April 29, 2013

Sharpening Our Talons In The NFC West

When the Seattle Seahawks joined the NFC West in 2002, I was among the hordes of Twelves who wailed and moaned about being cast out of the AFC West. We bemoaned the death of our traditional rivalries, and the disrespect implied by being the only team forced to switch conferences as part of the NFL's realignment process. As usual, my hysterical overreaction was completely without justification. The move to the NFC West was one of the best things to ever happen to our franchise. We left a division in which we had a pathetic amount of success (only TWO division titles in 25 AFC West campaigns, and losing records against the Raiders, Broncos, and Chiefs) to join one populated by the fading Niners, the aging Rams, and the historically forlorn Cardinals. The move paid dividends in less than two years with a Wild-Card berth in 2003, then division titles in five of the next seven seasons for Seattle. To be blunt, the Seahawks have pretty much owned the NFC West since they joined it in 2002. 

The main irritant of our first decade in the NFC West was the laughable state of the division as a whole. During Seattle's run of four straight division crowns from 2004 to 2007, the Hawks were the only team in the West to even post a winning record. In 2010, NONE of the division's teams even reached 8-8, and 7-9 Seattle became the first team to make the playoffs with a losing record in a non-strike season. When your division is so bad it's inspiring talk of taking away automatic playoff bids for division champs, you've bottomed out. 

2012 gave us the first glimpse of a stronger NFC West, with both Seattle and San Francisco winning 11 games and St. Louis going 4-1-1 within the division. After a flurry of free agency moves amounting to an "arms race" between the Hawks and Niners, and particularly strong drafts by Seattle, San Francisco AND St. Louis, the new conventional wisdom is that the NFC West might be the best division in football. In three years, our division has gone from laughingstock to juggernaut. What does this mean for your Seattle Seahawks? 

The first thing that jumps out at me is how RARE it's been for the Hawks to be involved in a pitched battle between two or more elite teams for a division title. You know how many times the Seahawks have been involved in a divisional race that produced three teams that finished with 10 or more wins? Exactly twice. In 1984, Seattle finished 12-4, just ahead of the 11-5 Raiders and just behind the 13-3 Broncos. In 1986, the Hawks were edged out of the postseason by the 10-6 Chiefs and the 11-5 Broncos (DAMN YOU, ELWAY! DAMN YOU TO HELL!). I fully expect the 2013 NFC West to see a battle every bit as intense as the 1984 AFC West race- which means that the Seahawks could field one of the best squads in franchise history and STILL end up hitting the road in the playoffs. 

That got me thinking about a larger historical question: Are Super Bowl Champions more likely to come out of competitive divisions populated by two or more playoff-caliber teams (the "steel sharpens steel" theory), or are they more likely to emerge from divisions where the eventual champs weren't battered by six brutal divisional slugfests? Let's look at the NFL's post-realignment history. 

-2002: Tampa Bay cruises to a 12-4 record, but the NFCS actually boasts two more teams with winning records- The 9-6-1 Falcons and the 9-7 Saints 

-2003: New England runs to a 14-2 record, but Miami also posts a 10-6 mark. 

-2004: Patriots go 14-2, but New York hits 10-6 and Buffalo goes 9-7. 

-2005: Pittsburgh's 11-5 record is matched by Cincinnati. 

-2006: The 12-4 Colts are the AFC South's only team with a winning record. 

-2007: The Giants go 10-6, sandwiched between 9-7 DC and 13-3 Dallas. 

-2008: The 12-4 Steelers are pushed by the 11-5 Ravens. 

-2009: Yes, the Falcons get to 9-7, but the 13-3 Saints aren't seriously challenged in the NFC South. 

-2010: The 10-6 Packers finish the regular season just behind the 11-5 Bears, but beat them in the NFC Championship game to reach Super Bowl XLV. 

-2011: The Giants eke into the playoffs at 9-7, and are the only NFC East team to finish with a winning record. 

-2012: The Ravens' 10-6 record is matched by Cincinnati (shades of 2005!) 

