The Seattle Seahawks fired Darrell Bevell because he was bad. Also, they kept him for seven years because he was amazing.
Both are possible. At once, yes. Why not? Football’s complicated. Maybe the most complex and convoluted of the major sports. And complicated is as complicated does.
Dismissing Bevell (among others!) sends an unmistakable message: Pete Carroll had lost confidence in the man’s ability to lead the offense in 2018. But for anyone prepared to ingest a bit of nuance twenty-four hours after the fact, I’d like to offer four things the firing didn’t mean, and four seemingly conflicting things it did mean, simultaneously. Sometimes even along with why the opposite of each is conceivable too. Yes, I do want you to be dizzy by the final paragraph.
Turn on local sports radio for the soundbite. Go to the facebook comments for the empty hashtags. Read on for the bigger picture, if you can tolerate a cloak of opacity around it all.
Four things firing Darrell Bevell does NOT mean
A) He was a bumbling idiot who stood in the way of even more success. The Seahawks would’ve certainly been better without him in 2011 through 2017.
Bevell was capable of designing plays that worked. It’s not really possible to be top ten in yards per play for four straight seasons (6th in ‘12, 10th in ‘13, 6th in ‘14 and 5th in ‘15) without a knowledge of how to attack defenses with effective plays. It’s not really possible to finish top ten in scoring for those same four seasons without a pretty good idea of how to move the ball toward the proper goalposts.
He was capable at making adjustments. It’s not really possible to lead the league in second-half scoring, like the Seahawks did this year, unless you’re paying attention to what works and what doesn’t. Bevell was a professional offensive coordinator with the skills the job requires — but he did have bad days and good days. Much like his star players. Percy Harvin didn’t always come to work prepared to do his best, and as such had poor days. Jimmy Graham didn’t always catch the easy ones. Russell Wilson still has entire halves where looks a lot like Tim Tebow out there. Of course, RW then proceeds to set an NFL record for most fourth-quarter touchdown passes in a single season. Just like Graham led the league in touchdowns by a tight end. Just like Harvin was untouchable on certain kickoff returns.
There’s no telling what path Wilson’s development would have taken with a different top offensive voice in his ear. Maybe Wilson made a habit to tune Bevell out in favor of quarterbacks coach Carl Smith and head coach Pete Carroll. Maybe Bevell was a non-factor. That would go against dozens of quotes from Wilson over the years, but the same quarterback has also been known to praise his offensive line’s pass protection on many occasions, so every proverbial grain of salt is at your disposal.
We do know, in the end, that under Bevell’s tutelage from near or from afar, Wilson tied a rookie record for most touchdown passes, posted a league-high 110.1 passer rating in 2015, and led the league in total touchdowns in 2017. We know he’s done all that despite an 8.0 sack percentage that would’ve sunk lesser quarterbacks.
Perhaps another offensive wizard gets more out of Wilson in the long run; perhaps the QB with the most impressive early career of this decade would’ve made larger strides with Coordinator X. But the fact remains that Bevell helped coach Wilson into the best quarterback under the age of 30 in the entire NFL. Another coordinator would not be able to exceed that achievement, in comparative terms to Wilson’s peers. There is no category above “best.” Bevell was a part of the team that turned a third-round draft pick into a legitimate MVP contender not once, but twice.
B) The Seahawks offense will now get better.
Small sample size disclaimer, but at least the data is recent, so relevant:
Of course they're celebrating.— John Gilbert (@SeahawksMachine) January 11, 2018
In the last two offseasons 7 teams have changed their offensive coordinator without changing their head coach. 71.4% (5 of 7) of those teams scored fewer points the next season.
I haven't made it to DCs yet.
The immediate odds aren’t with Seattle’s new OC, whoever that is. Still, decent chance New Guy bucks the trend. He has a lot to work with on talent. A top 10 QB, a top 20 receiver, versatile but fragile backfield options, young explosive receivers and two Pro Bowl-level offensive linemen. Who knows about the tight ends. Check back in May.
Even better chance, according to history, though, that New Guy’s offense takes a step back. At least in the short term.
C) Carroll has obviously changed what he wants out of the offense.
Analysts and fans have long called for Carroll to make Wilson the focal point of the offense, more so than he already has. But even as the Seahawks’ run-pass ratio has flirted with 60-40 in the past two seasons, Carroll has given no indication on the record that he wants to depart from the formula that got him this far. Ball control, clock control, court the explosive play, shy away from unnecessary risks, and wear down the opponent with a strong ground game — these are central tenets to Carroll’s philosophy, stated over and over again.
