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The Three Seasons of the Seattle Seahawks: The Historic Season

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The great Seahawks defense of 2013 had one inarguably great talent and player: Earl Thomas. If that defense wishes to surpass its great performance of 2013 and become truly historic, it is on young Thomas to develop from a great, potential hall of game safety to an inner circle legend of the gridiron.

Portrait of a man on the verge of a breakout season.
Portrait of a man on the verge of a breakout season.
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

The Historic Team (Second Most Likely)

Record range: 15-1 to 19-0.

Declines or Injury

Sundry: No team makes it through the season without injuries, even significant injuries. The injuries a team of historic greatness endures can best be explained by the anecdote of Earl Morrall.

The undefeated 1972 Dolphins claimed Morrall off waivers from the Colts on April 25, and for $100. The news blurb of this transaction was fewer than a hundred words. Morrall was then 37 and had been for four seasons the extra-competent backup for often injured quarterback Johnny Unitas. Unitas was not aging well. Morrall significantly outperformed Dolphins starter Bob Griese and the Dolphins finished 11-0 in games he started.

It is impossible to know who steps up to replace a seemingly vital player when that player is lost to injury, or how that player is able approximate or even surpass the starter. But when Alvin Bailey proves better than Russell Okung, let's not all be that surprised.

Development/Breakout Players

Russell Wilson

Percy Harvin

The Hit Squad (i.e. the pass rush)

Earl Thomas: The New Greatness of Earl Thomas is a hypothesis built on another hypothesis.

A long time ago, when Pete Carroll and John Schneider were building the trade value of incumbent Seahawks like Darryl Tapp and Josh Wilson, and we were all a little squeamishly learning the theory and implications of a Leo end, a pass-rushing SAM, and other such jargon frighteningly reminiscent of Jim L. Mora's "West Coast Defense," Seattle had two picks in the first half of the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft. That draft, somewhat famously, was loaded with every sort of talent but quarterback, and its star picks are the stars of pro football today--not exclusively, of course, but to some meaningful extent. Half of the first-round's 32 picks have made the Pro Bowl, and Thomas (free safety), Eric Berry (strong safety), Jason Pierre-Paul (4-3 end), Mike Iupati (OG), Maurkice Pouncey (C), and Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant (WR) are all in the discussion for best player at their respective positions. It also graduated a few other names you might know.

That draft season I earned the wrath of many for my very bad player evaluation and my good sense of Carroll's plan for the secondary. I was not a very big fan of Taylor Mays, and I was a big fan of Kam Chancellor, but I somehow believed Carroll knew his own player less well than me. In my defense, it's a hell of thing to learn the ideals and philosophy of NFL general management by studying Tim Ruskell. The reason either player mattered was a hypothesis on how to person and scheme a secondary to combat the increasingly divergent offensive weapons of the modern NFL.

That 2010 draft, notably, also graduated Jimmy Graham, Ron Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Through the 2000s and to this day, the NFL has ever-strengthened rules prohibiting defenders from contacting receivers. The upshot has been a decline in the preeminence of speedy, shifty, savvy receivers like Marvin Harrison and Torry Holt, and the rise of power forward style receivers that do not outrun or evade defenders, but box them out and win the jump ball.

In the NFL, personnel and strategy are inextricably interwoven. If the greatness of Carroll and Schneider may be reduced to a single axiom, it is: Anticipate the evolving tactics of winning football and draft the players that may maximize or maximally counter those tactics. The team's (to the minds of draftniks and junior analysts like me) sometimes bewildering trades and recondite drafting stem from this method.

Carroll has lived football longer than many of us have been alive. He attained true greatness at the college level, and college football is always ahead of NFL football tactically. To combat the new wave of unstoppable receiver, he looked to the past and what then seemed like an obsolete coverage scheme. Only now is most of the NFL catching up and employing press man and Cover 1 schemes, and as those schemes have become common, Seattle has transitioned to a more heavy reliance on Cover 3. This is one of many reasons the Seahawks are not nearly as endangered by new the new emphasis on illegal contact as rivals may hope. Carroll, not two weeks away from 63, is ever the vanguard.

The original Earl Thomas hypothesis was that a ballhawking safety that could play sideline-to-sideline from the deep middle would free larger, slower defensive backs to mitigate and nullify underneath passing. Seattle's dominating Super Bowl victory over "the Greatest Offense ever" was a sterling proof of concept. Among quarterbacks with a hundred or more attempts in 2013, Peyton Manning ranked 29th in percentage of passes thrown deep. Manning and Denver constructed an offense that was not explosive but inexorable, setting an NFL record for first downs and pointedly, passing first downs. Denver ranked 10th in the NFL in running first downs. Denver surpassed New England's scoring record by a mere 17 points, but threw for 50 more passing first downs. The hypothetical greatness of Thomas was not any one play, any one game, any set of plays, or even the value derived from every play he made, though he made many. It was his assumed status as keystone player of the NFL's greatest defense. The one irreplaceable talent. The man whose unique talent made an audacious new old school defense possible.

