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Seahawks season preview: 5 Qs and 5 As with Football Outsiders

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NFL: Preseason-Seattle Seahawks at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re a long-time reader here at Field Gulls, then you already know how much we value the contributions made to the sport by FootballOutsiders.com and the work of founder Aaron Schatz. I have personally written a series for Field Gulls called “Advanced Stats” that regularly updated our DVOA status, I have written for FootballOutsiders, we’ve had Schatz on our podcast several times, and we cite their statistics pretty much whenever possible. The Seahawks have finished first in DVOA for four straight years, a record that as you’ll see dates back to at least 1950, and they’re going for number five this year at a time when they look as good as they have since 2013.

So yes, I fully endorse purchasing the Football Outsiders Almanac for 2016. It’s an incredible resource for any football fan that doesn’t just want to sound smarter about the game, but who actually wants to be smarter about it. (Or just sound smarter, that’s just as valuable because humans are fallible creatures and it’s all about social status anyway.)

This year, I asked FO’s Scott Kacsmar five questions about the Seattle Seahawks that perhaps only an FO expert could answer. Here’s what he had to tell me:

Q: Russell Wilson improved to third in DYAR, third in DVOA, and fourth in QBR last season but many experts still seem reluctant to list him as a top-five QB, in some cases not even top 10. Is there any area of Wilson’s game in terms of playing inside or outside of the pocket that should give people pause as far as believing he will have continued success or is about time for every writer to step up and say that Wilson is in the “tier one” of QB?

A: I think part of the problem is being a four-year veteran in an era filled with really great quarterbacks. I personally rank Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Ben Roethlisberger among the top 15 quarterbacks in NFL history. No quarterback can get to that level in just four years. With Manning retired, that opens up a slot for Wilson, and I think it's ludicrous when Cam Newton gets ranked ahead of him given how much better Wilson has always been as a passer. As those older quarterbacks begin to retire and Wilson continues his consistently high level of play, he'll get his due eventually. So much of his career reminds me of early Roethlisberger, who also played on a team with a focus on the running game and defense. As long as the quarterback continues to grow and play well, the respect will come.

Q: Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, and Jermaine Kearse all finished in the top five of DVOA last year. Can you explain in the simplest terms what this means as far as Seattle’s offensive gameplan/Wilson’s tendencies, or how does something like this happen? Is it a flaw in terms of measuring DVOA for receivers that Kearse is fifth? I want to make sure that our readers (and myself) really understand how DVOA works for individual players.

A: In the simplest terms: DYAR measures total value while DVOA is value per play, similar to the difference between a counting stat and a rate stat. When it comes to wide receivers, their DVOA is based on all the passes they were the intended target of, including incompletions and plays that drew flags for pass interference. Anytime you include attempts in the calculation, the quarterback's efficiency certainly plays a factor in how well his wide receiver does in these stats. With the Seahawks pulling off a crazy feat of having three players in the top five, that certainly speaks to the strong season Russell Wilson had as a passer last year.

Since Baldwin, Kearse and Lockett each caught over 70 percent of their targets, they did not get penalized much for incompletions. That's a big reason why their DVOA was so high -- there were few negative plays. Baldwin had the biggest DYAR gain of the season with his 80-yard touchdown on third-and-10 against the Steelers. That will really help the DVOA too. A receiver can have 1,400 receiving yards, but if he needed 190 targets to get there and has a lot of inefficient plays (9-yard gains on third-and-15), that's not going to lead to a good DVOA or DYAR.

So there are some issues with separating the play of the quarterback from the receiver, but that has been part of the struggle in football stats since the beginning of time. If there's another issue, it would be that DVOA tends to love the more situational receivers who may only be deep threats that get limited targets. The Saints were notorious for these players ranking high in DVOA, including Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Kenny Stills. They didn't get targeted a lot, but when they did, they were receiving highly-accurate passes from a surgeon in Drew Brees, and they were producing big gains and first downs with a high level of consistency. Baldwin had a fantastic season all around, but Kearse (19th) and Lockett (15th) did not rank as high in DYAR (total value) since they both had just fewer than 700 receiving yards. But they were still very efficient with the chances they did have, and that's why they rank so highly in DVOA.

Q: The Seahawks are going for a record fifth-straight DVOA title. If you could take DVOA back to the beginning of professional football in America, is there any team you suspect might have had a streak this long?

