And yet despite facing the worst rush defense in the NFL, and despite fielding the best rush offense in the NFL, and despite never being out of the game, the Seahawks continued to throw and throw. It was very confusing, needless to say, and like many I suppose, I found it was very easy to blame Darrell Bevell. To once again warm over the typical criticisms of Seattle's first and only Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator, and vent some of the frustration a football fan feels when his team's offense is sucking ass.
But why? and to what end?
The Internet certainly has its apportioned amount of impassioned, whiny, entitled screeds.
I then set out to understand this year's offense, especially in relation to last year's offense. That would require much more work, but toward I hoped a worthier outcome.
Then, just today as I am writing this, Percy Harvin was traded to New York Jets for a conditional pick, and everything changed. And so, now, the offense is likely to change again. But to what?
Let's first compare last year to this year, and then consider what losing Harvin means.
Below are two very ugly heat maps which show the direction (Left, Right or Center) and distance of Russell Wilson's pass attempts in 2013 and 2014. These do not represent the total yards gained, but only where the pass went. That illuminates the design of the play instead of the outcome. These were hand tabulated over the last few days.
The first thing that maybe stands out is the large increase in passes directed at or behind the line of scrimmage.
But those passes have only been moderately more effective:
2013: 5.17 Yards/Attempt
2014: 5.46 Y/A
And the player who has been targeted on so many of those passes, Harvin, has been particularly bad creating value from those targets.
Harvin passes at or behind the line of scrimmage: 12 receptions, 30 yards, and a long of eight yards.
Those targets have come at the expense of targets 21-30 yards down field. Russell Wilson threw lots of passes in that range in 2013, but in 2014 that percentage has been more than cut in half.
These are valuable plays, both seasons, and subtracting them has badly hurt the offense.
2013: 14.68 Y/A
2014: 13.83 Y/A
What else Seattle has lost, perhaps to feed Harvin, perhaps because of Golden Tate signing with the Detroit Lions, is deep passing.
The Seahawks have just one attempt of 40 yards or more this season, after attempting 13 in 2013. Not that Wilson has set the world on fire throwing 40+ yards either season, but it's worth noting.
Otherwise, Seattle's offense has stayed remarkably consistent:
2013 1-10 yards: 46.4%
2014 1-10 yards: 46.8%
2013 11-20 yards: 20.1%
2014 11-20 yards: 20.1%
We all know what a bubble screen looks like, but what does a typical pass arriving 21 to 30 yards down field look like?
First, consider who caught these longer passes:
Golden Tate: 6
Doug Baldwin: 5
Zach Miller: 3
Ricardo Lockette: 2
Jermaine Kearse: 2
Sidney Rice: 2
That's all 20, and almost a third targeted Tate. Not good. But, per snap, Lockette is the leader in deep targets, and clearly this is a committee approach. Russell Wilson has never really thrown to a number one receiver. Tate was an excellent two, but was clearly never the focus of the Seahawks offense. Now let's look at what a pass of this length looks like.
Here's a play from Week 1 of 2013. It's 3rd and 3, and the Panthers are in man coverage with a single high safety.
Baldwin has a delayed release, starting with a little back and forth wiggle. Tate runs what looks at first like a shallow crosser, but which route is designed to spring Baldwin wide open. At the pivotal moment, Baldwin runs an out and up. He's wide open. Clearly Baldwin is the primary target, and clearly this is a low-work play for Wilson, who must only loft the ball over Baldwin's shoulder for an easy completion.
Wilson completed another pass of 21 yards in that same game. This one was play-action, boot right and a strike to Rice running a deep curl.
Painfully descriptive analysis of every pass traveling 21-30 yards isn't necessary, and so let's skip ahead.
Seattle completed 20 pass attempts of 21-30 yards. I have tape of 14. Here's a breakdown.
Corner routes: 5
Deep curl: 2
Out and up: 1
Play action: 5
Man cover: 11
It doesn't seem Seattle is facing as much man coverage this year. Perhaps Russell Wilson is still learning how to read zone coverage. Many of these completions were to a wide open man. The number of times an opposing corner trips or a defender blows an assignment, et c., is likely wildly variable year to year. Perhaps the opportunities haven't been there for these types of plays.
But, given the drop in passes targeting 21 to 30 yards and the concurrent rise in passes traveling 0 to -10 yards, it seems equally possible that Darrell Bevell, Pete Carroll and Tom Cable anticipated big plays would come from Harvin, and those big plays would offset what was lost by not passing it deep. Seattle has not abandoned the short passing game despite its lack of success:
Passes at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Week 1: 8
Week 2: 6
Week 3: 7
Week 4: 10
Week 5: 6
That's 37 attempts in total. Last season through five games Seattle had 18 passes targeting at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Which Brings Us to Percy Harvin Being Traded
Scuttlebutt being passed around the Internet suggests Harvin was traded because of a problem personality. That's probably true. But the why isn't terribly interesting to me, and doesn't augur much for the Seahawks future this season.
Harvin's talent in space is clearly why Seattle has been passing short so much. And though Harvin's direct contributions have been minimal, Seattle's offense has been pretty good. Football Outsiders ranks Seattle as the ninth best offense, and Advanced NFL Analytics ranks Seattle as the eighth best offense. Both likewise rate Seattle's rushing attack well ahead of its passing attack. FO: 1 and 15, respectively. ANA: 1 and 25. Much of this is because Wilson ran wild against the Washington Redskins. He currently has more than double the DYAR earned through rushing than the next best quarterback, Jay Cutler.
Problem is, Seattle doesn't want to depend too much on Wilson scrambling. Which means those otherwise good ratings are likely somewhat misleading.
