Category Archives: Games People Play

Reliving The NFL’s Worst Plays

This weekend the NFL Network aired the NFL Top 10 Worst Plays. I believe it speaks to my psyche as a sports fan that I watched three of the top four as they were happening — one of them in person, from just a few hundred feet away — and in all three cases, I was rooting for the team that was on the failing side of the play.

I accept number one as the top choice because of how consequential it was. It’s the only play in Super Bowl history where the team on offense has gone from near-certain victory to near-certain defeat. Even the conclusion of Super Bowl XXV, perhaps the closest analogue, involved a relatively low percentage field goal attempt.

What I do continue to dispute is the conventional wisdom that this was the worst play call of all time. Statistically speaking the risk of a quarterback throwing an interception at the one-yard line is comparable to a running back fumbling at the one-yard line. If anything, the real problem with the play call is that the Patriots anticipated its use. As the video shows, the Patriots defense had run through the play in practice, and former Seahawk Brandon Browner warned Malcolm Butler to be ready for the coverage as they lined up for the snap. This belies the standard criticism of this play call: That the obvious choice in this situation was to have Marshawn Lynch run the ball. It also points out how well prepared the Patriots were to play the Seahawks.

The conventional wisdom also neglects the fact that the fateful play wouldn’t have even been possible if not for a phenomenal catch by Jermaine Kearse two plays earlier. What really cost the Seahawks this game is that they gave up two fourth quarter touchdown passes to the Patriots. Prior to Super Bowl XLIX they had an eight-game winning streak in which they consistently dominated the ends of games.

If there’s any consolation for me, reliving it through the replay might help anesthetize me to the coverage of it that is sure to intensify as November 13th approaches.


How the Seahawks Clinched, 2015

Seahawks clinch 2015 - small

When the Seahawks defeated the Browns on Sunday, it was announced broadly that the Seahawks had clinched a playoff berth. Nowhere, however, was it explained how this was determined. It appeared to be taken on faith, generally without a source, though in some cases the information was cited as coming from “the league”. This is not good enough for me.

When the same thing happened in 2013, I took it upon myself to investigate, and produced How the Seahawks Clinched. At the time I imagined that it couldn’t get much more complicated to prove that a team had clinched a playoff berth. I was wrong. Hold on for the ride.

Let’s start by excluding the scenario where the Seahawks win the NFC West division. As of this writing it is moot due to Arizona’s victory on Sunday night, but when the Seahawks-Browns game was completed, it was still theoretically possible. (Obviously had the Seahawks won the NFC West, they would have had a playoff berth.) This means that we only have to concern ourselves with how the Seahawks clinched a wildcard berth.

Because the Seahawks are 9-5, they can only be defeated for a wildcard berth by a team that has lost at most seven games and isn’t going to win its division. Not counting the NFC East for the moment, this limits the teams to Green Bay (10-4), Minnesota (9-5) and Atlanta (7-7).

Now let’s dispatch the NFC East. Washington can go 9-7, but if they do then they win the division title and thus aren’t part of wildcard consideration. Philadelphia could also have gone 9-7 had they not lost to Arizona on Sunday night (which occurred after the Seahawks clinched). However, in order for the Eagles to have finished 9-7, they would also have had to have defeated Washington next weekend. In this case, Washington would do no better than 8-8, Philadelphia would win the NFC East, and Washington would not be part of the wildcard picture. To summarize, no NFC East team can qualify for a wildcard position.

This leaves three detailed scenarios to consider, which I will cover in increasing order of complexity.

The first and simplest scenario is where Seattle wins (or ties) at least one more game or Atlanta loses (or ties) at least one more game. If Seattle wins or ties one more game, it is at least 10-6 (or 9-6-1) and Atlanta’s theoretical 9-7 best is not good enough. Similarly, if Atlanta loses (or ties) at least one more game, it can finish no better than 8-8 (or 8-7-1) so Seattle’s theoretical 9-7 worst is good enough. In either case Seattle is guaranteed one of the two wild card slots, and the other goes to either Minnesota or Green Bay (whichever of these two doesn’t win the NFC North).

As a result of this, in the remaining scenarios we only have to consider cases where Atlanta wins out and Seattle loses out and thus they both finish 9-7.

