Tactical Proliferation
Seahawks now officially a prime Super Bowl contender


Even if you're a casual football fan, you're aware that a classic dynasty football offense includes the following:

  • One star QB
  • One franchise RB
  • One truly feature WR

To take one example among a host of others ... the Dallas Cowboys ruled the NFC with Troy Aikman, Emmitt Thomas and Michael Irvin.  As long as they had those three components in place, they could shuffle the other things around and still go to war with an offense that left them afraid of no one.

Back in the day, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann took the Steelers to four Super Bowl championships.  It's not a 1970's thing; Peyton Manning rocked with Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison.  

John Elway was never able to win it until he was joined by Terrell Davis, the #1 pick in NFL fantasy drafts at the time, and Rod Smith getting 1,200 yards at WR.  Then the 37-, 38-year-old Elway was suddenly king of the NFL.

It's not an absolute rule, of course.  Practically no generalization in sports is absolute.  I could tell you that you want starting pitchers who strike out four times as many guys as they walk, and you could say hey, you're an idiot, Dr. D.  Look at Javier Vazquez.

There is a lurking reason behind the fact that Manning, James and Harrison were reliably great.  We'll get to that lurking reason -- tactical proliferation -- in a second.


If you want a couple of fun places to visit, to savor the acquisition of Percy Harvin, I recommend this 2009 scouting report and this is a pretty decent YouTube video (explicit lyrics, though).


From a chess standpoint, the defense implodes at a certain point when the tactical threats proliferate past the point of containment.  

Teams only contained Randy Moss because they put two and three secondary defenders on him; when he went to New England, he scored what 25 (?) TD's and Brady threw for 5,000 yards -- the offense simply snowballed past critical mass.  You couldn't overplay everything at the same time.

Any Mariners fans on this site?  This is one reason that Felix Hernandez never* has a bad game; there are just too many things for the batter to deal with.  It makes him reliably overwhelming, as the Cowboy and Steeler and Colts offenses were reliably high-scoring, like over the course of 100+ consecutive NFL Sundays, over the course of several evolutions in NFL strategy.  There is no "solution" to the Grand Concept of tactical proliferation.


Understanding tactical proliferation?  That also helps us grok that it is not an absolute.  People watch the idea of tactical proliferation, and they get to thinking that it is the only factor in the game (any game).  They become so infatuated with its sheer effectiveness that they think you cannot play without it.

They think every starting pitcher must have three pitches.  They think that every pitcher must command the ball within the strike zone.

No, the idea is that if you are NOT using tactical proliferation, your weapon must apply sufficient PSI to overcome the fact that the opponent is less confused.  Is your weapon strong enough to overcome direct resistance?

Tactical proliferation is probably the single most important idea in attack theory.  But there are other ideas too.


Marshawn Lynch could only be stopped because the linebackers and strong safety overplayed him.  Once they could not overplay him, he was essentially unstoppable.

Russell Wilson is a new breed of QB, one who himself creates too many options to defend.  Together, he and Marshawn Lynch created an at-times unstoppable offense despite playing with junk at the receiver position.

Now the Seahawks add perhaps the most dangerous open-field receiver in the NFL.  From a strategic point of view, the sum of the parts could turn out to be exponentially greater than the individual parts themselves.




Who gave Brady the industry-setting megadeal, and who are willing to exchange EVERY other piece around Brady.
More than the draft picks as such ... Carroll is plowing all of his *receiver money* into one player.  A huge chunk of his offensive money into two players.
For sure the Harvin move is epic Stars & Scrubs.
I think that most, if not all, NFL teams are hip to the benefits of collecting a few super-elites at the top of the roster, and then using agility and fungibility down below.  Obviously the NBA has been hip to it since at least the 1980's.
MLB owners for some reason are stodgy by their very nature, and the Civics paradigm fits their "retro" personalities.  They're under the misconception that they have more control over things that way.
MLB is coming into the 21st century kicking and screaming, and Seattle has been one of the last holdouts.  But Pete Carroll isn't stuck back in the 1980's where he first lived; the move for the explosive, pricey, injury-risky Harvin is the diametric opposite of what a Civics receiver fleet would be.


Moving on... This looks like a great move on paper. If he stays healthy the Seahawks will be a lot of fun to watch. The problem is that the 49ers are also stacked. They may have been the best team last year, have an excellent young, dynamic QB, just traded for Anquin Boldin (for just a 6th round pick? Really?) and will have a whopping 15 draft picks to play with. They could be absolute monsters as well.
It's amazing how quickly the NFC West has turned around. Just a few years ago it was a total joke with its "champ" having a losing record. Now there might be two juggernauts.

ghost's picture

I am honestly trying to help you out as a sports writer/blogger here...please don't take this comment as any sort of insult...I love your stuff 99.99999% of the time.
I just had to google around trying to figure what the blazes you were talking about in this article because I am not local to Seattle and I don't so closely follow football that I know all of the transactions as they happen. I know I'm not the only person reading this blog who read the first three paragraphs of your article and felt you were talking about something but had no idea what that something was and got frustrated. I actually said "OK get to the point...what'd the Seahawks actually do!!"
I mean it with all of the love in the world here...but it would really REALLY help me if you put the relevant news headline at the top of yoru articles when you go to comment on something. This article would have been awesome if you started it off with "For those just joining us, the Hawks just inked wide receiver Harvin to a franchise record setting contract to finalize an offense on the verge of a breakout. Harvin has a history of drama following him throughout his career, but he also posted (insert stats of relevance) in the last few seasons."
So I don't have to go all over the danged internet looking up information and backstory before I can read your article.
Again...I'm not trying to be contrarian here...I read your site daily and am privileged to do so. Just offering you some advice.
I'll be quiet now.

