The Seattle Seahawks just got done playing the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts as part of their tour through the AFC South every four years. Playing that division feels like putting a powerful amulet around my neck, because the last time Seattle faced the Titans and Colts it won the NFL title in 2013 (the Seahawks also played the AFC South during their first Super Bowl run, in 2005*).
Of course the outcomes were reversed back in ’13, as Seattle beat Tennessee after Indianapolis served the Seahawks’ only loss in the first 12 games—a strange come-from-behind affair that saw Seattle roar out to a 12-0 lead in the first quarter before the game sort of turned on those 11th and 12th points when it looked like Jeron Johnson recovered a blocked punt in the end zone that should have put the Seahawks ahead 17-0. Instead, referees ignored clear video evidence and called it a safety, and less than five minutes later the Colts were ahead 14-12 after a 73-yard bomb to T.Y. Hilton and a blocked field goal returned 61 yards for a touchdown by Delano Howell.
Nevertheless, Seattle got off to a hot start in that game typical of it’s early dominance throughout that very good year we all remember so well, right? After all, you don’t get out to an 11-1 lead on the whole league without being able to play elite offensive football from the opening kickoff, right? Right?
Actually you can, it turns out, and the Seahawks did, if you check the books instead of relying on unreliable memories. (This is why we have libraries. Or, pro-football-reference.com.)
If you recall more accurately, Seattle also struggled with the Titans a week later, heading to halftime down 10-7 at home and nearly giving Ryan Fitzpatrick a shot at a game-tying drive when Russell Wilson threw incomplete on 3rd and four just after the two minute warning of the fourth quarter (a defensive penalty let Seattle eventually kneel the ball away). And that was a weak Tennessee group going through a 2-8 stretch that got head coach Mike Munchak fired.
Indeed, the Seahawks scored seven or fewer offensive points in the first half of games eight times in the regular season of that championship year—that’s half the games! The offense managed no more than 3 points before halftime three out of the first four contests. The 2017 edition has already done better than that.
But that’s impossible, you say: Seattle was blowing out teams in 2013. You specifically remember the Seahawks crushing the San Francisco 49ers and destroying the Jacksonville Jaguars within the first few games, heralding the domination from start to finish that became Super Bowl XLVIII.
Well, it’s true Seattle opened up a 24-0 halftime lead over the Jaguars at home in week 3 before cruising 45-17. That Jacksonville squad was also the worst team in the league by DVOA and 28th in defense. But a week earlier on Sunday Night Football, the Seahawks’ control over the 49ers in the first half was limited to a slim 5-0 margin fueled by a holding call in the end zone that scored a safety against San Francisco. The only offensive points before the break didn’t come until a Steven Hauschka field goal with six minutes left in the second quarter.
Seattle eventually ruled the second half, humiliating its rivals 29-3. Yet the offense frequently failed early on, especially the passing game. Wilson had just 32 net yards with two completions on 10 attempts by midgame, with an interception. The Seahawks had three three-and-outs before its field goal “march” that gained only 17 yards following a Cliff Avril sack-fumble that set up the offense at the 49ers’ 29 yard line.
It was a frustrating opening to the highly-anticipated season, considering how the offense had stuttered also on the road against the Carolina Panthers in week 1.
Even the Jaguars game started with a run-run-pass three-and-out of the sort that grinds Seattle fans’ gears to this day, and then immediately after the offense found rhythm against Jacksonville it went out and fell on its face in Houston. Against a Texans team that went 2-14 the Seahawks fell behind 20-3 before the halftime whistle and gathering just 64 offensive yards on 17 plays before the break.
Over and over, the defense and second-half heroics bailed out the Super Bowl Seahawks to power their chase to the NFC’s top seed. Apart from the Jaguars game, the only real period when Seattle got out to big early leads was a three-game run in November against the Atlanta Falcons, Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints when the halftime scores were 23-3, 24-13 and 27-7. Those were key wins that separated the Seahawks in the conference standings, but it was also peak operating that didn’t really return again until the playoffs, as Seattle scored only three first-half touchdowns in the remaining four games. At home against the Arizona Cardinals in week 16, the Seahawks had 47 yards passing and three points by halftime. Seattle was two of eight on third downs in that half and 0-2 in the red zone.
In all, in the first nine games of 2013, the Seahawks outscored their opponents just 92-88 in the combined first halves (including the 24-0 versus Jacksonville). If you subtract defensive scores, they were behind on average in those games. In first and second quarters on the year, Wilson took 26 sacks—60 percent of his sacks on the year, and Seattle also played two overtimes.
All this is to further reinforce how the Seahawks’ slow starts don’t represent any new trend with this team, or necessarily a big problem to worry about. It’s not the result of bad drafting from 2013 to 2015. It’s not a function of failure to restock or replace the Super Bowl offensive line. It’s not poor preparation. It’s not a function of Wilson playing differently. I’m certain Pete Carroll and the coaches aren’t aiming to fall behind, but the 2013 Jacksonville Jaguars notwithstanding football is often not a sport where you get to just exert your will on the opponent right away.
Obviously some teams score more points earlier, and somebody has to score first. Carroll has said out loud in the past that he would prefer to pounce on the other team but he has also been clear that his philosophy involves improving as the game enters the late periods. Traditionally this is taken to mean physically overpowering an opponent, wearing out their fitness or even psychologically discouraging them, but it also involves strategic elements of punching and counterpunching, deploying adjustments and discovering tendencies in-game.
Fans often get impatient about this, but Darrell Bevell’s scripted plays don’t always mean the 15 most effective plays in the book. I’ll write more about this later but often these plays are designed to move the defense off its spot, or learn how the opponent will align against certain sets—establishing a pattern that can be exploited later in the game. It’s like baking a cake: You have to mix the ingredients and then let it cook. You can’t make the batter during the week, because the opponent’s gameplan on Sunday is part of the recipe. And if you ignore that special ingredient someone tackles you in the middle of the kitchen.
I also don’t mean to make excuses for the Seahawks’ poor performance or defend them no matter what. I do hope for the best as a fan, but as a writer I consider myself a genuine football critic—just as much as I’m a film critic or a comic book critic when writing about those forms of entertainment. There are evident problems created by bad blocking and other execution errors. It remains possible the defense as lately constituted is not equipped to erase serious challenges left on the field by the offense. There are certain advantages to not always playing against a deficit, and we know about Seattle’s difficulties when time of possession gets too far out of balance.
But I do find it discouraging as a critic when people constantly look at a cake in the oven, or in the mixing bowl, and wonder why it doesn’t look like a cake. I see the same thing in general complaints that the NFL isn’t as good as it used to be, or that primetime football has gotten lamer and lamer. I think rather that social media has trained us so well to comment on things as they’re happening instead of waiting for them to play out. Often before drama builds and a game gets exciting at the end, the whole universe has agreed that it sucks and isn’t worth our attention.
like imagine if everyone read east of eden at same time & live tweeted it. we would all hate & it would echo & reinforce the boring 1st pgs— Beat Valley (@beat_valley) September 15, 2017
Likewise, the 2013 Seattle Seahawks often put up slow, ineffective and maddening beginnings to games, but 16 out of 19 times everything worked out in the end—especially at the most important ending of all. So sit back and enjoy the 2017 season and see what happens.
To paraphrase Morty Smith: Nobody knows anything, you don’t win games in the first quarter, every season is long and crazy. Let’s remember what watching football was like before Twitter.
*We won’t talk about 2009.