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The Play That Still Haunts the Seahawks

How Seattle can get back on track and forget about the nightmare of Super Bowl XLIX

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Ever since Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler jumped in front of Ricardo Lockette to make one of the most historic plays in Super Bowl history, things haven’t been the same in Seattle. Will the Seahawks ever put that loss behind them? What has come to be known as “The Play” has also become the dumping ground for all that ails the Seahawks.

Let’s move on from this nonsense. I benefited from the play, winning my second Super Bowl ring, and even I want to stop talking about it. Russell Wilson’s pass and the call itself were horrible, but “The Play” is not the sole reason for any deterioration in Seattle — just examine the before and after. Before Butler intercepted that pass, which gave him a free-drink card in the New England area for life, the Seahawks seemed almost unbeatable. From 2013 until that moment, the team was 30–7 overall, with an 11–5 road record. After “The Play,” they’ve been 22–14–1, with a 9–9–1 road record. Good, not great. And far from unbeatable.

Pete Carroll’s mojo is built on positivity. As head coach of USC, he built a culture centering on six elements — competition, excellence in practice, “the ball,” winning the fourth quarter, confidence, and a positive approach. For Seattle under Carroll’s guidance, “the ball” and winning in the fourth have been two major components of their culture, and both have declined in the last two seasons. In 2013 and 2014, Seattle ranked in the top five in both turnover differential and fourth-quarter point differential. The last two seasons, the team has been in the top five only once in those two areas (turnover/takeaway, tying for fifth in 2015) and outside the top 10 in all others. They haven’t been able to protect the ball or win the fourth quarter, and with that breakdown, the language and confidence have also wilted.

In recent months, we’ve heard a lot about discontent between the walls of the Seattle locker room (which Carroll and team members have denied). But that bickering is normal. Or at least it’s what passes for normal in Seattle, as The Ringer’s Danny Kelly pointed out. Why? Because Carroll has systematically collected a group of type-A personalities who speak their minds. Carroll is so comfortable in an environment of yelling and arguing that you’d think he grew up Italian. He doesn’t just tolerate it — he feeds off of their competitive nature. He wants players who react when things go wrong.

“We’ve been working at this for years together,” Carroll said recently. “This is an ongoing relationship we’ve had. I’ve tried to explain this — we’re living as a family in this situation. These guys have grown up with us as football players, and in that, we go through a lot of changes, and there’s a lot of things that happen, and there’s a lot of challenges in all directions. Not just for one guy; for all of our guys.” Carroll loves this — it allows him to bond his team with an “us against the world” mentality.

Carroll also addressed the biggest issue, overcoming the loss: “I’ve said to you guys before that the big wins are just as hard as the big losses if you let it be. Our first Super Bowl was a challenge to get back from. Our second Super Bowl was a challenge to get back from. That’s just how it is, it’s that impacting.”

Winning one championship is grueling; winning two in a row is next to impossible. Some believe repeating a title is the single hardest thing to do in professional sports. Just ask the Warriors. And sustainable championship runs have become increasingly unlikely thanks to free agency, complex salary-cap structures, and the challenges teams face to rededicate everyone toward a common goal. This belief is based on the theory that winning takes away our motivation while losing inspires us. However, in his most recent book, The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis broaches the difficulties of overcoming a substantial loss. The book centers on the partnership of Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and their work, particularly on the concept of loss aversion. They examined a simple question: Which is harder to overcome, winning a championship or losing one? Their answer should remove the stigma of the Butler play. Kahneman and Tversky found that people fear loss twice as much as they relish success — in large part, because once a team experiences the pain of losing, the impulse to take risks is diminished. The pain of losing far outweighs the joy of winning. When “The Play” created pain for Seattle, things turned sour. (Memo to the Falcons’ Dan Quinn: You might want to read Kahneman and Tversky’s findings before this season starts.)

Before reading Lewis’s book, I believed that in the NFL fear normally does the work of reason. In his song “The Road,” Jackson Browne has a line that applies to the NFL: “You forget about the losses, you exaggerate the wins.” Only losses demand real honesty. Often the wins become the deodorant to cover up the problems. It takes losing to become reasonable, or in the case of the Seahawks, it takes not winning Super Bowls and losing badly in the playoffs. Seattle has finally reached the “age of reason” this offseason.

What was Seattle ignoring to avoid the pain of losing? They misevaluated quarterback Russell Wilson. I’m not blaming Wilson for all that ails Seattle; I am blaming Seattle for not understanding that Wilson is not the savior.

For Wilson to continue to amass incredible numbers as he has through his first five seasons and lead his team to another Super Bowl, the offense around him must refocus on a familiar strategy: the outside zone run and play-action pass game. For any offense to successfully run the outside zone, it must have a mobile quarterback who can threaten the backside of the defense. Think Peyton Manning faking a handoff to Edgerrin James attacking the right side of the offensive line and then moving to the left tackle and launching a strike to Marvin Harrison down the field. The more realistic the fake, the more likely it is that backside defenders will have to slow-play their pursuit to either make sure the ball was handed off or pursue the quarterback if he rolls out in his direction to throw the ball. When a team can run the outside zone, those eight-man run defensive fronts we hear commentators discussing during the game are in reality just six-man fronts as two of the backside defenders must hold their pursuit. Wilson is great at keeping the backside defenders from pursuing. His ability to hold the backside with his fake and deceptive ballhandling skills is elite, and once outside the pocket, he becomes deadly accurate down the field.

