A Clean Sweep
In a season that drew so much attention for the controversial defensive strike zone, there’s something about Seattle’s playoff dominance that got far too little attention. For a team that hit very, very hard, the Seahawks played very, very clean.
Seattle had 188 defensive snaps in the postseason, and zero penalties on defense for unnecessary roughness, late hit on the quarterback, helmet-to-helmet hit on a receiver or any hit on a defenseless player. Thus, the Seahawks earned zero fines from the league on any defensive player for an egregious hit. (Richard Sherman did draw a $7,875 fine for taunting Michael Crabtree in the NFC title game.)
You get fined in the NFL these days for breathing heavily on receivers. And these Seahawks, with one of the best postseason defensive performances of the Super Bowl era, were totally legal.
"I just really think America should know there’s a right way to play defense,’’ Bobby Wagner said. “There’s a lot of talk about player safety. We believe in that. As the game evolves, the players have to too.”
It wasn’t an accident. Kam Chancellor, the baddest strong safety in football, did it right in the biggest games of the year. Same with big hitters Brandon Mebane, Michael Bennett, K.J. Wright and Earl Thomas.
“I just really think America should know there’s a right way to play defense,’’ middle linebacker Bobby Wagner told me. “There’s a lot of talk about player safety. We believe in that. We want to hit hard, hit right, hit in the right target. All this talk this year about the defense having to play soft, and all these rules and fines taking the big hits out of the game. We don’t buy that. As the game evolves, the players have to too. You can evolve. All our hits are legal. They are all clean. We are physical like the great old defenses. We’re proud of that.”
The Seahawks’ clean D is a result of some trickle-down coaching from head coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn—and from defensive passing game coordinator Rocky Seto. Each week, Seto would put together a tape of hits the NFL ruled illegal that week and show it to the defense. Each week, the coaches would hear the same grousing over the rules being slanted toward the offense. Each week, the coaches would tell the guys it doesn’t matter what you think—them’s the rules.
As Quinn told me: “The message was clear. We can either bitch about it, or we can adjust and play by the new rules and move on. All the blowup shots from the past, they’re over. Adjust.’’
Quinn said he used a baseball-type strike zone—breastbone to knees—to show players where they could hit. And over and over, they focused on taking out the head hits and putting in the midsection hits.
“We want to focus on playing clean, and playing hard,’’ Wagner said. “One particular week, I think we were coming out of our bye, and we had a chance to watch a lot of the games, and that week there were so many missed tackles and so many fines. That’s how we were taught all year. It wasn’t easy. But there’s a way to hit a guy hard, and we found it. I have not been fined this year. Kam used to get fined a lot in the past. But not now.”
“I don’t think anyone embodies being physical more than Kam Chancellor,’’ said Quinn. “But he doesn’t violate the strike zone. Pete coaches us. This began at the start of camp. We showed legal hits, illegal hits. You’d hear the groans from the guys—That’s not a penalty!—and I’d say, ‘These are the rules of engagement. We have no control over it.' Rocky really helped educate the team. We’d have weekly meeting about ball security, and about the strike zone. It paid off.”
Tell you what I’d do if I were the NFL: I’d have Bobby Wagner or Kam Chancellor go to the Rookie Symposium in late June in Ohio and tell them what they did in the postseason. Tell them you can take the head out of the game and still be great on defense. It’d be a great lesson for the rookie class of 2014. They saw how great the Seahawks played in the postseason, and the lesson should be drilled home: not a dirty flag in 188 crucial snaps.
Now for your email, much of it about the Michael Sam story...
SAM IS GETTING A RAW DEAL. At what point do the comments about Michael Sam from NFL GMs and scouts constitute employment discrimination? These men are saying that Sam's prospects will be diminished or he might not be hired simply and solely because he is openly gay. In a number of states that is illegal, and it's this sort of behavior that is driving Congress to consider the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. It's something that's long overdue, not just for Sam's sake (and the NFL) but for gay people throughout the United States.
There are 32 independent football companies in the NFL, and they can choose who they want in the draft and in free agency. I think there’s a difference between a football team and, say, corporate America. If a football team rates defensive end John Doe as a near equal to Michael Sam in the draft, and they’re both on the board when the team picks in the fifth round, and the team knows John Doe comes without all the attention Sam will bring, there’s a good chance that team is going to pick John Doe over Sam. You might not like it, I might not like it. But I think for most teams, that’s the truth.
