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The Drive: Sins of the Father

St. Louis Rams Rookie Mini Camp Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

My first victory as an analyst came against Shaun Alexander. It was a lucky win built on bad method. I needed credibility. I was a very unpolished writer. I was by no stretch a football expert. I could not really say with any confidence that Alexander was washed up.

Not but a few months before writing at Field Gulls I was in college—a sophomore at Evergreen. Circumstances I will not elaborate on forced me to drop out of school mid-quarter and move back to Vancouver Washington. But I had no home to return to and so lived with my now-wife’s parents for a few weeks before moving into filthy, dangerous and degrading high-density housing. My wife and I could hardly afford the rent. I worked nights at UPS. During the day I would write what were then called “diaries” on Field Gulls. Pick any story from the front page of Field Gulls today and that story likely has ten times the page views as the entire site received on an average day in 2006. I was poor, desperate, underqualified but driven.

And I was lucky. Lucky because the old ways of covering a team were dying out. Lucky because Mike Sando had joined ESPN and left a gaping void in Seahawks coverage. Lucky because online media created a kind of anonymity which allowed me to define my perceived expertise through my work and thus allowed me to punch above my weight. No one could see that I looked like a boy or that I was cribbing much of my football knowhow. I had few rivals and many of the people covering the Seahawks were ready-made straw men.

Sports journalists at that time were more or less embedded with the team. What the team didn’t want them to write they wouldn’t write. Most articles on the Tacoma News Tribune or Seattle Times were comprised of the same few quotes and factoids, only differentiated by sequencing and something which might generously be referred to as voice. That kind of journalism is still prevalent today, but back then, there was little competing coverage. I was lucky to be old for a Millennial but a Millennial and of a fairly typical Millennial sensibility. I took a big swing at a rich, beloved and firmly entrenched player, one who had won the MVP the previous season, and backed my criticism with some insight and, frankly, a lot of nonsense.

Nothing so informed my opinion as the so-called “Curse of 370.” While the original post which explained the Curse of 370 may have been lost down the memory hole, the gist of the idea was simple: A running back who logs 370 or more rushing attempts in a season tends to suffer a sizable decrease in efficiency and production the next season. It’s actually a pretty obvious fallacy. I should have probably recognized that 370 was an arbitrary point chosen to seem logically coherent. And maybe really I did but I did not want to: I was an early adopter of Football Outsiders and my platform and reliance on their data made for a synergistic relationship.

Baseball Prospectus was something of a phenomenon at that time. To put it into perspective, BP introduced me to Pitchfork, and I was far from alone, which gives a sense of BP’s scope and influence in the late 90s. A couple writers from BP founded U.S.S. Mariner, that became a local phenomenon covering the Seattle Mariners, Jeff Sullivan “made Lookout Landing a thing” in his words, and so SB Nation had a kind of spinoff U.S.S. Mariner of its own, and sometime after that, SB Nation started a Seahawks blog. People wanted data analysis. People trusted data analysis. Data analysis became shibboleth by which sports writers could prove they were new school. I linked to FO in almost every post, and given my privilege of writing for an unusually educated, data-savvy and passionate fanbase, I repaid my debt to Football Outsiders with quite a few site views. Field Gulls actually broke their end of the season awards one year.

Nowadays my job at Field Gulls might be generously referred to as an emeritus position. My war is over. I no longer kill myself to enrich those who own the means of production. I do not really know why Kenneth offered me this position, but I approach it lightly, no longer stomach-sick worried about building and protecting the John Morgan Seahawks Expert brand. I don’t have to be custodian of the comments section. I don’t have to pimp myself on social media. I rarely ever read any sort of writing about the Seahawks or even football. And I don’t mean what I am about to write as a critique of any specific writer. Most likely I haven’t read what you have written about Brian Schottenheimer in a post or on Twitter or any other social media platform. But what I’ve gleaned from headlines and email chains with Mookie and chatting on the podcast with Kenneth is that the hiring of Schottenheimer was decried, that initial criticism was buttressed by lots of circumstantial evidence through the offseason, and that quite a few people have wagered credibility on his ultimate failure. He could be their Shaun Alexander if only the Seahawks offense would fail.

