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Defying modern NFL, Seahawks were more efficient rushing than passing against Cowboys

Against a stingy Cardinals run defense, Russell Wilson will have to be a lot more dynamic throwing the ball than the dismal showing last week

Seattle Seahawks v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Despite all the haters and losers, of which there are plenty, the Seattle Seahawks continue to run the football and continue to win.

Yes, Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, Seattle produced a horrific offensive outing with only 136 “total” yards on 54 plays which was famously fewer yards than the Seahawks were penalized (although most of those penalties were on the defense, especially the crazily disproportionate 62 yards on two downfield pass interference penalties). While not as low as the negative-7 yards “gained” against the Los Angeles Rams by the 1979 squad, it was the fifteenth-lowest yardage total in Seattle history and only the fourth time the Seahawks had ever won while gathering fewer than 150 yards. The most recent win came also against the Rams, in St. Louis, in 2013, when Seattle gained only 135 yards on 40 plays—and afterward the Seahawks offense was capable enough to still win a Super Bowl.

The only other occurrence below this 150-yard threshold in the Russell Wilson era also came against the Rams—er, it was one week before this Dallas game. The better result last weekend notwithstanding, the fact that such a weak output happened two games in a row should be alarming to anyone hoping for late-season improvement from Seattle, or for the offense to ever pick up slack for a wounded and scrabbled defense.

Indeed, though Wilson’s critics have gotten louder during a disappointing month of December when he is just 65-113 passing (57.5 percent) with three interceptions, 14 sacks and maybe the worst fumble I’ve ever seen that wasn’t recovered by the opposition, the current consensus points to a struggling rushing game as the chief source of the problem. With no available runners beside the quarterback responsible for more than 200 yards on the season and the team as a whole stuck on 3.9 yards per carry, the limited ground attack seems to offer few options to restore a balance to the Seahawks offense that had been so helpful to Wilson for most of his career. In more advanced terms, the three runners with most starts in 2017 are grouped literally all at the very bottom of the the DYAR charts for tailbacks between 20 and 99 carries. It’s embarrassing:

However it seems like unbelievably poor luck if Seattle just happened to gather the three least efficient rushers in the league in the same backfield. People crying about how well Alex Collins is doing on the Baltimore Ravens ought to remember how, in football, individual performance, no matter how advanced statistics may try to disentangle these metrics from other factors, often depends heavily on team dynamics. Before laying blame at the cleats of the tailbacks themselves, maybe there’s a common denominator:

You don’t need Brian Baldinger, who played tackle, guard and center in the NFL, to make a detailed diagram of what went wrong on this third down play: One guard Ethan Pocic stands sidewise in the wrong direction like a video game glitch while the other Luke Joeckel trips and slips before the defenders they’re supposed to be guard-ing sandwich Mike Davis at the line of scrimmage.

It’s the blocking, doofus. Poor run blocking has been the reason the Seahawks are fifth-worst in the NFL at value lost by percentage of tackles in the backfield, relative to average. It’s part of the reason Seattle is in similar position in three-and-out rate—because runs are meant (among other purposes) to consistently gain yards, even a little bit at a time, to produce more manageable second and third downs or convert third-and-short like in Baldinger’s clip. Offensive success can be defined in relative ways in pro football—from total scoring and first downs to expected points and “success rate” toward first downs—but if you can’t count on runs to be even minimally successful by gaining any ground at all, you lose the most basic excuse for rushing.

That’s why Baldinger’s addendum about how frequently* rushing attempts went for negative yards is so damning. What’s worse, another five runs went for no gain, for a total of 11. Such lack of reliability is a huge drain on usage, as Andre Forbes demonstrated the other day, especially in what should be high probability territory on third and short.

(*Seattle officially rushed 30 times on the day, but that figure counts three kneeldowns, one at the end of half and two at the end of the fourth quarter. Baldinger doesn’t apparently intend to include those—and shouldn’t—because he accurately lists the number of running back runs that went backward, but the proper number of meaningful rushes should be 27. We’ll further distinguish among these runs below, and use correct numbers from here on.)

The cost of those 40 percent of wasted rushes sounds like another strong case for Seattle quitting rushing altogether, or at least restricting attempts more extremely. However, this figure comes without the proper context that many called passes (incompletions and sacks) are also fruitless. Against the Cowboys, fully 10 out of 24 pass plays also resulted in negative yards or no gain. That turns into a ratio (42 percent) slightly higher than the frequency of bad rushing plays—and those plays lost more yards (-33) than all the combined rushing losses (-19).

