The Success of the 49ers and What It Means for the Seahawks: Part I - The Running Game

This started out as a well-intentioned piece, designed to be presented in a neat, organized series of posts. What it will end up as is yet to be seen, but it certainly won't be that. You guys may prefer a tidier article, but writing is hard enough without worrying about what you guys want. Go soak your heads.

Finding compelling things to say about the Seahawks gets progressively tougher the farther removed we get from the end of their season. The draft isn't yet close enough to commence with group-rosterbation in full and we're months away from any meaningful Seahawks football. It's unlikely that we see any significant roster moves any time soon and the only game that means anything is two weeks of cumbersome, unbearable on-air analysis away from being played.

Nevertheless, I find myself thinking a lot about what it takes to be successful* in the NFL. Much has been said, and rightly so, about the need for superb quarterback play in order to contend for a championship; and yet only four of the eight teams to reach the Divisional Round of the playoffs could boast such a quality, and two of them lost. This post is not designed to find the most important characteristics of a championship-caliber team, however. Rather, my goal is to identify which of the contending teams features an approach most similar to the one that the John Schneider / Pete Carroll Seahawks are taking.

*For the purposes of this article, "successful" means a legitimate Super Bowl contender; a grouping that, in my mind included just seven teams this year.

That team is, without question, the Seahawks' divisional brethren, the San Francisco 49ers. On the surface, and to anyone who hasn't watched these two teams extensively, it may seem preposterous to compare a 13-3 team to a 7-9 one, but the gap is not as big as the records would indicate. In fact, according to Football Outsiders, the Niners finished with a Weighted DVOA of 16.1, whereas Seattle comes in at 8.7. For those wondering, that's the difference between 8th and 12th. San Fran's "true" win total (and yes, I'm aware of the shortcomings of football metrics, but I also see them as better indicators of true talent than most standard stats) was 10.6, Seattle's was 8.2.

The gap, as I said, is not so large as it may seem at first blush.

This past season, the 49ers used a strong running game, adequate receiving corps, capable quarterback play, and the Scroogiest defense the league has seen in a while to go 14-4 and damn near win the NFC. They did this with almost the same roster as last year, in which they went 6-10 and were seemingly contemplating blowing the whole darn thing up. Instead, the only major change they made was to switch coaches from Mike "Everybody be a linebacker all the time right now did you hear me I said be a linebacker whatever you do lineback!" Singletary to Jim Harbaugh, the hokey former QB with the jawline of a Dick Tracy bad guy.

Lazy Easy analysis says chalk the turnaround up to the coach. I will gladly concede that Harbaugh's style was a major contributor to the Niners' success this year, but seeing as a coach's influence is nigh impossible to quantify if you're not actually on the team (and even then I'm sure it's tough), I'm going to try and look at what San Francisco accomplished on the field and compare that to Seattle's performance.

Since I gave up any hope of organization five paragraphs ago, I'm arbitrarily starting with the running game. The success of any rushing attack relies on a number of things, not the least of which is the running back himself. The 49ers are one of the few remaining teams with a legitimate feature back. As the size and speed of NFL players continues to increase, the number of guys capable of carrying the ball 20-25 times per contest has dwindled. It's no wonder, given that being an NFL running back is equivalent to being in 60 minutes worth of car crashes.

Every team's backfield used to be owned by one starting running back that was occasionally spelled by a backup, but the game has become more specialized and, much like the situational approaches that Major League bullpens take, most backfield constitutions are dictated more by down, distance, and specific skillsets than they are by overall talent (the Niners also used electric rookie Kendall Hunter and, more sparsely, Anthony Dixon, but since Gore was 5th in the NFL in carries, it's safe to say that the run game was built to his specifications).

