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The Seattle Seahawks 2011 Season: A Look Back at the Offense

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As I wrote about yesterday, the Seahawks' offense from 2011 left something to be desired. This sentiment, really, has been described by pretty much every Seahawks' writer since the end of the season. The storylines are all pretty similar- a slow start, the line 'gelled,' Marshawn Lynch started to do his thang, and towards the end of the season, things were looking up. Beast mode's arrival was the signal that the Seahawks had undergone an identity change.

I think all that is true, more or less. The Seahawks offense certainly looked better at the end of the season and on a whole was much more efficient as the year went on. This was an accomplishment, considering the amount of injuries the offense had to endure in the war of attrition that is any NFL season. Three starting offensive linemen, two starting wideouts, missed games here and there by key players, including the quarterback. Still, even in the end, and regardless of the injuries, the Seahawks offense wasn't very good.

Yesterday, I pointed out that Football Outsiders had the Seahawks ranked 22nd in offensive DVOA, one spot above Tim Tebow's Denver Broncos and below teams like the Matt Moore led Miami Dolphins, the Mark Sanchez-led Jets, the Redskins, Oakland, Buffalo, and Matt Hasselbeck's Titans. Not exactly a high-octane group to be associated with.

Even their weighted offensive DVOA, which takes into account the play of the team later in the year, which was markedly better than that of the early struggles, the Hawks only finished 19th in DVOA, still behind Rex Grossman's Redskins, Carson Palmer's Raiders, and Andy Dalton's Bengals.

Part of the problem here is the style of offense the Seahawks are choosing to run. Right now, you'd probably have to point to San Francisco as the model in which this current Seahawks team, with the current Seahawks roster, would wish to emulate - power running, no turnovers, heavy, two-tight end sets and a focus on taking the pressure off of the quarterback to carry the team. Let your defense and special teams carry you. Grind.

Now, I don't know if that's the ultimate goal - hopefully not, hopefully someday the talent at quarterback will not necessitate this style of offense - but I don't fault Pete Carroll taking this route, given the talent available to him. Given what he has, and what has been available since he took over the team, I don't think it's a bad strategy. We've seen what happens when the Seahawks get into crunch time and rely on Tarvaris Jackson to carry the team on his back. Carroll even acknowleged in his post-season presser that Jackson wasn't very good in that realm. They didn't like to force Jackson to carry the team and I'm glad that's not the route they've tried to take. If they had, I assume things would have been a lot worse, probably sort of what the offense looked like in the beginning of the season.

Greg Cosell wrote a piece recently that talked about the "New School" vs "Old School" that will be showcased when the Niners take on the Saints this week. He talked about the new NFL and the current trends.

1978 was the turning point. It was the year in which the rules were changed to encourage more passing, and more points. The quarterback became the focal point. Offense gradually shifted from a running foundation to a passing foundation. What we saw in 2011, with 3 quarterbacks throwing for more than 5000 yards in a single season, was merely the culmination of this transition. It is now accepted that the NFL is a passing league, driven by high level quarterbacks who routinely throw 35-40 times a game, and often more.

The Saints exemplify this line of thinking. It starts with Drew Brees, but the progression has advanced much further. It highlights multiple personnel packages and formations (unheard of 20-30 years ago), creative utilization of an athletic tight in the passing game (Don Coryell was the first to do that with Kellen Winslow in 1979) and quick tempo and no huddle offense regardless of game situation. It's fast break football orchestrated by the most important player on the field, the quarterback.

This is now the acknowledged way to compete, and win championships in the NFL. Top quarterbacks playing consistently well. Weapons all over the field, attacking from different positions. A selective running game that eats up yards. The ability to score 40 any given game, no matter the quality of the opponent. The quarterback, and the offense, compensate for, and camouflage defensive inconsistencies. It's a belief that offense now drives championship football in this new wave NFL.

We've all heard this, we all question whether the Seahawks are taking the right approach. That's fair. I would submit that it's more an approach based on necessity than anything right now, and though I doubt Pete Carroll would ever install an offense like the Saints have, I don't doubt he would love to have an elite quarterback to run his style of football.

But he doesn't.