Auto5guy's picture

Heading into the 2012 season all the talking heads were beating the same drum.
“The Seahawks and Pete Carrol are following the Niners blueprint this season.”
That blueprint being, a first rate running game, an overpowering defense and a game manager at QB. The Seahawks went out and signed Matt Flynn to be a “game manager QB” and the chorus of “Forty Niners blueprint” grew ever louder. This just rubbed me the wrong way. In part because I loath the Niners and in part because I hate Jim Harbaugh with every fiber of my being… but mostly because it didn’t fit what I understood of Pete Carrol. I just couldn’t think that the guy responsible for churning out so many first round quarterbacks had a long term team strategy centered on acquiring a game manager.
Then the Wilson pick reeeaaalllly got my attention. I fell in love with that kid immediately. Like most I only half believed PC when he said Wilson was in the mix for the job. When the third week of preseason rolled around and Wilson WAS in the mix I started watching Carrol’s press conferences and parsing every word.
The phrase that Pete kept using again and again was. “Nice deep ball” Everybody else loved the scrambling but Pete would positively gush about Wilson’s deep pass.
After the umpteenth “nice deep ball” comment it finally dawned on me. The blueprint was never the Niners. With Pete passing on the quintessential Alex Smith type game manager in Flynn and going with the kid who throws the nice deep ball it became obvious.
The blueprint was the 85 Bears!
My football consciousness started a bit later than Doc’s. I started realizing that football was a cool game around 1980. Right at the end of the Madden Raider era that Doc likes to use in his grass team example. The first team that fascinated me was the Air Coryell / Dan Fouts Chargers. I thought football was supposed to look pretty.
Then I watched the 85 Bears and my whole idea of football changed. What do ya say Doc? Grass Team? Lol
Everybody remembers the Crushing defense but the offense had a brutal style all its own as well. A typical Bears scoring drive would look like this. Walter Payton 4 yards. Walter Payton 2 yards. Walter Payton 6 yards. Play action McMahon to Gault 41 yards, Touchdown! McMahon was waaaayyyy to inconsistent and inaccurate to ever be a west coast QB but the one thing he did really well was throw a superb deep ball.
We lacked the Gault style burner to fill out the blueprint. Rice was supposed to be that guy but doesn’t get that kind of separation. Yet I have no doubt the blueprint at the start of the year was the 85 Bears. Of course Pete took a peek at the little option experiment Shanahan was running in Washington and the future changed forever. The Bears blueprint no longer fits.
Still… I consider the Harvin trade Pete Carrol’s attempt at going Gault.

Auto5guy's picture

With both trades breaking on the same day the radio sports talk jocks felt obligated to compare the impact of the two receivers on their respective teams. All of them missed the boat on how to look at it. Yes Boldin is talented and his numbers look good but his impact on the Niners will be zero or worse.
The proper way to measure the impact is to look at who each guy is replacing on the roster. Harvin by most accounts will be replacing Obomanu. That upgrade is HUGE! On the Niners roster Boldin is replacing Randy Moss. Hmmmm...
Numbers wise, on paper that looks like a push. But the game is not played on paper! Very interesting that Doc used Moss in his example of a feature wide receiver. Numbers wise Moss looked disappointing for the Niners. They didn't target him near as much as one would have expected. I believe that's because neither Smith or Kaepernick threw a good enough deep ball to truly take advantage of Moss. Yet he still changed the defensive schemes. Just like Felix doesn't need to establish his fastball because it's already in the head of the opposing batter before he even leaves the on deck circle, Moss's ability to take it to the house is in the head of the defensive coordinator even if he only gets one look a game. Moss was a key part of the Niners reaching critical mass in Doc's Tactical Proliferation formula. Defenses are obligated to stay over the top of him. Given a choice of Crabtree for ten yards or Moss for six points teams choose ten yards every time.
Boldin makes his hay in the same area of the field as Crabtree. Unless they draft or sign someone the Niners don't have anybody on the roster to stretch the field. Safety's will be able to cheat up and support the line backers in the mid passing game. being 3-5 yards closer to the line of scrimmage at the snap also will put them in a much better position to lay a smack down on Kaepernick when he thinks he's going to prance down the field like a gazelle.
Without another addition to stretch the field for the Niners I'm laying my money on a sophomore slump for Kaepernick.


