Recently Brian wrote Let’s Talk About Pete Carroll. Describing it as “part journal, part analysis”, it’s a pretty comprehensive collection of many of the different discussions being had right now around Pete Carroll and the Seahawks. I think the perspective he shares is one that’s representative of many Seahawks fans. I’d encourage you to read it if you haven’t already.

There are a few things in the post that I took issue with and a few things I disagreed with. So having myself been triggered, and in the interest of furthering the dialogue, I’ve written a response.

Beyond Football – The Ungrateful Nerds

“This general premise that we have a major problem that needs to be solved always feels a bit spoiled to me. It’s like getting out the pitchforks and torches because you were only served cookies when you also wanted ice cream.”

Something I firmly believe is that there’s no right way to be a fan. Some people are cold and objective, some passionately hopeful, some connect to the team through the personalities of the players and coaches, some connect through a team’s community of fans, and some connect through traditions. Your reason for loving football, your reason for loving the Seahawks, is every bit as good as anyone else’s. 

And at the end of the day, no matter what type of fan you are, we all want Seattle to have the best possible football team.

The beyond football arguments Brian makes (and that others have also made) loses sight of this. There is an assumption of bad faith on the part of those, particularly the analytics crowd, who are skeptical of Pete Carroll.

“I do not see that humility from some in the analytics crowd. They share out data that backs up a perspective they have (I realize they would reverse that) and seem to hold it up as proof that they know more than Carroll.”

There’s a lot to untangle here, but this is a major accusation. It insinuates that the many folks, including myself, who have replicated advanced analytics findings are lying. Or at least being deceitful. And it insinuates the purpose of this lie is to undermine Pete Carroll. 

Setting aside the seriousness of questioning someone’s honesty this way, this argument crosses over from “I disagree with your evaluation of Pete Carroll” to “I disagree that you want what’s best for the Seahawks.” It treats support of Pete Carroll as a litmus test for support of the Seahawks, the result of which is a laundry list of mischaracterizations.

One major mischaracterization is of the analytics crowd beliefs about their own football knowledge. Not only is no one is claiming to know more about football than Pete Carroll, the analytics crowd openly acknowledges that Pete and all other NFL coaches know far more about football. The disagreements are about how to best optimize certain decisions based on the play by play data, not from anyone’s personal knowledge of the game. The argument is that teams should pass more on first down, not that a data scientist should be deciding which pass to call.

Another mischaracterization of the analytics crowd is regarding how replaceable Pete Carroll might be.

“This notion that moving on from Carroll will automatically result in improvement feels like a major leap of faith”

In his recent article on Pete Carroll, Ben Baldwin specifically addresses this. Acknowledging that coaching changes are risky and that nothing is guaranteed in sports, he goes on to discuss the possible organization overturn that could come with a change at head coach.

“Another benefit of Carroll’s continued tenure is the stability he brings. Especially given the ownership change following the passing of Paul Allen, Carroll is the primary source of continuity in the organization. A new head coach could mean new position coaches, scouts, support staff, organizational philosophy and maybe even general manager.”

Ben Baldwin

Those arguing for replacing Pete are doing so based on the possible rewards, not because there is no risk.

Let’s end the commentary on the analytics crowd by discussing this last quote.

“I would also love to see more frequent moments when the reaction to a team or player defying probabilities is to dig in to understand why in the hopes of feeding that back into the system instead of immediately discrediting it as an outlier or irrelevant.”

Here is a collection of 33 different articles supporting several of the most common arguments by the analytics community. Every year, NFL Football Operations holds the Big Data Bowl which had over 1,200 submissions in 2019. Many more people, outside of Seahawks fans and across other sports, are playing with data and sharing what they’re learning on Twitter and blogs. All of this is being done to better understand the game, test truisms, explore questions that have arisen from previous findings, and to push the boundaries of what we can learn from analytics. 

You can disagree with certain findings, you can remain confident that new sources of data will invalidate beliefs based on existing data, but you cannot accuse the nerds of a shortage of curiosity.

Football Stuff – Searching For An Argument For Pete

Many of the football arguments laid out in favor of Pete Carroll are confusing and often seem at odds with each other. Pete’s correct to believe in the importance of defense based on recent Super Bowl winners, but many teams have won Super Bowls with mediocre defenses. His belief in a strong running game is sound, but their focus on building a strong running game has hurt them. Analytics have overblown the importance of early down passing, but Pete should be credited for passing more on early downs. Pete deserves more credit for his role in personnel decisions, but has also seen his defense fall apart because of lack of talent.