The second scenario is where Minnesota wins (or ties) at least one more game. In this scenario, Minnesota and Green Bay are both 10-6 (or 9-6-1) or better and Atlanta and Seattle are both 9-7. The better of Minnesota and Green Bay wins the NFC North, and the worse gets the higher wild card position, i.e. 5th seed overall. This leaves Atlanta and Seattle competing for the final wild card position.

Atlanta and Seattle didn’t play each other, so there’s no direct head-to-head, and they are in different divisions, so intra-divisional records aren’t compared. The next tiebreaker is conference record; in this scenario both teams would be 6-6. After that the next tiebreaker is record against common opponents, with a minimum of four. It turns out that Atlanta and Seattle have exactly four common opponents this year — Carolina, Dallas, Minnesota, and San Francisco — and the Seahawks are 4-1 (3-1 if you count the 49ers only once) while the Falcons are 1-3. Even if you include the Panthers a second time, and the Falcons defeat them in the rematch next weekend to finish 2-3 (which they need to do in order to finish 9-7), it’s not good enough. So the Seahawks win this tiebreaker and are in the playoffs.

The third scenario is where Minnesota loses both of its remaining games, leaving them tied with Atlanta and Seattle at 9-7. Figuring out who wins this three-way tiebreaker is quite involved. None of these teams defeated both of the other two, so there’s no winner based on sweeping the head-to-head games. Minnesota would also have a 6-6 conference record in this scenario, so that doesn’t help either. And these three teams do not play at least four common opponents in 2015.

The next step in the tiebreaker is strength of victory. This is where things get really gnarly. Strength of victory involves taking the combined won-lost-tied records of all of the teams that each team defeated and computing an aggregate won-lost-tied percentage. This means that even a meaningless Week 17 game like Chicago vs. Detroit could have an effect on the tiebreaker because it could improve one team’s strength of victory at the expense of another.

The good news is that who wins the three-way tiebreaker amongst Atlanta, Minnesota, and Seattle is moot as it affects the Seahawks playoff chances. Here’s why: Let’s assume that one of the three teams has the best strength of victory. If it’s the Seahawks, then they win the 5th seed by virtue of this tiebreaker. And if it’s not the Seahawks, then either Atlanta or Minnesota wins the 5th seed, leaving the Seahawks in a two-way tie with the other team to determine the 6th seed.

If Minnesota wins the three-way tiebreaker, then Atlanta and Seattle are competing for the 6th seed. This is the same as the second scenario, where we’ve already shown that Seattle wins over Atlanta by virtue of record against common opponents. If Atlanta wins the three-way tiebreaker, then Minnesota and Seattle are competing for the 6th seed, which Seattle takes on the basis of its 38-7 victory over Minnesota on December 6th.

Even in the unlikely case that no team won the strength of victory tiebreaker (and I’m not even sure if this is mathematically possible at this point), eventually one of the three teams would have to win one of the lower tiebreakers — coin toss, anyone? — and the above logic still applies: Either the Seahawks win the three-way tiebreaker and get the 5th seed, or they’re competing one-on-one against either Atlanta or Minnesota for the 6th seed and win that two-way tiebreaker.

So to recap, in any season-ending scenario that was possible at the time that the Seattle-Cleveland game ended on Sunday afternoon, the Seahawks would have a playoff berth. Q.E.D. And phew!

[Updated 2015-12-24: Added image and made minor text edits.]

Seahawks: Anticipating History’s Judgment

Steelers vs. Bears

After another lackluster Seahawks performance in yesterday’s loss to the Cardinals, in the first of what are likely to be several “must win” games, Seahawks fans are starting to resign themselves to a wait-till-next-year attitude. It’s a tough spot for those of us who have been counting on 2015 to erase the bitter taste that was left in our mouths by the excruciating loss in Super Bowl XLIX. I prefer to cope with this season’s difficulties by trying to place the team — prematurely, I readily admit — in a longer-term historical context.

When I watched the Seahawks of the early Russell Wilson era in 2012 and 2013, the team they reminded me of most was the Pittsburgh Steelers of the early 1970s. A team that won two consecutive Super Bowls after the 1974 and 1975 seasons on the strength of a punishing defense, a strong running game led by an All-Pro running back, and a quarterback who was then known more for scrambling than downfield passing.