A: We actually have estimated DVOA back to 1950, which was done in 2014 by guest writer Andreas Shepard. The only teams that may have led the NFL in DVOA for three straight years were the 1953-55 Browns and 1961-63 Packers. It's not surprising to see dynasties from Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi there, but even those teams could not put it together for four years like Seattle has done. Of course, that 30-point ass-kicking in Week 17 in Arizona ultimately decided last year's No. 1 finish. I don't believe Seattle was ever No. 1 in DVOA at any other point in 2015 until the season ended. And this goes back to that record 88-game streak of not getting blown out and always being at least within one score in the fourth quarter. Seattle may have bad halves from time to time, but no one has thoroughly dominated this team for 60 minutes since early in the 2011 season.

Q: In terms of value per play, it seems like Jimmy Graham was as valuable to the Seahawks last year as he was in 2011 and 2013 for the Saints. It seems like every other year he “goes off” actually. It might be hard to project Graham’s future now because of the injury, but before the injury, did you see a significant dip in Graham’s expected production? DVOA and DYAR would say he was pretty much normal Jimmy for odd-numbered seasons.

A: Yes, there always should have been expectations for a drop in Graham's totals due to the large difference in how much the Saints pass compared to Seattle. But on a per-play basis, Graham was about the same guy last year, just with fewer touchdowns than usual. Part of that is because he is such a red zone threat. Just over half of his touchdowns have come inside the 10-yard line in his career. Last year, Graham was only targeted three times inside the 10, and produced one score. He was always getting nine to 13 opportunities like that per season from 2011-14 in New Orleans. So opportunity alone probably cost Graham at least a handful of touchdowns.

The injury is a tough one to return from, but if he can, you should expect similar play to last year with a likely boost in scoring should Seattle opt for more red zone passes in the absence of Marshawn Lynch.

Q: Seattle could be getting a significant leg-up on defense this year compared to last because Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are in training camp now, Jarran Reed seems like a younger version of Brandon Mebane and a great run-stopper, Brandon Browner has returned and seems like a compelling fit at safety/linebacker, plus Jeremy Lane and Tharold Simon are healthy and playing outside corner, not Cary Williams, and Frank Clark is entering his second season. The biggest question mark is at SAM linebacker and the void left by Bruce Irvin, but there seems to be some talent there too. The Seahawks were third against both the pass and the run last season, but in which area were they most dominating on defense and in which area could we expect the most improvement based on upgrades, growth, changes?

A: Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril up front, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright at linebacker, the three studs in the secondary -- each level of the defense has great talent. I think the cornerback depth after Richard Sherman is the biggest area of concern with Brandon Browner's recent awfulness and Jeremy Lane's injury history. I'm also probably killing Tharold Simon way too much for his disastrous performance off the bench in Super Bowl XLIX. But on paper, this defense is still good enough to extend its historic feat of leading the league in points allowed the last four years.

But as we detail in the book, this defense's biggest problem has been finishing games, and this goes back to 2012. In that time, Seattle is only 23-15 when holding a one-score lead in the fourth quarter, a below-average record and the second-most blown leads in the NFL. What really sticks out to me is how much worse that record could have been. There were three games where the defense did not have to take the field again in overtime after blowing a late lead (2012 Bears, 2014 Broncos, 2014 Packers). In each case, the offense won the game with a touchdown drive in overtime. Minnesota should have registered a third game-winning drive against the Seattle defense in the playoffs since 2012, but we know what Blair Walsh did on a 27-yard field goal. The 2014 Seahawks are the only team to lose a Super Bowl after leading by double digits in the fourth quarter. Last year in Cincinnati, Seattle became the first team since the 2010 Giants to blow a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter. After shutting down Detroit for most of the game on Monday night, Matthew Stafford was shredding the defense before that Calvin Johnson fumble/illegal bat fiasco at the 1-yard line.

There's not one player to put the blame on, or one defensive coordinator, because Seattle usually sticks to its guns on that side of the ball, even in late-game situations. Last year, Kam Chancellor was the culprit on a few bad plays in crunch time, but there really is no common link over the years, and Pete Carroll has researched this, reportedly.

So I would expect another strong season from this defense, but its legacy will depend on how well it finishes games. The 2013 Seahawks were the best at doing so, and it's not a coincidence that it's considered the best of these defenses, and the lone Super Bowl winner.