On Super Bowl Sunday, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player was no match for the league’s most valuable contract. Russell Wilson outplayed Peyton Manning in the biggest game of Wilson’s career, and once that was taken care of, the rest of the Denver roster couldn’t stack up. For 60 stunning, dominant minutes on Sunday, the Seattle Seahawks were the human manifestation of every tough football cliché you’ve ever heard an old coach spout. They didn’t just prevail over the Denver Broncos. In typical Seahawks fashion, they beat Denver up. They exerted their will upon the Broncos in each and every facet of the game. They took control of the game from literally the opening snap from scrimmage1 and never let go. And during those few times that they bent, the Seahawks didn’t break; they snapped back ferociously, extinguishing Denver’s hopes as soon as the Broncos mustered up the confidence to have any.
More than any other, one old talking point rung true. Football is a war of attrition, and by the time these two teams had reached the sport’s biggest stage, the Seahawks had won that war. The depth of their relatively healthy roster came through on Sunday, as they exploited overmatched Denver backups stretched into starting roles, while late-round draftees and backups came up with key contributions on both sides of the ball. When Seattle’s dominant pass defense neutralized Manning, the Broncos simply didn’t have a team capable of stepping up and rising to the occasion. Instead, when its star was shook, Denver got stomped.
Denver’s defense had a game it will try in vain to forget. After putting up impressive performances against the Chargers and Patriots to help push the Broncos into Super Bowl XLVIII, the Broncos offered precious little resistance against Russell Wilson & Co. on Sunday. The final score will judge them harshly — 16 of Seattle’s 43 points came from defensive and special teams scores — but they repeatedly couldn’t get off the field. The Broncos allowed Seattle to score on six of its first seven meaningful drives,2 and by the time they had forced their second stop of the game, there was less than 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
The Broncos were missing four key defensive contributors because of injuries, and their absence was noted in the disappointing play from their replacements. Backup pass-rusher Robert Ayers, a failed first-round pick from the Josh McDaniels era, was forced into a bigger role by the absence of lineman Derek Wolfe, and he had a dismal first half. Ayers repeatedly lost contain and failed to set the edge on his side of the line, allowing Percy Harvin to gain 45 yards on a pair of jet sweeps, while Wilson repeatedly found space to maneuver when scrambling back to his left, creating throwing lanes and successful runs. Cornerback Tony Carter, a journeyman and special-teamer filling in for the injured Chris Harris, committed a crucial pass interference penalty in the end zone to set up one touchdown before setting up another by missing a tackle. While a fifth key contributor was on the field, he was missing, too: Champ Bailey was a shell of his former self, as the Seahawks were able to beat him for a number of first downs early before the Broncos gave him more help. And a team without star linebacker Von Miller not only failed to sack Wilson, the league’s most-sacked starter (on a per-attempt basis), it failed to knock him down on even one of his 27 dropbacks.
Should we really have expected a lot out of the Denver defense, though, given the personnel who are actually suiting up these days? This was a team that, even in healthier times, finished the year 15th in DVOA. When you look at those who were actually seeing serious reps for the Broncos on Sunday, there are just not many players with much of a pedigree. Denver’s defense is basically split up into bargain-basement veteran reclamation projects signed to short-term deals from free agency (Mike Adams, Terrance Knighton, Paris Lenon, Shaun Phillips, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie), Day 3 draft picks (Omar Bolden, Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan), and undrafted free agents (Carter, Duke Ihenacho, Mitch Unrein, Wesley Woodyard). The only defensive contributors for Denver on Sunday who weren’t acquired on the cheap were Ayers, Bailey, 2011 third-rounder Nate Irving, and 2013 first-rounder Sylvester Williams.