And neither does San Francisco. Cosell continues: Then there are the 49ers. Their model in 2011: old school football. The running game, defense, special teams, turnover ratio. They are physical, efficient and relentless. It's directly out of the 1970's guide to winning in the NFL. The 49ers ran the ball more than any team in the NFC. Frank Gore and Kendell Hunter totaled almost 400 rushes and 1700 yards. Defensively, they allowed the fewest rushing yards in the league, only 77 per game. Run the ball. Stop the run. Defense wins championships. Football platitudes as sturdy as any through the decades, and ones many still grasp very strongly.

The 2011 Alex Smith fit this model beautifully. He attempted the fewest overall passes of any quarterback who started 16 games. The 49ers profile, and its consistent week-to-week execution, did not demand Smith throw more. He threw just 5 interceptions. No starting quarterback had fewer. It was a major reason the 49ers led the league in turnover differential with +28. And turnover differential is always one of the most important contributors to winning games.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Smith threw only 17 touchdown passes, the lowest number of any quarterback who started 16 games. (Brees led the NFL with 46). Even more telling in this era of passing was this statistic: Smith threw for less than 200 yards in 9 games. He was never asked, nor required based on game situation, to make throw-after-throw-after-throw to win. Smith was a puzzle piece on a complete team, and it can easily be argued that no coach did a better job than Jim Harbaugh balancing his offense, defense and special teams in a winning formula.

Cosell does a better job than I ever could at describing the essence of what Seattle has installed for this season, and though he's talking about the 49ers, pretty much every point rings true for what Pete Carroll has put together. Alex Smith is undoubtedly better than Tarvaris Jackson but by no means should be considered elite. Looking at Smith's career, you wonder if he should even be considered middling. Regardless, I think the two offenses could be comparable.

Tarvaris Jackson had 14 touchdown passes to 13 interceptions in 15 games. He threw for 3,091 yards (20th in the NFL) on 30 attempts per game (24th in the NFL). His stats are fairly comparable to those of Alex Smith, minus the amount of turnovers, of course, which kill this scheme's M.O..

Here's the key to focus on though in this comparison - San Francisco did a much better job of executing the model the Seahawks were apparently trying to implement - strong run defense, strong special teams, run-based possession offense. They went 13-3, won the West while going 5-1 in the division, got the 2nd seed in the NFC, had the best turnover ratio in the NFL at +28, and still did all that with an offensive DVOA of 1.6%, only 18th overall. Only four spots above the Seahawks, both weighted and overall, on the year.

Comparing the Seahawks offense to teams like Detroit, Green Bay, and New Orleans is, first of all, unfair, in that it is like comparing apples to oranges. When you compare how the Seahawks did to, in my eyes, the closest relative of their scheme in the current NFL - that of San Francisco - with an, in my opinion, very sub-elite QB, a strong run game, similar styles and scheming on offense and strong defenses, things don't look quite as bad for this Seahawks season.

You could make the comparison to teams like Baltimore and Atlanta as well, though I would rank both Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan well above either Tarvaris Jackson or Alex Smith. Both Atlanta and Baltimore had very similar run/pass ratio to the Seahawks but finished 10th and 11th in offensive DVOA this season, so obviously there is room for improvement and the first major key to that equation is your quarterback.

Another similarly styled offense to the Seahawks was that of the New York Jets, led by the much-maligned Mark Sanchez, who finished just above the Seahawks at 21st in offensive DVOA with a very similar run/pass ratio. Sanchez though, for all the guff he takes, threw 26 touchdowns, almost twice as many as Jackson.

I'm rambling, really, but the point I'm zeroing in on is that for teams with sub-elite quarterbacks, or in Seattle's case, probably sub-middling quarterbacks, the offense held its own, particularly in the later part of the season. Now, obviously, there is room for improvement and one such team you could use as an example would be Pittsburgh. The Steelers mix a strong running game with an explosive downfield element to create a very efficient and effective offense (Denver defeat notwithstanding). They do so on the back of a, probably, 'tier 1.5' quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger that has shown the uncanny ability to put the team on his shoulders late in games. In my mind, the Seahawks aren't shooting for the goal of having San Francisco's offense, but would rather have something akin to that of the Steelers, or Texans, for example. That's my hope, anyway.

