Seahawks vs. 49ers, NFC Championship: Mutts vs. pedigrees (or, celebrating the underdog)

Otto Greule Jr

The dog world can be divided into two classes. The elite dogs compete in dog shows at places like the Westminster Kennel Club, and have pedigrees dating back to the voyage of the Mayflower. They tend to have names like "Champion Reginald Greentowers the Third," which no one ever thinks of abbreviating as "RG3".

Mutts, on the other hand, have names like "Scruffy" or "Droopy." Nobody keeps track of who their parents were, let alone their grandparents. To be sure, Scruffy and Droopy may be loved just as deeply by their ten-year-old owners as any show dog was ever loved by anyone. Still, all the love in the world won’t get Scruffy or Droopy into the Westminster Kennel Club ... except, at best, as a spectator, to watch the truly elite dogs compete.

The parallel to the NFL playoffs should by now be obvious. Of the four dogs (I mean, teams) remaining in the hunt for the Lombardi trophy, three of them – the New England Patriots, the Denver Broncos, and the San Francisco 49ers – have impeccable playoff pedigrees. The Super Bowl has been won by one or another of those three teams nine times in the last 30 years, or nearly one out of every three Super Bowls played during that span. And many of the other games were won by teams like Dallas or Pittsburgh, who are also members of the NFL aristocracy,.

However, the fourth team in this year’s conference championships – the Seattle Seahawks – has nothing at all elite in its history. The team’s history itself sets it apart as a Johnny-come-lately, as it can trace its heritage back only as far as 1976. Followers of the other three teams, by contrast, can recite their histories verbatim all the way back to the Flood. (Or all the way back to the AFL-NFL merger, at any rate, which amounts to much the same thing.)

More to the point, Seattle fans also cannot point to any glorious history on the field. In stark comparison to the other three semi-finalists, the Seahawks have appeared in the Super Bowl only once, where they lost by double digits. (Insert obligatory comment about the referees here.) Indeed, if we count the current season, this is only the third time that Seattle has made it even as far as the conference championship game, where it has won exactly once in the last 30 years. At Westminster, a mutt as undistinguished as that wouldn’t be allowed past the doorman.

Finally, if any further proof were needed, Seattle also betrays its lack of elite status by the composition of its roster. When professional teams choose players in the annual college draft, the players who are most heralded and given the most prestige (not to mention the most money) are those selected in the draft’s very first round. These are the players whose names instantly become known in every corner of the country. Some of them are even issued invitations to come to the Radio City Music Hall (elite football’s version of the Westminster Kennel Club) to attend the draft live and in person. Needless to say, the sixth and seventh round picks, and the undrafted free-agents – the Scruffies and the Droopies of the draft – receive no similar treatment.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, to learn that the Seattle Seahawks are so far from this measure of eliteness that they have only 6 former first-round picks on their roster. This is the second-lowest total in the NFC, edged out only by Philadelphia, which has five.

(Note: For these purposes, I have included players drafted in the first round by teams other than the team they currently play for. Thus, Marshawn Lynch (originally drafted by Buffalo) and Percy Harvin (drafted by Minnesota) count as part of the Seahawks’ total of six former first-round picks. (The other four, all drafted originally by Seattle, are Russell Okung, James Carpenter, Earl Thomas, and Bruce Irvin.) I also include, for each team, any former first-rounders currently on injured reserve. Even though those players are not currently contributing to their team’s on-field performance, they still contribute to their team’s pedigree or prestige, and pedigree is what I am after here.)

Seattle, then, is on the extreme low end of this particular pedigree scale, wtih only six former first-round picks. Most of the elite franchises, however, excel in this measure. New England has 9 former first-round picks, while Denver tops them with 11. And San Francisco – Seattle’s opponent this Sunday – leads the entire NFL in this department (if my count is correct), with 14 former first-round picks.

Indeed, if we look at the Seattle–San Francisco match-up from the perspective of elite institutions like Westminster, it is not at all obvious why the Seahawks should be favored, given the obvious superiority of the 49ers' pedigree. The details below may seem tedious, but the pattern is so strikingly similar across every position group that it bears closer examination. (Where it is not exactly clear which player is a "starter" – a frequent difficulty in this day of specialized sub-packages – I have tried to make a reasonable guess. Doubtless each of those guesses could be argued, but the overall results would not change significantly.)

O-Line: San Francisco starts three former #1 picks, plus a round #5 and one UDFA. Seattle starts only two former #1s (or only one when James Carpenter isn’t in the line-up), and had to reach into rounds #2, #5, and #7 to fill out its starting O-line. Pedigree advantage: San Francisco.

Front seven: two of San Francisco’s starting down linemen, and two of their starting linebackers, are former #1s. Their other starters along the defensive front were all drafted no lower than round #3. Seattle, by contrast, has only one former first-rounder among its front seven. Its other six starters were drafted in round #2, #3, #4, #7, or (in two cases) were not drafted at all. Pedigree advantage: San Francisco.

Defensive secondary: San Francisco starts three former first-rounders (if Carlos Rogers plays), and the only non-first-rounder was picked in round #5. On the other hand, Seattle’s vaunted secondary contains only one first-round pick, with the other three drafted in rounds #5, #5, and #6. This is supposed to be an "elite" unit? Pedigree advantage: San Francisco.

Wide receivers: With the return of Michael Crabtree, San Francisco can now throw to one former #1 pick, one former #2, and a #4. (Add another former #1 pick if Vernon Davis is counted as a receiving target, as he no doubt should be.) For Seattle, if Percy Harvin remains unable to play, their receiving corps consists of one former #2 pick plus three UDFAs. Pedigree advantage: Hugely to San Francisco.

In short, even if the oddsmakers have installed Seattle as a slight favorite this Sunday, it is clear that Seattle is the underdog in every other sense of that word. Seattle is every outsider trying to get admitted to the local country club: the one made up exclusively of old money. It is every kid who was looked down on by his classmates when he once (though only briefly) enrolled in an expensive private school. It is every girl who, when told that "girls just don’t do math," went ahead and defied that conventional wisdom; or every quarterback who was ever told he was "too short" to play. In dog terms, Seattle is every unpedigreed mutt named Droopy or Scruffy.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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