Several times during the Seattle Seahawks’ seesaw victory over the Houston Texans Sunday, the combination of blockbuster quarterback productivity in a high-scoring shootout and the fact of the Seattle-Houston matchup reminded me of a mythical meeting between pro football legends Warren Moon and Steve McNair.
warren moon seahawks vs steve mcnair oilers type game— halloween forever (@beat_valley) October 29, 2017
Moon of course is remembered in Seattle as the MVP of the Washington Huskies’ 1977 Rose Bowl win and also for quarterbacking the Seahawks in 1997 and 1998, where he set a then-franchise record for passing yards at age 41, and now he’s Seattle’s radio commentator—you can hear his hoarse voice say “It’s not over yet!” at the end of this triumphant clip. But the Hall of Famer Moon is best known nationally as the Houston Oilers quarterback from 1984 to 1993, where he twice led the NFL in passing yards and earned six of his nine Pro Bowl bids.
After a brief Billy Joe Tolliver-Chris Chandler interlude, McNair then led that franchise for another 11 years, beginning in Houston and later as the Tennessee Oilers and Tennessee Titans, establishing his own all-time legacy with a Super Bowl appearance in 1999 and a league MVP in 2003. So with Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson each throwing up more than 400 yards and trading scores to the tune of four touchdowns apiece, it was easy to imagine the auras of those elder two prolific passers with their local connections hanging over the game.
However, there was no such historical barn-burner matching McNair against Moon.
Moon did indeed play against McNair during his tenure on the Seahawks, in week 6 in 1997 (incidentally, according to the NFL Films yearbook that season, that was the 20,000th game in league history), and it was the only time the two QBs faced each other as starters across the gridiron. But the Oilers were in Tennessee already, not Houston, and the scoreline and statsheet hardly resemble the passing output we saw on Sunday. Moon managed just 260 yards on 40 attempts that afternoon, with no touchdowns. McNair put up a skinny 12 for 28 for 101 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The game was a close win for Seattle, but with a backdoor field goal by Al Del Greco bringing the Oilers within 16-13 with three and a half minutes left, not anybody’s idea of a fireworks display. Moon threw for three first downs on the next drive and McNair never saw the ball again.
That game did have one aspect in common with Sunday’s affair: It was among the haltingly rare occasions when the Seahawks won while throwing nearly twice as often as they ran the ball. Moon’s 42 dropbacks, counting sacks, were balanced by just 16 rushing attempts excluding kneeldowns. As Alistair Corp noted in his postgame piece, Wilson dropped back at least 43 times against the Texans while Seattle running backs again took only 16 carries. (Wilson had four additional rushes, but two were kneeldowns and the remaining two were scrambles so should properly be added to the total for called passing plays.)
When the Seahawks’ pass-run ratio gets that far out of proportion, they have a franchise record of 9-77-1 (.109).
The tie in that figure is of course the 6-6 mess Seattle got into against the Arizona Cardinals a year ago, when the Seahawks could barely move the ball. And as you might guess, that kind of offensive imbalance is typically a sign of offensive struggle: The 41 points versus Houston in this case were aided by Earl Thomas’s defensive touchdown, but are easily the most Seattle has ever scored while running so infrequently relative to passes—it’s nine points more than the next-closest result in the subset. In games when they rushed so rarely before Sunday, the Seahawks had been shut out more times (seven) than they had scored at least 30 (six). They finished with 10 or fewer points in 37 of those 87 games, and the median score was 14.
The numbers likewise produce similar tendencies whether you look at passing and rushing as quantities rather than in a ratio. Seattle is 24-76 (.240) all-time when throwing at least 40 times. It’s 18-135-1 (.120) when rushing 22 or fewer times. When you combine those two stats, not as a proportion but as a threshold (i.e. eliminating games with 2-1 passing ratios but far fewer plays), the Seahawks are 5-41 (.111) when throwing 40+ attempts and rushing less than 22 carries.
Now anyone with a pinch of football understanding will tell you that doesn’t mean passing is bad. Traditionally when a team abandons the run it’s because a game is already way out of control, and so the won-lost record reflects that significant handicap more than anything. In the Warren Moon game from 20 years ago, Seattle fell behind 10-0 at halftime and didn’t take a lead until the fourth quarter. In 61 of the other 86 games in the high-frequency passing group, the Seahawks lost by more than a touchdown.
Sunday Seattle didn’t have to make a big comeback, but with Watson and the Texans putting pressure on the scoreboard there’s also no question it needed to pass to win. The Seahawks’ most productive gain by a running back was four yards, and Thomas Rawls, Eddie Lacy and J.D. McKissic had so many negative plays mixed in with the short gains that they combined for just five yards between them (Tyler Lockett also rushed for minus-2). Wilson’s 446 net passing yards weren’t just the entire offense, his 32 rushing yards on the two carries before taking the knee were also the entire rushing offense. Rushing so poorly, however, is not such a great indicator of the outcome: Of the 24 times in its history Seattle gained fewer than 2.0 yards per carry as a team, it still won 10 of them (.416). And the Seahawks’ scoring in those games is much more evenly distributed (although the losses tended to be more lopsided with nine of the 14 by at least three scores, but defense is a whole other variable).
But Seattle had never before rushed for such a low average in any game since Russell Wilson joined the team in 2012. To be specific, the last time was December 2011 in Chicago, and win or lose it happened every so often prior to that except during Peak Walter Jones from 2001-2007 when the Seahawks were never once so inefficient on the ground.
In 1997, however, it wasn’t a bad run rate that limited the number of carries in the McNair-Moon showdown. Instead, Seattle racked up 167 rushing yards against the Oilers. Yet surely it would have made more attempts, and perhaps fallen behind more steeply, had Steve Broussard not shortened two second-half possessions with 43- and 77-yard touchdowns. Apart from those dingers Broussard and Lamar Smith were a very conventional 14 carries for 51 yards. 11 of those rushes gained between minus-one and four yards, much like the Seahawks’ 2017 committee.
It’s this lack of reliable output, along with other shifts in the talent pool, that has pushed rushes further to the bottom of NFL playcalling charts in recent years, boosting passing as a percentage of offense even as many coaches including Pete Carroll (especially Pete Carroll) continue to preach balance. McNair retired in the top 25 of career passing yards leaders and though Moon is still eighth they’ve both fallen behind less exceptional players with less longevity but who played in the higher-volume passing period.
With Russell Wilson continuing to advance, many will wonder when Carroll will permit this squad to embrace its pass-first identity. Seattle’s ratio of run plays was low as noted, and its raw total of rushing attempts even independent of passing was lower than 80 percent of all Seahawks games in the past 42 years. But in the 556 games Seattle played when it did rush at least 20 times, the only one in which its ground attack gained fewer yards than Sunday was another Houston Oilers contest—this time in 1996, when 22 rushes produced 32 yards—and the Seahawks needed a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown when time expired to win that one. Thanks again to Wilson and the passing offense, Sunday didn’t come down to anything so dramatic.