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The Drive: Anguish of Rebirth

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Seattle Seahawks v Oakland Raiders Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Pete Carroll said something very wise a few weeks back, and I don’t know if it received enough attention.

There’s this rejuvenation to every season that we have that’s a remarkable part of our business that sometimes we don’t talk about enough. The newness, the challenges, the unknown, the expectations and the uncertainty of all of it makes this very exciting.”

(In fact, I could not find the quote I was looking for. This is pretty close.)

That it did not receive much attention is perhaps indicative of why it’s so wise. The media almost cannot help but fixate on older players who are often well past their respective primes. We recognize achievement retroactively, of course, and when an athlete (or actor, writer, director, comedian, & c.) has established themselves as “great,” that reputation is endowed with inertia. A great player, whatever they do and however good they still are, meets a journalistic need for prominence. And, because we’re talking about humans interacting with humans, humans creating enduring relationships with humans, and a massively unbalanced power structure between journalist and athlete, those journalists are heavily incentivized to promote and if necessary defend those athletes they have developed a relationship with. The sideshow of coverage which surrounds and often overshadows the game itself, and which is almost condescendingly simplistic and direct, reinforces the reputation of greatness just as the player’s reputation and fans reinforces the legitimacy of the coverage. This is sometimes called “brand synergy,” but brands do not play football.

It is very hard to determine season to season exactly how good a player is, and it’s hard to discredit a player with a reputation of greatness. Hard, especially, because people become fans of a specific player, and pride combined with ignorance has a way of producing chauvinism. Not nationalist in this case, but a kind of blind loyalty which manifests what it perceives as the virtue of loyalty in a kind of stubborn, wounded, unwavering need to protect and defend the player, often belligerently. And not just against so-called “haters,” but in a way, against the dispassionate and grim march of time.

Most likely the very few who ever achieve greatness in anything will only be great for a very short time. Those who never achieve greatness are most likely nevertheless still the very best they will ever be for a short amount of time, and in athletics, that time will most likely be when they are very young. As certain performance enhancing drugs are purged from widespread use, that window creeps ever forward in time, so that increasingly nothing is so valuable as a star player on a rookie contract. Sometime soon that player will be rewarded for their greatness, and given the fact that the free agent market tends to be pretty efficient, it will become increasingly unlikely that that player will be able to achieve surplus value. The player has been paid for what they’ve done as early senescence eats away at what they can do. This is often called the “winner’s curse,” as the winner of a free agent bidding war is the team which submitted the highest bid. The player is signed but at the maximum realistic range of their value.

In his disarming way, ever accentuating the positive, Carroll explained to the world why he is one of the best head coaches in the NFL. He’s a football rat, understands the game and specifically his style of defense exceptionally well, trusts his evaluation and the evaluation of the Seattle Seahawks’ brain-trust, and understands how the media inherently distorts the truth; how its access to a megaphone, if you will, should not be confused with authority. It is possible to be very loud, very influential, and over-brimming with confidence, and yet comically wrong. This:

I think it’s fair to say, is the apex position for proper punditry. But sports, God bless sports, allows an interested person to bypass the filter. Admitting the irony of my writing the above, all of the above, let us look at some of Seattle’s un-great defenders in the very midst of their ascendance. These are unheralded dudes who will face a thousand pitfalls before they are given a chance to be paid what they are worth. Many, maybe most, will never reach that place in which the market compensates them for years of exploitation. Yet they’re ballin. They are the blood and breath of a top-five defense.

We start here:

Michael Dickson has achieved 1.20 expected points of value by turning a quickly-stalled drive which achieved -8 yards of field position into first and ten from the Oakland 12 for the Raiders. Much of that value will be immediately lost.

The camera does not switch away from an inflated white ball being volleyed around Wembley until the defense is set, but a funny thing happens. Here is the Raiders’ initial look from a different camera angle.

It’s a very unbalanced look, with three Raiders’ skill position players to the right of center and only one to the left. It mismatches Seattle, insomuch that LEO Frank Clark and weakside linebacker Austin Calitro are aligned opposite the presumed strong side. Before the snap, Oakland motions out of this potential advantage.

