The 11-5 Team: A Muddle


Here's a thirdhand encapsulation of wisdom Admiral Stockdale earned surviving a POW camp: optimists die first. Constantly vacillating between hope and heartbreak, so sure they would be rescued by this Christmas, no, New Year, no, before Spring ... optimists wore themselves out, suffered too many crushing disappointments, eventually succumbed to utter despair. Pessimists died second. Who survived, according to Stockdale, were the faithful. Those that believed in neither today nor tomorrow, nor despaired certain neither today nor tomorrow, but believed only: someday. Someday we will be rescued. But Seahawks fandom is not the Hanoi Hilton, not since Mora the Lesser left town. Nowadays it's more like a 1-900 phone line. "Ooh, you're so hard ... to run against. Do you take Adderall?"

Is it better to escape expectations, be neither optimistic nor pessimistic, and approach each season with neutrality? Or to be optimistic, to seek out information and novel ways to frame and interpret that information, in order to enforce that optimism, until success becomes expected? The Seattle Seahawks are in the shining grip of Hype, and have been for many months now. A set of complaints, within which one can find "disrespect" and a lack of media attention, have been answered. The Seahawks are overexposed, projected for great things; the team's stars have become league-wide stars, have become reviled by fans of other teams, have joined the NFL Network's cavalcade of grunts and highlights. For half a season and a whole offseason, Seahawks fans have been treated to the kind of obsessive, insular and delusional coverage typical of the Cowboys, the Jets, the Packers and the Patriots. Fans of a certain stripe have no doubt enjoyed the boosted Madden ratings, the better bragging rights, more airtime for Richard Sherman and Richard Sherman, segments on NFL Network and ESPN, daydreams about dynasties, the not-at-all-tedious back and forth with 49ers fans. I am not of those fans. Hype is glorying in a battle not yet won. I will happily take week one as it comes. What I see is a team with immense potential. What I do not see is a team with a particularly good chance of winning the Super Bowl this season.

The Seahawks are a classic 11-5 Team. Are you unfamiliar with that proper noun? Allow me to make it up as I go. 11-5 is the outer ring of Paradise. It is sufficiently raised up from The Purgatory of Middling Good and Plain Lucky: 8-8, 9-7, 10-6. It is not, on face value, the record of a great team. If you project their record over a 16 game season, 38 of 47 Super Bowl Champions have finished 12-4 or better.

(Now plenty muddles this analysis but let's go ahead and tackle the ana- word before I get any farther. Maybe once upon a time I liked rocking the sports pundit frock. It's lucrative. I must have made dimes on the hour. But I don't remember that me. Analysis should break apart, simplify. It is the monomyth to Homer's Odyssey. I'd rather elaborate and complicate. What follows should add mystery.)

There is no quintessential 11-5 team but there are subtypes. The intuitive engine, that is: the human mind, has no doubt connected the 2012 Seahawks to six recent to very recent examples of this kind of 11-5 team: 2009 Packers, 2008 Falcons, 2008 Ravens, 2005 Giants, 2005 Steelers and the 2001 Patriots. All but the Falcons went on to win a Super Bowl. The Falcons and Ravens started rookie quarterbacks. The Giants, Steelers and Patriots started second-year quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers was neither, but it was only his second year starting. Four of the six teams had top ten defenses by points allowed. Atlanta finished 11th. New York finished 14th.

All were young, promising, hyped-up (and with good reason) and all but the Packers slumped the following season. And the Packers, the eventual Super Bowl Champions, eked into the playoffs on a tie-breaker. The average win total for this Seahawks-adjacent set: 9. The average subsequent-season win total of all 77 teams to finish 11-5: 9.2. In other words, after being promised light and love and fair Beatrice all offseason (translation: tits, beer and glory), most among the 11-5 fell back to The Purgatory of the Middling Good and Plain Lucky. And the hype boomeranged like Eddie Murphy's career following The Adventures of Pluto Nash. (If you see what I did there, let us share a beer and a tear for a decade misspent.) But here's a better way to look at it.

You know that little factoid up there, the 38 of 47 one, well it has a couple details we should discuss. Five of the last eight Super Bowl champions fall within that subpar set of 11-5 or worse, including the last three. The era of juggernaut teams is largely over. The age of dynasties ended after the hard cap was instituted in 1994. We're sorta in the Ten Eunuchs period now--which, I admit, is just a way to make the many hours I played Koei games seem like an intellectual pursuit. Eh ... anyway, rather than a dynastic period, in which one team like the 49ers or Cowboys is the odds-on favorite season after season, the NFL is more like a plutocracy now, in which teams that can consistently make the playoffs have the best chance of "catching fire" through sheer number of opportunities. There's really no "all in" or "this is our year" anymore. Seahawks fans should hope "This is our decade."

As the offseason of fake drama fades and meaningful football nears, the time for real drama begins. And that real drama will play as subtext to the explicit story of wins and losses. It's not subtle, really, and does not need analysis, say. It's all the stuff that falls under good process. Russell Wilson must not only continue to develop. He must improve or at least maintain his ability to avoid big hits. Just outside the rosy collage of Rodgers, Flacco and Manning, we get promising players like Vick, Culpepper and Cunningham--talented players that couldn't overcome the infernal electrifying improvisation/foundering penchant for sacks dichotomy. (Some may know that among Seahawks fans, I am relatively down on Russell Wilson. Though I still think Wilson was prematurely celebrated, there's no arguing his performance in the second half and into the playoffs. So kill the messenger if you'd rather but many of his best plays were within inches-per-second of being massive sacks. At the risk of coining an aphorism, for 40-on years now, the best quarterbacks leave the highlights to their receivers. Guys like Manning, Brady, Aikman and Montana are quiet and perennially perceived to be "overrated." The NFL is the only league capable of wholesale changes to how the game is played. I love this. But this is not the first running-quarterback revolution. What should set Wilson apart is that he's shown himself to be a capable pocket passer--especially beautiful in his execution of play-action--apart from his Charlie Parker moments. More of that.) The further development of Wilson, consistent performance as a defense (without or without the aid of turnovers) including an improved pass rush, the health of Russell Okung, the nascent badassery of Max Unger, etc.--a team cannot control its strength of schedule, it can minimally control team health, turnover ratio and performance in close games. A great modern NFL team has some surplus of pass offense and pass defense, makes the playoffs year-after-year, and one fateful year strings together enough wins to achieve immortality.

Seattle can be that team. Doi. Seattle cannot expect to win this year. No team can. There's going to be an amazing strip sack this season, and I will continue to hear Da Mysteries of Chessboxin' whenever Marshawn Lynch totes the rock; somehow my hope for Walter Thurmond III lives, and we're all bound to piss in each other's corn flakes some black Sunday it all goes wrong, but on the bleakest 4th and 14 in the biggest blowout loss of the season, there is hope, hope for this era of Seahawks. That hope won't end no matter the end of this season.