It's an interesting philosophy not only in sports, but in many areas of life, to consider whether or not you should play to your strengths or improve your weaknesses. On one hand, by continually investing time and energy into what you're already good at, you could become an expert. You could become "elite" and be one of the best in the world at that thing. However, you're leaving yourself open to weaknesses.
On the other hand, what if you said to yourself "Okay, I already know that I am good at this one thing, I'm going to leave it alone and try to get better in the areas where I suck." This may not take you to the next level on the things that you're already good at but it will help balance out your skills and make you more well-rounded.
The times when you see a person, or in this case a team, have zero weaknesses will be few and far between. Those will be left for legend, but you don't have to be a legend to be the best. The Seahawks don't have to be perfect to win a Super Bowl, they just need to be better than the next guy. What they have had to decide is whether they play to their strengths or improve their weaknesses.
What are those strengths and weaknesses? What method do winning teams approach?
That second part is really interesting because it's a pretty well known fact that many of the best teams seem unbalanced. The Packers went 15-1 and finished last in yards allowed, 19th in points allowed, last in passing defense and 26th in yards per carry allowed. But they were elite in other areas: 1st in points, 3rd in yards, 1st in passing touchdowns, 1st in Aaron Rodgers and 1st in defensive interceptions.
Of course the most important part is the name: Aaron Rodgers. You can make a lot of mistakes when you're elite at the most important position in football. The Packers are a team built on elite players, not necessarily elite units. Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley, and a good offensive line. Otherwise, they are surrounded by good players but not great ones. The keys are simple if you have the players to execute it: quarterback, ball control, force turnovers, playmakers. That's what the Packers have done for two years.
The Patriots were 13-3 and went to the Super Bowl. They were 3rd in scoring, 2nd in yards, 1st in Tom Brady, 3rd in turnover differential, and 2nd in interceptions. They were also 31st in yards allowed, 15th in scoring defense, 31st in passing defense and 24th in yards per carry allowed. There are a lot of similarities between the Packers and Patriots.
Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo. Quarterback, ball control, force turnovers, playmakers. Then of course, there is the opposite of that and two of those teams came very close to meeting in the Super Bowl.
San Francisco and Baltimore finished 11th and 12th in scoring, respectively. The 49ers are much more conservative about passing the football, but in more than a few ways Alex Smith was better than Joe Flacco. However, the Ravens have Ray Rice in their favor and while Frank Gore is good, he's not as good as Rice.
Still, the value of the offense and defense of each team basically finds a way to even itself out and the 49ers finished fourth in total defense while the Ravens finished third. The heart of San Francisco's success was it's elite ball control: 1st in turnovers forced, 1st in securing the ball. This method led them to a 13-3 record, with three losses by a total of 15 points, the biggest loss being a 16-6 defeat at Baltimore, which Football Outsiders ranked as the #1 defense in the NFL by DVOA.
Both teams were elite in certain areas and had great players. The Ravens had Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and others. The 49ers had Gore, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Carlos Rogers, Aldon Smith and others.
While the end-game is different, the method is the same between teams like New England and teams like Baltimore: Be elite in a few areas with a few elite players. You don't need to have 52 good players, you need to have six great ones. Or something. While it was quickly forgotten by anyone I've ever talked to, remember that the Niners and Ravens really did come close to meeting for the Super Bowl without an elite quarterback on either side. Remember that Mark Sanchez went to the AFC Championship for two straight years.
Mark f$!#ing Sanchez.
So that's the key to being great right? Be elite in a few areas? Oh damn you, Giants. Damn you to hell.
The New York Giants won the Super Bowl (I just found out) and they were 8th in total offense, 27th in total defense. They had a lot of passing yards but they also threw the ball a lot. They were dead last in rushing offense and 19th in rushing defense. They were seventh in turnover differential.
The Giants weren't really elite anywhere except one: getting to the quarterback.
This is the Giants method: Get a career year out of your 30-year-old QB that's been mediocre his entire career, get 1,500 receiving yards from an undrafted free agent, don't have an elite running back, don't have elite tight ends like the Patriots, don't have an amazingly fortunate year in turnovers like the Niners, sneak into the playoffs in week seventeen and pull upsets against the Packers, 49ers, and Patriots.
The only rule that the Giants proved was that it doesn't matter how you get to the playoffs just as long as you get there and you get hot at the right time. One could even make the argument that the Giants only elite player is Jason Pierre-Paul. I don't know that you would win that argument, but I can see where that person would be coming from.
Teams like the Steelers and Texans might be considered more "balanced" teams (Texans with Matt Schaub) while the Giants might not have even been the best or even second-best team in their own division, but they got to the playoffs and the right players stepped up at the right times and the Giants won the Super Bowl.
So, what does any of this mean for the 2012 Seattle Seahawks?
Obviously, Seattle needed to answer that question as they headed into free agency and the draft. "Are we going to get elite in the areas that we're already good in, or are we going to get better in the areas that we aren't?"
By both DVOA and standard measures, the Seahawks had a top ten defense in 2011. It was pretty balanced between run defense and pass defense, while there were clear areas in need of improvement such as on coverage of tight ends and in the pass rush. Seattle didn't have anybody that could get to the quarterback besides Chris Clemons, and the linebacking corps best player was a 4th round rookie, while David Hawthorne left via free agency.
But defense wasn't the problem.