The direct benefit of Harvin being traded is a move away from a short passing game that hasn't worked. The indirect impact is harder to predict.
Harvin was supposed to be a threat, a matchup nightmare that forced defenses to account for him like they account for few other players in the entire NFL. But for all the tape I've watched, I've yet to see any specific Harvin-stopping tactics. He wasn't being targeted deep. He wasn't breaking tackles on short routes. And, as a minor, inefficient receiver on a team fielding Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, it seems teams were waiting for Harvin to prove he was as deadly as his reputation. So much so that after five weeks, it seemed the only people who had full confidence in Harvin were members of the Seattle Seahawks.
Now, that said, what Harvin was doing to the defense could be subtle. Perhaps it's a small cheat his direction, or a tendency to chase Harvin's action more vehemently than another receiver's. But whatever it was, it hadn't shown up in Harvin's numbers or in Seattle's passing offense. As a fan that wanted the Seahawks to be a young dynasty, that wants and believes that the Seahawks are a young dynasty, I had rationalized away his poor performance. But it was poor.
The medieval scholastic philosopher William of Occam famously said "It is in vain to do with more what can be done with fewer." Bertrand Russell interpreted that as "[I]f everything in some science can be interpreted without assuming this or that hypothetical entity, there is no ground for assuming it." Harvin was not playing well, and neither was the Seahawks passing offense with Harvin. Despite his supposed central role in Seattle's offense, he had played in just under 60% of the team's snaps this season. We cannot say whether Harvin would have played better in the future if Seattle had not traded him. We can say that the simplest explanation, the one that requires no extraneous hypothetical entities, is that Harvin was not producing as a receiver. Perhaps he was producing as a "threat," but how is hard to say and requires speculation.
Back to Bevell and Square One
Sports pundits ran the complacence narrative into the ground throughout the off-season. Little else seemingly could stop Seattle from repeating. It was young, had a franchise quarterback, the defense and ground game demanded by traditionalists, and topped assessments of total team talent, development, and overall franchise stewardship. But something had to stop Seattle from repeating because recent Super Bowl winners have not repeated, and the rules of what's happened recently will forever populate the sports pundits' Decalogue. No sooner can a Verducci Effect be exposed for what it is, an uninspired bit of sortilege, than another truism rises up to replace it.
Off-season 2014, that was the truism of Super Bowl Champs not repeating, and the explanatory myth of complacence. Never mind that no team is ever favored to win over the remaining field of 31, and that all preseason predictions are ridiculous, pundits are supposed to pick which team is best: regular season, playoffs; with some minor calculation of strength of schedule, strength of division, importance of home field advantage and likelihood of getting it. All but strength of division greatly favored Seattle, yet the Seahawks could not win because of "complacence," because they had won the season before.
It's Week 7, the Seahawks are a stinging 3-2, and rather than complacent, it's becoming clear Seattle is suffering the pains of change, the pains we had hoped were symptomatic of growth.
Maybe Bevell is most responsible for the move away from deep passing and toward screen passes. That would be the simplest explanation. Maybe, as in the case of Harvin, there is an untold story, and the move away from a working and winning formula became necessary. Certainly Seattle's pass blocking has been poor, and short passes have amnestied Russell Okung and Justin Britt from (greater) punishment at the hands of Dwight Freeney, Von Miller, Melvin Ingram, Brian Orakpo, DeMarcus Ware, Ryan Kerrigan, et c. The tactic of passing short may serve the strategy of keeping Wilson healthy. Early prototypes of the scrambling to keep the play alive quarterback, like Daunte Culpepper, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger, have all endured injury. Some may even say they've all endured early decline, too.
But it's hard to believe Carroll would ever be so prudent as to sacrifice any chance of winning today for some possible benefit in the future. And not soon again is Seattle likely to have such a good chance of winning a Super Bowl as it does this season.
Short passes may protect Wilson, but to protect him they must also limit his impact on the play. The screen pass is often called "a long hand off." It's flummoxing that two great seasons, two Pro Bowl nods, and a Super Bowl title later, Bevell seems to be asking Wilson to do less.
Sometimes an injury improves a football team overall, even when the injured player is good. Unlike perhaps every other sport, football has no central skill to be mastered. Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse were never meant to be great pros. Maybe the Seahawks stumbled into what they could do well, and by asking them to do that and little else, were able to maximize their potential. Specialization is common for defenders. Maybe Baldwin and Kearse have been over-stretched. Or maybe the passes haven't been there.
Wilson is on record as saying he wants to achieve the kind of pocket passing of a Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Peyton Manning. Maybe Bevell conceived short screen passes as kind of handicap, allowing Wilson to master a few plays with reads from the pocket, fewer than he would without the screen passes. This, I would like to say, is my explanation. Until now and despite all his success, Wilson has depended on a method of play that no quarterback but maybe Fran Tarkenton has been able to sustain over a career. Tarkenton played 40 years ago.
It is sensationally hard to become a great pocket passer. Peyton Manning throws the ugliest pass in the NFL, and his only real competition is Philip Rivers. Brady, Brees, these are men far past their athletic prime. Achieving that mastery allows a player to transcend his physical tools and be great by making great decisions. Wilson isn't there yet. But every season, and we're incrementally through his third, he has made strides in development like no quarterback in NFL history. Harvin's gone. May the blasted screen game go with him. It's time for Wilson to amaze us again. It's time for Bevell to entrust his young signal caller. It's time again for Wilson to breath greatness into a scrappy, lesser-talented bunch of fringe possession receivers. You know he will.