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Who is to blame for the struggles of the Seahawks 2016 red zone offense?

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Divisional Round - Seattle Seahawks v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

In their 36-20 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the Seattle Seahawks scored a red zone touchdown on the opening drive, then settled for field goals on their remaining two trips inside the 20. A paltry 1-for-3 success rate against the worst red zone defense in the NFL was a microcosm of their season-long offensive struggles, particularly in the red zone.

The Seahawks ranked 27th in red zone efficiency -- anything but a touchdown means bad news for your efficiency rate — the worst it has ever been in the Russell Wilson era. On the road, they were second-to-last in RZ % (better than only the New York Jets), so 1-for-3 against Atlanta was effectively meeting their season average.

It’s perfectly reasonable to attribute the failings of the whole 2016 offense on Wilson’s lingering injuries, lack of stability at running back, as well as the at-times ruinously bad play of the offensive line. The question becomes whether Seattle’s red zone woes are isolated to this year, or if this has been a recurring problem for several seasons.

Is it Darrell Bevell?

Bevell has been an offensive coordinator since 2006. He spent five seasons in Minnesota before joining the Seahawks in 2011. Here’s how his offenses have fared by DVOA ranking, as well as their red zone percentages.

Darrell Bevell offensive rankings (2006-2016)

Year Offense DVOA Pass DVOA Rush DVOA Red zone %
Year Offense DVOA Pass DVOA Rush DVOA Red zone %
2006 - MIN 31st 31st 22nd 22nd
2007 - MIN 16th 23rd 03rd 15th
2008 - MIN 25th 24th 21st 29th
2009 - MIN 06th 04th 23rd 04th
2010 - MIN 27th 30th 08th 27th
2011 - SEA 22nd 21st 14th 22nd
2012 - SEA 04th 04th 01st 10th
2013 - SEA 07th 08th 07th 12th
2014 - SEA 05th 10th 01st 20th
2015 - SEA 01st 02nd 03rd 16th
2016 - SEA 17th 16th 23rd 27th

A couple of footnotes:

  • 2009 was the year Brett Favre joined the Vikings, where he squeezed out one last quality season before aging thirty years in 2010. Otherwise, the QBs who preceded Favre in the Bevell-era were Tarvaris Jackson, Gus Frerotte, and Brad Johnson.
  • When the 2015 Seahawks were 4-5, their red zone offense was ranked last in the NFL. They shot up to mid-table by the end of the regular season, so the surge in Seattle’s overall offensive ranking coincided with their red zone success.

Overall, there isn’t too much I think we can gather from this. Much of the prevailing pattern is logical. That is to say, when the offense is mediocre-to-terrible, the red zone offense follows suit, but when the offense performs well, red zone numbers are at least above-average. The 2014 and 2015 Seahawks stray outside the general data set, which leads me to the next question.

Is it Russell Wilson?

I love Russell Wilson, you love Russell Wilson, we all love Russell Wilson. He’s blossomed into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and if we are to assume he can be even better than he has been over his first five seasons, then I think he’s on course to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

For as much as Wilson has been a very accurate passer over the course of his career, he’s anything but that in the red zone.

Russell Wilson red zone statistics (Regular season only)

Year Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Sk Yds Y/A 1D Rate Rush Att Yds Y/A TD 1D
Year Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Sk Yds Y/A 1D Rate Rush Att Yds Y/A TD 1D
2012 35 60 58.3 261 18 0 3 -25 4.4 23 108.4 13 60 4.62 2 5
2013 27 53 50.9 215 18 1 10 -57 4.1 21 93.2 17 80 4.71 1 7
2014 30 59 50.8 252 15 1 5 -25 4.3 20 94.8 20 85 4.25 5 9
2015 33 60 55 297 17 2 6 -53 5 26 94.2 11 67 6.09 1 5
2016 32 75 42.7 265 15 1 5 -35 3.5 23 86.4 6 11 1.83 1 1
(Total) 157 307 51.1 1290 83 5 29 -195 4.2 113 95 67 303 4.52 10 27

I believe that the best way to measure Wilson’s numbers is to compare them with the QBs of the top three red zone offenses in each year since Wilson entered the league. In this table, the QBs are ranked according to where their respective teams placed in RZ %, as opposed to their QB rating.

