the Dolphins loss, when you loyal Field Gulls readers actually needed cheering up (crazy to think on that now), and then came a series of wins each more shocking than the last. I had some footnotes after the preceding ones but those have been steadily evaporated. The Bears win showed this team can win difficult games on the road. The Arizona win showed this team can destroy bad teams like great teams do. The Buffalo win showed the defense is still fine even while first half yardage numbers looked bad. The 49ers win rounded it all out and put an exclamation point on a month-long statement that reads "the Seahawks are an elite team!"
That's weird! They're not supposed to be! What about starting a rookie 3rd round pick? What about the unbalanced, easily out-schemed defense? What about the conservative offensive playcalling? What about the dearth of receiving talent? What about cornerback depth? What about playing worse on the road? What about allowing 3rd down conversions? But but but but....
Well, forget about all that. One concern after another has been proven invalid or fixed. Not to say this is a flawless team, no team in the NFL is, nor is it "best" at every single facet of the game, but it may well be the most well-rounded teams in the league, lacking obvious holes and flaws.
Following this weekend, the Seahawks are #1 in the NFL by DVOA, my go-to advanced team stat that has been trying to tell me "hey wake up man, this team is elite" for weeks now. I apologize for not listening to you, DVOA. Not only that, but it seems likely the team will be top-5 in offense, defense and special team DVOA, something no other team in the NFL comes even close to.
Here's an interesting point: when the 49ers kicked their first field goal, they broke a 100 points unanswered streak for the Seahawks playing at home, going back to hosting the Jets. The has not been done since the 1991 Washington Redskins. Coincidentally, those same 14-2 Redskins are the highest-ranked DVOA team measured (FBO measurements go back to that year), and went on to win Super Bowl XXVI. For more similarities, these Seahawks are the first since those Redskins to have a weighted DVOA over 50% after week 16, weighted being adjust for recent play, so more of a snapshot of how well a team is playing right now. Oh, also, the 150 point total over three weeks are the 3rd-highest total in NFL history.
Win against the Rams next week, and the Seahawks end the season 11-5, likely second in the NFC West. This would be the first time in franchise history a Seahawks team goes 11-5, and in record it'd rank the team right behind two of the best in franchise history: the 13-3 2005 team and 12-4 1984 team. I...I'm not sure this team isn't actually better than those. 1984 is before my time (I was born that year, so I didn't watch too much football, and all my notes were in crayon). I loved the 2005 team, but let's be honest, they had a bit of a cakewalk for a schedule. By DVOA, their schedule was 32nd in the league. That's right, dead last, playing in the horrible NFC Worst. Prior to this week, this Seahawks team faced the 6th-most difficult schedule in the NFL by DVOA, playing in the terrifying NFC Best. I honestly don't know which team I'd say is better. Right now, my heart would probably say this one.
I like our CB depth, and how it reflects on the scheme. Us fans tend to misunderstand the nature of depth in the NFL. Depth as a rule doesn't come in to make plays, and it's a blessing if they do, and a call to perhaps make a change in your depth chart (such as Sherman for Trufant). In the modern NFL, your 3rd CB is a de facto half+ starter, and should play as oen. But once you dig further into your depth, what you should be looking for is a simple "does he not hurt us?" We're four deep at the cornerback spot, after losing Browner, Trufant and Thurmond. Rookie Jeremy Lane started (55 snaps) opposite Richard Sherman (44 snaps), with Byron Maxwell the third corner (31 snaps) knocking Lane inside on nickel looks. Neither are really hurting the team.
Does that mean they're "as good" as the starters? That they're not getting beat? No, but it'd be stupid to expect that. But they look like they belong, they're not hurting the team. I really liked the pick of Jeremy Lane, probably more than I liked the Sherman/Maxwell picks a year ago (I might have undersold Sherman, but who didn't), and I think he might be a starter for us somewhere down the line. But right now, all you're looking for is for them not to hurt us, and they do that and more, showing athleticism and solid coaching, despite the 49ers looking all game long to isolate Lane and exploit whatever matchup they got on that end.
To my mind this goes back to something I argued last year. Browner and Sherman are excellent corners, but I think our system actually makes the cornerback spot a bit more fungible than many other defenses do, defenses like the Jets that rely on them. Sherman is as good a corner as there is in the NFL, but losing him would not undo this entire defense, as our depth is really good on one hand, and on the other hand our system in the secondary leans structurally on the presence of Earl Thomas more than on the quality of corners, making their job relatively "easy". Again, not knocking our corners, but it's a good system, it works, and just pray ET never gets hurt.
The 49ers pass D did a good job. A sympathy nod to the 49ers who were resoundingly beat in every facet of the game, one thing they noticeably did better than any other team we've played - including the Bears and their secondary excellence - was take away the outside receivers, and keep receivers covered even while Wilson Tarkentonned and bought time. That's exceedingly hard to do, and deserves a nod of appreciation. Don't even think about worrying if this gives the NFL a "model" to beat Wilson with, because that kind of coverage is so hard to achieve, I don't think there's more than one or two teams at any time that can do it. Besides, even in executing this so well, the best they could do was force us to pass little and use read-option, while Wilson still got great value out of the passes he made.
Wilson spread the ball well, used his tight ends, running backs and slot receiver, and that all appeared to be planned (or very quickly adjusted). I also figured that as a team starring a read-option-specialized QB the 49ers would know how to handle the read-option, but...they really didn't. That's all I can say on that. It continues to work really, really well for us. There's two reasons for that. One is Wilson executes it incredibly well despite not running it in college, he never seems to take the wrong option. Two is the offensive line executes so well, and the Seahawks twist the read-option a little bit, creatively. That wasn't on display against this 3-4 team as much, but against 4-3s the Seahawks will run ZBS stretch runs where the DE is blocked and Wilson instead reads the playaction LB, de facto giving the defense a numerical disadvantage that normal read-option doesn't necessarily do. That was three reasons. I know. Shut up.
