Thursday, December 30, 2010

Higher Draft Position Matters, Possibly More Than Playoffs

The debate continues to rage on the InterWeb about whether losing is more beneficial than winning for the Seahawks this Sunday. The basic back and forth is that losing nets the team a higher draft choice, and the team has so many holes that they need it. Fans on the other side of the debate say that winning is always better, and that you can't replicate playoff experience. Many of the folks on the "winning is better" side are treating anyone that suggests losing is better as pariahs, "non-fans," and have no business even attending the game on Sunday. The whole debate is childish and misses the fundamental point that both sides want the same thing, a Seahawks Super Bowl. Neither side is more or less of a fan than the other, and to suggest so is obnoxious. Oddly, the majority of every Internet poll on the topic has heavily tilted towards wanting to win on Sunday, and Brock and Salk spent over an hour *begging* someone to call in that was actually hoping for the team to lose without any luck. To listen to the "winning is better" crew spit venom and build case after case stating how 10 spots in the draft does not matter, you'd think they were the minority fighting to be heard. That's simply not the case. Nearly every fan on both sides of the debate will be cheering on the team come Sunday. I can see both sides, and since the "losing is better" side has so few representatives, I'm going to take a few moments to explain why I can easily see how losing would benefit the team more in the long run.

Let's start by talking about the ultimate goal, a Super Bowl championship. Super Bowl winning teams are dominant. They may not dominate in every aspect, but in the areas they excel, they are generally the best. This could be in the form of the best offensive line in football, the stingiest defense, or the highest-flying offense. These dominant units are made up of dominant players, guys that are either perennial Pro Bowlers. The Pro Bowl is not the best measure of talent for a variety of reasons, so think of players that win their individual battles at a significantly higher rate than their peers. Players like this are almost always drafted. There are a few high-profile exceptions to this rule (e.g., Drew Brees, Randy Moss, Michael Turner), but not many.

Heading into 2010, the Seahawks had exactly zero dominant players. There were literally no players on the roster that were in the top tier at their position. Even worse, most of their best players were their veterans. Guys like Matt Hasselbeck, Lofa Tatupu, and Marcus Trufant. There was no reason to expect those players to grow into more than they already were. That limited the potential of the team going forward. Pete Carroll and John Schneider came in and did two fantastic things that shine through whatever bullshit performances we've witnessed down the stretch. First, they drafted players that are either in the top-tier of their positions already, or are poised to do so in the near future. These are guys like Earl Thomas and Russell Okung. Second, they found players lying around, and put them in position to be potentially viable parts of a championship team. Guys like Red Bryant, Mike Williams, Colin Cole, Brandon Mebane, Chris Clemons, Lawyer Milloy, Ben Obamanu, and Brandon Stokley are all playing better this year than they have in years. If the team had more depth, and more dominant talent around them, each of these guys could line up on a contending team. Making good draft choices, and then maximizing the talent you have is a great way to build toward the upper echelon personnel you need to compete for the big prize. It's also a long process, especially given where the Seahawks entered the 2010 off-season.

The other thing that almost every Super Bowl champion has is a top quarterback. In many cases, the surrounding talent does not matter without the dominant QB. The Colts would have been a borderline playoff team, at best, without Peyton Manning all these years. The Pats are nowhere near Super Bowl contenders without Brady. The Saints are not in the playoffs without Brees. Even being good at that position is often not enough. Matt Schaub is a darn good QB, and the Texans have some talent around him, but they can't even make the playoffs. The opposite is almost never true. Great quarterbacks rarely are sitting home watching the playoffs. Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers may be rare exceptions this year.

No Seahawk fan needs a primer on the team's QB situation. Even if Matt Hasselbeck was playing the best ball of his career, which he is not, he will probably not be around when the overall roster is ready to compete for a championship. The team needs a new QB that can grow with the team, and be ready to take the helm by  2012, at the latest. Teams get great championship quarterbacks through the draft. Again, rare exceptions like Brees or 2009 Brett Favre or Kurt Warner come along now and then. Counting on a free agent to get you to the promised land is a major gamble. As covered earlier on this blog, there are a variety of QB options that could be available outside the draft. There are also 3-5 first round-quality QBs in the 2011 draft.

Finally, the best way to even reach a Super Bowl is to gain home field advantage throughout and get a bye week to start. You need to at least win your division to accomplish this feat. The old adage, "to escape a bear, you don't need to be faster than the bear, just faster than your friends," applies here. You must be the best team in your division to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Looking around the NFC West, it would be easy to feel comfortable that there is no reason to worry on this front. That would be incorrect. The Seahawks still have arguably the least talented roster of any team in this division, and are still older at many positions. The Rams have their franchise QB, and will only get better. The Cardinals have a young and talented offensive line, good running backs, great WRs, and a playmaking defense. They are a quarterback away from being division contenders again. The 49ers have all the pieces except a quarterback and a coach. Each of these teams has fewer things they need to become contenders than the Seahawks. Carroll and Schneider's near-perfect off-season may have helped keep the Seahawks out of a multi-year cellar dwelling. And as bad as the Matt Hasselbeck has been at times, this team would have been lucky to win 3-4 games with Charlie Whitehurst in his place. The Seahawks are much closer to sliding off the mountain than they are to reaching its peak. The Cardinals are going to have the highest pick of the NFC West teams, and should be able to pick a potential franchise QB if there is one to be had beyond the #1 pick. Even if they use the pick another way, they might be a team that goes hard after a veteran via a trade since their window is closing.

Take a step back and acknowledge that the Seahawks have zero currently dominant players, are closer to quarterback chaos than a quarterback solution, and that their division foes have fewer holes to plug, and then ask yourself if making the playoffs will help address any of those issues. Then, ask yourself, what the odds are of the Seahawks wining the Super Bowl this season. If the odds are as long as we all know they are, why does making it to the playoffs matter so much? Are we all Howard Lincoln, just trying to be competitive, without ever winning the big game? That's not for me. I'd rather miss the playoffs for five straight years and win the Super Bowl once than make the playoffs for a decade and never win it at all.

Many are making the point that the difference between picking #21 (the spot the Seahawks pick if they lose in the first playoff game) and #10 is negligible. That's bullshit. Total, and complete, bullshit. Are great players picked at #21 or later? Absolutely. That counts on every team ahead of you missing on that great player. Pick at #10, and you get eleven additional players to choose from that would not be there at #21. How valuable is it? The Philadelphia Eagles traded up from #24 to #13 last year, and surrendered two 3rd round picks to gain those 11 spots. The Seahawks have no 3rd round pick this year. Maybe they decide not to draft a player at #10, and instead move back to #21 for two third round picks or more. Maybe they decide to draft the player they want at #10. Maybe the Eagles would be interested in a #10 pick for Kevin Kolb, but would want more than the #21. Maybe they package some picks and move up to draft the next great quarterback.The point is the Seahawks would have a choice. There are fewer choices at #21. None of this means making the playoffs is a bad thing. I will be cheering my head off on Sunday for the team to win, and then will cheer my head off at the playoff game.

The point is that missing the playoffs has many, many benefits that more logically lead to adding the parts necessary to be a championship team. Recognizing those benefits does not make you less of a fan. Just as cheering for a team that has zero chance of making the Super Bowl doesn't make you foolish. Both sides want the same thing for the franchise, there is just a difference of opinion in how best to get there. It would be great if the 12th man could spend less time tearing each other down, and more time building each other up for the biggest home regular season finale in 20+ years. Let's go kick some ass on Sunday, and let the rest figure itself out.

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