Which is exactly what I expect them to do. With so many draft picks available, they can easily patch multiple holes on their roster as well as add extra depth and flexibility. If they add even a one-dimensional speedster to the mix of Kap, Gore, Crabtree and Boldin they are going to be overwhelming.


But am not sure what my decision's going to be.  LOL.
Classic New York Times style guide is to let the reader know what you're saying as soon as possible - and there are clear benefits (and demerits) to that.  Leading with the punch line is more important when you're dealing with a general audience that is undecided as to whether they're going to read a particular article or not.  With you, I've got a captive audience.  Every other blog is defunct!
My style, in all modes of communication, is setup and punch line.  When the audience is in a bit of suspense, it can help the punch line land more heavily.  In the public speaking arena also, we get occasional complaints about having to work hard to understand where we're going ... but the size of audiences, results, etc. are where we want them to be, so .... 
In another blogging venue, a guy paying $40 an article fired me for burying the lead.  Another guy paying $150 an article swooned away and suffered the vapors at the, um, dramatic convention, signing us up to a series of contracts.  Most the folks with the checkbooks reacts quite well.  Your own vote is recorded along with the votes of those signing the checks ;- )
Of course, there are no absolutes - for the reader who wasn't even aware of a Percy Harvin trade, this article would have been particularly hard to deciper "above the fold."

ghost's picture

The way to blend the needs of casual fans with the needs of dramatic delivery and effective rhetorical style, IMHO, is to deliver a one-paragraph "facts only" header that doesn't contain analysis...and then proceed with your article as you have it.
You go:
This is what the Seahawks did. (just the facts, ma'am)
Q: What does Dr. D think of this move?
A: Your article as it stands.
The first paragraph doesn't in any way spoil your punchline regarding the significance of adding a playmaker WR to an offense that already has a superstar RB and QB tandem. It just says "the Seahawks acquired Harvin...he's a good WR"

Nathan H's picture

I should have seen this coming.
Pete Carroll has a specific idea as to how to win a football game. He's studied it, been immersed in it, and has come to the conclusion that the two biggest factors in determining the winner and loser are:
1) Turnovers
2) Explosive Plays (plays over 20 yards)
I've heard him harp on these two factors over and over. Their player acquisition strategy mirrors this.
Marshawn Lynch leaves broken tackles in his wake, creating an opportunity for explosive plays each time he touches the ball while at the same time minimizing the potential for a turnover. Russell Wilson's chunk yardage passing game is as explosive an attack as you're going to find and his decision-making is adequate enough to depress the turnovers.
You cannot find any player in the NFL more suited to Pete's football philosophy than William Percival Harvin. He creates the potential for an explosive play at a signifigantly reduced turnover potential. The Vikings used him in the backfield, on flares and screens, on smoke routes... I saw some stat that Harvin touched the ball at or behind the line of scrimmage on over 60% of his touches.
Harvin has the speed to stretch a defense vertically, the elusiveness to create explosive plays at the drop of a hat, and demands attention away from Lynch, Wilson, Rice, Tate, and Miller (in that order).

CMB's picture

Is this the best team on paper in Seattle sports history? I think so.


Goin into the off season, the Seahawks needed a real #1 receiver and a pass rush. They trade for Harvin and sign two of the top three pass rushers on the market in Avril and Bennett.
The Seahawks are operating from Sandy's playbook. They have the talented young core and now they add the free agents to fill the holes that are left to make their run. Darn impressive.

bsr's picture

It really is exciting...can't remember a Seattle sports franchise going for the kill like this before with a high risk high reward move like Harvin. Hopefully Russ's aversion to taking hits will rub off on Harvin...seems like that's his biggest issue, going a little too hard and putting his body at risk. All the character stuff...who knows but it sure seems like other players have no issues w/ him. And you watch him talk, it's nothing like the TO / Ochocinco type personality, at least on the surface. To me it seems like he's not a bad guy but more of just a high maintenance / high standard type who was in a franchise and situation he didn't like and wasn't willing to go along with it. We'll see.http://www.seahawks.com/videos-photos/videos/Percy-Harvin-Welcome-Press-...
Interesting when he is asked about his 4 years in MN, the 2 things he mentions are playing with Favre and with AP. I think he knows exactly how good he is and wants to be with other great players and win while he's in his prime. (ie, Christian Ponder...not so much) Long as he is not a TO type sociopathic persona I've got no issue w/ that kind of self confidence/arrogance in an athlete. And you can really see his face light up when talking about playing w/ Wilson (eg at 17:50).
Here's another fun clip:http://www.seahawks.com/videos-photos/videos/Highlight-Cliff-Hanger-Inte...

Auto5guy's picture

The good news is the Niners lost 2 key free agents on defense as well so they have more than one hole to fill and as of right now they have spent some of their free agent money on a safety and not a WR. The Dolphins signing Mike Wallace helps thin the FA market.
Never been a real draft geek. So I have three questions. 1. Is there a college receiver this year that has the speed to warp an NFL defense just by stepping on the field? 2. if there is such a receiver will he be available when the Niners pick and 3. Would the Niners pick him or go after someone else to fill a different perceived need?

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