Schotty II

My father was an auto mechanic. We could afford a house(!) because he was badly injured at work. Most likely my mother’s child support was covering most of the mortgage payments. Most likely my father was not supposed to work as an auto mechanic after his injury settlement. Possibly that is why we suddenly moved across country from New Hampshire to Oregon. He was very paranoid. That private investigators were very possibly following him, driving by our house, scrutinizing his actions was, shall we say, triggering for someone with a schizotypal personality.

But after living in high density housing in Gladstone Oregon, my father found a house in Vancouver; he made a sizable down payment, received child support, and worked as an auto mechanic. He couldn’t keep a job and many years his cumulative pay put us below the poverty line. I don’t remember much of my father’s advice, he wasn’t taciturn but he wasn’t exactly sage either, but I do remember that he was adamant about me not becoming an auto mechanic. It was dirty, difficult, injurious and low-paying work, he said: become a nurse.

Brian Schottenheimer’s father ... exactly. Brian is presumably a millionaire. And the likelihood that he’s anywhere close to the best possible candidate for his position are extremely remote. If coaching is a skill and it is, and if just about anyone given the opportunity could master that skill, many billions of people who will never be given the chance could very well be more talented than Brian Schottenheimer; could, if given his opportunities, be a better coach than Brian Schottenheimer. Coaching in the NFL is a bit like attaining a title in a feudal system. If you’re within the in-group, life is easy and profitable. At 24, Brian was already working for an NFL team. He was in.

Many years later he failed up into the enviable position of offensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks. His stints as OC in New York and St. Louis were marked by failure. In 2006, the Jets finished 12th in offensive DVOA. Prior to this season that was the lone above average performance for an offense overseen by Schottenheimer. He was let go with coach Mark Richt after a very disappointing season at Georgia. That team finished 81st in offensive efficiency, behind Georgia State. Perhaps he did something esoteric but excellent as quarterbacks coach in Indianapolis over the next two seasons, but it seems much more likely he was simply biding his time working another unbelievably plum job, knowing he would be one of a very small handful of applicants considered when another OC position opened up.

For all those young hustlers probably getting paid jack shit and banking entirely on some remote possibility of making it, Brian was a very easy target.

On Nepotism

My friend Ian got me a job at Pizza Hut. I was 17 and had been fired by Burgerville (after quitting!) and Blimpy’s, but I walked in one day, Ian was working, he vouched for me, and I was being handed a Pizza Hut polo before even filling out an application. That’s about it for me and big breaks. I have filled out so many damn applications, written my resume so many damn times, been desperate to the point of homeless, been an excellent worker many places and promoted many times, but even within the past five years, typically failed to receive even so much as a rejection. I was ignored.

Yet I didn’t say ‘no’ to that position at Pizza Hut, didn’t clutch my pearls in horror when my mom helped my wife get a job at Veterans Affairs, because as easy at is to wax righteous about favoritism, connections and nepotism, doing so we often miss the forest for the trees. Would you help your son or daughter get a job? Your brother or sister? Your friend? Or a friend of a friend or a friend of family? When helping one you love do you think of those many strangers you’ve screwed? So much of what we call systemic bias is in fact many small acts of favoritism, each of which seems wholly justifiable.

Marty Schottenheimer

If you were Marty would you help your son Brian get a job? Of course. And if you were Brian, would you say no? Of course not. It’s an ugly system, and many of the losers are losers for life, inheriting poverty and passing it down to their kids, and yet it is a system partly defined by many modest acts of kindness toward kin and kind, that feel good feel natural are natural and oppress not through persecution but neglect. Most resources are finite and we gather for ourselves and share with those we love and trust. To do otherwise is thought abnormal and cruel.