John Fox and Jack Del Rio have done an admirable job of coaching their guys up during the year, and they did an excellent job of shutting down Marshawn Lynch by winning at the line of scrimmage. Against a deep, healthy Seahawks passing attack, their lack of depth and, honestly, lack of talent were highlighted. While the Seahawks mostly avoided Rodgers-Cromartie, Wilson was often able to hit receivers up the seam or on quick slants for easy gains, with the Broncos defenders unable to get in his throwing lanes and too slow to seriously contest his passes. When Wilson’s initial throw wasn’t there or he felt the beginnings of pressure, he was able to scramble, reset himself, and find a receiver. It wasn’t his sharpest game, especially at first, but the Broncos offered staggeringly little resistance to the Seattle passing attack. Wilson finished 18-of-25 for 206 yards, and those seven incompletions included five plays when Wilson either overthrew an open receiver or had that open receiver drop a pass. Denver really broke up only two passes all night: the flea flicker that saw Wilson shovel a pass forward out of desperation, and a first-quarter pass up the seam in the end zone that was broken up by Irving.
With Golden Tate kept quiet by DRC, Harvin mostly used as a decoy, and Sidney Rice on the shelf as Seattle’s lone prominent injury heading into the game, Wilson’s two most prominent receivers were the “pedestrian” duo of Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, a pair of undrafted free agents whose combined signing bonuses upon joining the league amounted to $26,000.3 They combined to go 9-of-10 for 131 yards and two touchdowns, with the only incompletion the aforementioned breakup in the end zone. After getting beaten early when they pressed their corners to the line of scrimmage, the Broncos seemed to retreat and play softer, more conservative coverage, allowing Baldwin and Kearse to get off the line of scrimmage and find holes in Denver’s zones. And when the Broncos decided to try to emulate their big brothers on the other sideline by attempting to knock people down with shoulder tackles, Baldwin and Kearse were able to shrug off sloppy takedown attempts for yards after catch, including the crucial final yards on each of their touchdown catches. With Tate a free agent and Rice a possible cap casualty, Baldwin and Kearse are likely to move into more prominent roles next season. After Sunday, pedestrian seems like a speed that might suit Seattle just fine.
As for Harvin, meanwhile, he finally suited up for his first complete game in a Seahawks uniform and might have justified the $14.5 million he collected this season while doing so. While he had only a lone catch for five yards, Harvin was electric on a pair of jet sweeps, one of the many ways in which the Seahawks will employ Harvin’s unique skill set in 2014 and beyond. More notably, Harvin probably ended the game as a contest when he opened up the third quarter by taking the opening kickoff to the house. It played off the pregame fears about Denver’s terrible kickoff coverage and Matt Prater’s kickoffs outside of the thin air at home. In Denver, Prater would have been able to just boot the ball through the back of the end zone on virtually every kickoff, neutralizing Harvin without ever allowing him to touch the ball. Here, with Denver’s first kickoff of the game coming at the beginning of the second half, Prater tried a popup kick that landed 10 yards short of the end zone, and when Harvin fielded the kick cleanly, the dismal Denver kickoff coverage unit offered little resistance. It seemed like a rare misstep for Seahawks general manager John Schneider when he traded a first-, third-, and seventh-round pick for Harvin this offseason and gave him a $64 million contract extension before Harvin missed virtually the first year of that deal with a hip injury, but as he watched Harvin sprint toward the end zone to put the Seahawks up four scores, I doubt Schneider regretted the trade very much at all.
One of the reasons why Schneider was able to take a calculated risk on bringing in Harvin, of course, was Wilson, the most valuable contract in football. Wilson plays football’s most important position at an extremely high level, but because he was a third-round pick in a league that slots rookie contracts at a given price, his contract ensures that he’ll be a bargain for years to come. Wilson just finished the second year of a four-year, $3 million contract that counted for just $681,085 against Seattle’s cap this year. After starting his career 24-8 and winning a Super Bowl in just his second year at the helm, Wilson’s about to receive a hefty raise to … $817,302.
His opposite number on Sunday is in the middle of a five-year, $96 million deal that will cost Denver $17.5 million this year and next; Manning will make more per game than Wilson will make all year. The Broncos obviously weren’t wrong to sign Manning, but they had no choice but to pay him this much, given the competition surrounding him on the free market as an unrestricted free agent two years ago. Even beyond that large sum of money, the Broncos are paying for Manning’s deal in another way: In a league where every competitive team is trying to spend up to a hard cap, they’re incurring the opportunity cost of not being able to use that $17.5 million cap hold on anybody else.
