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On Sportsmanship, the Seahawks, and Running Up The Score

On Sunday, Pete Carroll and the Seahawks hung 50 points on their second straight opponent. In both games, the 'Hawks went for it on 4th down with massive leads. Good football or poor sportsmanship?

Tom Szczerbowski

It's really hard to lick your elbow. It's even harder to lick both of your elbows. It's really hard to hit your friend with a paintball gun through his bathroom window from fifty feet away while he poops. It's even harder to do it again later when he's sleeping. Likewise, it's really difficult to score fifty points in an NFL game, and damn near impossible to do it twice in a row. How damn near impossible? It's only happened once in the last 72 years, despite there having been roughly 12,000 opportunities for someone to do it along the way.

Well, shove those medial epicondyles in your cake hole and tell Kyle to duck because the Seahawks have broken the half-century mark on back to back Sundays, leaving the Arizona Cardinals and Buffalo Bills in crumpled remains behind them like parked cars in every Michael Bay movie. Now, if you're anything like me,* you'd think that a historic achievement like the one Seattle accomplished over the last fortnight would be met with nigh-universal praise and distinction.

*Lucky you

You'd be wrong, though, because people don't want to just talk about a truly incredible two week scoring binge (during which the Seahawks scored 78 consecutive points), they want to talk about whether the 'Hawks scored those 108 points the right way. And, according to many, they didn't. The rumblings started two games ago when, leading by 119 in the 4th quarter, the Seahawks dialed up a five-receiver pass play on fourth-and-eighty. The murmurs turned to shouts when, holding a Secretariatian lead, Seattle ran a super-slick, knife-twisting, successful reverse-trap fake-punt.

The pass play against Arizona? I was cool with it; Seattle had its backups in the game, quarterback Matt Flynn had eight pass attempts on the season to that point, and by going for it, the 'Hawks passed up a field goal attempt that could have granted them the largest shutout victory in NFL history. The fake punt against the Bills? Well, that one looked bad, even to me. After all, it's one thing to have the biggest dick in the locker room, but it's another thing entirely to plop it down on another dude's shoulder while he's just trying to tie up his work shoes and go home.

It was at that point, and not one second earlier, that I started to wonder if Pete Carroll was really being an ass. I mean, to my knowledge, he had no reason to show up Chan Gailey or anyone on the Buffalo roster and was already dealing with the perception that he ran up the tally on the Cardinals just one week earlier. Besides, why show such a cool play to the game film when the Win-Leverage was at zero? Also, I was mad that I was going to hear as much or more about that play than about arguably the best offensive performance I've ever seen by a Seahawks team.

Sure enough, and to absolutely nobody's surprise, Carroll was asked about the fake after the game. His response was... practical:

I feel bad about this... That was part of our game plan. It was something I could have called off, and didn't. It was an automatic for us... That's my fault totally for not stopping it from happening.

Whether that's Carroll telling the truth or just jumping on the grenade, I'm cool with it. I'm cool with it because if there truly was an automatic audible to that fake based on the way the Bills set up, then the players are going to run it. You do what you're trained to do in the NFL and defying an automatic audible comes at the risk of your job in the case of many special-teamers. And if Carroll really did run that play intentionally and not just as the result of an oversight, then it he did the right thing by putting it on his own shoulders.

Frankly, I don't care all that much if that play was intentional or not. What I care about is that the team I cheer for is going to play aggressively as long as non-zero numbers are on the game clock.

Look, I coached youth sports for eight years -- from third grade basketball to high school baseball. I was fortunate enough to play baseball and football* in college. I've seen, first-hand, most levels of amateur athletics and as such, can respect the notion of showing an overmatched opponent some grace. I've been on both sides of the blowout coin and I can tell you that at every level I played and coached at, there was an event horizon of beating down your opponent which you just shouldn't cross. The distance to that line increases proportionately to the level of competition, however, and when that level is the NFL, the line evaporates almost entirely.

*Walk-on scrub

I'm not the first to say this, and I'll hardly be the last, but I'm definitely the cutest to say it there's no reason to fret over offending the sensibilities of highly-compensated professionals. It's like Danny said in a tweet that I just spent the last ten minutes looking for but can't find: "These aren't little kids. You don't have to worry about hurting their feelings." The Seahawks, nor any other team, are under no obligation to play down to the level of their opponent should said opponent quit (Arizona?) or simply be overmatched (Buffalo).

There are practical reasons for this, among them the fact that point differential is one of the first few tie-breakers when it comes to playoff seeding. Another is that giving reserve players meaningful snaps (and by that I mean plays that require smart decision-making and maximum effort -- regardless of game score) is crucial in a league where injuries strike with the randomness and frequency of a Peyton Manning commercial. Still another, and perhaps the most important, reason is that greatness requires a certain mindset and that mindset is bolstered when you show your players that you're going to expect elite performance regardless of the win-probability.

I was at the Monday Night game years back when Shaun Alexander scored five touchdowns in the first half. It was the wildest in-stadium feeling I'd ever had and nobody could stand the halftime wait, eager as we were to see what the encore was. Unfortunately (for this particular situation, not overall, so don't freak out. Jeez), Mike Holmgren was the head coach and the Walrus Emperor spent the entire second half running lame off-tackle handoffs. It was the most anticlimactic moment since Kevin told everyone that he and Winnie didn't end up together during the last episode of The Wonder Years.

In 2007, Bill Belichick and, to a lesser extent Tom Brady, were pilloried for their continuous running up of the score against their opponents. Even back then, when I was less mature and still didn't like the Patriots, I found myself coming to New Englands defense in conversations about it with friends. It surprised me a bit at first that I would feel that way, but as I examined the reasons why I did, it was pretty clear: I expect the best possible performance from the athletes whose skill and compensation demands it. When one side's effort or production drastically outweighs their opponent, they are under no obligation to "take it easy" on them.

In the NFL, every play can have major career implications. Each snap results in a series of high-speed collisions that you or I would feel for weeks. Go half-speed and you make yourself much more susceptible to injury and for a large percentage of the guys on NFL rosters, that half-speed injury could mean the end of their dream. So maybe the coaches should call plays less aggressively? Fine, but know that by doing that you're wasting valuable opportunities to get backups quality game-speed reps, potentially hindering your team's production down the road.

Look, you don't just play to win the game, you play to give the best account of yourself after a lifetime of training and sacrifice to even get the opportunity. If 60 minutes of that effort level results in a caught-lying-to-your-mother belt-thrashing, then so be it.

Honestly, if the biggest knock on our favorite team is that they score too many points then hell yes, you guys.