No doubt Brian Schottenheimer owes much to nepotism. Actually, that’s a bit of a misnomer. Nepotism from Italian nepote means favoritism toward a nephew. Because popes had vowed chastity, a pope’s illegitimate child was called a “nephew,” and we derive the word nepotism from the favor given these illegitimate children. In this way, much of the supposed sin of favoritism was in fact sin of illegitimate birth. Tellingly we do not have a word for favor given a legitimate child, to my knowledge. No doubt Brian owes much to his dad. Most successful people probably do.

Russell’s Inductivist Chicken

Bertrand Russell was born into extreme privilege. No matter. Bertrand Russell created a thought experiment which has since been called “The Inductivist Chicken” or more commonly nowadays “The Inductivist Turkey.” He wrote: “The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.” The point being, no matter how numerous and consistent data, we should be mindful of what we don’t know. The chicken was doomed from the start. Yet all it knew were care and shelter.

Brian Schottenheimer may not have fully earned his job, obviously. Even if we ignore this wider and much more meaningful injustice, Schottenheimer has not succeeded in the opportunities given to him. Maybe. Given his subordinate status in a chain of command, who knows exactly how much he could have succeeded given what was asked of him. Who knows exactly how much he could have succeeded given the players he coached. It’s all a bit murky. But, if we are willing to rely on abductive reasoning, it’s fair to say Schottenheimer has most likely been a good quarterbacks coach but a bad offensive coordinator—living embodiment of the Peter Principle.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks zzSteven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Brian is 45. When Pete Carroll was 45, he was about to be hired by the New England Patriots to be their head coach. By 48, Carroll was a two-time failure at head coach. Et cetera. Carroll is probably more inclined than most to believe Brian Schottenheimer’s best years as a coach are ahead of him. And he just so happens to believe in the foundation of Brian’s scheme.

Marty Schottenheimer was infamous for what is called “Marty Ball.” Marty Ball consists of running on first down, running on second down, and throwing on third down—presumably because distance to the first down marker has forced a throw. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Marty began his 20+ years as a head coach in 1984, when passing was on the rise and Bill Walsh was redefining the nature of NFL offense. Marty won a lot but never won a Super Bowl, and as is the case with Andy Reid, that lack colored perception. Indeed the two make for strange bedfellows, similar in success and reputation, but near opposites as coaches.

Brian brought Marty Ball to Seattle in 2018. Intuitively it’s a bit like bringing back cassette tapes. An idea not beloved in its time which is now so obsolete as to attain ironic charm (or outright scorn). The remaining four teams in the playoffs have the first, third, fourth and fifth best passing offenses, as rated by DVOA. The Chargers ranked second. The Seahawks ranked sixth. Fans love passing. The league office loves fans or at least their time and money, and every year it seems new rules and new interpretations of existing rules further favor passing. Brian has his job because of his father and now Brian is poised to waste the remaining prime of one of the best quarterbacks in the league reviving his father’s notorious run-first offense.

One can almost hear the creak of the door as the man enters with that day’s feed.

The Sins of the Father

Which is to say: I get it. Taking strong positions and being proven right is one of the best ways to make a name for yourself in sports writing. Brian Schottenheimer was pretty low hanging fruit, all things considered. The injustice of his hiring is written right into his name. Yet in the mad dash for views and followers and influence, many ignored that Schotty did very well in his first season, and he did well his way. Seattle ran. Seattle ran a ton. Seattle overachieved, making the playoffs in what was assumed to be a rebuilding year. And Seattle made the playoffs because of the success of their offense.

By weighted DVOA, which is especially valuable in this case because it factors out games in which Earl Thomas played, Seattle ranked seventh in offense, 23rd in defense and 27th in special teams. Weighted DVOA also factors out the Seahawks’ first two weeks, in which Carroll claims to have stopped Schottenheimer from calling the game he wanted. Seattle’s overall DVOA on offense is 8.8%. They’re weighted DVOA is 12.0%. Which lands them above the Chargers (9.1%), Packers (8.5%), and Saints (8.1%).