But Wilson is not a “one size fits all” kind of quarterback. He needs an offense tailored to his skill set. Some of his best plays occur when the pass protection breaks down, when he’s forced to run with the ball or at least leave the pocket. Outside the pocket with a clear path, Wilson is uniquely gifted; inside, he’s average. (It’s not his fault that he’s barely 5-foot-11.) He needs windows in the pocket to see and deliver the ball. Without those clear looks, he cannot make the throws.

But when Seattle can effectively run the ball, passing lanes are created through play-action — in which the threat of the run separates the defense, thus allowing Wilson to make down-the-field throws. Over the last two years, the Seattle run game has been in decline — in part due to the loss of Marshawn Lynch and in larger part to the offensive coaches’ belief that Wilson could compensate. To borrow an old New York Yankees phrase, the coaches started to believe that Wilson was “the straw that stirred the drink.” It’s not true. He’s an ingredient in the drink; the straw is that outside zone run game, play-action passes, and a tenacious defense with depth on the defensive line. That is Seattle football, Pete Carroll–style. In 2014, the Seahawks averaged 172.6 rushing yards per game. In ’15, that number dropped more than 30 yards, to 141.8. In 2016, it dropped another 42 yards to 99.4. More than 70 yards per game since “The Play.” That is dramatic. Seattle needs to run the ball — it benefits everyone, including Wilson.

To prove the point that Seattle misevaluated how to orient the offense around Wilson, just examine their formations over the last four years. In 2013, the Seahawks were in the 11 personnel formation (which includes one running back and one tight end) 208 times out of 407 passes attempted. They were in the 10 personnel formation (one running back, no tight end) 151 times. In 2014, there was a slight increase, 219 in 11 personnel, and 195 in 10 personnel, out of the 452 passes attempted. After the Super Bowl loss, a change in how Seattle threw the ball occurred. In 2015, they were in 11 personnel 234 times and 233 times in 10 personnel out of 483 passes attempted. In 2016, we see another spike in open formations: 284 attempts in 11 personnel, and 228 in 10 personnel out of 546 passing attempts. Last year, 41 percent of the time when Seattle threw behind a faulty pass-protecting offensive line, they were in shotgun, with no tight end, no threat of a run game, and no play-action. When there was a tight end on the field, it was Jimmy Graham, their high-priced pass catcher and second-leading receiver on the team. But Graham is more receiver than proper tight end, so when he’s on the field with three other receivers, defensive coordinators consider this formation 10 personnel and match a bigger cover man on Graham. Essentially, by Seattle’s design, the game was all in Wilson’s hand — and almost exclusively from the pocket.

Shotgun formation is in vogue all over football. You can’t attend a game, not even a pee-wee game with 7-year-olds, that doesn’t feature shotgun. There’s no escaping this trend, which would be much to the chagrin of late Hall of Fame 49ers coach Bill Walsh. Walsh believed that to beat the great defenses in the NFL (or college, or even 7-year-old pee-wee games), operating exclusively out of the shotgun limits the offense’s arsenal, thus allowing the defense to zero in. He wanted the timing provided by being under center; he also wanted the threat of the run or the illusion of balance to help the offense counter the defense. In 2016, both Super Bowl teams carried fullbacks, ran plays with the quarterback under center, and were diversified in their formations. Without any illusions, the burden of winning falls on the quarterback on each play, and most teams don’t have a quarterback that can handle those enormous burdens.

Now, before anyone accuses me of recommending a run-based offense to counter the spread, please understand, that ain’t me. I strongly believe you throw the ball to get the lead and run the ball to protect the lead. (Again, Dan Quinn, take note.) All establishing the run does for an offense is establish the potential to kick field goals. I hate field goals. I’m a huge believer in building your team around the quarterback — much like Major League Baseball teams build their rosters around the uniqueness of their stadiums. They configure their team around the ballpark and find players that fit the style needed to take advantage of their friendly confines. (So many teams miss this point — the Baltimore Ravens being the no. 1 culprit.)

In 2017, the Seattle offense will return to its outside zone play and play-action passes featuring Wilson’s ability to move around and throw the ball from different launch points and not always behind the center. In other words, they know what makes their offense (and Wilson) function at the highest level.

The offseason mandate in the Pacific Northwest is for Seattle to return to its core — those six Pete Carroll principles. And that starts with the right offense around Wilson and an improved, deep defensive line that can pressure the passer to complement a team that wants to dominate the fourth quarter. If they do those three things, they’ll regain their confidence, their essential identity, without sacrificing the outspokenness that defines them. Once all these stars realign and Seattle regains prominence, we won’t hear much about “The Play.”

OK, we might still hear about “The Play.” Just a little less than usual.