DVOA and efficiency ranking work largely the same way. Both metrics evaluate each play for value. So a poor DVOA or efficiency ranking means that the total value of plays, adjusted for quality of opponent (which is tricky), is negative. That is how a team like Seattle, with five wins and four losses, can rank so poorly. Many of the good plays have come against weak opponents. In games Seattle has lost, bad plays haven't just outnumbered good plays, they have dwarfed the number of good plays.
To think of it another way, if we consider yards as points in an abstract sense, that is, yards as a tangible symbol of something won or lost, and difference in yardage gained as a measure of how close a game was, the Seahawks have squeaked out a few wins and suffered some absolutely crushing losses.
San Francisco: -21
At Denver: -30
San Diego: -247
St. Louis: -92
At Chicago: +46
At Oakland: -381
New York: -325
At Arizona: +163
That ignores special teams, which is particularly relevant to Seattle's win against the Chargers. Special teams performance isn't particularly consistent, but what's more important when evaluating the game against San Diego is that two Seahawks drives were replaced by touchdown returns. Add those returns in and Seattle closes to within 47 yards of San Diego.
That is very bare bones way of looking at how Seattle performed against its opponents. Advanced metrics work from that data, included game situation, first down, turnovers and touchdowns and then adjust for quality of opponent. But you can see, even just stripping it down to yards gained and yards allowed, Seattle has been rocked quite a few times this season.
What I wanted to do in this post is try to provide anecdotal context to the Seahawks record. Metrics flush out and contextualize simple statistics, and we can do that too, if in a less formalized manner.
Seahawks 31 - 49ers 6
This is still among the very best wins of the year for Seattle. San Francisco pulled ahead 6-0 but then Seattle scored 31 unanswered. The Seahawks had two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown and another that led to a touchdown one offensive play later.
The most important context to this game is that Alex Smith was starting. San Francisco would go on to start 1-6 with Smith under center, including an embarrassing loss to Carolina. Smith is probably done as a starter. He will go down as one of the bigger and more protracted busts in NFL history.
The other thing I would mention is that San Francisco was starting two rookies on their offensive line. Neither Mike Iupati nor Anthony Davis performed particularly well.
Broncos 31 - Seahawks 14
This still stands as possibly the worst loss of the season. Denver is now 3-6 and has been outscored by opponents 203 to 252.
Apart from the Broncos ensuing struggles, the most important context of this game is the way the game itself unfolded. Seattle closed within three scores late in the fourth quarter, but that garbage time drive masks a very dominant outing by the Broncos. Denver was up 17-0 through the first half and stretched that lead to 31-7 in the fourth quarter. Denver didn't pull Kyle Orton, but they did throttle off late. Sometimes a 31-14 outcome is a relatively close game that gets away late. This was a blowout that lost some of its luster when Matt Hasselbeck picked down the field and finally capped a scoring drive with a 20 yard touchdown rush.
If you remember week 4 from 2009, in which Seattle lost to Indianapolis 34-17, but Seneca Wallace finished the day 33 for 45 for 257 and touchdown, that was what this game felt like.
Seahawks 27 - Chargers 20
This was a pretty close game that didn't feel too close until Philip Rivers flipped his "unstoppable" switch in the fourth quarter. The Chargers are 4-5 but have outscored opponents 239-197.
First thing to note is the absence of Marcus McNeill. Chris Clemons wore out Brandyn Dombrowski. Dombrowski just isn't a starting caliber left tackle in the NFL. McNeill is a multiple Pro Bowl selection.
We should also recognize that this was a matchup of and won by the league's best special teams against the league's worst. The Chargers are still hovering in the realm of historically awful. It's not that special teams is not hugely important to a game's outcome, but it is prone to tiny sample sizes and thus mercurial.
Seattle played from ahead for about 40 minutes of regulation and never played from behind. In the final two minutes of the game, the Chargers marched within the Seahawks 17 before Earl Thomas ended the game with an interception. It was thrilling and hard won, but won on the back of special teams, and almost given away.
Rams 20 - Seahawks 3
This loss was about on par with the beatdown handed out by the Raiders. Both Oakland and St. Louis hosted, both are bottom quartile teams, and both smothered more than blew out the Seahawks.
Seattle fell behind early against both St. Louis and Oakland and the offense showed no ability whatsoever to recover. Both opponents feature weak offenses spearheaded by their rushing attack and so-so 4-3 defenses with young and pretty good defensive lines. Both opponents tore through the Seahawks offensive line.
Where the two games diverge is that Seattle was close to full strength on defense against St. Louis, and that allowed Seattle to contain Steven Jackson. It wasn't so stout against Darren McFadden. And where the Rams dominated but coasted through the second half for an easy victory, the Raiders dominated and then exploded in part because of some lucky bounces. The quality of the Seahawks team that took the field was different, and the final score was different, but otherwise these were two very similar losses.