I do not want to say Jon Gruden’s offense is bland, predictable and outdated, but it sure seems like Seattle anticipated Oakland’s alignment after motion, meaning the Raiders essentially motioned into a disadvantage. Clark is better aligned. Seattle’s strong defenders are aligned to the strong side. Tedric Thompson can shade towards both likely deep threats: Martavis Bryant and Jared Cook. But the underneath route to Marshawn Lynch works like a charm.

Derek Carrier, just above the skycam, is a blocker in waiting. Lynch is totally open, including a throwing lane and no underneath coverage. 86, Lee Smith, does not have an obvious throwing lane, especially given the shallowness of his route. And Cook (O) is defended over, under and by the sideline:

I think lots of tape analysis ignores throwing lanes and underneath coverage, preferring to excoriate quarterbacks for missing open receivers, and failing to recognize that by an NFL-standard, those receivers are not open.

(y) is Austin Calitro, and (x) is Shaquill Griffin. Both are deeper than what we would probably consider ideal, and I think both are deeper than ideal for the same reason: Calitro is not quick enough to play Mike in a Pete Carroll defense. Given the alignment, Calitro is the de facto middle linebacker. Both are hedging in order to avoid “breaking,” and that opens a ton of room underneath. Quill does a good job of not cheating too badly. He is able to close off his third of the field and initiate the tackle which stops Lynch after a gain of 13.

You know that part and so we will move onto the next play.

It can be understood pretty simply. It also, it turns out, didn’t count.

Play action sucks up the underneath defender Bobby Wagner (O).

And though he scrambles to get back and signals to Tre Flowers as a means of compensating for his misread, Flowers (x) is not able to switch his zone assignment fast enough to stop Amari Cooper.

I like this picture because you can see Wagner (z) desperately attempting to catch up. And you can see the dynamic nature of zone coverage. (y) is Quill, and Quill is assigned the defensive left of Seattle’s three deep zone, but is exactly between the hash marks. No Raider is left or outside of his coverage. In this way football is like world football (soccer): zones are not circles marked on the field like one would see in a video game, but dynamic proximal locations determined by relationships. Cooper’s route busts Flowers’ zone by beginning on the offensive right and sweeping left across the field, targeting the weak point in which Flowers must pass off Bryant (the Raider by Quill in the above image) to Shaq and Tedric. With a little help from Wagner, Flowers is on it pretty quick, and thanks to young legs and good coaching, Flowers limits Cooper’s yards after catch.

This is all wiped by out by pretty obvious holding by Jon Feliciano of Shamar Stephen, but that holding is also pretty much irrelevant to the outcome of the play. What remains is teachable tape.

Time constraints and my extreme verbosity will force me to split this analysis into two parts. My apologies, time is not my ally this fall. But before we pick up this drive next week, let me look at one last play.

Our initial look:

Which turns into a kind of shambolic screen pass:

That is ended by #90 Jarran Reed.

Reed begins the snap by playing left defensive tackle, specifically the three technique. He splits a guard-tackle double team, but so doing gets washed out way away from Richard. He’s the fella facing away from the camera and with his arm out and jersey apparently reading “Ə0” in the above screen grab. Also of note is Nazair Jones, who is just inside the goal post and peaking out from behind 76, Feliciano. Jones will effectively stay away from Feliciano long enough to both close Richard’s “rush” lane, and “force” right guard Gabe Jackson (66), into doubling him. That allows Reed to take a relatively flat angle of pursuit and trip up Richard after a short gain.

Clark and Quinton Jefferson deserve a little credit for rallying to the ball, and Mingo channels Richard toward the middle and therefore toward Reed, but this is Reed’s play. Someday too late, some interested party will point out how, as a gap-sound do-everything defensive tackle who gets push, can separate from a blocker at will, hustles his ass off and is a pretty good pass rusher, Reed is one of the better defensive tackles in football. Maybe if we’re lucky, when that’s said, it will still be true.