Firing an offensive coordinator could easily mean Bevell didn’t give Carroll enough reason to believe he could lead a transition ino a more RW-based offense. It could also mean that Carroll didn’t want to fire one offensive mind (Tom Cable’s) yet keep the other. Conversely, it could be a sign that Carroll wants to go back to a 2012-2014 run-first style. It could even mean the head coach was frustrated for a long time with Bevell’s performance, and this season marked a breaking point rather than a parting of philosophical ways.
There are too many signs that continue to point away from the long-anticipated permanent transition to a passing offense centered around Wilson.
D) At least Seattle fired him at the right time.
Very not necessarily. Maybe Cable, and Cable alone, should have been axed. Maybe poor offensive line coaching is most responsible for the slow starts and the absence of an effective run game for most of 2016 and 2017. Maybe excessive penalties are more to blame for throwing the Seahawks off schedule in games.
After all, it’s perfectly plausible that the 2018 edition of Darrell Bevell would have displayed creativity the likes of which we saw here —
and here —
and especially here —
Hell, forget everything I just said, maybe the creativity had run its course, and the Seahawks should have let him go after the final play of 2014. That’s not Carroll’s style — but neither is jettisoning two major coaches on the same day while telling a third one he’d be well served by pursuing other opportunities.
There’s no right time to fire a coordinator, until you identify the moment in hindsight. Unfortunately, our present hindsight tech lags somewhat behind our other advances. There is no app for that. Carroll, John Schneider and Paul Allen have to make their decisions in real time.
Four things Bevell’s firing DOES mean
The “fun” here is that the four upcoming insights don’t have to be complementary. In fact, they’re contradictory, on some level or on their face. Yet all simultaneously valid! Because for any serious student of football, multiple conflicting explanations should be borderline comforting. Look at a single play enough times and the reason it fails or succeeds (and the degree of failure and success) often has many prongs. To choose an example we’ll understand all too well, even an unimpeded Aaron Donald pressure up the middle can have a positive outcome for the Seahawks offense, if enough other blue and green-clad components execute well enough.
Even a well-designed, well-timed touchdown throw can be neutered by a flag away from the play, twenty yards and four seconds of clock removed from all the crucial action. Does that make the play worthless or poorly chosen?
Situations around a team sport built on cooperation, coordination, synchronization, human judgment, human error, and chance bounces of a pointy leather ball must have some measure of nuance attached. Practically by definition.
A) Bevell crafted an elite offense within the constraints of Carroll’s vision.
Elite by two metrics: results and efficiency. Scoring ranks from 2011-2017 show the impact of the Wilson-Beast Mode partnership: 23rd, 9th, 10, 8th, 4th, 18th and 11th in scoring.
DVOA liked the Mid-Era Bevell Seahawks offense even more: 2nd, 4th, 7th, 5th, 1st, 16th and 14th.
Reams of stats sit on the sideline still, waiting to be deployed. Hours after the firing was announced, ESPN reporter Mike Sando tweeted out a selective recap of Bevell’s resume.
That is a lot of small numbers for a list on which you want to see small numbers.
Bevell’s willingness to transform his offense and implement the read-option in 2012 unleashed a lot of the success outlined above. Which brings us to...
B) Bevell’s offense was buoyed by generational talents, whose excellence rendered the offense more effective than it would have been with other players.
Few quarterbacks are more evasive than Wilson. The number of guys who turn this play
into a first down might be... one.
Nobody broke tackles like Marshawn Lynch, circa 2013-2014.
Keep in mind Lynch did not play in 2016 at all, and missed nine games in 2015. And he still lapped the field.
Lynch learned the ZBS like a pro. Once he mastered its timing, he continued to move like a swan, crossed with a hammerhead shark, crossed with a stick of dynamite.
So how do you assign blame and credit to a player, players, or a coordinator within the parameters of “elite offense directed by Hall of Famers”? With a lot of humility, that’s how. Stating the Seahawks’ success is owed to one, or only two, of the Wilson-Lynch-Bevell triumvirate is claiming analytical credit that’s not out there for the claiming. Each man played his part. Without one of the three, everything plays out differently.
