Percy Harvin: A Love Story. Or, Is Seattle's Offense Better than Denver's?

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports


According to Betteridge's Law of Headlines:

Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.

I thought it would be a fun to write a headline that seems to fit the law but is actually 100% true.

Seattle's offense is much better when Percy Harvin is on the field. Yep, even better than Denver's.

Leading up to the Super Bowl, I had expected to see a lot more Percy Harvin analysis. There's a certain segment of analysts and fans who get bored with all the new-age analytics and stats. There's never been a player to start a Super Bowl after playing as few regular season snaps as Harvin did this year, let alone someone as talented as he is. What a wildcard! What a great opportunity to project how this match-up will incalculably affect the outcome. Instead, all the analysts are relying on numbers that have been substantially invalidated by the addition of a superstar. Instead we got dismissals, faint praise, and hit jobs.

Against MN last season, Earl Thomas was caught on SoundFX coaching up his DBs: "You have to recognize who Percy Harvin gotta lean his way." Seems everyone wasn't listening. It's like people have forgotten who Percy Harvin is.

As PFF says, Percy Harvin "is arguably THE most explosive player in football".

This is how important Football Outsiders thought Harvin was before the season.

Nothing has changed. Everything they said then applies now. Time has only blunted the urgency with which people apprehend Harvin's powers. Harvin is 25. A human male's strength peaks at 25. As far as I can tell, like Usain Bolt--whose training is mostly aimless and naive--Harvin's abilities are almost completely innate. Although Harvin was suspended his senior season of high school track, he had the 3rd fastest 100 meter in the nation among underclassmen his junior year. Despite track being a hobby, he still did legendary things:

But track and basketball, the Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson posters in his room aside, are hobbies for Harvin. He has neither the time nor inclination to prepare seriously and competes primarily to help his friends win championships.

Still, don't mess with him. At last spring's Beach District track meet, Bayside's Charles Clark defeated Harvin in a 100-meter semifinal and looked back over his shoulder while doing so. Incensed by the perceived slight, Harvin buried Clark in the final with a personal-best time of 10.43 seconds, a mark that would have qualified Harvin for the final of the NCAA Division I championships.

Oh, by the way, "Clark was a nationally recognized track star at Bayside High School in Virginia Beach and destined for greatness at Florida State."

He doesn't need to get into game shape or build up strength he's lost. He's a natural. If he's on the field, he's going to do the same things he's always done. Harvin was a consensus MVP candidate last season. (link, link, link, link, link) Harvin averaged 35.9 yards per kick return, more than 5 yards better than kick return All-Pro Jacoby Jones. He had the #2 lowest drop percentage. He had the #3 broken tackle percentage among WR and the most total broken tackles for the season on only 9 games. He led the NFL in receptions before he got hurt. If they redid Harvin's draft, he'd go top 5 because he's the best slot receiver in the NFL.

Percy Harvin’s Effect on Seattle’s Offense

The table summarizes every possession Harvin participated in this year with the Seahawks.

Drive Opponent Points
1 5 plays, 13 yards, 2:04 elapsed Minnesota 3
2 3 plays, 2 yards, 1:49 elapsed Minnesota 0
3 4 plays, 78 yards, 2:10 elapsed Minnesota 7
4 9 plays, 79 yards, 5:02 elapsed Minnesota 7
5 5 plays, 46 yards, 0:38 elapsed Minnesota 7
6 3 plays, -3 yards, 1:09 elapsed Minnesota 0
7 6 plays, 28 yards, 4:19 elapsed Minnesota 0
8 4 plays, 25 yards, 2:37 elapsed Minnesota 0
9 2 plays, 18 yards, 0:39 elapsed Minnesota 7
10 6 plays, 21 yards, 3:20 elapsed New Orleans 3
11 9 plays, 34 yards, 4:26 elapsed New Orleans 3
12 2 plays, 24 yards, 0:34 elapsed New Orleans 7
13 6 plays, 21 yards, 4:12 elapsed New Orleans 0
14 12 plays, 64 yards, 4:44 elapsed New Orleans 3

Seattle averaged 2.16 points per drive without Harvin this year. With Harvin, they averaged 3.36! By comparison, the best offense in the NFL for most of the year, Denver, averaged 2.98.

