What Pete Oughtta Do

There’s a film that is a bit of a lost classic titled Airheads. In it, a rock band of three losers—ironically named The Lone Rangers—commiserates at an LA club as one of their rival bands has just hit the big time. The rival band, named the Sons of Thunder, is wearing baggy pants, MC Hammer-style. In 1994, when the film came out, this made perfect sense—if you knew someone who went to Los Angeles to break into the music industry in the ‘80s or ‘90s, the bands were constantly churning through styles. Makeup exploded, then disappeared. Leather gave way to neon fabrics (or even lace), which then stepped aside for flannel. Mohawks became mullets, and mullets gave way to dreadlocks, or to shaved heads. Clean-shaven guys grew five-o’clock beards, or goatees, then shaved again.

As they commiserate, the Lone Rangers’ lead man, played by Brendan Fraser, says that his band ought to do what the Sons of Thunder did. His bassist, Steve Buscemi, is incredulous—"Look at those stupid pantaloons, looks like they got a load in them." Fraser clarifies: "No, they played this song on the radio, and they got an album. That’s what we gotta do."

It’s a minor part of the movie, and only a little funny, but it illustrates to me an issue that all of us have when discussing football. Look at the Patriots—"That’s what we gotta do." Or maybe this year it’s the Chiefs, "That’s what we oughtta do." Or the 49ers, do that. What is "it," you say? Well, we all want what Brendan Fraser wants: to play our song on the radio, and get signed to a record label. That is, for the Seahawks, we want a Super Bowl. But was it the pantaloons that did it?

It seems that of late the drums have been banging more loudly for the Seahawks to change, and adapt, to don the equivalent of the pantaloons that fashionable teams are wearing, in order to gain the brass ring. From what I’ve read in comments sections after the divisional-round loss to the Packers, there are a lot of fans fed up, getting to a point that some analysts on Twitter and maybe even in the press have pushed for a while. They’re tired of Pete’s goals of establishing the run, of shortening the clock, of falling behind in the first half, of having ineffective offensive line play, of having simplistic defensive schemes, of having simplistic offensive schemes, of wasting timeouts, of taking delays of game, of timidity on fourth down, and on and on. Ultimately, we are sick and tired of NOT WINNING THE SUPER BOWL. Russell Wilson is too good to squander, say these voices.

I must confess that at some point every season, I think the modern game of football has passed Pete Carroll by. I do think as people age they get more set in their ways, and I do know that Carroll attributes his breakthrough as a coach precisely to finding out who he is, and not deviating from it—that is, when he was fired from the Patriots, he took the time to find exactly what he thought was most important, and do it, without exception. If anything, Pete seems more stubborn the last couple years than the ones before. The team starts slow. They have vanilla game plans, and play down to their level of competition. They seem intent on implementing a system that everyone has a LOT of tape on.

But I also know that in almost every season this decade I am surprised, pleasantly, by a Seahawks’ result, and often with the season as a whole. It started at Pete’s hiring: when he announced that he wanted to be able to run, and to stop the run, I thought that was a perfect recipe—IF you were playing Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. In the 2010 NFL, that sounded ridiculous to me. Well, Red Bryant at defensive end was a revelation, stuffing the run on early downs. That run-stuffing tended to make opponents’ passing games less effective too. And then came Beast Quake in the playoffs—hell yes, the running game mattered! Time and again, I wonder if maybe this is the season Pete’s theories are disproved. And usually at some point I am convinced otherwise.

There’s a lot in football that seems obvious in hindsight. But it is almost always in hindsight that it makes sense. The absolute certainty of the neo-analytics crowd gives me a lot of pause, mostly because they’re championing things that, if they were so obvious, would mean that a spread offense with a young gunslinger would have won the Super Bowl every year. That just hasn’t been the case. In football, the sample sizes are almost always too small. A good player can make a transcendent play just often enough to completely throw out the probability of a given result, and by the time the analysts adjust, the paradigm, or next great plan, has changed in return.

Does this mean Pete Carroll is always right? Does it mean we should simply be grateful for the results we have had, historically unprecedented for this franchise and far above average compared to the league as a whole? Or that we should push for MORE Peteball, with close games, and run-centric offenses, and cover-3 defenses that give up far too much to running backs and tight ends in the passing game, and also far too many third-down conversions? Not at all. I do believe every fan has the right to celebrate, or criticize, what they see in a team. But I am far more skeptical that the one thing we oughtta do, whatever it is in that moment, is as obvious as the bloggers and twitterers and journalists say.