Subbing backs in and out is a sound approach, unless of course you have a rhinoceros like Frank Gore. Occasionally, a football player's name will perfectly fit his playing style. MaCK Strong is one of those players, so are Takeo Spikes, Bruce Armstrong, and Ryan Longwell. Just for fun, I typed "rhinoceros gore" into Google Images and this is what came up:

Rhino_medium via www.topnews.in

090925111225326780_medium via nsa09.casimages.com

Steelers_2049ers_20football via www.washingtonpost.com

It's difficult to say which picture best describes Gore's running style, so I won't pick a winner, but all seem to accurately convey the punishment that he delivers when he has the rock. The best way to tackle a guy like Frank Gore is to have multiple players take him down. For years, that's what's happened, as Gore has run behind a hodgepodge of offensive linemen in his career.

That's been tough to do this past season, however, as the "Big" sets employed by Harbaugh at Stanford have transferred well to the NFL, with extra tight ends and full backs making it tough for even one guy to square him up. San Francisco's offensive identity stands defiantly against the tide of pass-first game plans that are currently trending in the league. In fact, San Francisco ran the ball at a higher rate (~51% -- 498 rushes vs 495 dropbacks) than any team with a quarterback (Denver was only team with higher rate).

The constancy and effectiveness of the Niners' run game led to a plethora of play-action action routes, giving their quarterback the advantage of throwing against defenses that often times had only three or four men in coverage. That simple reality had a ton to do with Alex Smith's progression as a quarterback, although that part of the discussion will be addressed at another time.

So how does this affect the Seahawks? Well, over the first half of the season, the greatest similarity between these two rushing offenses was the fact that they both played in the NFC West. The 49ers, who seemed to embrace their identity from the outset, were 7-1, while the 'Hawks adjusted to theirs like an awkward adolescent and finished their first eight games 2-6 and all but eliminated from the division championship race. The bright spot in all of this is that it stands to reason that next year's Seahawks team will more closely resemble the squad that finished 5-3 over the second half. With that in mind, I'll focus more on how Seattle played from Week 9 onward.

Much like SF, Seattle features a running back that few people in the world could bring down by themselves. Marshawn Lynch runs like an enraged gorilla with a sweet tooth, and once the offensive line began grasping Tom cable's scheme, he unleashed the fullness of his crazy-as-a-clown-in-solitary fury on opposing defenders. After spending the first part of the season fending off tacklers from the moment he took the hand-off, Lynch began making people feel that ground as soon as he was given time to reach full speed.

His opportunities were granted, as I mentioned previously, when Seattle's ragtag line finally began to gel. Like the Niners, the 'Hawks run game made it difficult for defenders to get a clean hit on Lynch, but where San Francisco gained that advantage by turning loose an over-wrought grouping of maulers and winning by sheer force, Seattle used a one-cut zone-blocking scheme to make it difficult for slanting D-lineman and linebackers to hit Lynch center-mass. Even when one defender got a clean look at Lynch, it was a rarity that he was enough to take him down.

Lynch was, of course, spelled on occasion by Justin Forsett and Leon Washington, but just like Gore, assumed the mantle of workhorse and the team's running game adapted that personality. Gore carried the ball 282 times this season, while Lynch had 285 to his name. Gore's carries were more effective, at 4.3 a clip (to Lynch's 4.0), but over the course of the final eight games, no one besides Arian Foster was doing as much with his rushes as our favorite lunatic.

Gore's age and injury history may lead to a curtailing of his carries next season, but there's no reason to predict a change in offensive approach from the Niners. Assuming that the 'Hawks resign Lynch (and that's a huge if), I can't imagine that his carries will taper off much, if at all. If we're also willing to assume that the same hideous misfortune doesn't befall the health of Seattle's O-line again, (and come on, there's just no way, right? Right?) and Lynch runs behind a goon squad that includes Russell Okung, John Moffitt, and James Carpenter, then it also stands to reason that Seattle can be every bit as effective running the ball as the 49ers were this year.

There are things about the Seahawks that I'd like to see change next season, but their here-we-come-and-we-dare-you-to-stop-us approach to running the football isn't one of them.

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