That’s what makes Wilson so valuable. In a vacuum,4 Wilson is a bargain, but his contract looks even better when you consider that the typical quarterback of his caliber takes up something like $17.5 million of his team’s salary cap. The Seahawks can take the $16.8 million difference and go spend it elsewhere, which changes the value proposition. Manning is probably a better quarterback than Wilson, but is Wilson plus $16.8 million worth of players better than Manning?
On Sunday, he very much was. The Seahawks made three big free-agent signings this offseason, and they each contributed to the win. Harvin ($4.9 million cap hold this year) had the kickoff return for a touchdown, while Michael Bennett ($4.8 million) and Cliff Avril ($3.8 million) were part of a pass rush that battered Manning all day. After Manning had gone all postseason without being sacked or even knocked down, the Seahawks’ pass rush responded with a dominant performance: It sacked Manning once, knocked him down four times, pressured him on what must have been at least a dozen dropbacks, forced him to fumble, and tipped two of his passes at the line. One of those tipped passes topped a first-half drive on downs deep in Seattle territory. An Avril pressure saw him go through dreadful Denver right tackle Orlando Franklin and drive him back into Manning, resulting in an up-for-grabs throw that game MVP Malcolm Smith returned for a pick-six.5
Both Franklin and left tackle Chris Clark, filling in for All-Pro Ryan Clady since September, were unable to hold up against Seattle’s stream of pass-rushers on the outside. Bennett & Co. did enough on the interior to help collapse Manning’s pocket, forcing him to scramble and/or rush throws. And while there were concerns about a smaller Seattle front failing to hold up when Manning inevitably audibled to run calls, it managed to hold Denver to just 27 yards on 14 carries, problems unquestionably exacerbated by second-half injuries to Knowshon Moreno (who also fumbled) and guard Louis Vasquez. And center Manny Ramirez, a converted guard and the team’s third choice at that spot after expected starters J.D. Walton and Dan Koppen got hurt in the preseason, dealt with a center’s worst nightmare when he prematurely snapped the ball on the game’s opening play from scrimmage for a safety.
Even when Manning had time to throw, the Seahawks gave him precious little to work with. Before the game, while I noted that Denver had produced the most impressive output in league history, I also wondered whether Seattle would present a more difficult matchup for them than even their own excellent numbers might suggest. That certainly turned out to be the case.
Seattle didn’t stay in its traditional Cover 3 as much as I might have expected, especially during the first half, when it spent a fair amount of time in one-deep and two-deep zones with man-to-man on Denver’s outside receivers. With each coverage shell, the concept was the same: prevent the Broncos from completing anything downfield, disrupt their timing, force them into underneath passes and checkdowns, and prevent them from compiling yards after catch. The Broncos are a team built on gaining yards after catch and big plays, and Seattle denied them both.
To be honest, Denver mostly did stuff that you could have read about on Grantland last week before the game (or seen on tape from games past). Denver repeatedly went back to the shallow cross series that Chris Brown diagrammed in his article on the Denver offense. It ran a lot of Trips sets designed to force the Seahawks to shift, declare, or change their coverages, but those mostly just produced screens and short catches that didn’t go anywhere. There were a few times when the Broncos threw a quick screen on a play where they had a man advantage on one side of the field, but the Seahawks were quick to swarm to limit the play to a small gain. Denver also made the mistake of running too many slow-developing screens; while they hoped to use those screens to lure an aggressive Seattle pass rush into overpursuing, the Seahawks defense was so fast and the screens were so slow that the backside pursuit would catch up with the receiver by the time he turned upfield.