Brian was a popular target for blame when the Seahawks lost to the Cowboys. But the Cowboys were favored to win—implying no blame is really necessary—and won not simply by stopping Seattle’s run game, but by besting Seattle in all three phases. The Seahawks’ offense was cumulatively positive, earning 3.19 EPA. The defense lost Seattle more than a touchdown, earning -7.14 EPA. Those numbers are not opponent adjusted, and defense was Dallas’s top unit. Its offense ranked 16th by EPA. Its defense ranked 14th, just ahead of the Seahawks. Small difference but not irrelevant.

Specifically, in light of Wilson’s success late in the game, Schottenheimer was blamed for not passing more often earlier. However, this too is incomplete. Seattle’s passing offense netted 4.04 EPA for the game, but 6.39 EPA of that were achieved in Seattle’s final drive. The Seahawks were down 10 points with only 2:08 left in regulation and no timeouts. Though Seattle scored, it needed to pull off an extremely unlikely onside kick to even have a chance to tie or win it. At the very least we can say that late-game success was in unusual circumstances. Circumstances which may not reflect the opportunities found earlier in the game.

Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. deserve plenty of blame. The Seahawks defense has been mediocre the last two seasons. This was somewhat missed for the same reason Seattle’s very good offense was missed: The Seahawks executed a slow, grind ‘em out style. Factoring out pace, Seattle’s defense ranked 12th in points per drive and 23rd in yards per drive. The O ranked 7th and 19th in those same categories.

Special teams coach Brian Schneider deserves lots of blame. Seahawks special teams were a slow leak all season, finishing 24th. Even punting was a problem. Seattle lost 2.2 points of field position punting this season, and that’s astounding. Michael Dickson wasn’t perfect. He out-kicked coverage more than once, and while I could be wrong, my internal chronometer pegs him as a slow punter who needs space and good protection. But guy’s excellent, and if Schneider can’t work around a talent like Dickson, he’s not fit for the job.

Many Seahawks fans do not know the name Brian Schneider. Much love to Mookie, but he needs a bigger target if he’s going to begin his eventual ascendance to managing editor. Seattle’s defense has fallen apart, but Carroll is given the benefit of the doubt for the exact reason Schottenheimer is not: reputation. Calling for Carroll’s ouster wouldn’t wash. Schotty was an easy target. Schotty was more likely to fail. Schotty was saying the wrong things. Schotty was the perfect target for the kind of alarmism which turns the thinnest narrative threads into weeks of coverage.

He enjoyed the kind of favoritism which we should all see as being perfectly normal and reflective of our nature because it is reflective of human nature. Only his father had better gifts to give. Gifts which are as large and exclusive as those given by Marty are off-putting in the same if opposite way my deprivation is off-putting. They’re unusual. My shitty life makes people feel at best pity and if phrased as I have, something like guilt. Brian’s life creates envy. Neither is fun. We are not super inclined to think about our privilege. I am superduper privileged, being an American living in the 21st century. You are very possibly superduper privileged too. But we notice Brian’s privilege, because it extreme. Yet as ground down as I have been by the system, if I could give what Marty gave Brian, I would give what Marty gave Brian.

Brian Schottenheimer is living proof of the intractable nature of corruption and bias. His coaching style seems hostile toward progress. It is old school. It is run first. It is Marty Ball. And it worked. Circling him waiting for failure may pay off, but it is battling injustice with injustice. It is prejudiced, illiberal, and confusing a foolish consistency for rational coherence. Because he didn’t fail, yet, and he may not fail.

I personally do not want him to fail. I’ve no skin in this game but the fun I feel sharing the Seattle Seahawks with millions of other people, and our shared irrational joy and sorrow. Football is trivial. The richness of life it gives millions is not. And for now a whole lot of people have a whole lot of fun riding on the coaching of Marty’s son. So go make your millions Brian making us ecstatically happy. We’ll be damn sure to let you know if you don’t.