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When will the Seahawks be great again?

On the path-dependence of memory

Super Bowl XLVIII - Seattle Seahawks v Denver Broncos
A very possible future for this team.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The 2013 Seahawks did not achieve greatness until just before 10pm EST, on February 2nd, 2014. The season was over, the Lombardi was ours, blue and green confetti rained across Metlife Stadium and in Seahawks fans’ dreams everywhere. And while the actual quality of that team would have been little changed by a loss of that Super Bowl, our perception of it would undoubtedly be different. The 2005 Seahawks had a nearly identical point differential and lost a terribly officiated Super Bowl by 11 points and how many fans view that team as “great”? Winning the Super Bowl did not make the 2013 team great, but it let us fans remember the trials and tribulations of that season with the knowledge that it all works out in the end. And the hardest part about sports is that we don’t have a monomyth upon which to base our expectations. Our plucky heroes don’t always overthrow the evil empire. 10,000 narratives are made and unmade throughout the course of the year.

The fact of the matter is that building a Super Bowl winning team is like building a house of cards in a hurricane. Robert Burns wrote “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley” and things certainly have “gang aft agley” for teams across the talent spectrum. The Packers’ dream of another Lombardi likely shattered with Rodgers’ collarbone. The Patriots’ hope of an undefeated season was over in just one game. The Jets’ plan to tank for the first overall pick was marred by unusual competence from Josh McCown. Broken bones and breakout players combine to introduce a tremendous storm of randomness in a teacup-sized season. Some years you get the bounces and some years you don’t and the margin for every great team is razor-thin.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane. The best Seahawks teams that Pete Carroll and John Schneider have put together (2013 and 2014) were not immune to having close wins and frustrating losses like their later iterations. The 2013 Seahawks blew out the rival 49ers at the peak of their prowess, but also were taken to overtime by a winless Bucs team. We went to Arizona and beat them by double digits, only to lose to them at home 17-10 when the defense snagged 4 interceptions. That 2013 team also had to pull off a goal line stand to beat the Rams on the road. The 2014 team mustered just 9 first downs and 206 total yards against a Cowboys team with a middling defense. That team also opened the season with a 20 point beatdown of Green Bay, but only beat an eventual 3-13 Raiders team by 6 points. And in our seemingly annual game against Carolina (finished 7-8-1), we needed a literal last minute TD pass to Luke Willson to escape with a victory.

Plenty has been written about the Seahawks annual slow starts. The point differential through 5 games in each year of the PC/RW era: +16, +56, +20, +13, +27, and, this year, +23. Arguably the third best start in the sixth year of the PC/RW era. Every single one of these years ended in 10 regular season wins and at least one playoff win. The team looks only appreciably worse than 2013 and 2013 was a stupidly good team who got to play the Jacksonville Jaguars in week 3.

And while we might not know for certain if a team is great during the season, we can occasionally see some glimmers of greatness. And the Seahawks, even the recent Seahawks, have provided plenty of those over the years. Despite the impression that the Seahawks have an inordinate amount of close wins, they have been among the best in the NFL at winning big. Over both a 5 year and 3 year sample, half of the games in the NFL are decided by 8 or fewer points. In both the 5 year and 3 year sample, the team with the lowest proportion of one score victories is your Seattle Seahawks. From 2012-2016, 35.7% of their victories were one-score games and from 2014-2016, 31.3% of their games were decided by a single score. That is a more impressive mark than the Patriots over each sample. To reiterate, when the lousy Seattle Seahawks win games, they are more likely to win by more than a score than the ferocious New England Patriots. The Seahawks also haven’t had the benefit of playing the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins 6 times a year.

Over both the last 5 years and the last 3 years, the Seahawks have won 36 and 22 games by at least 8 points, respectively. The Patriots have won 39 and 26 games by at least 8 points. The difference in margin of victory is negligible to 1.5 points. The Seahawks have had about 1-2 fewer multiscore wins than the Patriots over the last couple of seasons. That’s how close they are to the upper echelon of the NFL. You may not be convinced that the Seahawks are better than the Patriots, but maybe it can disabuse you of the notion that the Patriots (or any other “powerhouse”) are an order of magnitude better than the Seahawks.

The 2016 Seahawks were probably the most frustrating Seahawks team to watch in the last 5 years. They finished with a mediocre +62 point differential and lost embarrassingly to Green Bay and Tampa Bay. That team also beat both Super Bowl teams, including the Patriots in Foxboro. The team was on track for the #2 seed before Earl Thomas went down. Y’all can take this one of two ways: either that team was a #2 seed before injuries derailed the season, which means that the relative health of this squad bodes well, or it was a mediocre team, one that still managed to beat both Super Bowl teams, indicating that Super Bowl squads don’t need to be invincible.

It is so hard to diagnose greatness in the middle of season, let alone after just 6 weeks. Only one team in the NFC has fewer losses than the Seahawks. We have the 4th best point differential in the NFC, beat one of the teams ahead of us on the road, and we have more home games than road games ahead of us. I won’t try to convince you that the 2017 Seahawks are great. Yet. But they are just as likely to be great as just about any of the other Seahawks teams in the Russell Wilson era.