You’ve heard Pete Carroll say it ad nauseum: “You can’t win a game until the fourth quarter.”
For all of the Pete Carroll-isms, this one is by far my least favorite. I believe his mantras about championship opportunities and always competing have incredible value and are a major reason why the Seahawks have had such sustained success during Carroll’s tenure as head coach.
I’ll also concede that the notion of not being able to win a game until the final quarter plays a part in why the Seahawks are so comfortable in one-possession contests. Seattle won 11 games in 2019 by eight points or less.
"I love close games," Carroll said back in December. "I think they help you. They make you stronger. They keep you in the game longer. They make you have to focus farther, and it prepares you for more kinds of things that can happen that you need background and experience in.
“It would really be OK if we could win by a lot sometimes. That'd be fun. (But) this is this season. These seasons write a story and that's kind of the story of what's been going on all year long."
But it’s a double-edged sword. That mindset inherently allows you to take the foot off the gas in the first half. Thus, Seattle walks the tightrope late in games far more than it should.
“Teams with a halftime lead win 80% of their games,” Warren Sharp told NBC Sports Northwest on an upcoming episode of the Talkin’ Seahawks Podcast. “You have to be aggressive in the first half. I wholeheartedly disagree with that sentiment of winning in the fourth quarter. … I don’t buy that at all.”
Seattle is often criticized for being too conservative offensively in the first half. Week 17 against the 49ers and the Divisional Round against the Packers are notable games where the offense fell flat over the first two quarters.
There’s a subsequent impact on the defense in such situations, especially one that was average at best like Seattle’s in 2019. Playing in so many close games did no favors for the Seahawks already meager pass rush.
“If you realize that your defense struggles in certain aspects, like pass rush and pressure, you can make it a lot easier on that unit by having leads and so the opponent needing to pass the ball becomes more predictable,” Sharp said.
Cliff Avril, a guy who knows a thing or two about rushing the passer, agreed with Sharp.
“I’m glad you brought that up because most people don’t look at that piece as well,” Avril said on the most recent Talkin’ Seahawks Podcast. “As a pass rusher, you hope going into that fourth quarter that you have a 14-point lead, because you want to be able to pin your ears back.”
Getting to the quarterback on first and second down is incredibly challenging in close games. Defenses obviously have to respect both the run and the pass game in such situations. But Avril also noted that getting sacks on 3rd-and-long is not as easy as you’d assume.
That changes if an opponent has to ditch its running game. Even a pedestrian pass rush like Seattle’s in 2019 (just 28 sacks, second worst in the NFL) would have an easier time against a predictable offense that is chasing points.
“If you can steal a sack on 2nd-and-7; if you can steal a sack on some play actions on first down where they have to throw the ball or you have a lead and they have to come back, it definitely makes it a little easier,” Avril said.
It’s important to circle back to the fact that the Seahawks continue to be one of, if not the most mentally tough team in the NFL. The fact that they don’t get rattled in crunch time – whether they’re playing with a lead or trailing by a score – is impressive.
But one would hope that a middle ground exists where Seattle can focus on winning the first half while still acknowledging the importance of finishing in the fourth quarter.
“The one score games do show that your team is resilient,” Avril said. “It does show that your team can play all the way through the fourth quarter and different things like that. But as far as the pass rush in particular, it makes it extremely hard and difficult for those guys to be able to get sacks.”