C) The Seahawks might not have reached either Super Bowl without Bevell. On the other hand, they might have won more than one with a different guy.
Easy to imagine one less win in 2013 with another OC. Why not? A single altered play call, a wholly different playbook, a tighter leash on Wilson’s improvisational genius could all have cost a game here or there. And without home-field advantage in ‘13, there is no reason to fast-forward the Seahawks into XLVIII. As has been documented before, Seattle has only ever advanced to the Super Bowl when it earned home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Easy to imagine the charmed 2014 team not making enough adjustments at midseason, not going on that tear. Bevell was part of the leadership team that steered them back on course. Without him it’s entirely possible the 2014 team looks a lot more like the 2015 one: strong push late, but done in by early losses that forced them on the road in January.
Easy to imagine a different play call at the end of XLIX. A Seahawks team that reaches 2nd and goal from the one, down by four, with time running out, and Not Darrell Bevell on the headset, calls a different play, probably. The trick, however, is getting to XLIX in the first place with a different OC.
Obviously no Bevell means no Malcolm Butler pick, not least of all because everything else plays out differently. Maybe a quick passing offense is installed at some other time in history, and the Hawks ride it to the 2015 Super Bowl, or such. The innumerable parallel football universes are enticing. But where is the portal to them? Because you could charge a lot of money for that trip.
D) It was time for him to go.
OC’s don’t last long. They get promoted, fired, or figured out. In rare cases they stay put and experience success. But that’s not anywhere near typical. Of the 32 coordinators active in October 2017, 26 had been in their position fewer than five years. Bevell finished the year with the second-most seniority in the league. Only Pete Carmichael (nine seasons in New Orleans) had him out-grandfathered.
Also: falling behind consistently harms win probability. Much in this piece is opinion and conjecture and well-grounded supposition, but two facts of the case, which are not disputable, may well have allowed a jury of Seahawks decision-makers to convict Bevell.
FACT 1: Bevell and Cable were part of the team that game-planned an offense that finished 17th and 12th in scoring in successive years. Championship contenders led by dynamic quarterbacks need to finish higher. In each of the last four years, one of the Super Bowl teams has been the top scoring team overall. It’s exceedingly hard to reach — and therefore win — the title game without a good offense. This season, seven of the top eight teams in points scored also won their division.
You have to score many points to win many football games, and a league average amount of points is insufficient.
FACT 2: This season, in the first quarter, 57.4 of Seahawks drives ended in three-and-out. Most in the league. There can be little doubt that drops and penalties contributed to the total. But a well-designed offense does not sputter every time out of the tunnel. A well-designed offense does not go 31 regular-season games without an opening-drive touchdown, like Seattle’s did. Good game planning looks better than that.
An team that has its sights set on another championship does not score three or fewer first-half points five times in a given season. Like the Seahawks just did. Falling behind early harms win probability. Indeed, this year the Seahawks went 1-4 when scoring three points or fewer before half, and 8-3 when they managed four or more.
In some form or another, Bevell’s pre-game and first-half work in 2017 helped doom the season. Letting him go at this time was somewhere between perfectly defensible and perfectly necessary.
The way(s) forward: ahead lies uncertainty, like always
If I can leave you with one thought, it’s this: everything is true at once. Bevell’s offenses peaked at elite; he had significant help along the way; he’s a reason they won one title and didn’t win another; it was time to move on. All four statements fit together.
Now if the above sounds wishy-washy, more Charlie Brown-y than you’d prefer, like someone talking out of both sides of his mouth, that is a criticism I accept with an open mind. Two people can look at the same set of circumstances, especially in football with its myriad moving parts, and come to differing conclusions. Why can’t one person examine the same circumstances and conclude that multiple answers are valid? Why do I have to choose between “Fire his ass, do it now” and “This might backfire”? Or between “He was the right guy” and “He was flawed enough to warrant parting ways”? Why can’t it be both?
Answers can coexist in tension. Why does one question have to line up neatly with one single corresponding answer? (Better stop now before I fling the barn door too wide open and invite discussion of world religions and present politics.)
Replacing Darrell Bevell won’t be hard. Attractive candidates have lined up already at PCJS’ door in Renton, or they will, or the team has his successor picked out as you sit here reading. People here at Field Gulls Dot Com have suggestions.
But we might never know if the new OC is better or worse than Bevell is, or was. Probably both: better in some aspects, worse in others. Because many football questions demand nuanced answers.