I wouldn't say that the Seahawks offense was terrible, because we've seen much worse in recent years, but there were definite areas where improvement was needed. Of course, if Seattle could find an elite quarterback then they would become a very good team. As we've seen already, having one of those solves a lot of problems. The Hawks had two realistic shots at finding an elite "franchise" QB this off-season and neither was actually very realistic: Sign Peyton Manning or trade up and draft Robert Griffin III.
Seattle had the money for Manning, but he didn't want to play here. The Rams were willing to trade their pick, but the Hawks could have never matched what the Redskins offered, and that doesn't take into account if St. Louis would have even traded the pick within the division.
So instead of taking one shot at either one of those two quarterbacks, Seattle took two shots at guys that were slightly below the caliber of those players, but with a chance to actually become franchise quarterbacks themselves. Matt Flynn was the second best QB on the free agent market and Russell Wilson was considered by some to be one of the top three quarterbacks in the draft. And they both were exponentially cheaper, in terms of money or draft stock. The Seahawks took two low-risk, high-reward shots rather than a higher-risk, high-reward shot.
Not a bad idea.
However, there is no promise that the quarterback situation will be any better. Promising? Sure, but looking at it realistically, we can't say for sure that Flynn will be any better than Tarvaris Jackson or that Wilson will be the next rookie quarterback to take the league by storm. I think that Flynn will be a better "game-manager" than Jackson was, but I'm not going to make that determination with 100% confidence based on two games with the Green Bay Packers.
Despite what a lot of fans seem to think, Jackson was not a terrible quarterback last year. He was completely average. If you want to see bad, look at the Browns, Jaguars, Colts, Tim Tebow, or Caleb Hanie. If the Hawks were throwing Curtis Painter out there last season, then I'd be more positive that Flynn is an upgrade but I'm not sold that he's remarkably better yet and I certainly don't believe that Seattle is all of a sudden elite at the position.
That means that Seattle won't be taking the Patriots or Packers route to success just yet. Maybe the right QB is on the roster right now, but we can't be certain that he is or that he'll blow up in 2012. So, is Seattle on it's way to having an elite defense that can carry them deep in the playoffs like the Niners and Ravens?
Many experts have said that the Hawks have the best secondary in the NFL, and I'm not going to disagree with them. I think a healthy Marcus Trufant and the addition of Jeremy Lane will make the group deeper and more talented.
Seattle will also have a solid rotation on the defensive line and the additions of Jason Jones, Bruce Irvin, and Jaye Howard could make them devastatingly more effective. They've got a solid group for run defense and a much-improved group for getting to the quarterback by not only adding Irvin on the outside but by adding pass-rush specialists on the inside.
I think that if the Seahawks can just collapse that pocket enough to reduce the quarterbacks time by even half-a-second, you'll see the elite secondary step up for a few extra plays this season and Seattle could be on it's way to generating even more turnovers, a category that they were ranked 5th in last season. That ball-control, win-the-turnover-battle method worked very well for the 49ers in 2011, so if Seattle improves its handling on the ball (ranked 11th last season, so less than 10 interceptions would be ideal) they could see themselves in many more favorable field position situations.
A better pass rush will be the key to forcing more turnovers and gaining better field position, which could make the defense turn into a top five unit even if the linebackers aren't all that great.
However, I still think that Bobby Wagner could be a very special ILB that contributes immediately as a rookie and the low-risk additions of LeRoy Hill and Barrett Ruud provide veteran leadership to Wagner and K.J. Wright. The loss of David Hawthorne was not a big loss, so a top 10 unit has only gotten better on paper. There is every reason to believe that Seattle will have a defense that teams fear to face, and it can come immediately even if people don't expect it.
The 49ers went from 13th in the NFL in defense in 2010 to 4th last year and 2nd in scoring defense. And they did it without an elite quarterback. And they went 13-3 and nearly went to the Super Bowl. Seattle might have gone 7-9 last season (the 49ers went 6-10 in 2010) but don't put it past them to take a big step forward this upcoming season and contend for a title.
Do they have enough "elite" or "great" players to make that happen? Marshawn Lynch, Earl Thomas, Russell Okung, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Chris Clemons, Brandon Mebane, Sidney Rice, Doug Baldwin, Brandon Browner, Bruce Irvin; Some of those guys are already elite and maybe a couple of them will step up even further in become great or elite.
This isn't meant to be a "rah rah" piece. It is completely rational to believe that Seattle's method of improving in areas of need while retaining their best players has significantly improved them. They added defense in the draft and free agency to a defense that was already top ten, in an effort to make it an elite defense. I believe that there are still concerns on the offensive line but we know that one of the main things that Pete Carroll likes about Matt Flynn is his decision-making ability, the same quality that Russell Wilson possesses. Those are the qualities that are going to reduce turnovers, even if the offensive line struggles with consistency and/or injuries.
This team has been built in a similar fashion to the 49ers in the short-term, but there is also the possibility with two low-risk additions at quarterback that they could be more like the Packers in the long-term. They've got playmakers like Rice, Baldwin, and Lynch, but they've also added running back depth with Robert Turbin and have a whole crapload of wide receivers ready to compete for that spot opposite Rice.
I think that the Seahawks are built to win now and also built to succeed in the long-term.
Or they could just use the Giants method of sucking sometimes, sneaking into the playoffs, getting hot at the right time and winning the whole damn thing, I'm fine with that too! It's worked for the Giants... twice.