A Clean Sweep
The poster children for the NFL's mission to eradicate head hits from the game? Look no further than the Seahawks, who were the opposite of dirty birds en route to winning the Super Bowl. Plus, readers react to Michael Sam coming out
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.
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…