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Accountability to Adaptability

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Failure to adapt is planning for failure in the modern NFL

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

There is a lot of blame to go around for the loss to the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football, and I’m sure there are many who are going to parse individual plays, such as the game clinching pick-six. I myself plan on later taking a look at the play of special teams, which overall performed pretty well minus one punt attempt.

But what I want to go over today isn’t a singular tendency, metric, or coach — no matter how badly I want to. What I want to talk about today is a bit of a postmortem, though they aren’t quite done dying yet, so perhaps a mid-mortem on the Pete Carroll Seattle Seahawks.

The punt that never should have been

Don’t get me wrong, I love Michael Dickson probably more than any man should love their team’s punter, but the very first punt of the game demonstrates a long standing tendency within the team’s play calling.

The Seahawks are ignoring the vast amount of evidence that points towards going for it on fourth down beyond midfield, and instead playing to their former strength of being defensively exceptional. If not for Dickson, the decision to punt goes from bad to bewildering.

Seattle, through the miracle of having the best punter in the league since Ray Guy, managed to somehow squeeze 0.3 expected points from a play call that was, on its face, the wrong decision. The worst part? The Seahawks have gotten progressively more conservative on fourth down over the years. As much as it pains me to say, having a punter like Dickson may end up hurting the team, because it enables a further reliance on conservative play calling of a bygone era.

In September of 2014, the New York Times published a handy bot for you, me, anyone to use that lists when to go for it on fourth down. Take a look for yourself. Fourth-and-two at the opponent 44-yard line. The data has been out there for years, free and open.

Burning timeouts and bridges

A tale of a game lost in two tweets:

Look, I’m not saying that Russell Wilson is flawless in general, nor am I saying that he is without fault on this play in particular. That ball should not have been thrown. But the one major complaint I heard from Seattle fans for years was lamenting the predictability of Darrell Bevell’s offense. Here we have an absolutely textbook example on why — if being unpredictable was your goal — the hiring of Brian Schottenheimer does not make sense.

John Gilbert of Field Gulls warned us all of Schottenheimer’s strong predictable tendencies. It took two games before he called the same play, with the same personnel, in the exact same formation.

It took two weeks before Schottenheimer’s predictable nature bit this team in the rear end with a game coffin nailing interception for a touchdown. To call that play, to be that unimaginative after getting into a tiff with your quarterback while burning a timeout is just ridiculous. Great, this really bodes well for the season ahead.

Timeouts are a limited resource whose value has been studied at length. And forgive me for not leaping to the defense of a coach with predictable tendencies over a quarterback and his forth quarter statistics that speak for themselves.

Other examples

We could get into the fact that the coaching staff, according to the ESPN broadcast, told the game crew during half-time the Seahawks needed to “establish the run,” a phenomenon so elusive there is apparently not a single piece of evidence to support it. It’s been written about extensively, heck it was darn near the first thing I went to test as I dipped my toes into NFL play-by-play data. But don’t take my word for it, Football Outsiders wrote about it as well. In 2003.

The data has been out there for years, free and open.

The fact that, despite it being pointed out months in advance, no one on the Seattle staff thought acclimating to the altitude in Week 1 while the air is hotter, and the air density therefore lower, was a thing to be concerned about.

The decision to not use Chris Carson at all in the second half of Monday’s game. And all of this from just the last two weeks.

Expanding further to the draft, we could question selecting a running back in the first, though the Seahawks did avoid the top-20.

I don’t want to belabor the point — more than I have. Suffice to say, there are numerous examples of decisions made by Seattle that are questionable at best given readily available insight.

Crossroads

Teams that start 0-2 seldom make the playoffs, and nothing in the decision making of this team the first two weeks leads me to believe they will buck the trend. We shouldn’t define a season as a success based only on wins or playoff appearances, the process deserves a vote, which is exactly why I am so mad about these last two weeks. In an age where almost anyone can fire up a computer, load a data set of NFL play-by-play data, and find league wide trends, a dearth of knowledge of the current state of the NFL is simply inexcusable.

The NFL of today is not even remotely the same as the Pete Carroll’s first year, information proliferation has accelerated, the edges are being studied, the margins are thinning. The genie is out of the bottle; gone are the days of playing by your gut and calling plays by the seat of your pants. The information age changed baseball, it changed basketball, and it is changing football. Rapidly.

My issue isn’t just that the play calling is predictable. It isn’t just that the decisions don’t make sense in the current era, or that the offensive philosophy isn’t backed by evidence.

It’s that for the last few years, in the face of mounting adversity, trends, and evidence, this team and its decision makers seem to have dug in their heels and doubled down. The push for accountability within the organization is a noble one, it should start at the top with being adaptable to change.

Analytics isn’t just a way to confirm our prior beliefs, it is a way to improve the quality of the team through informed choices and managed risk. What the Seahawks seem to lack even more than someone pointing out where they could do better, is having someone, anyone, at the top to listen.