There's a team in Super Bowl XLIX that, for years, has created a major competitive advantage by blatantly disregarding NFL rules.
I'm talking about the Seattle Seahawks, of course.
Focused on 24 PSIs of missing hot air and hype in New England, we've all missed an actual rules revolution going on in Seattle that, with one more win on Sunday in Arizona, could fundamentally change the NFL -- forever.
Over the past three years the Seahawks have done something no one in the white-socks-and-black-shoes, stuck-in-the-1950s NFL ever dreamed possible, or legal. Since 2012 Seattle has been at the top of the NFL in wins (tied with 36), Super Bowl appearances and ... penalties.
The best team in the league has been penalized so many times (416) in the last three seasons that I'm pretty sure the fluorescent yellow trim on the Seahawks uniforms is actually just residue from all the penalty flags. Still, Seattle's success isn't in spite of all the penalties. It's inspired by it. Without anyone really noticing, Seattle has created a blossoming dynasty in the most competitive league in the world by completely, and brilliantly, turning the stigma of penalty flags upside down; embracing infractions rather than avoiding them at all costs.
Now, of course, you can jimmy the stats a few different ways to move Seattle off the top spot in penalties but it changes almost nothing. Bottom line, the Seahawks are still among the most successful, most penalized teams in the NFL -- a combination that a generation of football coaches and experts told us was both totally impossible and highly dishonorable.
Through 18 games, the Seahawks not only have been called for a league-high 144 penalties (according to NFLpenalties.com) their opponents have only been flagged just 80 times. Yes, you read that correctly. The Seahawks have been called for almost twice as many penalties as their opponents.
Do you know what that means?
Inside "Law & Order: NFL," the Seahawks have found a way to make penalty flags meaningless while rendering the ultimate authority of officials little more than an illusion.
Let that soak in for a minute.
"We're not going to change the way we're playing," head coach Pete Carroll explained earlier this season on ESPN Radio 710 in Seattle. "The style of play that generates this kind of focus from the officials is somewhat emblematic of us. I don't want our guys to back off." Later, he added: "We are pretty crazy and wild, the way we play, and we don't want to change that."
Why would they?
In a game of violence, aggression, speed and emotion, the Seahawks simply looked at the risk/reward and realized it is far better to play on the razor's edge (and beyond), to bend the rules, manhandle opponents and incur an extra flag (or 20) and, ya know, WIN THE GAMES, rather than fall in line, play like a Boy Scout and watch the playoffs from home just like the NFL's least penalized team, the 3-13 Jaguars (73).
Meanwhile, several of the top teams in the league -- Seattle, New England, Denver and Baltimore, most notably -- have all been at, or near the top of the NFL in penalties the last three seasons. A year ago Seattle became the first team in at least a decade to get flagged 10 times in the Super Bowl and win. In doing so, the Seahawks so manhandled and intimidated the Broncos receivers that, by the end of the game, I swear it looked like Eric Decker didn't even want to leave the protection of the huddle. Julian Edelman? You're next, pal.
So, yeah, your high school football coach -- the guy who withheld water to build "toughness" during summer two-a-days -- he might tell you the sloppy, undisciplined Seahawks were just lucky to overcome their penalty problem and somehow get back to the big game. But the truth of the matter is the Seahawks have expertly exploited a TV-centric business model (flags are boring for viewers and bad for ratings) and ridden a magic yellow nylon carpet stitched from 144 tiny penalty flags back to the Super Bowl and the doorstep of NFL immortality.
This all started last year, of course, when the Seahawks revolutionized pass interference by using the same logic loophole that offensive linemen have been exploiting for years with holding. The idea is: you hold on almost every play, knowing the refs won't throw 50 flags per game. If everything is holding, the thinking goes, then nothing really is. Brilliant. Seattle just took that approach and applied it to pass coverage and it was so effective and disruptive they forced the NFL to change the rules regarding defensive holding and pass interference.
I thought the Seahawks might be on to something last year when I contacted a long-time NFL official, and even he had to begrudgingly hand it to Seattle for "exploiting a loophole of human nature" in the NFL -- that there's simply a finite number of flags that can be thrown in any game. I thought about it a little more when I kept hearing defensive coaches remind players in camp "they can't throw flags on every play." But I knew a revolution was afoot when the normally draconian disciplinarian Bill Belichick imported Seattle corner (and penalty-flag machine) Brandon Browner. The Pats, by the way, were tied for fourth in the NFL in penalties this season. (Ironically, New England may fall victim in this Super Bowl to a penalties-be-damned trend they actually started in Super Bowl XXXVI when they bullied, battered and bruised Marshall Faulk on every possible play.)
After the league-wide crackdown on pass interference, the 2014 Seahawks changed their ways -- kind of. This season they were flagged for PI just seven times. (You ask me, they just got better and smarter at hiding it.) However, what the 2014 Seahawks seemed to have done is take the aggressive, push-the-envelope mentality of their defensive backfield and spread it out all over the entire field. Now, they start early on offense, they creep into the neutral zone, they hold, they grab, they interfere and they dare the NFL to properly police them.
In a critical Week 13 game in San Francisco, Seattle was flagged 14 times compared to just three on the 49ers. But Seattle won 19-3. On the road again in Week 16 the Seahawks crushed the 11-3 Cardinals 35-6. Seattle piled up 596 yards of offense while holding Arizona to two field goals and 29 yards rushing. Oh, yeah, they were flagged 11 times in that game, or 10 times more than the Cardinals.
"We're playing really hard and really aggressive, so it's kind of like last year," said Carroll. "We were pretty good at leading the NFL last year, too, in penalties. You've got to be first in something, I guess, so that's what it is."
A lot of the Seahawks' league-leading 144 penalties are pre-snap infractions. According to NFLPenalties.com, in 18 games they had 33 false starts, 13 defensive offsides and nine neutral zone infractions. But, again, try to clear your puritan, rule-happy mind and think of these like they do in Seattle -- where they aren't embarrassed by yellow penalty flags but emboldened.
The Seahawks have run more than 1,000 plays this season. For argument's sake, let's say they've started all of those plays on offense a micro-second early or an inch or two closer to their opponent, but only got caught 33 times. That means the Seahawks have had a jump on their opponents on 97 percent of their offensive plays. All it did was cost them 165 yards in penalties, total, or 2 percent of their total production. Of course it's not that cut-and-dried. After all, the shame and punishment of 33 false starts caused the Seahawks to fall all the way to No. 1 in rushing.
What's more, you and I see Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett and his numerous offside penalties and we immediately think: that fool got caught 10 times - 10 TIMES!
Whereas the Seahawks look at Bennett and think: that dude got away with a head start 250 TIMES!
Like I said, genius.
And the best part of this ground-breaking strategy is how well it works in the Super Bowl. The bigger the stage, the more important the entertainment value, the less likely refs will be to interrupt the flow of the broadcast with numerous penalties.
It was Pablo Picasso who said you had to "learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist."
Which means Super Bowl XLIX is shaping up to be the Seahawks finest masterpiece.