Monday, December 3, 2012

The Morning After: Seahawks Beat Monkey And Bears Senseless, 23-17

Life has a funny way of crafting tests for each of us. Maybe you have a fear of public speaking, and your partner falls ill before the big presentation. Movies like to take things to the extreme. Indiana Jones hates snakes, so he has to cross a pit full of them to escape. It makes things far more entertaining. Seattle entered Sunday's game 1-5 on the road, having lost fourth-quarter leads in three of the four games. They were playing one of their toughest opponents at 10AM, and there was no Caleb Hanie or Jason Campbell to be found that could make things easier. That was not enough. The guys wearing the zebra stripes did their best to evoke memories of the 2005 Super Bowl squad with a series of stupefying and just plain stupid calls that both cost the Seahawks points and provided them for the Bears. That was not enough, either. Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall were having a special day. Cutler's color blindness took a week off as he threw almost exclusively to his own team. Even that was not enough. There had to be 97-yards in front of Seattle with under four minutes to go. The team would have to have their longest touchdown drive of the season against one of the best defenses in football. Advanced NFL Stats does a win probability calculator, and the Seahawks chances of winning were 17% when they started that drive. That dipped down to 4% when they faced 3rd and 14 after the refs called back a Seattle first down with a holding call. It rose to 99% after they scored the go-ahead touchdown and the Bears had to start their drive at their own 14. The road monkey on the Seahawks back even defies mathematical certainties. The obstacles Seattle faced, and created, were downright diabolical, but the Seahawks overcame them all to secure one of the most memorable wins in franchise history.


The game was no more believable after watching it twice. The focus in these tough road losses has largely been on the defense that has been unable to hold late leads. Russell Wilson, and the offense, had a chance to win the game in Miami, but stalled. The same was true in St. Louis, and Arizona, and San Francisco. That unit came achingly close in three of those four games, but could never quite make the one or two plays needed to turn a loss into a win. They made enough winning plays in this game to last two seasons of road games. Wilson has an air of inevitability that surrounds him.

Forget his height. He is re-writing the expectations for rookie quarterbacks of all sizes. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are terrific players, but I wonder how they would be playing if they had less than a third of the reps in mini-camps and training camp, and only started one pre-season game. Wilson is not only outperforming those more heralded players in key statistics like wins (more than RG3), touchdowns (more than both), and passer rating (far better than Luck), but he is now outperforming players like Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Matt Schaub. That's right, Wilson is the 7th rated passer in pro football with a 95.2 rating. And this is not just a recent trend. Wilson is the 5th rated passer since Week 5 when the Seahawks faced the Patriots. Alex Smith is ahead of him, but has only played five games versus Wilson's eight, so consider Wilson the 4th-best at 105.2 in what amounts to a half-season of football.

He is not just putting up sterling numbers, he has led his team to two "walk-off" victories, and three game-winning 4th quarter drives. Two of those came at home. Finding a way to do that on the road, to silence sixty-thousand screaming fans, is an unrealistic expectation for a rookie quarterback. It just so happens that the Seahawks rookie quarterback is unreal.

Some of his best plays Sunday had nothing to do with throwing the football. He took off running just ahead of the two-minute warning and slammed into a Bears corner, before spinning off him and heading out of bounds to stop the clock. The Seahawks on the sideline were whooping it up, making sure the Bears player heard about getting beat up by the undersized quarterback. Wilson kept the ball on the very next play for another run and stiff-armed Charles Tillman, the other Bears corner, down to the ground before waltzing out of bounds. He does it differently than most. There are no primal screams or stares or ball flips. He respects his opponents and the game, and he expects great things, so he sees little reason to celebrate them when they happen.

There were other heroes in this game, but there is no way it happens without Wilson. Matt Hasselbeck and Dave Krieg are clearly the best quarterbacks in franchise history. Neither would have led the team to victory after the game went to overtime. The Seahawks script is so well worn in those situations, it might as well be etched in a tablet. Wilson is closing in on one of the greatest seasons for a Seahawks quarterback. The best passer rating in team history was Hasselbeck's 98.2 in 2005. Wilson's 95.2 would rank as the second-best if he finishes at that level. To give you some more context for how rare this season is, there have only been three seasons where a Seahawks quarterback has finished with a rating over 90.0 in the history of the franchise.

He did, however, do it all alone. Remember those receivers that everyone said were trash early in the year? Sidney Rice finished with 99 yards and his 7th receiving touchdown (one off his career high). Golden Tate finished with 96 yards and his 7th touchdown. As best I can tell, the franchise high for touchdowns between two receivers was in 1985 when Steve Largent and Daryl Turner combined for 19. This pair has 14 with four games left to play. They made tough catches, clutch catches, and made plays with their feet. They were always open. Wilson has just grown into them, and there is still more there. Wilson missed a number of open players. This group can still get better.

The re-emergence of Doug Baldwin was a huge step in that direction. Baldwin has had an injury-riddled sophomore season, but he has been wide open on a number of plays only to see the ball go elsewhere. He got chances on Sunday and took full advantage. He had a couple of crucial 3rd down conversions, including 3rd and 10 in overtime that allowed the team to go for the jugular instead of settling for a field goal. Baldwin also made a key block on Marshawn Lynch's touchdown run in the first half. He was a leading receiver on this team last year for a reason. Wilson will only increase his efficiency by working more with Baldwin.

The knee-jerk reaction is to destroy the defense. After all, that catch to setup the field goal at the end of regulation was one of the worst choke plays you will ever see. The flip side of that is that before that play, the Bears had been limited to 14 points and 300 yards on a day when Cutler was playing great football and the offense gave the Bears the football in Seahawks territory for the first score. Even 17 points is not a bad total. The truth is that I am growing weary of seeing the coaching staff play conservatively with this defense. There were only a handful of blitzes, and they were predictable. The team ended the game with one sack--when Cutler fumbled and Wagner fell on him--and no takeaways. The Bears and Dolphins give the ball away, but the Seahawks managed just one takeaway in those two games, total. That will not translate to winning football over long stretches. The best way to get takeaways is pressuring the passer. This is on the coaches.

Seattle now stands at 7-5 with the Arizona Cardinals coming into CenturyLink. The Cards have lost eight in a row, and will not be in any mood to lose nine. The rest of this season shapes up much like so many of the games Seattle has let slip away this year. In other words, the stage is set for Seattle to make a strong finishing run, but they have to execute in order to realize that potential. You could argue that three of their toughest opponents remain, as they are 0-3 versus the NFC West, and those defenses don't kid around. The obstacles are there to overcome. Seattle took a massive leap over impossibly high hurdles when they won in Chicago. Settle in. The show may just be starting.


1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Such a good analysis. How do you like our chances of winning out the season and getting #2 seed?

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