Most seasons produce at least one 5-0 team. It is not by itself remarkable. If a team had only a 50% chance of winning every game, it would still have a 3% chance of going 5-0. That team would be perfectly average but exceptionally lucky. Mike Freeman detailed the sad fate of some of those teams which received all of their lucky breaks at the start of the season. The 2020 Seahawks are not such a team. I hope.
There are quite a few posts around the internet detailing the “history” of 5-0 teams. Basically it’s the same information repeated. Instead I wanted to explore the actual history of a couple 5-0 teams which were particularly similar to Seattle. To crib a little from Freeman’s work, the Seahawks are very much not the 1993 Saints or 2009 Broncos. To do this, I had to simplify. No team is exactly like the 2020 Seahawks. But what defines them? What are their salient qualities? This is what I decided:
- Elite offense
- Hall of Fame bound quarterback
- Average or worse defense
- Average to good special teams
The first point does not need much qualification.
One would have to be particularly poor at holistic analysis to question whether Wilson will make the Hall of Fame. It would take the literal apocalypse to prevent Wilson’s enshrinement. Even then, Death would dismount his pale horse and hang a plaque for Russ. Guy may be the slayer or worlds but he’s not daff. Wilson has not only been the best and most important player for a near decade of an often elite offense, but has a higher ANY/A and twice as many game-winning drives in the postseason as Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning. He’s fun, he’s storied, he’s important, and he’s won big. He’s so far to the right of average the bell curve looks to him like a distant escarpment climbed or camped upon by the likes of Matthew Stafford and Andrew Luck. Or something. Guy’s incredible.
Right now, as of 5-0, Seattle’s defense is a bit below average. It allows a ton of yards but it forces turnovers and has been about average at points scored per opponent drive. Two things I would like to know: do these teams ever improve significantly on defense? and what happens if they don’t?
It may seem unfair to rate Seattle’s special teams as only “good,” but rule changes have eliminated any real possibility of a special teams being great. Seattle has added about 9 points through special teams, which projects to about 28 points for the season. The 2007 Bears added 56 points. The 1994 Browns added 50.6 points. Etc. Historically great special teams is likely not possible this season.
So, who do we got? And how did they fare?
2011 Green Bay Packers
How they were like the 2020 Seahawks: The ‘11 Packers were a pass-first offense led by a HOF-bound quarterback in his prime. Green Bay had two no. 1 receivers, Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings. Both were deep threats. Through five games, Jennings had 448 yards and 4 touchdowns. The passing offense was complemented by the committee backfield of Ryan Grant and James Starks.
The defense was just okay, allowing 22.2 points a game, but opportunistic, forcing 13 turnovers through five games. The 2020 Seahawks have forced 10, but only given up four, leading to a comparable turnover differential: Packers +7; Seattle +6. The explosion in scoring masks this fact, but Seattle’s overall defensive performance is very comparable to Green Bay in 2011. The Seahawks rank 19th with a 3.4% DVOA. The Packers ranked 18th with a 7.8% DVOA. Green Bay started the season stifling the run. Both Green Bay and Seattle had their worst performances as a rush defense in weeks 4 and 5.
Like the 2020 Seahawks, the Packers had faced a weak schedule through five weeks, and were projected to face a weak schedule for the remainder of the season.
How they were unlike the 2020 Seahawks: Green Bay soundly beat three of its first five opponents. The closest differential was seven points, and the average differential was 12.4 points. Seattle has only won by a two score differential once. The average differential is 6.8 points.
The Packers were pass-first but not so nearly as pass-first as the Seahawks. Through five games, and counting Rodgers’ 20 scrambles as called passes (which is imprecise I will admit but by necessity), Green Bay ran on 42% of its plays. The Seahawks have only run on 31% of all plays. The Packers offense was also much more efficient, earning a 34.6% DVOA through five weeks. Seattle has a 24.8% DVOA, but both ranked third through five weeks.
Green Bay had 15 sacks through five weeks. Seattle has nine. The Packers had a star pass rusher, Clay Matthews, but he only had one sack through five games.
Punting was Green Bay’s biggest weakness on special teams. Returning was the team’s greatest strength. Randall Cobb returned a kick for a touchdown in Week 1.
How did it turn out: Like a ride toward the cosmos on wings of feathers and wax. Rodgers won the 2011 MVP. The Packers finished 15-1, first in offensive DVOA and overall DVOA, top ten in special teams DVOA, but 24th in defensive DVOA. The cracks which first showed in weeks four and five proved meaningful, as the run defense finished 28th in DVOA. The pass rush fell apart utterly. Green Bay finished last in adjusted sack rate.
Rodgers only appeared on the injury report one time, missing an irrelevant week 17 match against Detroit for purposes of rest. No Seahawks fan likely forgets that particular game. This led to some (I think) silly speculation that Packers’ receivers lost their chemistry with Rodgers in the three weeks between Week 15 and the Divisional Round. Perhaps they were all spoiled by Matt Flynn’s feathery touch. You can read about other speculative reasons for Green Bay’s failure. Which, I think we can all agree, is an appropriate use of an encyclopedia. Or wallow in their fans’ misery if you’d like.
A somewhat better explanation, it seems to me, is that the Packers had the misfortune of facing the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants just as they were metamorphosing into their final form. Green Bay fell behind early, but while never down more than 10 points until late in the fourth quarter, abandoned the run, exposing Rodgers to that now famous pass rush. Between passes, sacks and quarterback runs, Green Bay called a pass 57 times, and ran just 16. Rodgers efficiency numbers plummeted. He finished throwing for 4.74 ANY/A after throwing for 9.39 ANY/A during the regular season.
Now I get if you smell a rat. That seems awfully convenient, a near duplication of my fears regarding the 2020 Seahawks. I will admit that I am probably inclined to fit that narrative to other teams. But I promise that I did not knowingly select the Packers as a comparison to push that narrative. If I am that scheming, it’s unconscious.
Whatever the exact cause, Green Bay essentially fell victim to a team who did the exact thing they did the season before: massively outperform their regular season performance and work a wild card berth into a Super Bowl championship. It happens. I can certainly dig the 2020 Seahawks finishing 15-1. Unlike the 2011 Packers, that regular season would not follow a championship run and whatever additional injury and fatigue which comes with those extra games. And, anyway, life is never so simple. What happened to the 2011 Packers cannot happen except approximately to the 2020 Seahawks.
That’s just one team, and one team’s one team, and not to be overestimated as a comparison. But this post is long. In part two, my criteria given and my bloviations hopefully spent, I will look at one other team which fits the above criteria: the 2006 Indianapolis Colts.