The Broncos sacrificed Eric Decker to the Sherman Isle, with Decker catching just one pass on five targets for six yards, even though Sherman suffered a high ankle sprain in the first half and had to be carted off after re-aggravating the injury in the fourth quarter. That left Demaryius Thomas one-on-one versus Byron Maxwell, and while Thomas ended up setting a single-game Super Bowl receptions record with some second-half filler, Denver simply couldn’t do anything downfield; Manning threw 10 “deep” passes,6 and on those throws, he went 2-for-10 for 42 yards with an interception, a fumble (by Thomas after a completion), and a 20-yard defensive pass interference penalty. By throwing so many short passes over the middle of the field, the Broncos instead incurred the wrath of Kam Chancellor, who was Seattle’s most active defender from the beginning of the game onward. He finished with 10 tackles, two passes defensed, and an interception, with six of his tackles coming on passes short of the first-down marker.
While Manning eventually racked up empty completions by throwing in a desperate attempt to catch up during the second half, his first-half line is probably more indicative of the kind of day he had: 17-of-23 for 104 yards and two interceptions tells the whole story. The Broncos were able to complete plenty of passes, but they were the throws the Seahawks wanted them to make, all drags and screens. Seattle was confident it would get pressure on Manning and force him or one of his teammates into a mistake before they dinked and dunked their way into the end zone, and it was right. After failing to pick up a first down during three first-quarter drives, Denver’s six subsequent possessions all ended in Seattle territory. Those six drives produced 18 first downs but managed to score only eight points, thanks to two turnovers, two failed fourth-down conversions, and a truly perplexing punt. I wondered before the game if Denver would be able to beat Seattle in the compressed space of the red zone, but the Seahawks were able to successfully treat the entire field like it was just a series of red zones.
So, let’s play America’s worst game show: What does this loss do for Peyton Manning’s legacy? The answer, excitingly, is just about nothing! It’s only going to further entrench either side’s beliefs. If you think that Manning is the greatest quarterback who ever lived, you probably are going to point to that fifth MVP trophy he picked up this weekend and note that he got virtually no help from the players around him, a common complaint in Manning losses going back to the early Manning-Brady playoff games. And if you think Manning can’t win in the clutch and needs a better postseason record to justify that title, well, you just got another loss in a big game to add to Peyton’s loss column, and a 35-point loss at that.
The truth, as uninteresting and irrelevant to this argument as always, is somewhere in the middle. I can’t really fault Manning for taking what the defense gave him here, and I think the first interception was such because it was tipped at the line, but he should never have thrown the second pick with such pressure in his face, even if it meant taking a sack. His arm strength isn’t particularly an issue in cold weather, and it was a relatively balmy high 40s in North Jersey last night after all that sanctimony, but his arm strength is definitely subpar on deeper routes, and the Broncos desperately needed at least the threat of an accurate deep throw to put a scare into Seattle’s cornerbacks. His defense had a bad night, but with eight points to his name, it wasn’t a banner game for Manning and his offense, either. And it’s unfair to forget about the two excellent performances he put together against the Chargers and Patriots just because he lost in the Super Bowl, but those were two big games against bad defenses to which he adds a mediocre performance against a great one.
And finally, I guess, there’s the important distinction to be made between what Manning has done and what Manning is. If you find Manning’s playoff record lacking, I don’t think that’s unreasonable. If you suggest that it’s due to some sort of fatal flaw with Manning or something that’s likely to keep occurring because it’s happened in the past, it seems instructive to point out the case of Manning’s boss. John Elway, of course, lost his first three Super Bowls in ignominious fashion: 39-20, 42-10, and, in the biggest Super Bowl blowout ever, 55-10 to the 49ers. Eight years later, he came back and won two Super Bowls in a row, not coincidentally with a dominant rushing offense that he lacked during those first three games. Even the great ones need help, and on Sunday, while he didn’t play up to his usual standards, Manning’s team didn’t offer him much assistance, either.
Thank You for Not Coaching
As it turns out, in-game decision-making doesn’t mean a whole lot in a 43-8 blowout. I could credit Pete Carroll with the aggressive coaching decision of showing up for the game on time and knock John Fox for not convincing the Seahawks to bring in Tarvaris Jackson any earlier, but that wouldn’t fly. So while these moves didn’t end up materially affecting the outcome of the game, in most cases, nobody knew that would end up being the case at the time.
