Just two calendar years ago, the Seattle Seahawks were making good on Pete Carroll’s original hope to “do it better than its ever been done before.” The Seahawks had delivered Seattle’s first ever Super Bowl championship in 2013, were two-time NFC defending champs and entered the playoffs with the top ranking in Football Outsiders team efficiency rating DVOA for the fourth straight year. The club felt like it was in the middle of a title dynasty, but it had already accomplished an historic statistical dynasty. A DVOA dynasty.
That dynasty bowed out in 2016 when the Seahawks dropped to 11th in Football Outsiders’ overall rankings at the end of the year. Seattle would gladly trade its DVOA kingdom for another Super Bowl opportunity, of course, but a renewed run at either crown took another shortfall in 2017. The Seahawks failed to qualify for the NFC playoffs at 9-7, and the overall DVOA ranking is down again—to 14th, or (even though Seattle struggled late in the year losing three of its last four games) 13th in weighted DVOA.
DVOA can sometimes be displaced from results—despite identical 9-7 records, the Baltimore Ravens are ranked 7th while the Buffalo Bills finish 21st; the Ravens are out while Buffalo will go to the AFC playoffs with a 28th-ranked weighted DVOA—it’s meant to be more predictive than descriptive. But for the Seahawks to end up just a few notches above dead average below a stack of other 9-7 misfits (the Los Angeles Chargers, Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys went 11th-12th-13th) signals they are about what their record says they are. The Pythagorean expectation based on points differential was also exactly 9.0.
And unlike 2016, When Seattle launched a midyear coup to seize the number one spot in the ratings after week 11 before injuries depleted their side, the 2017 Seahawks never really broke through or threatened to compete for that numerical apex this time. The highest overall ranking Seattle achieved was ninth—accomplished twice after Week 9 and Week 13. Football Outsiders forecast the Seahawks as the 3rd-rated squad before the season, so most of us clung to a belief that talent and pedigree would inevitably lift performance back toward expectation. But apart from those brief peaks and small-sample results early in the season, Seattle simply fluttered within the 11th- and 15th-slot range the entire year once opponent adjustments factored after Week 4.
Back in that January week two years ago when the Seahawks had clinched their fourth top finish, Pete Carroll acknowledged the mark by saying, “That’s a good sign of consistency is what it is.” This year’s perpetual appearance in the double digits looks like a sign of a more unfortunate consistency, but even Seattle’s variance ranks 13th.
The Seahawks weren’t even consistent at being consistently mediocre.
The defense was technically the best unit, just like for much of the run when the Seahawks were rating at the top of the league: Seattle’s defense ranked either no. 1 or no. 2 from 2012-2014 and was still no. 4 in 2015, the only time the offense (no. 1) outplayed it during the recent stretch of dominance. Even in 2016, the Seahawks still had the 5th-best defensive efficiency after the late season decline. But in 2017, facing a different shuffle of injuries to Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Cliff Avril and others, Seattle’s best unit was 13th, edging out the 14th-ranked offense and a 20th-ranked special teams group.
That lagging special teams has been a disturbing trend for two years now. Beyond the the documented kicking and punting challenges, Seattle’s special teams DVOA that had been a top-5 phase in four of Pete Carroll’s first six years with coach Brian Schneider has taken large responsibility for probably half the Seahawks 12.5 losses in the past 32 regular season games.
But offense has got to be the greatest disappointment. Russell Wilson didn’t have the same obstacles that had limited his play in 2016 to the 14th best DYAR and a barely positive DVOA—Wilson’s most notable injury in 2017 turned out to be just a phantom (although he did also suffer a dislocated jaw on the play that forced him to dodge the NFL concussion protocol). But Wilson’s passing efficiency didn’t really improve at all by DVOA. Wilson actually did better at QBR, which accounts for quarterback rushing, a year ago, when he barely could move for periods, than he did while rushing for 600 yards on two strong legs.
But he was still a very good rusher. Wilson was 10th in DVOA on his runs, with most of the quarterbacks more efficient than him taking nowhere near the sample size: Of the nine players ahead of Wilson, you can combine the rushing attempts of five of them, Case Keenum (1), Aaron Rodgers (2), Kevin Hogan (4), Matt Ryan (7) and Joe Flacco (9) to reach the number of rushes Wilson took for Seattle. As a result Wilson led all quarterbacks in DYAR.
The only quarterback to rush more often than Wilson’s 78 carries, Cam Newton, took 44 more attempts and still came in fourth with 52 fewer DYAR. Newton was the 20th most efficient rushing quarterback.
Nevertheless the Seahawks had 915 plays on offense when Wilson didn’t rush the ball, and showed up below average, statistically, on those plays. Where defense at least spent seven separate weeks within the top 10, Seattle’s offense only ever got as high as 12th once, in Week 14. Wilson broke his career high in pass attempts for the sixth straight year, and was under loads of pressure almost every game:
Final tally: Seattle ended the season allowing Wilson to be pressured 10+ percentage pts more often than the opposing defense's season avg in 5 straight games pic.twitter.com/rjtzGjBAzW— guga (@guga31bb) January 1, 2018
But the greatest reason the Seahawks offense dragged a rating in the bottom half of the league most weeks was its 22nd ranked rushing attack. That’s exactly where they ranked in 2016, marking again another steep fall from when Seattle had a top-3 efficient ground game three times from 2012 to 2015, including two no. 1 rushing finishes and ranking no lower than 7th in 2013.
Ultimately DVOA or other advanced metrics aren’t the object of football, and these “predictive” tools now offer little other than confirmation of experiences we felt or witnessed more primarily while the football was going. But remembering how this same source of data once heralded the emerging superiority and frightening potential of the Seattle Seahawks, it can also extend a measuring stick of how that project is proceeding.
The organization’s efforts to accommodate for any eventual defensive decline by building up continuity of success on offense haven’t matched with results. Even after 2017 free agent investments in left guard and running back, a multi-year extension to the starting center and a big trade for a top left guard, plus first- and second-round draft picks the past two years on the right side, the offense is just as bad—worse actually than when it was considered more neglected.
For years, booming efficiency from Seattle’s run game and defense allowed the context for Russell Wilson’s success to be viewed from some quarters, perhaps most generously, as his being the best possible situation for a young quarterback. The tale of the DVOA charts now sounds out a quite different vision, one that hollers: “Get him some help!”
As Carroll’s quote above emphasizes, the Seahawks know about DVOA. Doug Baldwin (24th in receiving efficiency) has also mentioned keeping track of it, back when Seattle was at the top. Hopefully the coaching staff and front office planners can take these data, added to their own internal scouting and charting, and clearly hear the message coming through.