“Why do the Seahawks need Percy Harvin when they already have Sidney Rice and Golden Tate?” Many questions surround the Seahawks as the team enters its most-hyped season ever, but this one might prove the most insistent. It was asked earlier this year when the Hawks signed Harvin to the spendiest contract in team history, and you’re hearing it a lot more since Harvin’s balky hip has sidelined him for most of the season, which starts with Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers.
But Harvin’s injury isn’t an argument against the Seahawks’ decision to sign him; it’s the exact reason they did. And it’s the same reason the Sounders—who already possess two top-flight goal-scorers in Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins—wrote their biggest check to acquire a third threat.
Yes, Harvin’s huge salary could prevent the Hawks from re-signing young stars once they reach free agency, and giving up three draft picks to get him will hurt the team’s depth. Dempsey’s signing makes the Sounders wildly overstaffed in the goal-scoring department. With Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins already in the fold, wouldn’t Dempsey’s $5 million salary (and $368K cap hit) be more wisely spread among a passel of reinforcements for the Sounders’ aging defense? You can at least make the argument. But for the Sounders and Seahawks the signings are necessary, due to their faith in the Church of the Big Play.
Big-play players are expensive because they are rare. It is that rare skill that also makes them unusually prone to both injury and rapid decline. Soccer has a long, arduous season during which a star striker, who is frequently targeted for desperate tackles, will inevitably suffer an injury that knocks him out of a game or two—as Martins did last month in Clint Dempsey’s first match as a Sounder. Football, meanwhile, has a short, violent season during which players are one hit away from season-ending surgery—elite wide receivers more so, since they are often tackled by men who outweigh them by 100 pounds.
The fact is that it’s not good enough anymore to have just one elite offensive talent. In engineering terms, that approach leaves you with a single point of failure. By amassing trios of playmakers, the Sounders and Seahawks have introduced redundancy into their systems. Just as you wouldn’t risk a year of IKEA furniture assembly with a single Allen wrench, the Seahawks and Sounders aren’t going to risk their seasons on a single playmaker. If one goes down, they have two big ones to take his place.
So what is in a big play? A big play has, obviously, the practical effect of making you more likely to win a game. But big plays are also generally believed to create the psychological effect known as ”momentum.” Your numbers-minded analysts scoff at momentum-believers as the sports equivalent of evolution-deniers. Study after study shows that NBA players who’ve sunk five straight shots are no more likely to hit the sixth; that MLB players with a long hitting streak going are no more likely to get a hit the next game; that the team that came back to send the game into overtime is no more likely to win it. Yet the Seahawks design their offense around making big plays and their defense around preventing them. In a 2008 presentation by then-USC/current Seahawk assistant coach Rocky Seto, he made this claim (according to a copy of the presentation obtained by the indispensable Seahawks blog Field Gulls):
A recent unpublished NFL study conducted in recent years again concluded that giving up explosive plays (+16 in the passing game and +12 in the running game) has a major effect on determining the outcome. Give up either an explosive run or pass play in any given drive, and the opposition will score over 75% of the time for the period studied.
In 2012, the Seahawks made 26 more of these plays than they allowed. The two top teams in “Big Play” differential? The 49ers and Broncos, this year’s Super Bowl favorites.
If you’re a fan of the Seahawks or Sounders, you’re going to live or die by the big play. Will the Sounders, mired in a difficult playoff match as in years past, be inspired to victory by a magical Clint Dempsey goal? When Percy Harvin returns, will a momentum-changing kick-return TD finally lift the Seahawks to a championship? The Hawks and Sounders have paid dearly to make these fantasies possible.