clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

5 Qs & 5 As about the Seahawks with Football Outsiders

Why do they think the offense is top-5? What keeps the defense so consistently elite? And how could we maximize the value of DVOA?

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Chargers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, SB Nation and Football Outsiders team up for some Q and As with each blog about their team. These Qs are usually based off of findings in the incredibly useful Football Outsiders Almanac, which you can purchase here.

This year’s answers some courtesy of Carl Yedor (and Aaron Schatz for question two). The staff here at Field Gulls sent him some Qs and he responded in kind with these As. We love FO at FG, so let’s move on with the As.

Q: What makes you project Seattle's offense to jump into the Top 5 DVOA next year. Also, what makes them better than the other top NFC teams like Dallas, Green Bay, Atlanta, and Arizona?

Carl: It’s worth noting that in the four seasons where Russell Wilson was healthy, the Seahawks finished no lower than seventh in offensive DVOA, so while this does not count as groundbreaking analysis, a major part of them bouncing back on offense will be keeping him healthy and effective. The offensive line improving would certainly help matters, but Seattle finished first in offensive DVOA in 2015 in spite of poor offensive line play then because of how well Wilson played down the stretch. If Wilson can stay healthy (and this is obviously an if, given that the offensive line remains a question mark heading into the season), that would go a long way towards vaulting the offense into the top five.

In FOA 2017, we have Seattle as fifth in offensive DVOA behind Pittsburgh, New England, Green Bay, and Dallas, in that order. Given that Ezekiel Elliott is suspended, the Cowboys’ offensive performance will likely dip in his absence, so that could push the Seahawks ahead of them as well (we generated the projections long in advance of Elliott being suspended by the league).

Atlanta is only slightly behind the Seahawks, and for them there is a question of whether they can replicate their outstanding performance from 2016. Steve Sarkisian could replace Kyle Shanahan without the offense skipping a beat, but it’s uncertain whether that will be the case. Atlanta’s offense also finished with the second-fewest Adjusted Games Lost to injuries on offense overall and the fewest on the offensive line. It is unlikely that the Atlanta offense will be quite as healthy in 2017, and one of their starters on the offensive line retired.

Arizona’s offense was quite disappointing in 2016, and we currently have them projected to finish a very average 16th on offense, which would still be an improvement over a year ago. Carson Palmer, as good as he was in 2015, will be 38 before the end of the season, and Larry Fitzgerald turns 34 just before the start of the season. David Johnson is a stud, but given how quarterbacks age, it’d be hard to predict that Palmer will bring the offense back to the top five after his performance from a year ago.

Q: If a coach and staff had access to a full DVOA formula, do you think collecting a roster and shaping a game plan designed specifically to maximize DVOA results would also maximize wins and championships over time? If not, why not ? If so, why don't all coaches utilize this recipe?

Aaron: Well, that's a real interesting question. I think it would maximize wins and championships over time, except "over time" here would probably require something like 10,000 seasons of NFL football for us to actually see the difference. For a couple reasons.

1) It isn't necessarily easy to know what kind of roster moves and game plans would maximize DVOA results. Most of the things that are clear are also clear to people who have no idea what DVOA is, like, you know, "get a good young quarterback." But we don’t have any idea yet what the proper balance of playcalling is to maximize DVOA -- not just run vs. pass but the balance of specific pass routes and combinations, or specific run calls.

2) There are just too many other things that play a role in determining NFL wins besides the things an NFL team might try to do in order to maximize DVOA: coaching 'em up, the chess game of playcalling, making mid-game adjustments, which players work harder to improve from year to year, chemistry (both in the locker room and in terms of thinking similarly on the field, on option routes for example), and of course luck on injuries and bouncing balls and who woke up on the right side of the bed that day and who knows what else.

That being said, there are a few things a team could do with the lessons of DVOA that I think would help make wins more likely. When figuring out where your team is in the development cycle, don't be confused by years where you play better because the schedule was easy. Build around the offense with the knowledge that defense and special teams are less consistent and thus harder to build well (it feels funny saying this to a Seahawks site). Understand that red zone production being different from overall production is often fleeting, and don't make roster decisions based on red zone numbers. Go for it on fourth down more. Run more often on third-and-short and pass more often the rest of the time. Make the punter your most important special teams signing.