In 11 seasons since realignment, the Super Bowl Champion has emerged from a divisional race involving two or more playoff-caliber teams EIGHT times. So, in recent NFL history, it does appear that being in an intense divisional battle tends to help your chances of winning the Super Bowl. 

Does being in the "NFC Best" hurt Seattle's chances of winning homefield advantage for the entire postseason? Probably. But recent NFL history also shows us that most Super Bowl winners won at least one playoff game on the road. After surviving the NFC West gauntlet, I don't doubt our Hawks could go to Atlanta or Green Bay or New York (or anywhere else) and win in the playoffs. On balance, I think the strength of our division helps the Seahawks more than it hurts them. They're ready for this battle, and prepared to win it. 

What do you think, sirs? 

April 18, 2013

Seahawks 2013 Schedule: Instant Overreactions!

Here it is: The 2013 Seahawks Schedule!
(All times Pacific)

September 8: @ Panthers 10 am 
September 15: v Niners 5:30 pm (NBC) 
September 22: v Jaguars 1:25 pm 
September 29: @ Texans 10 am 
October 6: @ Colts 10 am
October 13: v Titans 1:05 pm 
October 17: @ Cardinals 5:25 pm (NFLN) 
October 28: @ Rams 5:40 pm (ESPN)  
November 3: v Buccaneers 1:05 pm 
November 10: @ Falcons 10 am 
November 17: v Vikings 1:25 pm 
December 2: v Saints 5:40 pm (ESPN) 
December 8: @ Niners 1:25 pm 
December 15: @ Giants 10 am 
December 22: v Cardinals 1:05 pm 
December 29: v Rams 1:25 pm

What jumps out to me? It's great that we've got at least four national TV games, particularly for an Northwest expatriate like myself. I like the early-season trip to Indianapolis (See y'all there!), and I LOVE the late-season placement of the bye week. Wrapping up the season with two divisional home games sets us up nicely to take the NFC West, and playing four out of our last six at home won't hurt us, either.

What do I HATE about the schedule? The early-autumn stretch where we play four out of five on the road, including two 10 am games and a road Thursday night game. I don't like being stuck with a 10 am game on the east coast on Kickoff Weekend, either. Out of six possible 10 am kickoffs, we got stuck with five. True or not, that just FEELS like the league office screwing with us, doesn't it?

That being said, I don't think that any scheduling configuration would derail the 2013 Seahawks. If you made me guess, I'd say that we'll finish 13-3, with the losses at Houston, Atlanta, and New York (Yes, we'll sweep SF and lock up the division with a week to spare). What do you guys think?

I'll probably (hopefully) make it out to the Niners game September 15, the Colts game in Indianapolis October 6, and one of the last two home games that bracket Christmas... and the playoff games at Seahawks Stadium too... Doy.

What are your reactions to the Seahawks schedule, y'all?

April 14, 2013

Seahawks v Vikings: Revisiting a Sordid History

A few years back, I wrote a brief piece about the budding rivalry between the Seahawks and Vikings. With our recent acquisitions of ex-Vikes like Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin, and Antoine Winfield, I decided that it's time to revisit the surprisingly nasty history between these two franchises. Here's some of the gory details:

1987: Ahh, the strike year. The Vikings visited Seattle for a key early November matchup, and much of the pre-game talk was about how the "real" Vikings came into the game undefeated, but the team's overall record was only 3-3 because Minnesota's replacement players were putrid even by the low standards applied to those scab games. The Seahawks were 4-2, based in part on the 2-1 record posted by the SeaScabs. Seattle showed they weren't frauds that day- Behind three Dave Krieg TD passes and 132 all-purpose yards from Curt Warner the Hawks ground out a crucial 28-17 victory. Both teams would make the playoffs, with Seattle falling at Houston in OT in the AFC Wild Card game, and Minnesota ending up a 4th-and-goal away from XXII in a heartbreaking NFC Championship game loss at DC.

1997: After an injury-shortened and ineffective 1996 campaign, the Vikings cast aside veteran QB Warren Moon in favor of Brad Johnson. Minnesota got solid play from Johnson, but as soon as Warren Moon took over for an injured John Friesz in Seattle he showed the Vikings (and the rest of the NFL) that his Hall-of-Fame arm still had some juice left. Moon would be named to the Pro Bowl after throwing for 3600 yards and 25 TDs in only 14 starts. In one memorable win over Oakland, Moon torched the Raiders for 400 yards and five TD strikes. Not too shabby for a 41-year-old QB, huh?

