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The 7-7 Seahawks and the Hot Team Narrative

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Danny nudged me to do a post-game reaction piece, which I don't normally do that much, I prefer rewatching tape over and over and slowly molding as accurate a picture as I can in my head. Besides, most of my first impressions have been covered by Danny Kelly here. We were worryingly slow to start, but the offense managed to overcome the predictable lack of production from Marshawn Lynch to put up an effective game, while the defense won it for us. At its core, there's not much more to it than that. The offensive line held up well at times but had a very uneven game overall, up and down with occasional big misses and occasional great blocks. Tarvaris was as efficient in the second half as he looked lost in the first. Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas make a great safety duo.

So I'm not really going to talk about this game specifically. Instead, let's discuss something else: the Seahawks started this year 2-6, certain folks were calling for Pete Carroll's head, and things looked bleak after a few disheartening losses. Back when we were 1-3, I wrote this editorial warning that rough times were ahead and not to forget that the process is is working. The streak of three losses didn't change my thinking there. Going 5-1 since doesn't change my thinking either. That editorial still describes how I feel about this Seahawks team.

This is not a good team, depending on how you wish to define good. It's a team that has a good shot at having a winning record based on the fact that it plays in a weak division (though I would argue the NFC West has finally clawed its way up, above the NFC East, AFC West and maybe even AFC South) and because it is facing a spate of teams that match up really well to its strengths. That said, I still don't really care if this is a good team from a week-to-week basis. We might stumble into the playoffs, but that shouldn't change our perspective on where we are as a team. We entered the year as a rebuilding team, we are a rebuilding team. To me, that keeps my focus always on the process.

And man...don't it look great? I mean, there are still points worth discussing, whether our run-first scheme is really praise-worthy or really desperate in the modern NFL, whether our unbalanced line has been significantly unmasked this season, etc etc. But that's fairly small-picture stuff, comparatively. It's two years ago that Pete Carroll and John Schneider tore the existing roster to shreds, not just in old but also in young talent, and this team has been almost completely reformed, and considering that, the amount of talent and potential we have on our roster is nothing short of astounding. The level of play from cheap players like Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman (I remember arguing before the season that I liked Sherman best of our many DB pickups, but I couldn't have predicted this), Doug Baldwin and Kam Chancellor is worth nothing but praise, as Danny wrote about here. That's a big good chunk of scouting, tip of the cap to John Schneider, but it's also a big ribbon for coaching, because young talent needs good coaching, or you get the 2011 Buccaneers.

But here is where I bring in a bucket of cold water to douse some of this ebullience. NFL fandom and even sportswriting is largely a reactionary field. The team is 2-6, there is griping and criticism, the team goes 5-1 from there and suddenly we're talking not just about stumbling into the playoffs but about playoff contention? To me, that lacks realism. This isn't a fundamentally different team from the 2-6 team. It might be significantly different if not for injuries on the offense, but as it is right now, I think we need to be more careful about what kind of narrative we espouse.

Nothing skews a realistic view of teams like bad opposition does. How many teams that the Seahawks have beaten are actually good? The Baltimore Ravens are, as are perhaps the New York Giants (a win that was closed off by a good but now almost completely snowed under performance by Charlie Whitehurst, amusingly enough). Am I really supposed to look at us beating a Chicago Bears team that is missing Jay Cutler, Matt Forte and its leading receiver and go "oh man, we've arrived now?"

This is where we then point out we've been having injuries too. That's true, but that's not just a statement you can make and then move on. Losing Russell Okung is the only injury we have that comes close in impact to losing a Cutler or a Forte or even a Knox. Who did we lose? James Carpenter and John Moffitt were at the level of replacement-level players when they went out. Marcus Trufant might not even be a starter now. Matt McCoy and David Vobora stung but hard to say how valuable they really were (not enough tape). Our TEs don't really get to do anything but block so John Carlson is not too relevant. Mike Williams wasn't doing anything anyway. We're left with Russell Okung, Sidney Rice and Walter Thurmond. Do you think that compares to the Eagles playing us without Michael Vick and Jeremy Maclin, or the Bears without Jay Cutler and Matt Forte?

Let me take it a step further: the only really relevant injuries we've had have been on offense, and they show. We're not holding up on offense. The streak of Marshawn Lynch as a foundational back is over, both because Okung was the cornerstone of that concept and because we're now facing much tougher defenses. Tarvaris Jackson is good when at his best, like against the Eagles or Ravens, but the best you can realistically expect from him is to be efficient, and not lose the game for you. He does miss Sidney Rice, but the passing game wasn't the foundation of our offense anyway. The focus of the offense right now is to not lose the game.

What has the defense lost, by comparison? Walter Thurmond is the most significant loss and that only really impacts our nickel formations, plus we have the good fortune of getting Roy Lewis back, who is a very good nickel corner. In fact, our defense has been pretty damn fortunate in injuries, over the year. Keep that in mind, then look at the way we're winning games. Stop the opposing offense, force punts, beat them in special teams, force turnovers, or even score through the defense.

This is not the picture of a good team playing good football, it is a picture of a defense that has been fortunate in injuries capitalizing on facing offenses that have not been fortunate in injuries at all, supplemented by the defense not having to deal with an offense producing a lot of turnovers or special teams giving up a lot of ground. That's a pretty cushy situation for a defense to excel in. Pick apart the 5-1, and realize we won against a bad team that's lost almost all its wide receivers and cornerbacks (the Rams), an overhyped team without its quarterback and best wide receiver (the Eagles), a good team missing all its important offensive players (the Bears) and an actually good team (the Ravens), though even for them you could point out their quarterback had a terrible game.

This defense is still this matchup-sensitive defense. Nothing changed on a fundamental level, it did not become a great defense. But it has capitalized on these soft matchups, and fed voraciously, and that's a good sign. It's certainly not a bad defense, but it is not realistic to think it's a structurally different defense than the one that allowed Eli Manning to pass for 10.8 YPA, Ben Roethlisberger for 9.9 YPA and Tony Romo for 9.0 YPA. If we face those offenses tomorrow, we are still likely to allow above-average passing numbers, because we still do not have a particularly efficient pass rush, and we are still overly focused on beating the run and dink-and-dunk offensive game. Of the playoff candidates, only the Falcons and the 49ers play that game. The Lions, the Cowboys, the Saints and the Giants would take this defense apart like nobody's business, as would a fully healthy Eagles team (they're not playoff candidates, but the NFL media would like you to consider them playoff candidates). Again, feeding on the likes of the injury-ravaged Bears and the Rams does not really change that painful reality.

I realize this is probably not too pleasant a read, but I think it's important to remain realistic rather than get dragged along by negativity or hype, whatever the situation warrants. When this team was 2-6, it was not comparable to the dark days under Jim Mora. This team has gone 5-1 since then, but that does not suddenly make it comparable to the competitive and dominant Seahawks teams of the mid-00s. Nor is it comparable to the '07 Seahawks that fed on weak opposition, as that was a team that was not going to improve over that level of play. Instead, compare it to the early days of Holmgren building his dynasty, and be damn glad we appear to be heading down the right path. We could end up going 9-7, but neither game is a gimme, and I don't really think it should matter for our valuation of this team whether or not we win them.