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The incomplete athleticism of Cody Barton and Tre Flowers

Seattle Seahawks v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

K.J. Wright’s days of running a 4.75 40 are long behind him, but he’s a much better athlete than Cody Barton. Richard Sherman’s days of running a 4.56 40 are long behind him, but he’s a much better athlete than Tre Flowers. Barton and Flowers could surely school Wright and Sherman in drills, but neither has proven capable of translating that into performance. That is because the elements of athleticism tested at the NFL Combine are incomplete to the point of being potentially misleading.

I like watching gymnastics with my wife though I think it’s an inherently flawed sport. Gymnastics is a sport in which an athlete does not earn points through spontaneous application of their talent and skill toward a goal, but loses points through flaws and mistakes. Routines have predetermined values, making it common for the winner of any given event to be all but certain except for the variable of mistakes. Honestly, it’s a really fascinating distinction with wide implications, but you’re not here to read about that. Barton and maybe Flowers but certainly Barton would make good gymnasts.

The NFL Combine has been called the underwear Olympics. That expression has fallen out of favor, maybe even has a pre-analytics, atavistic quality to it, but it contains truth. Like a sprint or a pole vault or a dive or the vault, a player can drill the specific motions of a short shuttle or three cone drill until they excel. It is, like this, a routine.

Many Olympic athletes are like students who score A’s on their tests by studying hard. They excel at memorization and flawless reproduction of their training. Sports which involve the variable of direct competition, in which one is not performing for judges against an agreed upon standard, tend to expose players too dependent on this kind of “book learning.” Extending the metaphor past exhaustion, you’re not looking for Walter F. Starbuck. You’re looking for the Birdman of Alcatraz.

One play in particular from last week struck me in the gut. I could swamp this in a bunch of jargon, but let’s call this what it is. Barton looks in over his head.

It’s ugly stuff. What actually happened is comparatively less ugly.

Barton, for reasons unknown, thinks Ryan Fitzpatrick is targeting Mike Gesicki. In attempting to recover and stop Matt Breida he overcompensates and misses by a mile. I won’t lie. I wrote most of this before the All-22 came out, and it complicates my interpretation. But while it’s not so stark I think the evidence still suggests that Barton may not be able to translate his timed speed into field speed.

I may not be right. There is an alternative explanation. Not one I agree with but I make many mistakes and am always open to alternative, more hopeful explanations. It’s possible that Barton is a victim of his inexperience. Obviously, if he doesn’t fly over to cover Gesicki, he’s in much better position to stop Breida. He could translate his combine athleticism into game athleticism if only he can get the kind of experience which will allow the game to slow down.

It’s far less possible that the same is true of Tre Flowers. This is his third season and I’ve never seen his performance trend up or down. There has been normal variation but nothing in the way of consistent improvement or decline. Again and again he just doesn’t react quickly enough to do anything but tackle the receiver after the reception. Here’s one way to think about it, playing essentially the same role as Byron Maxwell and Brandon Browner, Flowers has made far more solo tackles and defended far fewer passes.

Browner: 36 games, 36 starts, 104 solo tackles, 40 passes defended

Maxwell: 54 games, 23 starts, 99 solo tackles, 33 passes defended

Flowers: 34 games, 32 starts, 129 solo tackles, 15 passes defended

Neither Browner nor Maxwell were great coverage players either. And Flowers does not have to be great, but I think he has proven too bad to continue receiving snaps even with Quinton Dunbar out. This was baked into trading for Dunbar. I had hoped Flowers would win the job over Dunbar to avoid this scenario, but it’s time for plan C.

As for Barton, my guess is that Barton has outperformed Shaquem Griffin in practice and that accounts for why Barton got the start and the majority of snaps in the early going. Practice isn’t a routine but it’s more routine in that it is less chaotic, more performative, and the actions of Barton’s matchup are likely much more able to be anticipated. While access to practice means coaches are far more informed than fans, I think practice can hide inferior athletes or players in significant athletic decline. I can’t help but think of Brian Russell’s stay in Seattle or how Mike Holmgren seemed to be the only person unaware of how much Shaun Alexander had lost after his MVP season.

This is a fun team that has major potential for improvement. It’s a Super Bowl contender, so much that any team is a Super Bowl contender in Week 4. Against Miami the score was once again made superficially close by a largely meaningless closing drive. But the defense is not Super Bowl caliber at the moment, and while defense doesn’t win championships, most champions have a very good or excellent defense. Above are some harsh takes on two parts of the 4-0 team, but I criticize out of a spirit of hope.

Certain parts of a football team are highly susceptible to the weakest link. Replacing Flowers with Dunbar is patching a hole in the hull with water soluble epoxy. Buying time only works when you’re attempting to survive. The Seahawks wish to go as far from shore as possible. They want to circumnavigate the globe. I simply cannot believe that no one inside or outside the organization can be better and/or more reliable than Dunbar and Flowers.

Playing Barton because Barton shows better in practice, or whatever reason the Seahawks have for refusing to play Griffin more snaps, is a missed opportunity. I am going to go ahead and write something which seems kind of taboo for some reason: I don’t see how having one hand has affected Griffin’s performance. In college he had as many picks as Bobby Wagner, more sacks, passes broken up and forced fumbles. More relevant to his potential is his size but he’s the same size as Malcolm Smith. Smith wasn’t always steady but he was canned heat. That’s Griffin. He’s gonna frustrate some times. He’s gonna disappear. And then he’s gonna do something amazing which dramatically changes the outcome of a game. He’s a game athlete and one whose athleticism pops off the film.

Seattle’s last draft class seemed to mark a major shift away from targeting SPARQ stars. Thank goodness. When the Seahawks wreck face this year, we can all be thankful they did. I believe in the value of the NFL Combine and I also believe it is becoming less valuable. Players are people and people are enterprising. Incentivize people to assume an identity and some will assume that identity. Incentivize people to share an idea and some will share that idea. Incentivize performance as measured by a metric or analytic or whatever and people will gear their performance to excel in that metric. I’ve seen shot blockers in basketball who play terrible interior defense. I’ve seen guys blow assignment after assignment chasing a sack or tackle for a loss. No one used to care about the minor drills of the combine and now guys are zooming up draft boards for running knots, touching turf and beating the stopwatch. It’s dumb. We’re dumb. I’m dumb.

I hope the Seahawks are a little less dumb about ignoring, y’know, this.

Ultimately, I’m ambivalent. Like a Cody Barton tackle attempt maybe I’ve lunged too far one way and not given myself a chance to recover. But it’s time to publish. May you make a fool of me a thousand times over, Mr Barton. So long as it’s playing for Seattle!