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The 2016 Seahawks looked a lot like the 2013 version, until they lost Earl Thomas

Spoiler: not quite. But close.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks
don’t ever need to see that again
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

2016 felt different than 2013.

Well of course it did, genius. 2016’s cardiac stagger to the playoffs ended with an unfamiliar blowout loss; 2013’s march to home-field advantage ended with a familiar blowout win.

But what if someone — anyone — told you the years were more similar than they appeared at first glance? Beyond the end result, beyond the parade. You might even agree at first. The principal actors were the same, minus one Beast. The division was won both times. Each year had its share of games decided on the final drive or the final play.

Seattle Seahawks football, baby.

2016 had a last-yard stand at Foxborough; 2013 had Shoeless Sherman in Houston. 2016 had a painful home loss to Arizona at Christmastime; 2013 too.

What’s crucially different, however, is that both years didn’t have Earl Thomas for all 16 games. So out of curiosity, I teased out Thomas’ statistical effect in 10 defensive categories. Charts and tables begin their assault on your senses below; not for the faint of math. But before we devour the good stats, the many morsels of meaningful numbers, here’s the worst (and best) number of all:

  • In games started by Thomas in 2013, the Seahawks were 13-3, for a .813 winning percentage.
  • In games started by Thomas in 2016, the Seahawks were 8-2-1, for a .773 winning percentage.

8-2-1 looks an awful lot like 13-3. The percentages are similar enough, for such a small sample.

Consider this: Earl Thomas missed five games. In those five games, Seattle lost more times than in the seasons’ other 11 games.

Objection: judging strictly by W-L record is questionable analysis, at the very best. And judging by W-L record, accounting for the presence or absence of one non-quarterback, is even worse.

These objections are noted. I present the wins and losses to you not as #analysis, but as background noise. Take it in, or tune it out. You’re in charge of you. Unless you’re 14! In which case, listen to your fucking parents, they’re not complete morons, they’ve been through your stage of life before, and while they might screw up because of their own failings, more often than not, they DO know better than you. Also: clean your room. Smells in there like someone peed on a corpse, then left it in a car trunk for a week.

(What? I have middle schoolers.)

I Can’t Live ... With Or Without Earl

Putting the raw ‘13 and ‘16 numbers side by side make the two seasons look extremely dissimilar. The headline’s case, the premise for this article, appears dead on arrival.

The red digits tell you all you need to know. The 2016 Seahawks were worse at almost everything, but the worsest at points per drive, .40 more, at red zone defense, yeesh, and at producing turnovers. Obviously those deficiencies translated into a far worse passer rating against.

But how about when you split the ‘16 data into Yes Earl and No Earl?

The quick hits are easy to discern. Many of the statistics along the first row become prettier, more recognizable ... while the second row definitely does not belong to a team coached by Pete Carroll.

21 points per game. Virtually no picks! Complete red zone incompetence. Bend-and-break-defense! Oh, and the passer rating shoots above 100. The 2013 team used to turn quarterbacks into copies of Christian Ponder. The Earl-less 2016 team turned them into extra Russell Wilsons.

So the table we need to be looking at is the Earl-centric data, for both seasons. We have that table.

Okay, now the statistics are in the same ballpark. 2013 and 2016 won’t be mistaken for siblings yet, but at least now they look like cousins. The points are still too high for 2016. The turnovers are still too low. The QB rating is still to high. The second row is pretty enough — but it’s not “March To XLVIII” pretty.

But it could be, if only

One final adjustment, for #science, if you’ll permit it. What happens when we surmise that turnovers are not a constant repeatable skill? They might be repeatable. Some teams might just have a nose for the ball that others don’t; a hunger for takeaways that ends up satiated in other teams. But for today’s purposes let’s say turnovers the stat which is most driven by random variation, chance, and fluke bounces.

With random variation in mind, I removed five forced turnovers from 2013 and added five to 2016. The five extra drives or partial drives for opponents in ‘13 result in 6 more points and 9 more first downs. The five fewer drives for opponents in ‘16 remove 7 points and 9 first downs from the ledger. I’m not trying to warp the data, only smooth out its jagged, noisy edges.

A metamorphosis takes place, and voila:

*prorated to 16 games, then turnovers added

Suddenly, 2013 and 2016 have a ton more in common. The points per game, the points per drive are comparable. The turnovers look like the same team was playing, and neither got any luckier than the other. The QB rate can be worked on. (Part of that probably represents natural league-wide inflation in passer rating numbers, but that’s another discussion for another date.)

Other voices have shouted the same thing

Earl’s importance from a statistical vantage point has already been established by analysts far more thorough than I. Such as Warren Sharp, who brought pictures for the class:

What you’ll see if you click through are three main indictments of Seattle’s Thomas-free defense:

  • The average deep play gained 9.5 yards with Earl out there and 11.6 after he left;
  • Opposing QB’s went from 3/5 TD/INT against Earl to 4/1 with him gone;
  • Opposer passer rating skyrocketed from 55.5 to 100.2 once Earl departed.

(If you’re on twitter, follow Sharp. If that’s not your cup of tea, click here and play with one of his site’s coolest tools, the personnel grouping frequency chart. Do it as a favor to yourself. You’ll thank you.)

Danny Kelly, who has written about local football before, will basically finish my article for me (thanks DK) by distilling Earl’s effect into four tweets, complete with the requisite snappy one-liner.

If you’re going to distrust me, at least believe Warren and Danny.

We always suspected Earl was important. Until recently, however, we didn’t know he had the power, along with a feather of turnover luck, to make whole seasons look right or wrong.