Clare Farnsworth said it pretty well yesterday when he wrote:

To truly appreciate where the Seahawks' offense finished - 28th overall, by averaging 303.8 yards; 21st rushing and 22nd passing - it helps to revisit where this group came from. There were new starters at quarterback (Tarvaris Jackson), tight end (Zach Miller), flanker (Sidney Rice) and on the line (left guard Robert Gallery, right guard John Moffitt and right tackle James Carpenter). There was a first-year starter at center (Max Unger) and a player in his first full season with the team at running back (Marshawn Lynch). There also was a former college QB (Michael Robinson) adapting to the role of fulltime lead-blocker at the fullback position and a rookie free agent (Doug Baldwin) who ended up leading the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches.

There also was a new coordinator (Bevell) and a new man in charge of the running game (assistant head coach/offensive line coach Tom Cable).

What there wasn't, because of the 136-day lockout, was an offseason to implement all this newness and infuse all the new faces. Instead, all of this had to come together despite the players being on the field together for the first time on July 30 and several of the new players not being able to practice until Aug. 4.

Considering all this and considering the talent that this coaching staff had to work with, particularly at quarterback, there are certainly reasons for optimism going forward. I'm not purposefully piling on to Tarvaris Jackson and I think he played probably better than any of us expected. He was tough and played through injury. He was a good leader and endeared himself to the fanbase. After the offseason rumors of his impending arrival and subsequent incredulous reaction from most of the fanbase, after the slow start and home-field boo birds, he emerged as a serviceable option for the team and was vastly superior, surprisingly, to Charlie Whitehurst, a guy that many of us were hoping would eventually take the reins.

There were moments where some of us thought maybe Jackson could get over that hump and be a really good quarterback even. I suppose there are probably people still thinking that, and I suppose it could still happen. Jackson will quite possibly be starting for this team next season and that's fine with me as long as the team is developing further options - he doesn't cost the team Draft capital and doesn't hurt them in the salary cap ledger. The "he is who we thought he is" thing gets thrown around and I mostly agree with that, but in my case he's actually better than I though he was. So, I'm not trying to denigrate the guy, he did a fine job, especially and particularly considering the circumstances he was presented. He was a cast-off from the team that drafted him, and a street free agent with marginal starting experience signed to be the team's next go-to guy. What more could you rationally hope for?

The skill players flashed potential but none impressed particularly. Sidney Rice looks like a real #1 wide receiver option but was hurt frequently. Mike Williams took a step back and failed to develop any chemistry with Jackson. Doug Baldwin amazed as an undrafted rookie and undoubtedly has a future on the team but didn't necessarily put the offense on his back. Golden Tate improved and shows much greater promise. Ben Obomanu is undoubtedly an asset but in the greater scheme of things isn't someone I think will be around all that long. Past that, you've got potential but minimal on-field production.

Zach Miller was amazing as a blocking tight end but was a non-factor in the passing game. Similarly were Anthony McCoy and Cameron Morrah - two guys with seemingly high potential but minimal on-field production.

Marshawn Lynch was probably the most dependable offensive player for the Seahawks and got most of his work in during the second half of the season. Michael Robinson looked to be an asset. Justin Forsett regressed and Leon Washington was, sadly, rarely used.

The offensive line showed flashes as well but couldn't stay healthy, save for Max Unger. There is promise there for sure, in the starters and backups, but a half-season is honestly what we got from them. I really hope that the offseason will be beneficial and have no reason to think otherwise.

As this piece is an attempt at an honest look back on the season I should end just by saying there seems to be a lot of potential for this offense, it just didn't really manifest itself on the field this season with consistency. The one bright spot was obviously the running game and that cannot be understated. The streak of 100+ yards in eight of the last nine games was empirically impressive, even from an NFL-wide standpoint. No team rushed better than the Seahawks in the second half of the year, so if there's one thing to take away from the season on the offensive side, it's obviously just that.

I'll be continuing this series with the defense and special teams, then looking forward to next year and hopefully will take a more cheery tone. I do believe the future is bright for this team and I'll explore which players may be key parts of that future success. Stay tuned...