But remember what I said before, about how rushing success can be framed in somewhat different terms of reliability. Most teams expect to throw somewhere between 30 percent and 40 percent of passes incomplete, with another five to seven percent of pass plays giving up sacks (NFL average sack percentage in 2017 is 6.4). Usually you can tolerate how often sacks and incompletions put you off schedule toward first downs because the exchange is worth it: Pass plays are typically so much more efficient than rushing—the average NFL completion gains 11.3 yards, so even with the losses factored in net yards per attempt (6.2) are more than two yards better than yards per carry (4.1) leaguewide—and generally produce the most explosive or impactful plays in a game (aside from turnovers or extreme special teams plays).

However against Dallas, rushing was more efficient: When you omit kneels, the Seahawks netted 3.0 yards per rush (not good) and just 2.5 yards per pass (way bad). This time, unlike in the Washington Redskins loss when I pointed out how interception adjustments made Wilson’s passing less effective than rushing, these aren’t even fancy ANY/A rates—just raw averages (to be fair: adjusting for touchdowns would lift passing over rushing in this case, because Seattle’s rushing was abominable at the goal line).

Those passing efficiency averages are also highly distorted by one 22 yard sack. But even counting strictly gains, the Seahawks grossed more yards rushing Sunday (99 on 16 carries) than passing (93 on 14 completions), numbers which expressed as rates do slightly favor passing but not enough to balance against the rate of losses—and also not as a value proposition compared to expectation (6.2 YPC, even just on runs beyond the line of scrimmage is very good; 6.8 yards per completion is not). Even when they were producing, Russell Wilson’s passes weren’t particularly productive, as passes go.

And again, of course, this partly comes down to blocking:

The troubling part of this is how, unlike against Los Angeles a week prior, Seattle’s offensive line wasn’t tasked with protecting against a devastating front. The Cowboys are just 18th on defense against the pass and 22nd against rushing, with a line that’s 17th in adjusted sack rate and good but not elite (10th) in adjusted line yards versus rushers.

Still, timing and sequence of plays matter. Put back in terms of success, rushes produced five first downs and five other “successes” (relative to down and distance, defined by Football Outsiders here) compared to four first downs by passing plus two touchdowns and three other “successes” for a pretty even distribution of 10/27 successful rushing plays and 9/24 successful passing plays.

A sophisticated reader will note how six of the Seahawks’ rush attempts were actually by Wilson himself—including one scramble for a first down on third and nine in the third quarter that should correctly be attributed as a passing play. Even if poor blocking or route combinations lead to Wilson tucking and running, part of the gambit of calling passes includes this extra outlet option—especially when your quarterback is this mobile—so it’s not fair to credit these gains to called run plays. But reviewing the game tape reveals two of Wilson’s rushes as read-option keepers, one as a play-action designed bootleg rush, and the fumble on first and goal recovered by Wilson at the three, plus one other scramble for three yards on first and 10 right after the previous scramble. So after reassigning these results, the success distribution by called play is: 9/25 rushes, 10/26 passes, which is again more or less even.

All of which shows that no one type of play call is inherently or universally better than another or the singular solution to Seattle’s woes. There’s also a false dichotomy in the type of thinking that classes all passes and all runs into bins of separate likeness in the first place (beside the option and scrambles, Tyler Lockett had a jet sweep against Dallas, for example). And clearly, both the rushing and passing phases were pretty lousy last week. I’m just trying to provide some greater context to results driving the Seahawks’ offensive performance, and consider the risk involved in putting the ball into play on any football snap: When unsuccessful, passing can do as much damage to kill a drive or a game as poor rushing, or worse (and we haven’t even talked about holding penalties).

Since the adoption of easier passing rules in 2004, NFL teams have lost 866 out of 1216 games (and tied twice) when they passed for fewer net yards per attempt than they averaged rushing. That’s a win percentage of just .287. Some folks will tell you that means rushing doesn’t matter, but I think it goes to show the risks associated with counting on passing to save the day unless you can rely on a corker from the defense, and how better results come from these phases working together to complement dynamism with reliability and vice versa.

The Arizona Cardinals defense is much-improved, suddenly bringing the top DVOA against the rush in all football into Sunday’s game compared to 14th when Seattle last encountered it. As our friends Grant Goldberg and Spike Friedman pointed out on the Locked on Seahawks podcast earlier this week, that figure may discourage Darrell Bevell from going too much with the run again this week—but if Russell Wilson can’t find ways to air it out any better than he did against the mediocre Cowboys, Seattle’s season might be grounded anyway.