THESE GENERAL MANAGERS STINK. Hard to believe that a GM would say that Sam ‘is not a very good player,’ and combined with that assessment and ‘locker room’ issues, conclude he will not be drafted. I'd like to know where the GM's team has finished the last few years and how's his draft record. The NFL is loaded with low-round picks and undrafted free agents who've made it big and helped Super Bowl-winning teams. Look no further than Seattle and New England. If the defensive player of the year in the SEC and someone who projects to be a third- to fifth-round pick by Mel Kiper can't make it, it's not because of ability. Willing to bet you a beer that the GM's team is a loser.
He’s just a general manager with an opinion. Not saying he’s right or he’s wrong. Just saying if you take the typical mid-round pick in this draft, I could find 10 teams whose GM would say, “We don’t like him. He’s overrated. We have very little interest in him.”
SAM COULD BE AN ADVANTAGE TO SOME TEAMS. Virtually every reporter seems to think that Michael Sam’s draft prospects will be hurt by his decision to come out of the closet. However, no one has considered whether certain teams will draft him higher due to the positive attention that he would bring to the team. Do you think the positive support and new fans in cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, New York, etc. would outweigh the fans that quit watching the team if one of those teams drafted him? Further, even if the fan support is not initially positive, as an owner you would be making history on a civil rights issue. I'm not saying that any team should draft him higher than he deserves based on talent, but if two prospects were equal on their boards in the third or fourth round, do you think certain teams might give the tiebreaker to Sam to make history and generate some positive support for their team?
—Steve, Baton Rouge, La.
It would make a good story, but Jerry Reese and John Idzik (New York), John Schneider (Seattle), Trent Baalke (San Francisco) and John Elway (Denver) are not going to make Sam a higher-rated prospect because he is gay and it would appeal to a part of their fan base.
I SHOULD NOT PRINT ANONYMOUS RIPS. I've been a long-time reader of your MMQB column and normally I find it a fun and interesting read every Monday. This morning I was really disappointed in your decision to print opinions and musings of a handful of cowardly NFL GMs and personnel men. If these people don't have the guts to put their names behind their words, you shouldn't be printing them. After the bravery and maturity that Michael Sam showed by coming out on Sunday, I think it does a disservice to him and the larger discussion of LGBT players in the NFL to let those with bigoted opinions hide behind a veil of anonymity. Although you claimed in your column that you did this to give the best possible information, I don't see how this information could possibly be even considered ‘good.’ Which team has bigot for a GM? We won't find out from your article because you let these cowards hide. That whole section seems to be more to drive page views than provide any useful information and it really makes me rethink spending any time on your website.
Justin, I totally understand your frustration. I received hundreds of similar responses. All I can say is this: I’ve been covering the NFL for nearly 30 years. I could ask general managers I have very good relationships with for their honest opinion about Sam, and I will guarantee you the ones who answer will sugarcoat their answers. Why wouldn’t they? If a GM on the record says, “Being gay will hurt his draft stock,’’ this GM will be vilified from coast to coast. If a GM granted anonymity is asked about Sam and believes being gay will hurt his draft stock—whether by his team or teams in general—he can say it without being hurt. So, which would you rather have? A GM on the record saying something that very well might not be the truth because the guy doesn’t want to be burned? Or a GM who is told his identity won’t be revealed and so can speak honestly?
I want to give readers as accurate a picture of what real people in the NFL are thinking, as pleasant or unpleasant as it may be.
ON MARCUS SMART. I am at a loss to read that you ‘back Smart all the way’ if he reacted to a racial slur by shoving a fan. While you may understand his anger, or even share his anger, there is absolutely no excuse for a player to be goaded by words to enter the seats of an arena and have a physical altercation with a fan. The possibility of this type of behavior escalating with other fans and other players and creating a physically dangerous situation to others is enormous. People go to games to enjoy their experience. They bring children. They do not expect physical altercations. If a fan is unruly in any way then stadium security should be called to take care of the situation. Allowing players to start fights over words, no matter how repugnant, is completely unacceptable.
Mostly, I agree with you. The bigger man will walk away. Jackie Robinson walked away, and it was the right thing to do. I ask you this: What is acceptable for fan behavior? Suppose a player careens into the stands while chasing a loose ball, and while he’s down, the player, in the midst of an intense game, has a fan yell at him the worst things imaginable. When, I ask, will there be a code of conduct for fans? Why shouldn’t such a fan be banned from that arena forever? Sorry, Stephanie. I have heard enough from the louts who think buying a ticket entitles them to say whatever they want at the volume they choose. The bigger person walks away and goes to security and reports the incident. In the heat of battle, is that realistic? I probably would not be that big, though I hope I would be. I am behind Smart.