What kind of gambler is Mike Macdonald?

For 14 years, the Seahawks flew by the seat of Pete Carroll's (khaki) pants. What's it going to be like under Mike Macdonald?

For the past 14 years, the Seahawks’ game management has come down to the gut feeling of a perpetual optimist who looked like Willy Wonka in khakis and opted to kick more often than he should have. He also LOVED to throw that challenge flag on a hunch. 

What’s it going to look like under Mike Macdonald? That’s the subject of this week’s longer piece, but first …

That actually happened

The Mariners wrapped up a nine-game slog of a road trip with a 5-2 win at Tampa on Wednesday. It was Seattle’s only win of the three-game series against the Rays, which made it par for the course. Seattle also lost two of three in Cleveland and two of three in Miami. 

George Kirby was great on Wednesday, Cal Raleigh clubbed a three-run homer in the sixth and after Andres Munoz loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth, bringing the tying run to the plate, Trent Thornton retired all three batters he faced to earn his first big-league save.

The dark art of staying mad

Earlier this month, I launched Grudgery, a free weekly newsletter that is all about resentment, both my tendency to hold onto it in the form of a grudge and the subject in general. On Sunday, I’ll be publishing the story of Jose Mesa’s unyielding hostility toward Omar Vizquel because it embodies what I believe to be the defining characteristic of a grudge: Namely, one part decides that they’re just not gonna’ let this go.

Upon further review

Midway through the fourth quarter of a November game in New England, the Seahawks had a one-point lead, possession of the ball and a really intriguing plan being discussed among the coaching staff. 

This was 2016, and after Doug Baldwin caught a 15-yard touchdown pass to put Seattle ahead 31-24, Pete Carroll opted for what wound up being my very favorite bit of strategy the Seahawks employed in his 14 years as coach: They went for two.

The upside was huge: Had the Seahawks converted, New England would have needed multiple possessions to catch-up.

Seattle’s risk wasn’t quite so substantial: If the Seahawks had failed the two-point conversion – which they did – the Patriots could tie the score with a touchdown and an extra point instead of needing a two-point conversion to even the score. For the record, the Patriots wound up 1 yard short of the end zone and Seattle won by seven.

The reason I’m bringing this up now is not because of how it played out, though, but what led to that decision, which revealed a great deal about the mechanics of Seattle’s game-management under Carroll.

See, during Seattle’s final drive that game – which resulted in a touchdown – Carl Smith began urging Nate Carroll to start talking to his father, lobbying for the two-point attempt. Smith was Seattle’s quarterbacks coach at the time, and he also contributed to key game-management decision. Nate Carroll is the younger of Carroll’s two sons, and someone whose input Pete valued because his sons were often more willing to push back on his impulses than other members of the staff. As Pete once told me, his sons were the ones who would declare to him, “That’s never going to work.” 

These are the sort of background conversations we never really know about. In fact, it was only years after this happened that I heard the story. I’m repeating it here because it provides a window into the informal, seat-of-the-pants decision-making that guided Seattle’s strategy under Carroll whether it was his willingness to trigger a replay challenge on a hunch or his tendency to punt on fourth-and-short even when the ball was in the opponent’s half of the field.

One of the things that I’ll be most interested in when this season starts is to see how Mike Macdonald handles these sort of decisions. Specifically, I’m curious to see how aggressive Macdonald is on fourth down, how unorthodox he’s willing to be on going for two and when he chooses to throw his challenge flag.

That last one is probably the least important when it comes to determining the outcome of the game, but it had become a bit of a pet peeve of mine under Carroll.

Go 4th and conquer 

For almost 20 years now, statisticians have been showing that NFL coaches cost themselves points because of how often they opt to kick on fourth down whether it’s attempting a field goal or punting the ball away. 

Under Carroll, the Seahawks were one of the league’s most conservative teams when it came to going for it on fourth-and-short situations. Ben Baldwin, who is an actual data scientist, wrote about this for The Athletic in 2018. It was perhaps even more true in Sanjee Lingham-Nathamai’s analysis of the 2021 season in which he produced this graphic:

Macdonald is coming from Baltimore, which under Jim Harbaugh, developed a reputation as one of the most aggressive teams of the league when it came to going for it on fourth down. That got dialed back, though, and last season there were people wondering why he became so timid.

A point or two? 

When you hear a man in a suit start discussing analytics in tackle football — often derisively — they are almost always referring to either a coach’s decision to go for it on fourth down or to try a two-point conversion after a touchdown.

The truth is that analytics is so much more than that, but fourth-down decisions and two-point conversions are the most obvious ways in which a more statistical approach has led to decisions that do not conform to conventional coaching approaches.

If you’re up one late in a game and score a touchdown, going for two is a great bet if your goal is to win the game. If you’re trailing by 14 and score a touchdown, going for two is smart if you’re primary goal is to win.

Now, if you’re primary concern is to avoid criticism? Perhaps you won’t go for two in those situations. If it doesn’t work, you’re going to be raked over the coals, and get raked over the coals often enough and you’ll find your job security is in doubt.

The one thing I loved about Pete is that he truly didn’t care about being criticized, and while he absolutely punted too frequently, this was because he truly thought it was best and not because he was seeking to avoid being criticized.

I hope Macdonald is the same when it comes to the conviction of his decisions. I just hope he isn’t as eager to punt. 

Flagging enthusiasm

That last one is probably the least important in terms of affecting the outcome of a game. I’m including because of just how arbitrary those decisions were under Carroll, and I will admit that it drove me nuts when Carroll would use a challenge on a first-half play that didn’t even result in a first down or threw a flag without knowing that there was sufficient evidence to overturn a call. The value of a replay challenge goes beyond whether it costs your team a timeout or not and Carroll’s decisions seldom reflected this fact.

I do not think it’s wise to use a challenge unless there’s actual evidence you’re going to win it.

One final thing worth including is the fact that —  under Carroll — the Seahawks had a demonstrated tendency to burn timeouts to avoid delay-of-game penalties. I used to chalk this up not to Carroll himself, but the amount of people who had an input on play calls. After all, there was a time when Darrell Bevell was calling the pass plays, but Tom Cable was in charge of the run game and protections.

However, given what happened the past two years in Denver, I do believe that Russell Wilson’s urgency – or lack thereof – getting the team to the line of scrimmage played a factor.

My hunch is that Macdonald is going to be more aggressive than Carroll, but the truth is that no one knows. He hasn’t been a head coach before. He has coached under the Harbaughs, though, both John and Jim (and then John again). They’re more aggressive. I’m excited to see how Macdonald handles this, and this entry will provide a road map for how I’ll be evaluating him.

What best describes your reaction to this piece?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

Join the conversation

or to participate.