The Morning Before: The Path to Joy Through Humility
I have written nearly 3,000 articles about the Seahawks in the past 12 years. I have watched every Seahawks game—many multiple times—for the past 35 years. I have watched or read thousands and thousands of articles, books, or video of football analysis and related topics. I have discussed the sport with people who play it, coach it, manage it, and even own it, all the way up to the best in the business. With all of that information and study, there is still more that I do not know about the game than that I do. If I were to somehow know everything there is to know about football, I would still be unable to tell you with certainty what will happen in the game to come.
The universe is so much more complex than our ability to comprehend that it feels like chaos. Sanity comes from our ability to create a sense of order to that chaos. Schizophrenia, for example, is believed by many to be a sensory disorder that involves a lack of ability to organize all the information coming in to all the senses. We take for granted our ability to choose what to listen to, to see, to feel, to hear, to touch, and even our ability to choose which sense to focus on.
We build systems to follow predictable patterns so that we can go about our lives with confidence and comfort. Knowing that the traffic light will turn green after it turns red allows a complex series of assumptions to be made on top of that foundation. It is a rare occurrence that the behaviors associated with the red and green light do not occur, and even more rare that the light itself does not work as expected. Where survival is at stake, humans tend to create more predictable and durable systems.
Sports are meant to entertain, challenge, and inspire. Rules are developed not to optimize predictability, but to allow for an endless series of participants to judged against one another for prowess of often inane skills. These contests happen both on and off the field of play, and across generations.
There is the wide receiver who has an array of tactics for making a catch and maximizing yards gained. They must refine their release at the line of scrimmage, anticipate coverage, run precise routes at precise times, catch the ball at the widest, lowest, and highest points possible, secure the ball through contact, and either avoid or break tackles. They can improve these skills through study and practice. Each player has a different height, speed, leaping ability, as well as a different capacity for learning and hard work. That is just one player at one position, and it does not come close to describing the full complexity of their work.
A offensive coordinator creates a playbook based off of what they have learned through their time playing and/or watching the sport, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the players on their team, and the preferences of their head coach. They create game plans based on an understanding of what their offensive players do best and what their current opponent struggles with most. Their goal is to increase probability of moving the ball by matching their offenses strengths with their opponents weaknesses. They do that on a player-by-player basis, a down-by-down basis, and a situation-by-situation basis. They study tendencies and try to mask their own. They use different tactics to try and force their opponents to reveal their plan so they can better combat it. Weather, injuries, game location, and even referees are variables that are considered.
That is one coach and one player on one side of the ball. The receiver needs the right play to be called against the right defense, with the right protection, and the right recognition and throw from the quarterback. The coordinator needs the play to be heard and called correctly, everyone in the huddle to hear it and execute it correctly, and for the defense to do what was expected. That is just for a single play.
Zoom out and imagine all the intricacies of every position and every coach and all the external variables. It is almost like a microscopic human-made universe of complexity.
That complexity triggers the natural human tendency to try and order it, to make sense of it, to predict it. Gambling is funded by this fallacy. The best gamblers develop predictive models based on massive amounts of historical data to help predict the outcome of a game. They are correct 60-70% of the time.
Those folks know that they can beat the system if they spread their bets wisely over time. Even these experts know that the outcome of any single game is uncertain (except where foul play is involved).
New Orleans seemed like a safe bet to beat Minnesota a week ago. You would be hard-pressed to find a mathematical model that would have predicted that outcome. Baltimore was the clear favorite to win not only the game against Tennessee, but the Super Bowl. FootballOutsiders.com had them as the Super Bowl winner in 43.9% of their simulations, with the next closest team all the way down at 18.9%. The Ravens not only lost in their first playoff game, but they were dominated.
The enemy of big data is the small sample size outlier. It spits in the face of probability.
In a world where NFL teams are wisely investing more into analytics to help them make more informed decisions, there is a confounding reality that the unpredictability of individuals, and the variables that surround them, make certainty a fallacy.
Hot takes are fun because they imply certainty that defies either conventional or computational wisdom. They occasionally highlight a new insight that is not well understood by the masses. As they say, the future is already here. It is just not evenly distributed.
This Seahawks team is the confounding outlier incarnate. They have not had the most talented roster. They have the most games lost due to injury in the NFL. Even some of their best players who are on the field are playing through significant injuries. Their defense has struggled to stop the run or the pass. They have not seen outstanding play from their defensive tackles, ends, linebackers, corners, or safeties over the course of the season. Their offensive line has not excelled in either run or pass blocking. Their receivers and running backs have fumbled the ball at record rates. Even their amazing quarterback has gone through stretches of somewhat pedestrian play.
Yet, they won 11 of their first 14 games. They beat the most talented team in football on the road despite making a bushel of major mistakes, and would have beat the same team at home if they had not made a single mind-blowing error. They have not been outclassed by any of the teams they have played despite playing the league’s toughest schedule.
Today, they walk into the most storied house of football on the planet to face a team that boasts the league’s most fearsome pair of pass rushers with an offensive line that is held together by duct tape. This is not a Seahawks team that is as talented as many of their opponents. They are not dominant in any one aspect. They are not peaking at the right time. Pick almost any logical indicator you can find, and there is reason to doubt this group.
Fans may not want to admit it, but they are tempering expectations to protect their fragile hearts. Allowing yourself to believe opens up the possibility of being disappointed. A team like the 2019 Seahawks comes with a warning label explaining that they may be harmful to your mental health.
The joyful truth is that they are just as capable of shocking you with splendor as they are of driving your soul into a ditch. Longtime Seahawks fans don’t know what’s coming. The analytics nerds don’t know what’s coming. Vegas, the Green Bay Packers, Wisconsin, and even San Francisco don’t know what’s coming.
Comedy often arises from the intersection of the unexpected and the familiar. We are all witness to one of the greatest comedic acts in recent NFL history. These Seahawks laugh at your expectations, both good and bad. It would not surprise me if the Packers were the latest punchline in their national tour.
San Francisco fans have to look at the Seahawks like that beautiful woman across the bar that looks incredibly appealing to invite over until you start talking to her and realize she has a pickled bunny in her purse and widens her eyes super wide when she laughs. They want no part of this.
At 3:40PM Pacific Time today, the Seahawks will take the field against the Packers, and I have no idea what is going to happen. There is a peacefulness in that. I will be watching, doing my best to find the order in the chaos that are the Seattle Seahawks. Go Hawks.