Q: With so much of football play calling dependent on situation, deception and "game strategy", how can you consider each play as a separate event? In other words, how useful are rate efficiency standards for evaluating given play calls? I don't expect the N-play scripts used at the beginning of games are just the N best plays. Where does "punching" to set up opponents for later counter-punches fit into efficiency analysis over many plays?

Carl: Good question, a valid one, and one we don't particularly have an answer for. There's probably value at some point in seeing whether combining our drive stats with play-by-play efficiency (i.e. DVOA) leads to an even more accurate measure of team efficiency. We haven't had the chance to do it yet.

That being said, usually when coaches say that a bad play was there to set up a good play later, it's B.S. This does happen, yes -- sometimes that end around opens things up for a handoff up the gut with a ghost end around later -- but it's often an excuse to just put a bunch of inefficient offense out there. There's no correlation, for example, between how often teams run the ball and how good they are at play-action passing.

Q: FO has frequently written about how defensive quality is more variable from year-to-year than offensive quality. However, Seattle's defense has finished in the top 5 in DVOA for 5 straight seasons. At what point does it become reasonable to expect them to stay as good? As long as most of their players are still in their primes or close to it?

Carl: The biggest factor at play for defenses being more variable across different seasons than offenses is the consistency of the quality of the quarterback. Having a skilled quarterback allows a team to paper over weaker areas because he can make up for the gaps, and his play tends to be more predictable from season to season. Compare that with defenses, where there are so many more moving parts necessary to have a standout unit. In general, it is hard for teams to keep all their defensive players together and performing at a high level for a long period of time based on the salary cap, aging, injuries, etc.

However, the Seahawks are a bit of an exception in that regard because so many of the defensive stars came into the league in a short period of time. As a result, they were all more or less at the same spot on the aging curve, mitigating aging’s impact on longevity. There were obviously some players they had to let go in free agency because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have any money left over for the offense (e.g. Byron Maxwell, Bruce Irvin). But with the sheer amount of talent remaining on defense, they are certainly capable of remaining a top tier unit. After all, they still finish with the highest projected defensive DVOA heading into 2017.

As long as the defensive core remains close to their primes they should continue to be an upper echelon unit, but they will need some of their recent draft picks to step in at a high level sooner rather than later if they want to remain one of the top five defenses further down the line.

Q: Russell Wilson’s injuries were a huge topic of discussion during the 2016 season and with hindsight, we get an even better picture that his overall production and play was down. Especially when balanced against his phenomenal 2015 campaign. In the future, do you think we will be able to measure the DVOA difference between actual play through certain types of injuries (ie high ankle sprain, injured thumb, knee brace, etc.) and expected play if said player was not on the injury report, therefore giving us perhaps a better understanding of how damaging certain injuries are?

Carl: This would be something incredibly useful to know to get a sense of how much an individual injury impacted a player’s performance. But with the limited details available to the general public surrounding player injuries, it’s hard to say exactly how hindered a player is feeling in a given week. There are a variety of things you would need to consider. How long has the player had to heal up? Was there just a bye week where he could avoid putting extra stress on his ankle/shoulder/hip? How much does the injury impact the player’s style of play (like the difference between Tom Brady’s mobility being limited and Russell Wilson’s mobility being limited)? How much of the team’s playbook is still usable given the injury limitations? And so on and so forth.

Now, in a large enough sample of players playing through injuries, we could be able to assess how much of a drop off in performance occurs on average at different positions. But in a given NFL season, there are only so many players at the same position that play through the same injuries, meaning that it would take us a long, long time to get the necessary empirical data to break it down by position, which would be very important to consider. As an example, it’s a much bigger restriction if a quarterback injures his finger than if his left guard does the same. It’s another topic that would be really useful to investigate but is made far more difficult by how short the season is and how many different combinations of positions and injuries that are possible.