Rules changed, tactics copied and diluted, it would seem hard enough for the Seahawks to repeat much less surpass their former greatness.

This legendary team, this team that will join the ranks of the Lombardi Packers, the Shula Dolphins, the Gibbs Skins, the Noll Steelers, the Walsh 49ers, the Ditka Bears, the Belichick Patriots, to exist, must anticipate the counter-revolution to its own revolution. But maybe it already has anticipated the new antithesis, the resulting synthesis, and the next three years of this peculiar, mercurial game we love.

If handsy NFL defensive backs are as welcome in NFL 2014 as they might be at an Alpha Lambda Zeta sorority party, we should see a revival of deep passing. Emphasis and adjustment to pass interference vs. defensive holding (that being: ball in the air versus before) is at an equilibrium. Most great receivers win position to get open. The new great corner, think Richard Sherman, legally interferes by tracking the pass, anticipating the catch, and becoming the receiver, and thereby exploiting the more liberal rules for defenders making a play for the ball. The trend chasers, the last men on a dying scene, all drafted big, physical corners these past few drafts in hopes of finding a Sherman. But while they were emulating the 2012 Seahawks, Seattle moved on.

The New Greatness of Earl Thomas hypothesis depends on the playmaking of Thomas more than ever before. The 2010 to 2013 era of Seahawks defenses completed a set of complementary principles that revived many of the bend-but-don't-break methods instituted to retard or stop the Walsh-era 49ers and their imitators. Little wonder then, when explaining what Chris Clemons could be, Carroll referenced Charles Haley. Haley was the elephant to Clemons' LEO. Knowing that short, underneath routes were less vulnerable to pass rush, the Seahawks de-emphasized rush on neutral downs. The 2014 Seattle Seahawks will contend against forward thinking offensive minds who see that as the balance of strategy shifts toward a saturation of big, relatively slow position receivers and defenders, the era of hyper quick, near impossible to cover one-on-one receivers is on the verge of returning.

Seattle didn't overcompensate. It is still fields a big secondary built to battle the still preeminent big receivers of the NFL ca. 2014. But it made one big tactical shift, and that big tactical shift blends well with the shift it made last season toward a Cover 3. It scrapped the big end, the 3-4 style strongside end best embodied by Red Bryant, and moved toward a disruptive, time-shrinking pass rush end in Michael Bennett. The Seahawks are no longer a team that crushes the run and limits yards after catch in order to create favorable passing downs. It is now a team that disrupts the pass first and subs into a run-stopping mode.

And how have Seattle's rivals anticipated the NFL's emphasis on illegal contact penalties? Denver effectively swapped Eric Decker for Emmanuel Sanders. New England started a season early, investing in quantity if not quality: Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman. San Francisco traded for Stevie Johnson. New Orleans drafted Brandin Cooks. You can audit virtually every progressive offense in the NFL. The big inexorables like Demaryius Thomas, Jimmy Graham, Brandon Marshall have all been paired with some quick, agile, elusive former prototype like Sanders, Cooks or now Santonio Holmes.

Proof of the New Earl Thomas Hypothesis will be witnessed as the danger of Thomas surpasses the threat of Thomas. Seahawks opponents will slot up. Seahawks opponents will seek to challenge deep in neutral downs. Seahawks opponents and the greater NFL, year by year, will move on from the fading ranks of former great quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, and toward the new prototype of evasive, strong-armed quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Andrew Luck  and arch-prototype Russell Wilson. The deep ball's coming back, baby, and not the jump ball, but the go, the slant, the stop-and-go, the post corner and the deep crossing route.

For the Seahawks to build on the greatest season in franchise history, they must preserve their effectiveness against mod passing principles while anticipating the emerging post-mod counterforce. No player bears the burden of that transition like Thomas. He is Seattle's most agile, disciplined and field intelligent defender. When Sherm bites on the double move, Thomas must be there. When Byron Maxwell is blown past, Thomas must be there. When Jeremy Lane is matched against the like of Randall Cobb, DeSean Jackson and Tavon Austin, Thomas must be his guardian angel. And when Seattle's Hit Squad of pass rushers roar hell into the backfield forcing wobblers and bad reads, Thomas like he never has before, must punish, punish, punish in 60 yard and six point increments.

NFC West Teams That Are Good:

Doesn't matter.

Flow of the Season

Seahawks crush the Packers.

Seahawks crush the NFL.