In fairness, any good evaluation of a head coach will be nuanced. It’s even more complicated when the head coach also leads the front office. But it’s hard not to feel like the goal posts are moving with some of these arguments.

That said, there’s several interesting points that I’ll address.

“Pete’s philosophy is outdated”

“The same folks who admonish Carroll for the formula he believes in, celebrate John Harbaugh and Kyle Shanahan for following that formula.”

It’s hard to understand how this sentence could be written by the same person who has accused the analytics crowd of cooking the numbers in order to advance a certain perspective. Regardless, it’s worth pulling apart.

On the surface it’s easy to compare San Francisco, Baltimore, and Seattle’s philosophies in 2019, but they are important distinctions. Maybe the biggest difference between these teams came on fourth down. The Niners went for fourth down nearly 3 times as often as Seattle, ranking seventh in the league. The Ravens went for fourth down over 4 times as often, ranking first in the league. Seattle ranked just 30th in fourth down rate. This was a major factor in the praise Harbaugh received, and the criticism Pete Carroll received, from the analytics crowd. 

Another difference is in the effectiveness of Baltimore and Seattle’s rushing games. By any measure, Baltimore’s run game was far better than Seattle’s.

MetricSEABAL
Success Rate51%55%
EPA/Rush-0.070.12
DVOA2.7%21.1%
Yards/Carry4.65.5

Baltimore’s EPA per rush actually exceeded Seattle EPA per dropback and would’ve ranked 12th in the league amongst passing offenses! Analytics have been anti-run because rushing offenses are almost always significantly worse than passing offenses. Only 7 teams had a positive EPA per play this season while 21 passing offenses had a positive EPA per play. Baltimore bucked that trend this season, putting together a rushing offense that was successful in its own right. And in turn they were praised by the analytics crowd.

Seattle has had some pretty effective rushing attacks, though maybe not as many as you would expect given the emphasis they place on running the ball.

There’s a distinction worth making between San Francisco and Seattle’s rushing games as well. The two teams were similarly effective running the ball, and San Francisco was actually the run heavier team in the aggregate. When you consider game state, however, there is a significant difference in their pass rates.

San Francisco was a pass happier team than Seattle in nearly every situation, they were simply leading more often than Seattle.

These are clear differences that, at least in part, explain why many fans praise Baltimore and San Francisco while criticizing Seattle. It’s not coming from any bias against Pete.

“But they have not been to a Super Bowl in five years”

This is another mischaracterization, especially if directed at the analytics crowd. As Brian laid out, winning Super Bowls is hard. The bigger criticism is that Seattle has not won many playoff games since the 2014 season. 3 Wild Card round wins is somewhat disappointing, especially considering how they’ve followed up those wins.

“Russ deserves most of the credit for the Seahawks Super Bowl teams”

There’s a lot of truth to what Brian said regarding the improvements from 2011 to 2012. The LOB was a historic defense and, while many of the key pieces were in place in 2011, there were significant additions in 2012. The rushing attack also improved between 2011 and 2012.

But it’s hard to argue that Russell’s addition didn’t have the biggest impact on the 2012 team. They went from the 21st ranked pass offense by DVOA in 2011 to the 4th ranked pass offense in 2012. Their EPA per dropback took a huge leap as well.

Their rushing offense went from 14th to 1st by DVOA, and their defense went from 10th to 2nd. The entire team improved, and many people deserve credit for that. But you don’t have to have an agenda against Pete to think Russell deserves most of the credit for Seattle’s Super Bowl teams.

Why I Believe Pete is the [Redacted] Bet

“If Carroll cannot fashion a top ten or even top fifteen defense over this offseason, it starts to make more sense to roll the dice with an offensive coach who can potentially score more points and hope they find a clever defensive coordinator somewhere… If you do have significant doubts about Carroll, now would be the time to make the change.”

Some fans are willing to give Pete a lifetime contract for bringing a Lombardi trophy to Seattle. Honestly, I can respect that. We’re all fans for different reasons and in different ways and Pete’s cemented himself as a legendary figure in Seattle sports.

If you’re a different kind of fan, I think Brian sums up the key question of What To Do With Pete Carroll pretty well. What is your confidence level in Pete going forward? Can he recreate and sustain a great defense? Will he change his approach to fourth downs? Will he adapt his offensive gameplan in significant ways? And if not, can he find a way to create a truly successful rushing offense? What are the odds?

