Have the Seahawks found a way to sustain the unsustainable?
No, the pessimism centered on the fact that the Seahawks had defied norms en route to their 11-5 record in 2019. Too many close wins (a 10-2 mark in games decided by eight points or fewer, plus one more such win, and loss, in the playoffs), too many comebacks (six victories when trailing at halftime), and too small of a point differential (seven, nearly unprecedented for a team of such accomplishment).
The feared theme of this Seahawks season could be boiled down to one aphorism. No, not “Let Russ Cook.” A different one: “Regression to the Mean.”
The theory, backed by historical evidence, was that whenever a team defies the odds so dramatically, it is invariably, and inevitably, followed by a course correction in which the close ones don’t go its way. It’s a cruel lesson that other teams have learned the hard way.
For example, via ESPN research: Teams since the merger that trailed at halftime more than four times and won more than half those games were collectively 284-162-3 (.634) when they trailed at halftime. The following year, those same teams were 122-296 (.292) when they trailed at halftime.
Also from ESPN: Since 1989, just 22 teams besides the 2019 Seahawks have won at least six more close games (seven points or fewer) than they had won in a given season. They were a combined 180-31 in those games, but the next season their close-game record was 83-81-1. Barely over .500, in other words. Regression, meet mean.
In August ESPN’s Bill Barnwell wrote an impeccably researched article on which NFL teams were likeliest to decline in 2020. The Seahawks were listed as a prominent example.
To which I present, arguing the affirmative … the 5-0 Seahawks. Or should I say, the 5-0 Seahawks who are 4-0 in games decided by one score (eight points or fewer). And who on Sunday night notched not just another close win but also moved to 1-0 in games in which they trailed at halftime. Their margins of victory are 13, 5, 7, 8 and 1, which is less regressive than progressive.
Now, it may very well still be unsustainable, and the Seahawks could be the luckiest, flukiest team in NFL history. As colleague Matt Calkins pointed out Wednesday, they could easily be 2-3 or even 1-4 if things had broken just a little differently. You can’t bank on stopping Cam Newton at the 1-yard line, or the Vikings when they’re fourth-and-inches, or intercepting Dak Prescott when he’s driving, or orchestrating a 94-yard TD drive in under two minutes.
Can you? Because at some point, if something happens over and over, you have to ponder when it stops being an aberration and starts being a trait. Certainly, Pete Carroll would have you believe that the Seahawks’ success in close games is far from random, but rather a skill they practice and nurture. And that when they succeed in the clutch at such a high frequency, a sense of belief forms that makes them even more formidable.
What’s interesting is that the Seahawks’ formula for these close wins seems to have flipped a bit. Last year it was often a case of Seattle displaying a staid, run-oriented attack, falling behind and then finally unleashing Russell Wilson, who rallied them to victory. This year they have allowed their quarterback to cook from the start, built up hefty leads (reaching double-digits in the first four games), and then hung on for dear life as teams exploit their porous defense.
Once again, they are defying conventional wisdom, just in a different way. According to NFL Research, the Seahawks are the only team in the Super Bowl era to start 5-0 despite being outgained by an average margin of 50-plus total yards per game. And speaking of which, the Seahawks are on pace to destroy the NFL record for most yards allowed. They are allowing 471 per game, which projects to 7,539 yards over 16 games. The only team in NFL history to allow 7,000 yards in a season is the 2012 New Orleans Saints (7,042).
That would seem to be the hallmark of a losing team going nowhere, not one with the best record in the league and rapidly assuming the status of top contender to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
To Carroll, it comes down to “a really deep-seated belief that you can get it done. … The mentality that it takes is something that is a discipline that takes a long time to develop.”
Or maybe it’s nothing more profound than having a quarterback in Wilson who is one of the best there has ever been in leading rallies and closing out nail-biters. And having veteran defensive leaders in Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, who can galvanize the unit when it simply has to have a stop — even if it hasn’t stopped anybody until that point.
The Seahawks won’t always be successful, and they have the receipts to prove it. But rumors of the Seahawks’ preordained decline so far have been greatly exaggerated.