Now, you might say this is a small sample. But not all small samples are created equal. If we were data mining, looking for patterns, and hit upon a high pts/dr over a short span for a random player, we would need a much longer streak to make confident predictions. Instead, we know a lot more about this situation. We know, for example, Harvin's history in college and with Minnesota, we know his speed, we know how the Vikings passing offense looked after he got injured, we know he was an MVP candidate last year, etc. If your favorite basketball team acquired Lebron James and your team's offensive efficiency measured up after two games, you would not consider this a fluke. We can be pretty confident we're seeing a real effect.

Speaking of small samples, here's an item from Scott Kacsmar's latest Drive Stats article:

The Broncos offense is averaging 3.13 Pts/Dr in the playoffs after averaging 2.98 Pts/Dr in the regular season. While the defense has done great work for the first three quarters of each game, the defense is allowing 2.06 Pts/Dr in the playoffs after allowing 1.88 Pts/Dr in the regular season. In this regard, one can say the Denver offense has been a tad better and the defense has been a tad worse at scoring efficiency.

Seattle's games have featured more drives, so in the playoffs the Seahawks are scoring 2.19 Pts/Dr and allowing 1.39 Pts/Dr. Compared to a regular season with 2.16 Pts/Dr scored and 1.22 Pts/Dr allowed, it would appear Seattle's strength (defense) has taken more of a fall than the fictional decline from Denver's strength (offense).

Of course none of this takes into consideration the opponents faced or that pesky field position, but if the Broncos are anywhere close to 3.0 Pts/Dr on Sunday, then the Seahawks are in serious trouble, even if the Broncos only score 24 points.

Well, let's just take a look at those play-off opponents of Denver's, shall we? San Diego had the worst defense in the league, at #32 in defensive DVOA and New England was #21. The average rank for these two defenses is ~26, which is even worse than their regular season defenses faced, ~20. No wonder their pts/dr improved slightly. Even if it were true that Seattle will be in big trouble if Denver averages "anywhere near" 3 pts/dr, that target seems a bit far fetched.

On the other hand, the defensive DVOA rankings of the two teams Seattle faced with Harvin were Minnesota (#27) and New Orleans (#10). Denver's defensive DVOA is #15. If one team feels in danger of surrendering 3 pts/dr, I wouldn't put my bet on Seattle.

Studying the Harvin Effect

So, then, what is Harvin doing that makes Seattle's offense the best in the NFL when he's on the field? Renowned film watcher Greg Cosell predicted and described it conceptually:

It’s a fascinating dynamic. Even though Harvin is motioning tight to the formation, he is really stretching the field horizontally because of the speed with which he is crossing the field. That kind of velocity motion forces the defense to widen. Why? What if Wilson takes the snap, and immediately hands the ball to Harvin racing to the perimeter? That attacks the edge, and puts the defense in a tough predicament. The result, and I’ve just scratched the surface of the multiple skill set of Harvin, is the further integration of the college spread game with the NFL game despite the closer hash marks. It’s a means of expanding the field, utilizing more space and forcing the defense to defend more area. Harvin gives the Seahawks that dimension. I’m convinced they made the trade with that in mind. He will not simply be a wide receiver. He will be a movable chess piece that advances the continuing evolution of NFL offense.

Below are key plays from each drive Harvin was involved in.


1. DRIVE TOTALS: MIN 0, SEA 3, 5 plays, 13 yards, 2:04 elapsed

1st and 5 at MIN 28 M.Lynch right tackle to MIN 20 for 8 yards (J.Allen; A.Sendejo). Good block by Harvin. He is a testy, competitive blocker. He is a Seahawk. He is physical and punishes defenders with and without the ball in his hand. (GIF)

DRIVE RECAP: After recovering a fumble deep in Minnesota territory, Seattle settled for a field goal after a Lynch fumble. The one first down on the drive was aided by a good block by Harvin.