Many people are willing to give Pete the benefit of doubt on those questions based on his resume of success. That’s not unreasonable. But others are skeptical, and that skepticism is not unfounded.

11 Responses

  1. Andy J

    Isolating data, for example going for it on 4th down, to make holistic judgement about a team is folly. Yes, advocate for adjustments, but yes show some damn humility. I spend my professional life surrounded by an analytics revolution that hinders more than it helps, and is purposefully myopic about what it cannot explain.

    Please have your damn analytics evaluate the Seahawks salary cap catastrophe these past few years and lack of roster talent. This is not the year to dismiss Pete Carroll when he finally has the opportunity to field a Super Bowl team. All I ask is that y’all own your bad takes when we’re a contender again.

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  2. Joel

    Thanks for writing this. I was shocked to read Brian’s article and discover that he not only believes the analytics crowd is attempting to gaslight the fan base but his contention that those who are criticizing Pete are bigger fans of Russell Wilson than they are of the Seahawks. Both of those statements are asinine while the latter is incredibly condescending.

    I personally lost an immense amount of respect for Brian and his opinions of the fan base reading his article, which seemed to be about dunking on some of the hot takes on twitter rather than actively addressing the criticisms of Pete’s coaching.

    I hope Brian reads this and reflects a bit on his role via his article in hindering, not helping, the discourse. Tribalism in this fan base over Pete and Russ was bad enough without his inflammatory opinion piece, and I saw folks using that article to dunk on Seahawks twitter and analytics all day Monday. We’re all fans of this team regardless of our opinions, and I’d hope Brian would use his bully pulpit to address the entire fan base rather than denigrating a large contingent of us.

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    • DancingBuddha

      Or maybe one could realise that Brian did not personally attack anyone and has said far less than the analytics Twitter crowd says every day about Carroll so I really don’t get why sauce for the goose is apparently poison for the gander now. Analytics is amazing and has a lot to teach us, the Seahawks analytics crowd is some of the biggest roadblocks to getting anyone to buy in just because of the condescending nature of the conversation that Brian encapsulated so well. . Two things can both be true. In this case, they are. Its kinda hilarious how we have this sentitivity outburst from the same lotonly data matters and make a very public production of how they don’t care about feelings, only data.

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      • Kyle

        Thanks Buddha. The analytics crowd is regularly belittling and insulting. Brian stands firmly next to them, listens to them, puts some of their members on his podcasts, and takes what is useful from them in his own analysis. But when he puts out an article that explains their excesses, they “lose all respect”? That doesn’t sound like there was any respect to begin with.

  3. Rich

    Analytics may tell us something about tactics, but they say nothing about team and culture – the most important part of coaching. Building a team culture and getting the right people on the bus are far more important than tactics. That’s what Pete excels at. In her book on mindset, Dr. Dwerk talked about the success of another sexagenarian coach (Brian’s right about the ageism underlying many of Pete’s critics) – UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. Coach Wooden often said he was tactically and strategically average. Yet he won ten NCAA national basketball championships, including seven in a row. One of the main reasons he was so successful was because he was good at getting players to fill roles as part of a team. He once said, “I believe, for example, I could have made Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] the greatest scorer in college history. I could have done that by developing the team around that ability of his. Would we have won three national championships while he was at UCLA? Never.” It’s not surprising that Pete attributes the development of his “win forever” philosophy to his reading a book by John Wooden. Pete may not be the greatest tactician the Seahawks have ever had, but he is certainly the Seahawks greatest coach ever.

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    • Jonathan Ullberg

      I think this is a key comment. I believe analytics tells us that passing is more valuable than running, and teams tend to be too conservative on 4th down. Both sins that can be attributed to Pete Carroll. Add on to that his bad clock management, and it’s very clear that he has faults that hold him back from being as good of a coach as he could be, thereby holding us back from the highest possible rewards of NFC Championships and Superbowl appearances and wins.

      That being said, there is a difference between pointing out Pete’s flaws and holding him accountable, and assuming that a new hire would be as successful, and I believe the analytics crowd fails to assess the value of Pete’s culture building. Many great coordinators have become terrible coaches, and from anecdotal evidence, I believe it has to do with “losing the room”. Their inability to get their team to buy in and to build a culture that is sustainable is too much to overcome with perfect in-game decision making and play calling.