QB statistics for top three red zone offenses (2012-2016, regular season only)

Player Year Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Sk Yds Y/A 1D Rate Rush Att Yds Y/A TD 1D
Player Year Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Sk Yds Y/A 1D Rate Rush Att Yds Y/A TD 1D
Tom Brady 2012 52 86 60.5 398 24 1 4 -20 4.6 35 106.5 7 14 2 4 6
Drew Brees 2012 66 102 64.7 520 34 0 2 -19 5.1 46 116.8 1 1 1 1 1
Aaron Rodgers 2012 47 75 62.7 350 26 0 6 -38 4.7 34 113.3 12 13 1.08 1 3
Peyton Manning 2013 83 117 70.9 581 40 0 3 -21 5 56 121.5 5 -8 -1.6 1 1
Andy Dalton 2013 43 70 61.4 329 23 3 4 -16 4.7 30 94.6 6 13 2.17 2 3
Tony Romo 2013 40 69 58 278 22 1 4 -44 4 29 100.7 4 -2 -0.5 0 0
Derek Carr 2014 32 53 60.4 185 18 1 1 -4 3.5 24 98.7 2 -7 -3.5 0 1
Tony Romo 2014 33 53 62.3 271 19 2 3 -22 5.1 25 99.1 0 0 0 0 0
Jay Cutler 2014 40 79 50.6 302 22 3 0 0 3.8 26 84 3 20 6.67 2 2
Matthew Stafford 2015 52 76 68.4 359 27 0 3 -14 4.7 37 118.4 6 3 0.5 1 2
Cam Newton 2015 45 73 61.6 361 25 0 5 -43 4.9 34 113.6 30 73 2.43 10 14
Ryan Fitzpatrick 2015 42 77 54.5 339 24 1 1 0 4.4 30 100.1 9 48 5.33 2 6
Marcus Mariota 2016 36 59 61 285 19 0 0 0 4.8 28 112.6 9 62 6.89 2 4
Colin Kaepernick 2016 19 32 59.4 185 13 0 1 -8 5.8 14 115.2 7 32 4.57 2 3
Dak Prescott 2016 33 55 60 282 16 1 4 -32 5.1 25 105.5 10 37 3.7 6 6

The average completion percentage for the quarterbacks listed here is about 61.6%, which means Wilson is 10.5% below that figure. Four of the five QBs with the worst completion percentage in this table — 2014 Cutler, 2013 Romo, 2016 Prescott, and 2016 Kaepernick — had rushing offenses ranked at least 11th in DVOA. Ryan Fitzpatrick and the 2015 New York Jets ranked 21st in rushing, but Chris Ivory scored six of his ten rushing touchdowns in the red zone.

What happens when you compare QB completion percentage from inside the red zone to outside of it? This table shows the steep drop for Wilson once Seattle reaches the 20-yard line.

Red Zone vs. Non-Red Zone (2012-2016, regular season only)

Name Non Red Zone % Red Zone % Difference
Name Non Red Zone % Red Zone % Difference
Russell Wilson 66.8 51.1 15.7
Jay Cutler 64.8 51.5 13.3
Kirk Cousins 67.7 54.5 13.2
Eli Manning 63.1 50.6 12.5
Tony Romo 67.9 55.6 12.3
Ben Roethlisberger 67.2 55.2 12
Cam Newton 59.3 48.1 11.2
Joe Flacco 63.3 52.2 11.1
Derek Carr 62.1 51.5 10.6
Carson Palmer 64.1 53.6 10.5
Andy Dalton 64.8 55.7 9.1
Sam Bradford 65.8 57.1 8.7
Aaron Rodgers 66.4 58 8.4
Colin Kaepernick 60.8 52.5 8.3
Phillip Rivers 66.5 58.7 7.8
Alex Smith 66.1 58.6 7.5
Blake Bortles 59.7 52.2 7.5
Matthew Stafford 63 55.8 7.2
Matt Ryan 68.6 61.6 7
Ryan Fitzpatrick 61.1 54.4 6.7
Ryan Tannehill 63.5 57.3 6.2
Tom Brady 64.3 59.6 4.7
Drew Brees 68.2 65.5 2.7
Andrew Luck 59.5 57 2.5
Peyton Manning 66.8 64.9 1.9

Note: To qualify for this list, I included all quarterbacks who had thrown at least 200 red zone passes since 2012, so Derek Carr (200 passes) meets the minimum standard. Robert Griffin III (149 passes) would not meet the standard, and obviously neither would QBs like Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, or Dak Prescott.