2. DRIVE TOTALS: MIN 3, SEA 3, 3 plays, 2 yards, 1:49 elapsed

DRIVE RECAP: Harvin wasn’t in on the first two plays. On 3rd down and long, Harvin ran a post, and Wilson was looking at him, but Harvin hadn’t even looked back before two DL had already broken through to sack Wilson.

3. DRIVE TOTALS: MIN 3, SEA 10, 4 plays, 78 yards, 2:10 elapsed

2nd and 7 at SEA 25 R.Wilson pass deep right to D.Baldwin to MIN 31 for 44 yards (X.Rhodes).


Harvin draws single safety away from Baldwin with a slant.

DRIVE RECAP: Harvin was open in the flat, then broke off into a slant, but Wilson resisted throwing to him and waited for a bigger play down field, which he eventually found on a 27 yarder to Lockette, as he slipped in behind a safety who was worried about Miller a little underneath. Marshawn runs it in on the next play.

4. DRIVE TOTALS: MIN 10, SEA 17, 9 plays, 79 yards, 5:02 elapsed

2nd and 10 at SEA 21 (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass incomplete deep right to P.Harvin. Penalty on SEA-R.Okung, Offensive Holding, offsetting, enforced at SEA 21 - No Play. Penalty on MIN-J.Robinson, Defensive Pass Interference, offsetting. Seattle shows they're going to use Harvin to stretch the field vertically and horizontally. No question they intend to get more out of Harvin than Minnesota did. (GIF)

2nd and 10 at SEA 21 (Shotgun) M.Lynch right tackle to SEA 44 for 23 yards (J.Sanford; A.Sendejo). Great block in the hole to keep his defender from preventing Marshawn from escaping. Keeps blocking through the play. (GIF)

3rd and 10 at SEA 44 (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short left to P.Harvin to MIN 39 for 17 yards (A.Sendejo) [J.Sanford]. Leaping, bobbling conversion. (GIF, GIF)

DRIVE RECAP: A drive constructed of big plays, the Lynch run, the Harvin 3rd down conversion, and a deep completion to Miller near the goal line when Wilson scrambled up in the pocket.

5. DRIVE TOTALS: MIN 13, SEA 24, 5 plays, 46 yards, 0:38 elapsed

B.Walsh kicks 69 yards from MIN 35 to SEA -4. P.Harvin to MIN 46 for 58 yards (M.Sherels). Harvin jump starts this drive with a 58 yard kick return. (GIF)

2nd and 10 at MIN 19 (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass deep right to D.Baldwin for 19 yards, TOUCHDOWN. Minnesota in two deep shell. Harvin runs a go into the end zone, which the right safety has to respect, and that leaves room for Wilson to drop a ball in the corner of the end zone to Baldwin. (GIF, GIF)

DRIVE RECAP: Harvin wasn’t in for the first two or three plays on this drive, surprising given how little time was left. Even in a hurry up, Carroll is committed to a measured pace and running the football. They handed off to Turbin to start. Seems like they like to use Harvin as a secret weapon and use him in high leverage circumstances. Perhaps not pushing Harvin to come back earlier in the season was method.

Harvin warps the defense, but it’s impressive just how well Seattle takes advantage of it. Wilson’s understanding and execution on the holes opened by Harvin is gorgeous.

6. DRIVE TOTALS: MIN 13, SEA 24, 3 plays, -3 yards, 1:09 elapsed

B.Walsh kicks 34 yards from MIN 35 to SEA 31. M.Robinson to SEA 35 for 4 yards (A.Sendejo). Threat of Percy makes Minnesota kick short. (GIF)

DRIVE RECAP: Lockette’s dumb unnecessary roughness penalty kills drive before it starts. Harvin only played on the 3rd down snap and he blocked a CB on the other side of the field.

7. DRIVE TOTALS: MIN 13, SEA 24, 6 plays, 28 yards, 4:19 elapsed

DRIVE RECAP: Harvin didn’t play the first few snaps of this drive. Lynch got a false start putting Seattle in a hole. On 3rd down, Harvin ran a go to clear out the right side and Miller came out of the backfield to gain 12 yards, but Harvin’s corner ended up having responsibility for the flat and got Miller before he could get the first down.

