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The Seahawks can sustain their success in close games

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

The Seahawks whupped the Falcons in Week 8 of last season. That might seem like an exaggeration given the point differential, but Atlanta’s ability to tighten the score late in the fourth quarter was of superficial value. With six minutes left in the second quarter Seattle’s win probability surpassed 90% and it never dipped below 90% for the rest of the game.

Matt Schaub’s touchdown pass to Austin Hooper with 3:08 remaining improved Atlanta’s chances of winning by about 0.2%, from 0.3% to 0.5%. An exceedingly conservative ensuing drive by Seattle, and probably rightfully conservative, plus a 31-yard punt by Michael Dickson allowed Atlanta to score a freebie field goal. But these were cosmetic tweaks to the outcome of the game. Teams almost never recover onside kicks anymore. Down seven with 1:17 left on the game clock, no timeouts and having to kick off is enough of a lost position that even Stockfish would resign.

I wonder if advanced stats have properly adjusted for the fact that onside kicks are almost never recovered anymore. Prevent defense which exchanges yards and even points for game clock is likely much more viable than it has been in the past. Seattle, who was sixth worst in the NFL at allowing points in the fourth quarter, also did not lose a single game by blowing a fourth quarter lead.

Conversely, and who doesn’t enjoy beginning a new paragraph with “conversely,” Russell Wilson led the NFL in fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. Of particular interest is the changing nature of his play in the fourth quarter. 38 of Wilson’s 75 rush attempts occurred in the fourth quarter. His sack rate dropped all the way to 5.6%. This isn’t a mirage created by conservative play in blowout wins either. Trailing with under four minutes to go, Wilson was sacked in only 3.8% of all dropbacks.

Now it might seem like sack rate should increase if Wilson is taking more risks. For another quarterback, this might be true, but Wilson is a master scrambler. The most conservative thing a quarterback can do while under pressure is throw the ball away. The most aggressive is scramble, because while a quarterback can brace for a hit while looking down field, a quarterback cannot brace for a hit while scrambling. Or, let’s say, it’s very difficult. There’s likely a half-baked stat out there which contradicts this claim, but sometimes common sense prevails over some blinkered stat extracted from a heterogeneous sample which has been molded and shaped to spit out nonsense. I love statistics, and I know when boom times lead to a glut of garbage.

Waiting until it is absolutely necessary to risk his health in order to play his best football accords with Wilson’s unspoken desire to be his very best when it matters most. He wishes to limit the total number of plays which are unusually likely to cause injury. He wants to be fit and healthy in the highest leverage moments. Given that health is ever harder to preserve as the season progresses, that games get exponentially more important in the playoffs, with performance in Week 1 having almost no correlation to who will eventually win the championship, and performance in every playoff game having a 100% correlation with who will win the championship, it’s certainly defensible reasoning. Wilson’s situational scrambling is somewhat akin to load management in the NBA. Very young quarterbacks can surely scramble up a storm while seemingly incurring no great risk, but Wilson’s one of us. He’s 30-something. He wants to play until he’s 40-something. Achieving that will require Wilson to stay healthy and adapt his game to his gradually diminishing athleticism.

One of the major reasons many fear Seattle will decline significantly in 2020 is the Seahawks unusually good performance in close games. Teams cannot typically sustain such an ability. But it’s important to remember that this type of analysis, comparing the specific ability of a wholly unique entity like a person or a team, to the greater population, is really just less misleading, less fallacious. We’ve all been indoctrinated to the ills of small sample size. The alternative, judging the individual by what is generally true of the whole, is also imperfect.

For instance, the overall rate of recovery of fumbles by an offense is typically 50 to 60%. In his career, Wilson has fumbled 74 times but lost only 20! He has recovered 31 of his own fumbles. And according to the analysis of Chase Stuart, the Seahawks have performed in the top five in fumble recovery rate season after season after season after season. I think it’s fair to say that Wilson is better at recovering his own fumbles than is typical! We’re left to judge for ourselves. Which is more right in this case, the larger sample which indicates teams cannot control who recovers a fumble, or the much smaller sample which indicates Wilson is unusually good at doing just that?

That’s the thing. It’s not often said because Moneyball etc., but in sports other than baseball, the statistical revolution is looking an awful lot like Shays’ Rebellion. It’s still nearly impossible to predict the NFL regular season, individual stats are something worse than meaningless by being misleading, and the McNamara Fallacy is very real and very terrifying in its implications. It’s an America thing and I love it but I know it well enough to love it like a wayward brother: Every job, even a job in science, is first a job in sales.

Which is not to say I am not selling you on my own kettle logic here. I can see how I am right and I can see how I am wrong, but you’ve read how I may be wrong. It’s probably almost all you’ve read. Seattle will regress. Seattle is fighting an undertow of mediocrity. The Seahawks are Russell Wilson and a bunch of bit players. Pete Carroll is washed up. It’s former punchline Andy Reid’s league now. It may be no more than a wild heave into double coverage, but I have a very strong intuition that just isn’t true.

Seattle got awfully close to earning a first-round bye and awfully close to ending the season with a losing record, depending on which variables you would like to emphasize. Every bad team has some 9-7 in them and every good team has some 7-9 in them. I wouldn’t wager one dime on which way the Seahawks will turn, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s irrational to have hope. This team has something very few teams have. The 2020 Seahawks have a legitimate chance to win the Super Bowl. I pity the fan who lets some stranger’s spreadsheet steal any of that hope away.