Bevell has been showing his skills. The story of the past few weeks, that PC likes to chat up, is how much they underestimated Wilson and kept him locked up too long. Maybe they did, though they seemed to expand the book at a nice pace for me. But the fun thing is, when you unleash Wilson, you unleash Bevell. Now, I'm not about to argue Bevell is a great OC, but many of the points of criticism we had really did have more to do with the HC keeping the reigns tight on offensive playcalling. The first two passing TDs in particular show how well he analyzed and planned for the 49ers, both of those playcalls confusing their defense by dragging a defender out and opening a wide area for the actual intended target.
A month or so ago I was griping about our coaching staff not being up to snuff coordinator-wise. Not looking too smart now, are we Mr Cleverdick? Gus Bradley is a serious HC candidate this offseason, even if only to transplant the system he mastered here elsewhere, Bevell is showing more and more of his smarts, Schneider's special teams look good, and as for the "fourth coordinator" Cable...
The offensive line has been astonishing for weeks now. CB is one position we had to dig in for depth, OL is the other, and it has held up really well throughout a constant rotation. Unger and Okung have legitimate shots at the pro bowl. They started along with Paul McQuistan and JR Sweezy, who has been acquitting himself well, as well as the much-maligned Breno Giacomini, who...honestly is pretty good. Sure, he makes us all shake our heads and roll our eyes with stupid penalties, but a lot of those penalties are part of the edge Cable instills his players with, and are probably not that much of a problem in the coaches' evaluation of him. I know RT is a commonly-cited need but honestly, the Big Russian has been playing fine.
Sweezy was a bit of a surprise start. Are you counting? Wagner, Wilson, Lane, Sweezy. That's four rookies starting, from the 3rd, 2nd, 6th and 7th rounds. 1st rounder Irvin played 30 snaps (53%), 4th rounder Turbin played 17 (26%), 7th rounder Scruggs played 28 (49%). I don't think any team in the NFL can lay claim to that kind of a contribution from its draft class. John Schneider is...well he's not likely to win Executive of the Year because such a reward rarely goes to a guy who doesn't hold final say in personnel decision, but honestly he should be, and to me, he is. And that's all that matters. You hear that John!? You're Executive of the Year IN MY HEART!!
But he's probably going to lose. To Mr Ed. Fuck Mr Ed.
The stadium fans were amazing this game. They were. They usually are. It's amazing. You guys are amazing. On that note, NBC did a great job properly miking the crowd noise and giving us guys at home a glimpse of the awesome atmosphere. Directing, camera work, timing, prep work, these guys are legitimately the best on TV. Read this writeup about the behind-the-scene works of SNF, it really is worth our respect, especially after having to suffer through Fox's mediocrity so long.
More thoughts!! I can just keep going on forever with THOUGHTS. The officiating wasn't very good and both teams had bad calls go against 'em. Kaepernick looked rattled but the pass rush wasn't coming home, but hey, advantage of playing in the CLink, this one would've been much tougher on the road. Our offense meanwhile looks like it could legitimately be called best in the NFL...or rather, you can roll up a triple-burger with the Broncos and Patriots and pick one out of the hat. The...burgerhat... That's right, we're on about the same level as two offenses run by hall of fame quarterbacks. Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?
Oh, also, Aldon Smith is good but he's no JJ Watt or Von Miller, his insane sack numbers being partially a production of an excellent defensive system. Which is good news for the 49ers in a structural sense, though perhaps their fans don't like hearing Smith questioned. Oh, oh, also, Wilson is great, a legitimate rookie of the year, and if not for a slow start (blame the coaches, says PC!) might have already put up the best season we've ever seen from a Hawks QB.
Playoffs...Playoffs?! P-p-playoffs?! As arguably the best team in the NFL or at least the hottest right now, we'll roll into the Superbowl, right? Weeeehrl...maybe? I mean, the Superbowl is such a cointoss proposition. Get hot at the right time (like...right around now!) and don't get hurt, and you might get there. All a team can ask for is a shot to be there, really, and we already got that clinched now. Dare I dream of a #2 seed and a bye week? It'd be nice. But a month ago I would've shrugged at us going on the road and go "no shot". Now...I'm not so sure anymore. We'd be way, way better off at home, no mistake, but the road doesn't seem so intimidating anymore. It has gone from Buddy's travails in reaching Lost Vegas to Dorothy's brick-paved road to the Emerald City. Big difference!
That said...our road struggles weren't random, they were largely a function of being a very young team, a team that could not remain consistent when away from home. Consistency is still the looming question mark on this team. We didn't suddenly become a veteran team, we're still very young. That's great! Because it means this is just year one of a long-term Superbowl window. But...are these relatively young guys, with no real veteran leadership at key spots, are they ready for playoffs? I'm not worried about Russell Wilson and his cyborg brain, but that's the one big thing that could beat us. All due respect to the very good teams we'll face in the playoffs, but we already beat a bunch of them and have a winning record against the equivalent of the 6th-best team in the league. The first guys these Seahaws players have to beat is themselves.
But hell, I'm not greedy. This team has no immediate looming free agents or aging key players. It's only getting better on the short term. This year is already a success no matter what happens. It's a pretty great time to be a Seahawks fan.
It was a true Festivus Miracle in the most literal sense of the term!! The Seahawks passed their feats of strength, and leave the 49ers with only the airing of grievances.