It is, to be sure, a flattering and optimistic comparison. After missing the Super Bowl the next two seasons, this Steelers team, still possessing a dominant defense but transformed by a pass-first offense thanks to the blossoming of its Hall of Fame-bound quarterback and receivers, won another two consecutive Super Bowls, cementing its place as one of the greatest teams in NFL history. How nice to believe, especially in the modern NFL era of parity and free agency, that the current Seahawks team could sustain such a record of achievement over the next decade.

There is another historical comparison that, while equally apt, is considerably less optimistic: The 1985 Chicago Bears. A team that dominated during the regular season with outsized swagger, led by one of the greatest defenses of all time. Featuring a beloved, Hall of Fame running back and a quarterback known more for finding ways to win than for his passing skills. A team that dismantled its opponent in one of the most dominating Super Bowl victories of all time. And sadly for its fans, a team that, while remaining a contender for the next several years, never regained the dominance that characterized its one glorious Super Bowl-winning season.

Which path are the current Seahawks likely to follow? We’ll know in a few years.

Awarding a “C’mon Man!” to the Seattle Seahawks official web site

Russell Wilson holding the George Halas (not Hallas) Trophy, January 2014

Walter Payton (not Peyton)

Lorem ipsum

I try hard to be tolerant of errors in web content, but occasionally there are mistakes so egregious that I feel compelled to speak up. A recent example is the article The Spirit of 12 has grown beyond expectations, published Monday on the official web site of the Seattle Seahawks. Consider the following excerpt (text bolded by me for emphasis):

The NFL’s concern with retiring numbers wasn’t directed at the Seahawks, who were just completing their ninth season after entering the league in 1976 as an expansion team. But the Chicago Bears, who have been in existence since 1919 and a member of the NFL since 1920, have retired a league-high 14 numbers. Not No. 14, but 14 jersey numbers – 3 (Bronko Nagurski); 5 (George McAfee); 7 (George Hallas); 28 (Willie Galimore); 34 (Walter Peyton); 40 (Gale Sayers); 41 (Brian Piccolo); 42 (Sid Luckman); 51 (Dick Butkus); 56 (Bill Hewitt); 61 (Bill George); 66 (Clyde “Bulldog” Turner); 77 (Harold “Red” Grange); and 89 (Mike Ditka).

It’s one thing to misspell names in a web article. It’s another thing to misspell names in a web article published on the official site of an NFL team. It’s yet another thing when those misspelled names belong to two of the most famous figures in NFL history. It’s still another, other thing when those two people have prominent NFL awards named after them (George Halas Trophy, Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award). And it’s a simply staggering thing when the team on whose official site the article is posted is the most recent winner of one of those awards.

C’mon, man! Continue reading

What The 12th Man Says About Seattle


Lots of cities get whipped into a frenzy when their team gets to play in The Big Sports Ball Contest. And it’s not entirely unreasonable to view the whole 12th Man campaign as a money-driven marketing ploy. So what is it really that the 12th Man tells us about Seattle?

What the 12th Man demonstrates is the strength of the communitarian impulse in Seattle. More than most major American cities, the people of the Seattle metro area embody a “we’re in this together” attitude that enables the area to unite behind big initiatives, as opposed to the “what’s in it for me?” attitude that prevails elsewhere. Certainly many Seahawks fans will be wearing Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman jerseys on Sunday, but when the 12s are out in force, brandishing an identity that rises above and outlasts any single individual’s, it says that what unites us is more important than what divides us and that we’ll make small sacrifices in service of a bigger goal.

Not that there isn’t a dark side to this, notably the passive-aggressive (and sometimes just aggressive) groupthink that permeates the Seattle area.  Or the rudeness-masquerading-as-politeness, of which is yielding one’s turn at an all-way stop sign is a prominent example. But it’s a key part of what makes Seattle a great place to live and sustains us through these short, gray days of winter.

How the Seahawks clinched

After last night’s Seahawks victory, people started reporting that the Seahawks have clinched a playoff berth. However, there are more than enough teams who are capable of matching the Seahawks’ worst-case won-loss record of 11-5, and I couldn’t find anybody who had – in the words of math teachers everywhere – shown their work. So I decided to work it out myself, and either prove that the Seahawks did indeed clinch or find at least one scenario where they would not make the playoffs.