      The problem is that it is hard to pinpoint the value of culture in a spreadsheet, and so most of the arguments for Pete’s skill in that regard come from looking at his career in total. We can look at his consistent 10+ win seasons and playoff appearances and use that as an argument for Pete’s ability to build a culture that overcomes his in-game flaws. Unfortunately, that correlation is much harder to prove than success and EPA added by going for it on 4th down vs punting. That doesn’t mean that its value is lower because it can’t be proven with a spreadsheet.

      In the end, we should all be looking at statistics and analytics to help us appreciate the game we love, and bring more context on what we are seeing on TV, but too often I see a tendency for more analytics-driven Seahawks fans to over-index on what can be proven by numbers but dismiss other facets of the game simply because the numbers are not as clear cut and don’t provide a direct correlation. It takes a willingness to admit that not all things can be clearly analyzed by metrics and a humility to embrace the data with an open hand. Neither of those things do I see from the most vocal analytics crowd.

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  4. Kyle

    This article shows me two things:
    1. The analytics people, despite often being brutal and unkind in their evaluations, are sensitive little snowflakes who get butthurt really easily.
    2. Apparently we are in an all-or-nothing universe, where fans cannot pick and choose among different factors as they see them. Brian is far more influenced by analytics than, say, Rob Staton at seahawksdraftblog.com, but because he hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid, he’s just a big meanie.

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  5. Scott Crowder

    Let’s respond about responding about Pete Carroll.

    “Those arguing for replacing Pete are doing so based on the possible rewards, not because there is no risk.”

    Let’s use some data analysis to address this. Pete Carroll has the 8th highest winning % amongst active coaches in the NFL. He ranks 37th IN NFL HISTORY. Possible rewards? The risk to reward analysis says you would have better luck playing russian roulette with bullets in 4 chambers on an 6 shooter.

    “Many of the football arguments laid out in favor of Pete Carroll are confusing and often seem at odds with each other”
    No. They keep boiling down to he just wins baby. Playoffs in 8 of 10 seasons. Which goes back to the idea that maybe some fans are just spoiled and don’t realize how lucky they are. It’s unrealistic to think you’re going to get a better coach than you have already, warts and all. As the saying goes, you gotta take the good with the bad.

    “His belief in a strong running game is sound, but their focus on building a strong running game has hurt them”
    8th among active NFL coaches and 37th all time. How exactly is that being hurt?

    “Pete deserves more credit for his role in personnel decisions, but has also seen his defense fall apart because of lack of talent.”
    Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright, Quandre Diggs, Shaquill Griffin, Michael Kendricks, Jadaveon Clowney, that’s over half the defense right there and they’re very talented. His defense fell apart most likely because they played base all season long and because Ken Norton Jr. has never coached a decent defense as a DC. You want to fire Ken Norton Jr., I’m with you.

    “On the surface it’s easy to compare San Francisco, Baltimore, and Seattle’s philosophies in 2019, but they are important distinctions. ”
    This I agree with you on. Pete needs to go for it more on 4th down when he has such a crap defense and such a good offense. There’s data I’ve seen that says if you’re not pinned behind your own 10 yd line, go for it. Always. Idk if I’d go that far, but certainly more often than Pete does. Do I want Pete fired because the reward of getting a coach that goes for it on 4th down more often?

    Pete: 8th win % in NFL. 37th all time. Oh, and won the division 4 times and made wildcard 4 times in 10 years.

    “The bigger criticism is that Seattle has not won many playoff games since the 2014 season. 3 Wild Card round wins is somewhat disappointing, especially considering how they’ve followed up those wins.”
    Think the Chiefs should fire Andy Reid then? Because his playoff record since 2014 was even worse. He’s 4-5 now, was 2-5 going into this season.

    Andy Reid has won more games than all but 6 NFL coaches. Fire him, see if you can get someone better.

    “Russ deserves most of the credit for the Seahawks Super Bowl teams”
    True. Peyton Manning deserves most of the credit for what Denver was able to do. This is true about almost all the great QB’s. What Brian is saying is that this is being used as an excuse to downplay what Pete has done. Well, if so, then the recent playoff lack of success must be mostly Russell’s fault too. Funny, analytical nerds aren’t shouting fire Russ.

