Over the last two seasons, I have written more than a few articles on football history, and more specifically, Seattle Seahawks history. One article that I wanted to re-visit this week was a comparison piece between Curt Warner and Shaun Alexander that talked about how Chuck Knox's use of the ground game as his foundational offensive feature didn't necessarily mean he ran a simple scheme. The specific attribute that I remember most about Knox's offense was the high volume of ways he could disguise a blocking scheme, in order to utilize as many runs as possible.
As I wrote back in June of 2011, the Chuck Knox Era had a lot of fanfare behind it. He was the first hot comodity this team ever picked up on the 'free agent' market. He brought with him the simple concept of running the football as the offensive foundation. Borrowing from an article written by Jim Murray way back in 1990, "They called him Ground Chuck. They called his football the School of Hard Knox. They said he played football 10 yards at a time, the way sandhogs built tunnels under rivers. Or miners dug coal. They recommended his teams wear lanterns and carry canaries. They called his team the Seahawks, but the wise guys said they should be called the Moles. They got touchdowns the way gophers get plants."
Of course, his run-based offense was paired with a hard hitting aggressive defense. Chuck Knox believed in the 10-7 win philosophy; keep it close, and win in the end -- grind it late and win. Sound familiar?
Chuck Knox was as detail-oriented as any offensive passing guru in contemporary times. Running the same play twice was not often his style. He called so many different types of runs that I thought of Mike Martz in his Ram days -- people would report that he had over 200 plays in the book every week. Chuck Knox probably didn't have that many, but when you never see the same play twice, it makes it frustrating for a defensive lineman or linebacker when making their reads and keys -- against Knox, you could never make a assumption. Meanwhile, the running game would open up the passing game, featuring deep bombs to Daryl Turner or stabs in the middle with Steve Largent.
If Knox wanted to call a toss play to the left, he might call it from a variety of formations and groupings - three tight-ends, four-wides, three-wides, etc. However, he would also have different timings dialed up, or move linemen around to make it harder for the opposing D-lineman to guess, penetrate the line, and create havoc in the backfield. Why does any of this matter now, you might ask?
I noted early this season that among the Seahawks' history of head coaches, Pete Carroll most resembles Knox in his football philosophy. Playing defense and maximizing offensive opportunity. That hasn't wavered, really. So what has changed over the last few weeks to create this offensive explosion?
They haven't become more pass happy; Russell's performances are much more even than they have been, but in terms of playcalling, the Seahawks still feature the run and use the pass as a compliment. (Something that folks have said can't work in this modern all throwing league.) Russell Wilson has only topped 30 passes three times this year; and for reference, he only passed 21 times against the Niners, 23 times against Buffalo, and made a measly 13 attempts against Arizona in a 58-0 drubbing, so we know that's not been the big difference. So, what has clicked?
I mentioned on Twitter after the offense struggled against the 49ers in Week 7 that Russell Wilson needed the keys to the offense. Pre-snap reads, audibles and checks had to be given to him before this offense could click. I have never believed that offense is simply about running only or passing only; the offense will adjust to what the game dictates and as they needed Russell Wilson to throw more they were able to put some successful plays together when they did that. So, personally, I just felt that if he had the keys, the way Matt Hasselbeck got them in 2003, that we would really see a better, more efficient passing game. This was based on Russell's football IQ, a trait that everyone in the organization was feeding us.
Before the Chicago game, Russell was mostly a two-read QB. This was by the design of the coaches to help protect a rookie from consuming too much information and becoming overwhelmed. The problem is, when you limit your quarterback's options, the offense as a whole becomes more limited. However, it became more evident, I think, based on the quotes following that game that both Darrell Bevell and Carroll understood that Russell was seeing the complete field and processing everything at a top level.
The word on the sideline was one of Russell Wilson saying to Darrell Bevell that the option play was there if they wanted it, and also that crossers (crossing routes) were opening up. Russell credits Bevell on the Rice TD that came on a read-option look with a crossing pattern underneath, in overtime, but it is Wilson clearly explaining what he's recognizing on the field. With this being the first time we had heard such a story, it leads me to believe this was the moment Bevell and Carroll decided that it was time to let Russell Wilson have the keys, because they knew he was fully understanding what was in front of him.
This does not mean that they will now throw 35 times a game, as I've said, but what it does mean is that when they call passes, they will have a much greater chance to be productive The offense now looks to be more complete and consistent since the Chicago game, obviously.
However, getting back to my opening point, 'complete' also doesn't mean complex. The offense isn't hard to follow: Carroll, Bevell and Tom Cable have, rather than adding a stack of exotic plays, instead have added more formations and personnel packages. They may run 17 power (The BeastQuake play-call) five times in a game from five different looks. They may also run the deep out to Rice every week early in the game, but that route call has rarely been done from the same formations twice. It's a great way to make sure the defense can't just guess "Ok, three-wides, tight-end and a back probably means a slant to Golden."
This art of play disguise in use now is more innovative than, say, Jeremy Bates running 60 different plays, so even your own team winds up frustrated and confused. Another perfect example of this is that Seattle is now doing some of their tried and true plays - the inside/outside zone, the crack toss sweep, the end-around, etc, out of Pistol formation looks. Similarly, they're incorporating 'bubble screen looks' by receivers into their read option package of plays, to keep defenders on the outside honest and open up the inside of the field. Same goes for play-action looks and the 'normal' stuff they'd do, only out of the shotgun 'read-option' formation.
In their traditional looks, they'll do double-pass plays or 'trick' plays out of oft-run formations and groupings, just to keep the defense on their heels. The flea-flicker against Buffalo was nearly the exact same look of a 'crack-toss sweep' that Marshawn Lynch used to run for 77-yards against Detroit, and which the Seahawks run several times a game, for example. They'll use bubble screens to set up double throws.
This kind of offensive running playbook resembles the old Knox style & philosophy of simplicity in style but multiplicity in function, and this time it features the efficient passing game to step up if need be. It's a remake I don't think I mind at all.