Starting with the fact that the Seahawks are guaranteed no worse than an 11-5 record, this limits the analysis to NFC teams whose won-loss records are 7-5 or better.  Apart from Seattle, there are seven of these: Detroit, Dallas, Philadelphia, Carolina, New Orleans, Arizona, and San Francisco.

We know that Seattle has not yet clinched the NFC West, because San Francisco is 8-4 and could finish 12-4.  So it’s possible that Seattle would have to settle for a wild card spot.  In fact, San Francisco could lose its final game to Arizona and still win the division, because if Seattle loses the rest of its games and the 49ers win all but the last, both teams are 11-5.  Then the 49ers would win the tiebreaker based on having a superior division record (4-2 vs. 3-3).  More on this later.

Now let’s go through the other divisions. The NFC North is easiest: Only the Lions can go 11-5, and if they do, they win the division and thus don’t compete for a wild card berth.

In the NFC East, both the Cowboys and the Eagles are 7-5.  Either could go 11-5, but since they face each other in the final game of the season, if one goes 11-5, the other would be at best 10-6.  In this case, the 11-5 team would win the division and the 10-6 team would fall below an 11-5 Seahawks team in the quest for a wild card berth.

In the NFC South, both Carolina and New Orleans are 9-3.  Both have lost to the Seahawks, so they must go 12-4 to beat Seattle for a wild card berth.  This is possible, since though they face each other twice, if they split those two games and each win their other two games, they’re both 12-4.  One of them would win the division – I haven’t bothered figuring out who – and the other would take a wild card spot over an 11-5 Seahawks team.

So that leaves the NFC West: The 49ers, the Cardinals, and the Seahawks, with one wildcard spot guaranteed to be available to an 11-5 team.  One scenario is that the 49ers win their remaining games and the Seahawks lose theirs.  In this case, the 49ers win the division at 12-4, but in doing so they beat the Cardinals, who would be at best 10-6.  So the Seahawks would get the second wild card berth at 11-5.

The second interesting scenario is where the Cardinals win all of their remaining games, the 49ers win all but the Cardinals game, and the Seahawks lose all of theirs.  In this case, all three teams finish with 11-5 records.

Let’s go through the tiebreaker steps under this scenario:

  1. Head-to-head.  All three teams are 1-1 against each other.
  2. Division record.  Currently Seattle is 3-0, San Francisco 3-1 and Arizona 0-3.  In this scenario, San Francisco would end up 4-2, and both Seattle and Arizona 3-3.  San Francisco would win the division, leaving Seattle and Arizona to contend for the last wild card berth using the remaining steps.
  3. Record against common opponents.  There are twelve of these for Arizona and Seattle.  Arizona is 6-3 with three remaining and Seattle is 9-1 with two remaining.  So both would end up 9-3.
  4. Conference record.  Seattle is currently 8-0 with four remaining and Arizona is 4-5 with three remaining.  So Seattle would end up 8-4 and Arizona would end up 7-5.  Advantage, Seahawks!

There you have it!  Even if Seattle doesn’t win another regular season game and every other playoff contender wins every game that it needs to, Seattle is guaranteed at least a wild card berth.  And if they defeat the 49ers next Sunday, they clinch the NFC West and have only one remaining competitor (the winner of the Carolina-New Orleans game) for the top playoff seed in the NFC.

True Nostalgia and False Nostalgia

Both of which are brought up by It’s Football in January, but Minus the Weather.
I have nostalgia for the days when the New York Times had editorial standards that wouldn’t let the word “Sigh” pass as a first-person expression of disgust, let alone as an entire paragraph.  It’s one of the evils of email communication that should never have been validated by the Gray Lady.
Unlike the author of this article, however, I have little nostalgia for the cold weather playoff games of yore.  What I remember is:

Northern Team + Weak Division =>
Artificially Good Regular Season Record =>
Home Field Advantage in the Playoffs =>
Northern Team hosting Southern Team for the Conference Championship in Bitter Cold =>
Overrated Northern Team going to a Warm Weather Super Bowl =>
Top Four Teams in the Other Conference Competing for the Right To Beat Northern Team in the Super Bowl

As evidence, consider the Minnesota Vikings (0-4, defeated by four different AFL/AFC teams from 1969-1976) and the Buffalo Bills (0-4, defeated by three different NFC teams from 1990-1993).