8. DRIVE TOTALS: MIN 13, SEA 24, 4 plays, 25 yards, 2:37 elapsed

1st and 10 at SEA 45 M.Lynch right tackle to MIN 47 for 8 yards (C.Greenway). Not only does Harvin's block on the outside give Lynch some space, but the Harvin side safety bails at the snap, taking him out of run support. (GIF)

DRIVE RECAP: Harvin didn’t factor much. At the beginning of the drive he was off the field and later he did some nice blocking on Lynch runs. His fieriness was on display on these plays. Kellen Davis ruined the drive with a holding penalty. Harvin wasn't featured in any route combinations. On the last play, he sprinted back and right off the right side of the line for a screen, but it was well covered and Wilson had a slant batted down going the other way.

9. DRIVE TOTALS: MIN 13, SEA 31, 2 plays, 18 yards, 0:39 elapsed

1st and 10 at MIN 18 (Shotgun) R.Wilson scrambles right end ran ob at MIN 6 for 12 yards. Harvin coming across the short middle forces LB to hesitate for split second allowing Wilson to get a first down.

DRIVE RECAP: Drive ended with Wilson flipping the ball between linemen to Lynch for a TD.

There were three more drives in this game, but I didn’t see Harvin play any snaps.

Further Reading

Danny Kelly broke down many of these plays with much more depth and context in the two following articles:

New Orleans

1. DRIVE TOTALS: NO 0, SEA 3, 6 plays, 21 yards, 3:20 elapsed

3rd and 11 at NO 41 (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass incomplete deep left to P.Harvin (R.Bush). PENALTY on NO-R.Bush, Unnecessary Roughness, 14 yards, enforced at NO 41 - No Play. The infamous play that converted a 3rd down into scoring position.

DRIVE RECAP: Can’t get another first and results in a field goal.

2. DRIVE TOTALS: NO 0, SEA 6, 9 plays, 34 yards, 4:26 elapsed

3rd and 4 at SEA 41 (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short right to G.Tate to NO 46 for 13 yards (C.Lofton; R.Bush). Tate and Percy are stacked. No DB commits because it looks like Tate’s DB stays back in case Harvin goes deep. This clears space for Tate inside to convert the 3rd down.

1st and 10 at NO 46 R.Wilson pass short right to M.Lynch ran ob at NO 43 for 3 yards. Harvin again showing his love of run blocking and his competitive testiness.

DRIVE RECAP: Wilson ends up missing an easy slant to Tate. No idea why he missed. There was a wide open throwing lane. Kicked a field goal.

3. DRIVE TOTALS: NO 0, SEA 13, 2 plays, 24 yards, 0:34 elapsed

1st and 10 at NO 24 (Shotgun) P.Harvin right end pushed ob at NO 15 for 9 yards (C.Lofton).

2nd and 1 at NO 15 (Shotgun) M.Lynch up the middle for 15 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

DRIVE RECAP: Two play TD drive and Harvin had a huge effect on both plays. This drive is covered in detail elsewhere.

4. DRIVE TOTALS: NO 0, SEA 13, 6 plays, 21 yards, 4:12 elapsed

2nd and 3 at SEA 28 (Shotgun) R.Turbin right guard pushed ob at NO 35 for 37 yards (R.Bush). PENALTY on SEA-B.Giacomini, Offensive Holding, 10 yards, enforced at SEA 28 - No Play. This was a correct call but it was late and if Giac had released his block earlier there would have been no penalty. Frustrating.

3rd and 9 at SEA 22 (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short middle to P.Harvin to SEA 28 for 6 yards (T.Wade). Wilson made Harvin go to the ground. If the pass had hit Harvin in stride, Harvin’s momentum probably takes him through the tackler to a first down.

DRIVE RECAP: This drive was stalled by the penalty. It seems like offensive penalties end Seattle drives more than anything else. Seattle seems to have a hard time overcoming a penalty also.