Bears 20 - Seahawks 23
The Bears are now 7-3, amazingly enough, and have outscored opponents 175-146.
This is right up there with the week one win against the 49ers as the single best game the Seahawks have played. They beat a quality opponent on the road, didn't dominate, but did win in more lopsided fashion than the score would imply. Devin Hester scored a return touchdown with only 2:14 left on the play clock. Chicago's win probability hardly budged.
This game featured a healthy Russell Okung. That allowed Seattle to shutdown the Bears best defender, best player, and probably the very best 4-3 end in football: Julius Peppers. Winning that matchup was integral to winning this game, and had Okung not been healthy, I think Seattle would have lost and quite possibly in blowout fashion.
The other important context is just how much of Seattle's pass rush was accomplished through scheme. Pete Carroll, Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn tore through Mike Martz's moldy old scheme with defensive back blitzes of all shape and character. It wasn't a one-trick pony, but it also may never be that effective again. Jay Cutler was returning from a concussion suffered against the Giants, in a game that Cutler had more sacks (9) than completions (8). He looked panicked and lost, and Martz looker powerless to help him.
Seahawks 22 - Cardinals 10
The Cardinals are among the three worst teams in football, and were particularly bad this game because they were starting rookie Max Hall. Hall was a motivational tactic playing under center. That's the most important context. Derek Anderson is among the worst quarterbacks in the NFL, but Max Hall is almost anomalously bad.
Hall finished 4 of 16 for 36 yards and an interception.
Other than that, the other important context is that Seattle's run defense was beginning to crumble. Arizona was successful on 60% of their rush attempts.
Raiders 33 - Seahawks 3
(See Rams 20 - Seahawks 3)
Seahawks 7 - Giants 41
New York is one of the best teams in football, but last week's loss to Dallas grounded them a bit. The Cowboys are no longer a good team, and as far as I know there is no evidence that a team performs particularly well following the firing of their head coach.
The context here is minor and major. The minor context is that Seattle was starting Charlie Whitehurst. People want to blow up the significance of this, and Whitehurst was indeed bad, but there's no way to know how Hasselbeck would have performed in the same situation, and, more importantly, the defense was not particularly handicapped by Whitehurst's play. This was a representative loss, and a blowout one.
The major context is how, like Philadelphia's blowout win over the Redskins last Monday, this game was not nearly as close as the final score would imply. It was over midway through the first quarter and way, way out of reach by the second quarter. I don't think efficiency rating or DVOA account for how winners can coast in blowouts, but it's safe to say the Giants could have probably won by 50 points if point differential counted in the standings.
Cardinals 18 - Seahawks 36
That leaves us with this, which I think I've talked about enough this week. Seattle won pretty convincingly but it took until late in the third quarter for the Seahawks to put it away. Nevertheless, a convincing win on the road even if against a truly bad team is one of the better moments so far in the 2010 season.
Which dovetails into the point of this post.
Seattle has beat the Cardinals twice, and the Cardinals are a terrible team. One win was heavily aided by Arizona starting Max Hall. The Seahawks beat the 49ers at home, and the 49ers are a bad team that at that time was starting Alex Smith.
The Seahawks have two good wins. One led by the special teams against the Chargers. The Chargers have fielded historically bad special teams units. San Diego was still very close to tying the game late in the fourth quarter. The win against the Bears is probably the single best win of the season. Chicago hasn't collapsed. It's a mediocre to good team. Seattle won a critical matchup, but won it because of a player that's missed most of the season due to injury. That implies some hidden potential.
The Seahawks have four bad losses. Denver and New York put the game away long before the fourth quarter. Both of those losses were blowouts that were actually much more lopsided than the final score would suggest. St. Louis and Oakland didn't absolutely run away from the Seahawks like Denver and New York did, but both teams are bad and both teams dominated the Seahawks offense. Neither game was close. All four losses were one-sided with point differentials ranging from three scores to five.
That is why that, though the Seahawks have a winning record and are on top of the NFC West, they are not a good team -- yet. The wins have qualifiers and the losses have been almost too brutal to watch. Measuring by downs won or lost, Seattle is way down. That doesn't mean Seattle is doomed to be a bad team. Okung can return. Brandon Mebane is back. Jeremy Bates seems ready to admit that Matt Hasselbeck does not thrive in an offense defined by a moving pocket, long passes and limited reads. It does mean that though Seattle is a winning team, and though Seattle has the inside track to the NFC West crown, the Seahawks are still a bad team ...
Maybe on their way up.