When the New England Patriots play the Philadelphia Eagles in this Sunday’s Super Bowl, you know NBC is going to queue up the Malcolm Butler interception and talk about how the Seahawks didn’t run Marshawn Lynch from the 1-yard line. It’s inevitable, so brace yourself or go watch the Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet. I hear puppies are great at catch and surviving the ground.
As someone who’s always interested in extremely specific but not always meaningful statistics, I wanted to know just how successful the Seahawks have been running the ball from the door step of the opposing team’s end zone since 2012. This was a regrettable decision on my part.
For the sake of clarity, I’ve defined goal-line rushing as any running play from the 1- or 2- yard line, which at least is reasonably consistent with Football Outsiders’ definition of Power Success, and also two-point conversions are placed at the 2-yard line.
In the post-Marshawn Lynch era, aka 2016-2017, Seattle is far and away the worst in the NFL at turning goal-line rushes into touchdowns. They’ve had 21 rush attempts from inside the 2-yard line and have scored a grand total of 6 times, a successful conversion rate of 28.6%. The league average during that span is 52.6%. Oof.
The ineptitude of the 2017 running game certainly didn’t help matters, but the 2016 squad had a touchdown rate of 40%, good for 28th, so it didn’t skew things in a downward direction that badly. In 2015, Seattle turned 6 of 10 goal-line rushes into points, with four different backs scoring.
Granted, the offensive line has been demonstrably bad and the running backs on Seattle’s roster were not great and/or injured, so let’s rewind a bit to simpler times. You know, “Just hand it to Marshawn and he’ll score!” That’s what they always say. If you’re at the goal-line, #24 is going to bulldoze his way into the end zone for six points!
...Except even Lynch found it difficult to score from two yards out.
From the 2012-2014 regular season, at the peak of his career, Marshawn Lynch was one of 13 running backs to rush for at least 10 touchdowns of 1-2 yards. Any guesses as to what his success rate was compared to the other twelve? If you answered “easily dead last” then you’re correct.
As you can see, it’s a mixture of longtime high-level running backs like Charles, Gore, McCoy, Lynch, and also uh... Andre Brown and Shonn Greene. Then there’s that Eddie Lacy fella. He sure worked out well in Seattle.
So even the best Seattle rushing offenses were still goal-line liabilities. It’s logical to suggest that the offensive line plays a major role in scoring on short-yardage situations, regardless of running back. I feel comfortable arriving to that conclusion because the 2003-2005 Seahawks were 5th in conversion rate (64.6%). It’s almost as if having Walter Jones, Steve Hutchinson, and Mack Strong can make life a hell of a lot easier for a prime Shaun Alexander.
Even anecdotally, here are two plays — one from 2013 and one from 2017 — tell me how much different the “basically dominant” blocking from Tom Cable’s group looks.
I present to you:— ben (@guga31bb) December 24, 2017
The 2017 Seattle Seahawks goal line rushing offense pic.twitter.com/bKtd8DckuJ
Hell, how many running backs other than Lynch can turn what looks like a doomed play into an insanely difficult two-yard touchdown?
In the Russell Wilson era, the Seahawks are a dismal 31st in goal-line rushing situations at 42.1% (24 of 57 attempts), just over 10% below league average, and that includes plays featuring Wilson as the runner. Surprisingly, the Atlanta Falcons are last. The best team in the NFL during that span is the Dallas Cowboys (66.1%), who have an elite offensive line, and behind them are the Carolina Panthers (65%), who have Cam Newton.
As an aside, the Seahawks have thrown it 31 times under identical circumstances, with 14 touchdown passes from Wilson and a 45.2% conversion rate, which is only 2.5% below the league average. The league-wide run-pass ratio from the 2-yard line is about 64:36, and Seattle’s playcalling ratio is virtually identical. Technically speaking, Seattle has a higher success rate with goal-line passes than goal-line runs, albeit below average at both.
It’s easy to brush off these problems as small sample size, but these repeated failures are little things that often the difference between 7 points, 3 points, or no points at all. They were pretty damn bad when Lynch was on the team, and somehow found room to be even more disastrous when he left. Perhaps not coincidentally, Seattle has ranked no higher than 12th in red zone efficiency since 2013, and the team’s inefficiency at the goal-line is one of the reasons for that.
One of the key offseason tasks for the Seahawks is to improve the offensive line and in turn revamp the running game, which was one of the worst in modern NFL history. Hopefully next season we see a considerable turnaround across the board, including at the goal line, because they surely can’t get any worse than what we saw in 2017.
(Stats: Pro Football Reference)