5. DRIVE TOTALS: NO 0, SEA 16, 12 plays, 64 yards, 4:44 elapsed

2nd and 9 at SEA 48 (Shotgun) R.Wilson scrambles right guard to SEA 49 for 1 yard (D.Hawthorne). No way this was a designed play. Wilson should have thrown the ball to Harvin for screen and either the ball was loose in his hand or he got spooked. Supports the claim that Wilson is playing too nervous. This was the safest pass play you’re ever going to get, and he didn’t pull the trigger. Low risk/high reward.

3rd and 8 at SEA 49 (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass short left to P.Harvin to NO 35 for 16 yards (C.White). Harvin just once again being a bad ass, jumping in the air for a catch over the middle.

DRIVE RECAP: This was the one where Wilson kept the ball alive for freaking ever, where Harvin was in the flat on the left and eventually sprinted for the end zone and Wilson almost hit him but instead Harvin was knocked out of the game. Also, a defensive holding call gave Seattle a fresh set of downs inside the 10, but still couldn’t get a TD.

Further Reading

Football Outsiders did an excellent analysis of Harvin's plays in this game:

Knocking Out Myths

One common "argument" used to suggest Harvin won't affect the game outcome much is Harvin's injury history. This is more of a taunt than an actual defensible argument. Paraphrasing Kaepernick, if your plan is to injure Harvin, I hope you have a better one. In downtalking Harvin, it’s popular to conflate a variety of physical problems Harvin has had: Migraines, hip surgery, sprained ankle, virus, concussion. While it’s debatable whether combining these all into a single medical history makes sense for predictive long term costs/benefits analysis, what’s not debatable is that most of it is irrelevant in predicting the outcome of the Super Bowl. The fact is, Harvin has played in 56 games and received an injury serious enough to miss future games in 3 of them: A sprained ankle, an aggravation of recovering hip surgery, and a concussion. So the odds that Harvin gets a serious injury in this game are well under 10%. As a Seahawks fan, how good would you feel about your chances in a game if they depended on a specific opposing player being knocked out of the game? I’m going to say you’d feel very pessimistic, no matter how "fragile" that opposing player was claimed to be.

Other people assert that Seattle's opponent will just put such-and-such on him. For example, Saints players were quoted as saying they weren't worried about Harvin because they had Keenan Lewis. Unfortunately for this claim, it doesn't work like that. Harvin can line up at slot or either receiver position, whereas many teams, including Denver, keep their CBs on designated sides. Harvin can take sweep hand-offs and line up in the backfield, meaning he'll get matched up with a linebacker if he comes out of the backfield.

Harvin is too fast and too physical to be shut down. On if he will struggle with the game speed:

No. I’ve had good practices, and I have full confidence in my game. Once I am out there on that field, I only know one speed and that’s full force.

He can receive the ball anywhere and immediately runs for space.

Some people have it in their head that, despite the fact that Harvin may be the fastest player in the league, he’s not a deep threat. Seattle dispelled that notion immediately in his first game, as Harvin drew a 40 yard PI. Here’s Harvin blowing by Alterraun Verner--a top 5 corner and better than anyone Denver has--on a go route off the line. Harvin will put huge pressure on the defense horizontally (e.g., fly sweeps and fake fly sweeps) and vertically.

Seattle uses Harvin in all the ways. They aren't going to leak his value by misusing or underusing him. Seattle finished last season #1 in weighted offensive DVOA, mostly with the same personnel they have today. This staff and this team have already proven they can field the best offense in the NFL. Obtaining Harvin was a calculated move to replace read option keepers (which this year have mostly been read option fakes) for spreading out defenses...and replace it with gusto. If Harvin had played all season, Seattle would have scored another 100 points and gone 15-1 or 16-0. In that case, would anyone be predicting a Denver win this weekend? The team Seattle fields on Sunday doesn't have a 16-0 record, but it's 16-0 dominant. How do you beat the team with the best defense and the best offense in the NFL?

A Video Review of Harvin's Last Season with Minnesota

There are several Harvin videos out there, but for getting a good impression of what a full season of Harvin looks like, this is the best one, in my view, although I wish the resolution was a little better. It goes chronologically through the season with his major plays from each game. The last play is his collision with Sherman. Poetry.

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