Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll on the sidelines against the Carolina Panthers during the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013. Seattle won 12-7. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
Pete Carroll has proudly reminded anyone willing to listen that, “it is not how your start, it is how you finish,” when it comes to his perspective on football games, and likely life in general. It is an admirable emphasis on redemption, resolve, and unwavering confidence. His teams in Seattle have reflected their coach’s philosophy, often finishing seasons and games with a flourish. No team in the NFL has won more games when trailing after three quarters over the last three years than the Seahawks (10). Even their losses show this resilience. Only one other time in NFL history had a team trailed by 31 points or more at halftime and finished the game with seven points of their opponent before the Seahawks did it on the road in Carolina to end last season. These are impressive feats, but the path needn’t be so turbulent. Now is the time for Carroll to amend his motto, and look for ways to marry his strong finishes with strong starts.
The value of focus
Carroll is well versed in the psychological aspects of sports. It is no accident that he is choosing to apply maximum focus to the thing he values most. Any drivers education instructor will tell you that a car will wander in the direction of the driver’s eyes. Carroll wants his team focused on the outcome, and undistracted by what obstacles may fall in their path. This steadfast approach has served the Seahawks remarkably well in a number of ways.
Seattle has an NFL record streak of 83 games, regular season and playoffs, where they have not lost by more than ten points, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. The next closest streak is 25 games less. What is more remarkable is that Seattle has not compiled that streak by front-running. Opponents scored first in 31 of those 65 games. They trailed at halftime in 29 of those games. They trailed by nine points or more entering the fourth quarter seven times. They trailed by 14 points or more entering the fourth quarter on the road three times.
There have been plenty of chances for this streak to end. Seattle has been unbowed.
The pattern has gone beyond individual games. In three of the past four seasons, the Seahawks have started off slow and then finished strong.
As much as Carroll is infusing his team with an iron spine that leads to almost miraculous finishes, one has to wonder whether complete focus on finishing is leading to unnecessary neglect on starting strong.
It is how you start and how you finish
No team or person can be great at everything. Excellence requires prioritization and tradeoffs. There is a difference, though, between setting clear priorities to create a strength and openly dismissing less important items in a way that can create a weakness. You may think it is over analysis to say the reason the Seahawks have struggled at the start of seasons and at the start of games can be traced back to a single sentence, but ask anyone in Seahawks facility whether they believe words guide their actions. It is not an accident that Carroll spends so much time on the language used within that building.
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.” – Mahatma Gandhi
There is no reason for Carroll to abandon his emphasis on finishing. But for a man who talks about competition at the core of his philosophy, why not challenge his coaches and players to start strong and finish stronger? His team certainly seems to benefit from fast starts.
When Seattle scores first
One way to assess the impact of starting strong is just to see how Seattle does when they score first in a game. Getting ahead early is never something Carroll stresses, but the results indicate he should.
The average NFL team has won 62% of their regular season games since 2010 when they score first. Seattle’s games have been removed from that number. The Seahawks have done markedly better, winning over 75% of their regular season games when scoring first, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. That’s about 32% better than when they have allowed their opponents to score first. They have yet to lose in the playoffs when scoring first, and have a remarkable 85% win rate when scoring first at home (playoffs or regular season).
Notice that Seattle’s emphasis on finishing shows up here as well. They are better than league average in all these situations when their opponents score first. They actually have a winning record in the playoffs in those situations, where the other teams have a paltry 36.8% winning percentage when that happens.
There is little doubt that the Seahawks do better when they score first. The next question is whether they do it enough.
It turns out, Seattle has scored first in 59% of their regular season games during Carroll’s tenure. The other 31 teams mathematically have to score first 50% of the time. Still, the Seahawks do it more often than not. Things get more interesting looking at the playoffs.
Seattle has only scored first in 25% of their playoff games under Carroll. The other playoff teams in that time frame scored first in 53% of their games. Teams that score first, win more, getting more games. It seems that starting quickly in the playoffs is worth additional attention for Seattle.
When Seattle leads after the first quarter
Seattle defers all their kickoffs. That has to play some role in who scores first. It is worth seeing how the team does after the first quarter.
We see largely the same results. Holding a lead further into a game logically means a team would be more likely to win. Seattle wins almost 40% more of their regular season games when they lead after the first quarter compared to when they trail at that point (79% vs 39%). Pretty much all the patterns held from the score first results. Seattle does remarkably well when they are trailing after the first quarter in the playoffs. They also trail after the first more often than not in the playoffs, which a big reversal from the regular season results when they lead after one 60% of the time. It is worth noting that once Seattle allows their opponent to score first in the playoffs, they rarely flip the script by the end of the opening quarter.
Scoring by half
The Jekyll & Hyde act shows up in how the Seahawks play offensively and defensively in each half of the game.
Seattle scores more points and allows fewer in the second half. They are nearly even with most of their opponents at halftime, only showing a +1.4 point average differential, dating back to 2010. That spread grows to +4.4 in the second half. Again, though, the playoffs are where things become truly problematic.
Seattle is outscored by an average of 4.4 points per game in the first half of their playoff contests. They almost unbelievably then outscore those same opponents by an average of 9.5 points per game. That is a perfect example of finishing as strong as a team could ever hope to finish, but often losing due to poor starts. Two of the three Seahawks playoffs losses during Carroll’s tenure have come in games where the team has trailed by 20 or more points at halftime. They made strong comebacks in both, and even took the lead in Atlanta, but their slow starts ultimately doomed them.
Sure the Seahawks have won most of their playoff games, even when they fall behind early, but their potential becomes that much greater when they add strong starts to the mix.
Semantic change, significant impact
Carroll has demonstrated time and again that when he chooses to focus on an area of the football team, he is able to improve it. There would be little doubt that the man who has made “Turnover Thursday” part of the weekly team regimen would be able to create a way for the team to improve the way they start football games. It does not need to overpower the focus on finish. It is simply a chance to evolve and improve. It just might be the difference between another ring and another frustrating playoff ending.