2001: Future Hall-of-Famer John Randle bolted for Seattle via free agency, and he'd be a key contributor over his three Seahawk seasons, reaching the Pro Bowl in 2001 and racking up 23.5 sacks in 35 Seattle starts. The Vikings would find a roundabout way to fatally wound the 2001 Seahawks, though. On the final weekend of the season, Seattle needed a win against the Chiefs (which they got) AND a loss by the Jets OR the Ravens. The Jets pulled out a win at Oakland with a last-second field goal, making Twelves wait until Monday night to see if the Vikings could upset the Ravens. Unfortunately, Minnesota's QB that night wasn't Moon or Johnson or Cunningham or even Jeff George... It was Spergon Wynn, and the Ravens defense predictably destroyed him AND the Seahawks' faint playoff hopes.

2002: The Seahawks were off to a miserable 0-3 start, and the desperately needed some kind of spark going into the first national showcase for Seahawks Stadium: An appearance on Sunday Night Football. Thankfully their opponents that night were the 0-3 Vikings, and the football-watching nation was treated to a historic performance by Shaun Alexander, who scored five first-half touchdowns on his way to a 221-yard rushing/receiving day. The Hawks would lead 45-10 by halftime and cruise to a 48-23 victory.

2004:  The only truly, unabashedly joyous moment of 2004 came when the Seahawks pulled off a huge, season-saving upset in Minnesota. Darrell Jackson, playing only hours after his father's death, had the best game of his career, and Michael Boulware intercepted a Randy Moss pass (WTF?) in the final minutes to seal a shocking 27-23 win.

2006: First, there was the Steve Hutchinson "poison pill" fiasco, where the unfathomable miscalculations of Tim Ruskell opened the door for the Vikings to concoct a clause in their offer sheet that made it impossible for the Seahawks to match Minnesota's offer to the All-Pro guard. The Seahawks retaliated by luring WR Nate Burleson away from the Vikings with a similar tactic. Then there was the game played between the two teams that October- Not only did Seattle lose the game 31-13, but E.J. Henderson dived at Matt Hasselbeck's knees and knocked him out of action for a month, and even when Hasselbeck returned to action he wasn't close to 100%. I'm still convinced that without that dirty hit, the Seahawks would have reached Super Bowl XLI that season.

2009: The bidding war for T.J. Houshmandzadeh came down to Seattle and Minnesota, and the former Bengals wideout picked the Seahawks. In retrospect, this was probably a win for Minnesota. After a single fairly disappointing season in Seattle, Housh was a late-offseason cut by Pete Carroll in his first season as Seattle's head coach.

2011: The Vikings allowed Pro Bowl wideout Sidney Rice to bolt out to Seattle. While Rice hasn't matched his stellar 2009 numbers with the Seahawks thus far, his solid, injury-free 2012 campaign showed that he can still be a dangerous weapon, particularly with Russell Wilson under center and other targets like Tate, Baldwin, Harvin and Zach Miller giving him favorable match-ups.

2012: Minnesota visits Seattle, and despite 182 yards from NFL MVP Adrian Peterson, the Seahawks outslugged the Vikings for a 30-20 victory. Minnesota also lost Percy Harvin to a broken ankle in the loss, dealing a serious blow to their Super Bowl hopes.

2013: A now-healthy Harvin demanded a trade out of Minnesota, and the Seahawks sent a first-rounder (and more) to the Vikings in exchange for one of the NFL's most dangerous weapons. Just a few days ago, former Pro Bowl defensive back Antoine Winfield turned down $3 million guaranteed from Minnesota to join the Seahawks for significantly less guaranteed money. The reason? He feels like he has a much better shot winning a championship this season with the Seahawks.

The Vikings visit Seattle at some point this season. That one should be fun, huh? What do y'all think? Do we have a real rivalry with Minnesota at this point?