Do you like awful challenges? If so, man, was the first quarter of this game for you. The Seahawks got the ball rolling early when Carroll threw out the challenge flag on their opening drive, when a Wilson scramble was ruled to have come up a yard short on third down. It’s certainly a high-reward challenge, since a successful overturn would have turned fourth-and-short into first-and-goal from the 9-yard line, but there hadn’t been any replays that suggested Wilson had clearly picked up the first down. It was a challenge driven by sheer optimism and hope, which actually is just about the perfect motivation for a Pete Carroll challenge flag.
Review found that the ball should be placed closer to the marker, turning fourth-and-1 into fourth-and-a-foot, but the challenge needs to produce a first down to be considered a victory and allow Carroll to keep his timeout and possibility of a third challenge.7 Carroll then compounded his mistake by kicking a field goal on that fourth-and-a-foot as opposed to going for it. You could argue that he knows his team — the Seahawks were the worst team in football in power situations this year — but it’s a foot. If you can successfully field the snap, you can pick up a foot.
Not to be topped, Fox unsurprisingly pulled out his challenge flag in an even worse spot. I still haven’t run the TYFNC Awards, but Fox will likely win worst challenge of the year for an early challenge against the Jaguars in Week 6. I wrote then that Fox “just doesn’t understand what the challenge flag is good for, and that might end up costing his team in a spot when the challenges really do matter.” And hey, here we are! He threw the flag out in a similarly desperate moment, hoping that an incomplete screen pass to Harvin was a lateral, despite replays that rather clearly indicated that the pass had moved forward in the air. You can’t fault Fox for trying to generate a turnover when his team was reeling, and to be fair, this one is most likely on whomever was watching the replays upstairs and told Fox that the replays were unclear. If that person told Fox it was clearly a fumble, they should hire a new person. And if it was a judgment call, Fox should have held on to the flag.
In the end, that decision actually did end up hurting the Broncos. When they failed on fourth-and-2 from the Seattle 19-yard line with 1:06 left in the first half, they gave the ball back to Seattle, which ran two draws (sigh) to end the first half. Had Fox not thrown his flag on the pass to Harvin, he would have had all three timeouts after the failed fourth-down conversion, which would have allowed Denver to get the ball back with something like 50 seconds left after a stop. Instead, Fox just let the clock run out.
That fourth-and-2 decision was the right call. The numbers suggest that the Broncos would generate 2.4 points by going for it and 2.0 points by kicking the field goal. Seattle had been successful against the Denver offense all night, but if there was one thing the Broncos offense had done well, it was pick up short gains in the passing game. There is also the emotional aspect; for whatever dumb momentum argument exists about a team somehow taking hold of a game by kicking a field goal down 22-0 with a minute left before halftime, what does it tell your team with the greatest offense since sliced bread if you don’t think it can get two yards? If you can’t pick up two yards in that spot, how are you going to come back from a three-touchdown deficit?
Later, the Broncos punted under even more curious circumstances. Down 29-0 in the third quarter with a third-and-10 on the Seattle 38-yard line, the Broncos oddly chose to hand the ball off to Montee Ball on a draw, which went for a loss of one. Denver then took the greatest offense in NFL history off the field so it could punt while down four touchdowns inside its opponent’s 40-yard line.8 Insane, right?
Well, not necessarily. The New York Times fourth-down bot, which is built with the data from Brian Burke’s Advanced NFL Stats site, suggested that punting was the slightly more positive move, improving Denver’s chances of winning from 6 percent to 7 percent. But given that Denver is very clearly an offense-driven team, that’s probably enough to swing the percentages toward going for it.
Honestly, I just think the Broncos panicked. Whether it was a call from the sideline by offensive coordinator Adam Gase or a decision at the line by Manning, my suspicion is that the third-down draw was designed to set up a more manageable fourth-down play (or a more manageable long field goal, but let’s hope that wasn’t the case). When Denver got stuffed, it was totally stuck in no-man’s-land, didn’t know what to do, and just punted. Given how good Seattle’s defense looked at times during the Super Bowl, that might have been a pretty good option for Denver on first down, let alone fourth.
Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images