In 40 and a half seasons before Monday’s win over the Buffalo Bills, the Seattle Seahawks had only rushed 12 or fewer times 13 times in their history, including playoffs, and they lost all 13 of those games.
As you know, at the NFL level rushing infrequently is associated with losing because teams more often pass when behind in the second half, both to stop the game clock in case of incompletions and to try to move the ball downfield more swiftly while trailing. Likewise, failure to run and wind clock can leave a leading team vulnerable to a comeback. In total, all NFL teams had only won 10 times in 291 instances since the 1970 merger when they ran so seldom, before Monday night. (Prior to 1970 football featured the rush so much more often that it only happened 22 times in the decade after 1960, with two winners.)
So a win like that is pretty rare. Indeed, if you expand the data up to a rounder, more inclusive 15 carries, the Seahawks had won just once in 33 previous tries—and it was also on Monday night football, the hair-raising 2013 encounter in St. Louis that saw the team escape 14-9 on another goal line stop. This is not an artificial cutoff either, because if you bump it up to 16 rushes, you only add one more win (a home victory over Atlanta in 1985) among a total of 48 games. But obviously as you continue to add rushes, the frequency of winning increases.
The last time Seattle attempted as few as 12 rushes was the divisional playoff round last January when the Seahawks fell behind 31-0 in the first half to the Carolina Panthers. But this time, even after the Bills blocked a punt and scored a touchdown less than two minutes into the game, Seattle never found itself behind by more than a single score, took the lead for good with 34:29 remaining in the game and definitely had a positive game script.
The Seahawks led by between six and 11 points for all but five minutes of the second half, and double digits for the entirety of the third quarter. In 2016, heading into week 9, teams that ran 15 times or fewer had an average game script of minus-10 points (the average deficit across every second of the game), and had lost all 16 of those occasions. The only one of these teams to own a positive game script was the Baltimore Ravens in its week 7 loss at the New York Jets, and the Ravens fell behind for good with 20 minutes left in that one, so didn’t have a late margin to protect.
Seattle was unable to run to fortify its lead because its running backs and offensive line combined for just 10 yards on eight carries. The other 23 yards were accounted for by a 13-yard end around by Tyler Lockett and three rushes by quarterback Russell Wilson. The Seahawks scored two touchdowns on the ground, but set up both three-yard rushes with successful passes to put Seattle near the goal line.
After finishing third, fourth, first and third in the league in rushing since 2012, Seattle currently sits 30th in the NFL averaging just 3.2 yards per carry.
“We don’t have to run the football to win games,” Pete Carroll said on Brock & Salk Tuesday morning, which may be true in this narrow case but is not supported by the historical sample of (plural) games. Wilson appears to be getting healthier, and he threw for a dynamic 282 yards and two touchdowns on just 26 attempts Monday, giving hope for a hypothetical pass-heavy approach if needed, but the Seahawks are now just 5-72 all time when they throw more than twice as often as they pass—and this was the first win in nine such games under Carroll.
The coach compared this week to the bye week in 2015, when “we had to make significant adjustments” and Wilson ramped his attempts up to more than 31 a game and scored 25 touchdowns to 2 interceptions with a rating of 132.8.
However, Carroll did indicate that he was not ready to abandon the run in 2016. “We didn’t make much progress toward the run in this game, but we’re not backing off at all,” Carroll said.
While Thomas Rawls will not be available to play against the New England Patriots Sunday night, Carroll said he expects the Seahawks starter to begin practicing this week, and suggested the only thing keeping Rawls out of that game was the short week of preparation following the Monday night schedule. Carroll also continued to emphasize how Wilson’s improved health can help alter the mathematics of run defense by adding more read-option into the playbook.
“Things can change,” Carroll said. “Look what happened with the explosives.”
Monday night Seattle completed eight separate passes more than 16 yards, which is how Carroll defines explosive pass plays. The Seahawks had just 20 such plays in the previous seven games this season.
Can the run game keep up?