Pete Carroll has long praised the importance of a balanced team. He preaches that all three phases are important. He and John Schneider build their teams accordingly. They pay accordingly, allocating elite-level salaries to their quarterback, tight end, top receiver, and Pro Bowl/All-Pro talents across the defense. They pay the feet-people, too. Jon Ryan is 12th in league AAV and 8th in guaranteed money; Stevie Hauschka is 11th in AAV and 7th in guarantees.
The effort to keep balance across all three phases of the Seattle Seahawks has paid off, in division titles and postseason glories.
The effort to keep balance in 2016 has been... uneven. If you’ll labor through a dubious analogy with me, the Seattle defense is like a tightrope walker. The running game is its balancing pole or whatever that thing is called. You join the circus and find out. I have better things to do, like start Westworld, finally.
Usually the act goes well, and at the end, a thrilled audience sends up lusty cheers. But if we’re being honest, there was very little danger to begin with anyway — beneath the tightrope lay a net. A reliable net, there to save the day if something went wrong way above.
Yes, in this story, the net is Russell Wilson. Up until the current season, there he was, night after night, performance after performance, ready to bail out the team when it needed a miracle, ready to save the day and allow the tightrope walker to live again, to dominate that rope again, to elicit cheers and admiration.
This year, the net is full of holes. If it’s even there at all.
(If you didn’t like that analogy, then sub in the one from the headline: Wilson is the team’s little engine that could, and he doesn’t could, bad things happen.)
Look: the running game has been with us for the past few weeks.
Since the dramatic victory in Foxborough, Seattle runners are a combined 163-823-4. Five yards a carry and 137 yards a game.
Look: The defense has been its usual defensive self, second in the league in points allowed. Just two off the league lead.
Look: The special teams have been, if not super special, at least not bad. They’re not actively costing us multiple games. They’re not allowing game-changing returns, the field goal kicking is pretty even, and Jon Ryan is his usual reliable self when he’s not getting knocked out. Tyler Lockett’s averages lie between acceptable and good: 26.3 on kickoffs and 8.7 on punts.
Look again: When the losses arrive, it’s because the quarterback play has been bad to abysmal.
Week 8 (Loss at NO)
Defense allows 25 points, rushing attack is 17-74-1, QB earns a “D+” for his 23-36-296-0-1 line.
Week 9 (Win vs. BUF)
Defense allows 25 points again, rushing attack is a lousy 12-33-2, but QB earns an “A” for his 20-26-282-2-0 line.
Week 10 (Win at NE)
Defense allows 24 points, rushing attack is 26-96-0, but QB earns an “A” for his 25-37-348-3-0 line. Wow.
Week 11 (Win vs. PHI)
Defense allows 15 points, rushing attack is 30-152-1, QB earns an “A-” for his 19-32-287-2-0 line.
Week 12 (Loss at TB)
Defense allows 14 points, rushing attack is 22-127-0, but QB earns an “F” for his 17-33-151-0-2 line. (38.8 passer rating was the second-worst of RW’s career.)
Week 13 (Win vs. CAR)
Defense allows 7 points, rushing attack is 29-240-3, QB earns a B- for his 28-39-315-1-1 line.
Week 14 (Loss at GB)
Defense allows 38 points, rushing attack is 26-136-0, but QB earns another “F” for his 22-39-240-1-5 line.
Week 15 (Win vs. LA)
Defense allows 3 points, rushing attack is 30-72-0, QB earns an “A-” for his 19-26-229-3-1 line.
What’s happening is, the Hawks will lose if “only” the defense shows up, the running game is productive, and the special teams do their job.
If the quarterback play is poor, the Seahawks will fall.
The Buffalo game is a great example of what I’m addressing. The defense allowed 25 points and had to stop an end-zone pass in the final minute to preserve the victory. The running game was stymied. But because RW was at his best, with that 137-rating performance on Monday night, the Hawks put up enough points to overcome their deficient phases.
The Tampa game illustrates our coin’s other side. The defense played well enough to win, rushing the ball was effective, but Wilson’s 4.6 Y/A and two turnovers killed drives before they could even start.
Carroll’s failsafe plan of a tenacious defense, ball control, clock control, and field position leverage has been recently shown to be a theoretical net at best. Russell is the real net. When he’s not himself, or his best self, tightrope walkers tumble splatter all over the floor, gore-induced gasps fill the tent, parents cover their children’s eyes, and everyone is sad and angry.
Wilson’s numbers have been bad for almost six weeks this year -- against Miami for the first 57 minutes, at Rams, at Cards, at Saints, at Bucs, at Packers. Titanically bad even, bad enough to sink a ship the Seahawks staff thought unsinkable.
But, butbutbut, but. The offensive line. It is most charitably described as a work in progress, right? Wilson’s subpar outings are due in part to their... unconventional ideas about blocking, right?
Mmmmmm — hold your blitzers. In 2014 and 2015 Russell Wilson faced similar amounts of pressure and suffered more sacks. He’s hung out in the 39-47 percent range for dropbacks under pressure for the last three seasons. 2016’s incomplete slate indicates something around 45 percent again. This number doesn’t fluctuate a ton; the line is porous in pass pro. We know this. It is known.
Meanwhile, his sack rate continues to fall. From 9.8 three years ago to 8.5 each of the past two years, to 6.8 this year.
What’s different this season is that Wilson isn’t responding to the pressure in the same statistical way. Whether that’s due to injury or some external or internal factor, you’d have to ask him when you get the chance, and he’s not on the record.
Good Russell Wilson is good enough — great enough — to carry the Seahawks to another Super Bowl. Bad Russell Wilson is bad enough to undo all the work done by his defense, his teammates in the backfield, his special teammates, and his coaches.
That’s not the way Pete drew it up. But it appears to be the way 2016 is unfolding.