Wilson has the largest discrepancy of any qualified QB in the NFL, and it’s actually not particularly close. Cam Newton is the only sub-50% red zone passer, but he’s also not very accurate outside the red zone, so he’s outside the top-five in percentage differential.

On the plus side of otherwise unflattering numbers, about 72% of Wilson’s completed red zone passes have gone for first downs and/or touchdowns, which is one of the most efficient rates in the NFL.

Another interesting reveal over the last five seasons is Wilson’s sack total. His 2013 campaign (behind the worst pass-blocking unit by DVOA) marked the first time since Matt Cassel in 2008 that any QB had incurred ten red zone sacks in a single season. Despite being 15th in total attempts, Wilson has been sacked a whopping 29 times in the red zone since 2012, which is the most in the league. Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are respectively at 28 and 25 in the same span, and they’ve each thrown well over 100 more passes than Wilson. This brings us to the final question.

Is it the offensive line?

No tables or statistics for this one, just this GIF, which is all that’s really needed.

Is it all of the above?

Probably. There’s no real clear-cut answer or easy-fix for the Seahawks’ red zone offense. This is purely conjecture on my part, but I do think Wilson’s game is not meant for condensed fields ... which is to say, his ability to extend plays and make something happen while scrambling works best when he has more room to operate. Basically, if you’re expecting him to be like Aaron Rodgers, don’t count on it.

It would take me ages to comb through the tape of Wilson’s red zone throws to determine what percentage of his incomplete passes are throwaways,either through resulting pressure or simply no one getting open, but one play that really frustrated me was the 3rd-and-goal failure against Arizona.

Seattle keeps Jimmy Graham in as a blocker (always the ideal scenario when you’re at the goal line), and Bevell dials up a trips left formation. Russell rolls out after receiving the shotgun snap. Doug Baldwin is the obvious choice here, and he runs a pattern out in the flat. Paul Richardson runs towards the back corner of the end zone, with cornerback Brandon Williams in coverage. Williams’ back is facing Baldwin, so he has no chance of jumping on Doug’s route. Jermaine Kearse doesn’t really run a meaningful route but does take Patrick Peterson with him, leaving Baldwin with 1-on-1 coverage against Justin Bethel in the flat. It’s designed to clear some space for Baldwin to maneuver, and so far, so good. Baldwin has outside leverage on Bethel with plenty of room along the sidelines, so it’s Wilson’s job to throw to Doug’s outside shoulder, and you’ve got yourself a touchdown.

Here’s what the play looks like right at the point where Wilson cocks his arm.

And here’s the still shot when he pulls the ball down.

The ONLY thing I can imagine scaring Wilson away here is underneath linebacker Kevin Minter possibly jumping the route, but there’s enough space towards the sidelines for Wilson to get the ball to Baldwin and leave Minter unable to cover that much ground for such a short throw.

Sure enough, Chandler Jones easily gets past George Fant, Thomas Rawls’ attempt to chip Jones is completely ineffective, Graham is beaten by Josh Mauro, so Wilson has literally no Seahawks on the right side of the field to throw to, and is forced to throw the ball away. I thought for sure that Jermaine Kearse was credited as being the intended receiver on this one, but the stat sheet just says it was an incomplete pass.

I feel like the non-throw to Baldwin combined with the ensuing play’s sack is the perfect sequence to illustrate my feelings about the state of the red zone offense. Wilson can’t be hesitant and disrupting timing patterns, Bevell shouldn’t be using one of the best pass-catching TEs in the NFL solely as a blocker on a passing play, and this offensive line has a long long long way to go to be even serviceable.

The Seahawks offense has plenty to work on in the offseason, and improvement in the red zone absolutely must be one of the top priorities.

(All statistics were compiled through Pro Football Reference)