April 7, 2013

The Cresting Wave (Again)

I've talked at length before in this space about how rooting for the Seattle Seahawks was one of the few things my father and I "bonded" over when I was a kid. As I said in a piece about the 1983 Seahawks I wrote for Field Gulls a few years back:

Book learning skills were what I had to offer the world, coupled with an obsessive streak that I have never shaken. None of this added up to an easy connection to my rather traditional, emotionally distant father, who tried to butch me up by teaching me how to box, to fish, and so on. Nothing worked, and we were in very different orbits by the fall of 1983.

There was one glimmer of hope for me in his eyes: I had gotten interested in football. It started in the strike-shortened 1982 season, when I stumbled upon a Seahawks game on TV and got sucked into it. Quickly he cultivated my love for the NFL, even though he was much more of a boxing fan himself. I got a black and white TV for my room for Xmas, where I would watch the last couple Seahawks games and the '82 playoffs.

While my father and I shared little in common beyond the Seahawks, I was much closer to my Mom. She also took notice of my growing obsession with the Hawks, and joined in on it. She'd watch the games with us too, and by the time I was 10 I was allowed to turn our TV room into a Seahawks temple during football season- The walls were plastered with newspaper clippings, banners, and free promotional posters from Pietro's Pizza. My parents would divorce when I was 15, and my father would drift completely out of my life by the time I was 30. The Seahawks have remained a shared passion between my Mom, my Stepdad, my little brother and myself, however. 

All of this has been on my mind lately because a couple of months ago my son took notice of my Seahawks jerseys and told me that he wanted one of his own for his birthday. I'm divorced from his mother now, and I only get to see him and my daughter one or two weekends a month. Unlike my own father, I'm not emotionally disconnected from my children- Even though we don't see each other much, they know that I love them and care about them, and I know they love me back. Given how little I see them, my heart leapt at the possibility that my son might want to become a Twelve (and hopefully, in a few years, my daughter too). Any interests that we can share would help bridge the (physical) distance between us, so I decided to get him a Russell Wilson jersey for his birthday. 

I picked my kids up Friday afternoon, and we headed to Chuck E. Cheese. My son chirped that he was a nerd because he "was smart and he liked school a lot." I had flashbacks to myself at his age- devouring every book I could get my hands on, and memorizing everything I could about the Solar System, the history of NASA, the Seahawks' roster, etc. While I fervently hope that he doesn't end up as socially awkward as I was when I was growing up in the Tri-Cities, I'd much rather he become an unpopular nerd than a popular bully. I asked him what he thought I got him for his birthday, and he blurted out "I sure hope it's a Seahawks jersey!" I tried to keep playing coy, but I smiled to myself. I knew I was just minutes away from seeing him explode with joy. 

Sure enough, when he opened his present he did the whole "jump up and down and spin like the Tasmanian Devil" thing, and demanded to put it on immediately, right there in the Chuck E. Cheese. I gave him a mini-lecture about how he had to take good care of his jersey, and that he had to remind Mommy to never put it in the dryer. For a moment I felt very Obi-Wan-ish. 

As he fed token after token into Fruit Ninja, I thought about how I would cultivate his fandom. I'm hoping to take him to the game at Indianapolis this fall, and I'll do my best to expose him to the Seahawks on a weekly basis- Thankfully he'll get lots of chances to see the Hawks this year on national television, and on the weekends he's with me, I'll try to work it out so we can watch the games together. If things go as planned, 2013 will be his 1983- The season that cements his Seahawks fandom for life. Wilson will be his Krieg, Harvin his Largent, Lynch his Warner, Thomas his Easley, and so on. 

I reached a moment of calmness and clarity, watching my kids frolic that day. Things will be ok. They're happy and healthy and loved by a lot of different people. I don't need him to be a Seahawks fan so we have something, anything, to share. I'm not going to drift out of his life because I don't know how to connect to him. But every time I watch Russell Wilson score a touchdown, and I think about the fact that my son and I are both watching it rocking #3 jerseys? That'll make him seem that much closer, even if he's physically 100 miles away.  

All the threads are weaving together- 2013 is going to be a year we'll never forget, for a LOT of reasons.