    “What is your confidence level in Pete going forward?”
    THIS is a far better stance to take than “Fire Carroll.” What has Pete done lately? Since 2014 the Seahawks have made the playoffs 4 out of 5 seasons. Let’s do some data. There are 32 teams. If we evenly distributed Super Bowl appearances among them, one could expect to get a turn every 16 years.
    Making the playoffs 4 out of 5 years is a fantastic record that greatly enhances our chance to return far more often than that. And in fact, Pete took us twice in a 10 year span.
    His record during that span? 50-29-1. So basically 10-6 every year.

    What SHOULD my confidence level in Pete be going forward with success like that?

    Spoiled nailed it right on the head. Spoiled rotten.

    Some nerds need to go stand in the corner in time out until they calm down.

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  6. bsmeinert

    Where did the fourth down numbers come from? Based Pro Football Reference and Teamrankings.com, Baltimore was 4th in fourth down attempts, Seattle 27th, SFO 31st and a bonus, Chiefs were 32nd.

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  7. Dred Scott

    “His belief in a strong running game is sound, but their focus on building a strong running game has hurt them.”

    Except Chris Carson was 5th in the league in Rushing yards last season. Our running game didnt hurt us @ all until BOTH our primary RB’s went out in the SAME GAME within minutes of each other. 4th string RB’s, 4th string Center…. We were just too beat up…and Green Bay was healthy. We were an INCH away from beating the 49’ers TWICE… if anything, I could say Hollister blew it for being 6’4″ 245 pounds & couldnt muscle it in, but in all fairness to him, we were just to beat up….. For a Team that some said was going to be lucky to win 7 games, I cannot complain @ all.

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  8. Eran Ungar

    Disclaimer: While I do have a degree in computer engineering and have ample respect for math and stats, I have also played and coached volleyball for decades and developed a healthy disrespect to the roll of analytics in team sports. (baseball is not a team sport since one team is siting on the bench at all times)

    About 5 years ago analytics became a big thing in football with “passing is a more efficient way to get yards”. It was and still is packaged in many ways (see above the focus on 1st downs) but fundamentally it takes the higher “yards per attempt” of passing plays and add to it other factors that do not change that basic fact. As a result you get numerous tables and charts that basically say the same thing – whatever down/distance/scorboard/anything – it is better to pass the ball.

    At the same time the Seahawks were coming back from back to back SB appearances led by a dinosaur who shamelessly promoted the running game in spite of the calls around him to join the wide spread pass happy future on the horizon. (note: quoting the lack of sufficient playoff victories in “the past 5 years” and ignoring the back to back SBs 6 and 7 years ago will earn you the “being deceitful” label Nathan, deal with it)

    Moving along, its 2020 now and the people whose job it is to actually run football teams did not abolish the run for the all mighty analytics god. The have better access to it than any of us and yet the NFL did not become a wide spread college offense league. On the contrary, of the 8 teams making it to the divisional round – 50% were running teams. Of the 4 teams making it to the championship round – 50% were running teams. The same ratio held for the SB. The analytics dogs are barking but the running Caravan continues.

    I know I’m not going to convince a single one of them to admit they may have been wrong over the past half decade but I am not ashamed to admit that I was wrong a lot.

    1. The best passing team in the NFL just won the SB. Yes, it’s the first and only time in the past decade but that deserves an I WAS WRONG….maybe. They went for it twice on 4th down and 1. They also trailed in all their playoffs games by 10 points or more and needed their franchise QB heroics to bring them back late in the game. They should either fire Reed for the slow starts or start chanting “you can only win a game in the 4th quarter” in the locker room.
    2. After decades of futility and frustration with just one unsuccessful trip to the SB came a coach that took the garbage pile of the Mora/Russell era and turned it into 2 SBs within 3 years. I thought that would secure his position in the hearts of the fans for as long as he is willing to stay with us – I WAS WRONG.
    3. When that legendary team disintegrated he picked up the pieces and led a rag-tag roster to the playoffs again winning double digits games on both years. I thought that would make him untouchable. I WAS WRONG.
    4. He even managed to get to be the 1st seeded team in the NFC after 12 games and if another wave of cruel injuries (Carson, Penny, Brown, Iupati, Clowney after playing without Britt and Dissly) this team could have gone very far. I thought that was a mastewrpiece of coaching that will gather the fans behind his back – I WAS WRONG.

    I am wrong a lot. Its good that I don’t run the Seahawks. It great the Evan/Nathan/analytics don’t run this either so we can add the talent Carroll needs to get us to the next SB and leave others to tweak their formulas to explain how it happened.

    Reply

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