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The Drive: The Inadequacy of Excellence

Seattle Seahawks v Los Angeles Rams Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

The Seahawks efficiency on offense as measured by DVOA might seem a bit oxymoronic—which, I cheerfully point out, most basically means “pointedly stupid.”

Pass DVOA: 21.9% (9th)

Run DVOA: 1.6% (6th)

Overall: 3.4% (14th)

Top ten passing offense, top ten rushing offense, but how those combine to produce a mediocre overall offense is not that hard of a riddle to solve.

Rushing attempts: 323 (1st)

Passing attempts: 278 (Last)

Seattle is choosing to run even though running is far less valuable than passing. Pete Carroll and Brian Schottenheimer have created a system in which the Seahawks are borderline elite at both passing and rushing, but cumulatively mediocre. I wish I could now type something like “well pass the damn ball more,” and happily move on to my assortment of So Fresh and a chalice of Abyss. Nope.

The Seahawks brain trust has constructed a true Catch-22. In order to make its offense more efficient, Seattle must pass more often, but by passing more often, the passing offense will benefit much less from play action and thereby become less efficient. The pointedly stupid concoction we see above, in which two top ten halves of Seattle’s offense combine to create a mediocre overall offense is by design. And I fear it is worse even than that.

Russell Wilson ranks tenth in passing DVOA (7.7%) but 16th in the even more recondite QBR (58.8%). By QBR he is situated just below luminaries Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston and just above Joe Flacco and Marcus Mariota. A lot goes into that number, but for our purposes one particular difference between QBR and DVOA stands out: QBR adjusts for game situation.

Wilson is, to put it bluntly, a worse quarterback when the game is on the line. This is such a wild reversal of expectation that cries of “bullshit” from future readers are escaping the constraints of space-time and deafening me right this minute. Wilson, who in 46 fewer starts has more fourth quarter comebacks than Aaron Rodgers, has failed to be as effective in high leverage situations as low leverage situations. The blame, I think it’s pretty clear, once again falls on the nature of Seattle’s offense.

Let us revisit Seattle’s most recent game-losing drive to see why.

Oh muddy game tape if only you didn’t look like a work of Monet’s later years displayed on a cathode ray tube. The above is demonstrative of the nearly settled pre-snap formation which led to this inevitably immaterial play:

1st & 10 at SEA 25

(1:24 - 4th) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass incomplete short middle [D.Fowler]. Penalty on LA-A.Donald, Unnecessary Roughness, offsetting. Penalty on SEA-J.Britt, Unnecessary Roughness, offsetting.

Seattle began this drive with a 9.8% chance of winning. Yet a touchdown would have pushed that to something very close to 100%. Which is in part why future wins best correlate to pass offense, and almost equally pass defense. The opportunity for a game-winning drive late is relatively common but the likelihood of converting it is uncommon.

A team is never forced through score and remaining time to run, nor is a team ever forced through score and remaining time to abandon the pass. Even ignoring the obvious differences in yardage gained through passing and running (81,569 and 36,689 respectively at the time of my writing this), passing offense is vastly more valuable than rushing offense for this very reason: high leverage situations are almost by nature passing situations.

Factored into that dismal win probability is the fact that Seattle had no timeouts. Seattle could not run, Wilson could not regularly run, and its passing offense could not benefit from play action. The Seahawks had sprung a booby trap of their own making.

Below is the critical moment. Not determined by 2.5 seconds elapsing or whatever, but by when the majority of Seattle’s routes were designed to break free. It is perhaps some split second after Wilson should have thrown the ball and it is manifestly hopeless.

Doug Baldwin (89) is very open. Wilson could have dumped this off early. It is realistic that he could have interpreted the below and seen that Baldwin was his best hope of creating a positive play,

but Baldwin, for the season and including his relative blow up effort against Green Bay, has all of 70 yards after catch. Missing Baldwin in order to find a better option is at worst a venial sin. Not long after, Baldwin was cut off from Wilson by a rampaging pass rush.

Which is arriving just as Wilson is looking over at David Moore. Moore could have possibly caught a perfectly timed, perfectly placed pass, splitting the safety and corner, but this was understandably not Wilson’s first read, and at this point, no pass attempt was advisable.

Marcus Peters—who is covering Moore—may look beat, but given deep safety help, I’d wager he’s simply baiting Wilson. Whatever the case, I cannot blame Wilson for lacking trust in Moore in a game-deciding situation.

2nd & 10 at SEA 25

(1:19 - 4th) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass deep middle to T.Lockett to LA 46 for 29 yards (M.Christian).

Seattle’s indisputably best receiver, Tyler Lockett (situated at the top of the screen in the above picture) runs a corner post, using the Rams’ outside leverage against them.

Moore, the other receiver just short of the 50, is also open, and on an arguably more valuable route, but Wilson’s mad dash to escape the pocket has left him unreachable.

We’re piecing this together. Baldwin is relegated to decoy/emergency outlet routes. Moore and Lockett cannot regularly beat a double team. In 236 or 35.5% of Seattle’s total snaps on offense, Jaron Brown has 12 targets. He is not even on the field. The pass blocking struggles against a concerted pass rush. Wilson must risk a turnover by either throwing into double coverage early before it is clear that the receiver will flash open, or risk a turnover by attempting a pass in a muddled pocket full of rapacious hands, or invalidate half of his routes by escaping to one side of the field. This time it works.

Lockett wins off the snap. Wins out of his second move, as seen above, and is smart enough to slow down, exploiting the space he’s earned, in order to make for an easier target for Wilson. One play, Seattle’s win probability surges to almost one in four. It would prove to be the high water mark.

1st & 10 at LAR 46

(0:56 - 4th) (No Huddle, Shotgun) R.Wilson scrambles up the middle to LA 35 for 11 yards (J.Johnson).

Below you will see the look which forced the scramble. Obviously, 11 yards is good, but 11 yards at the expense of 19 seconds and a down, isn’t.

While ESPN’s Win Probability tool is borderline unusable cramped, a carpal tunnel syndrome inducing search for that infinitesimal space between points on the graph finds that Seattle actually lost 10.7% win probability through the combination of scrambling and spiking the ball. Wilson scrambled very effectively in this game. But he needed to break one. The Seahawks needed a big gain which ended out of bounds, and instead Wilson achieved a small gain which left the clock running and necessitated a spike.

1st & 10 at LAR 35

(0:56 - 4th) (No Huddle, Shotgun) R.Wilson spiked the ball to stop the clock.

2nd & 10 at LAR 35

(0:37 - 4th) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass incomplete deep left to D.Moore [A.Donald].

Only Moore is open on a viable route.

He is not, as it might look, running an out but an out and up. Which is why that by the time the route is mature, Aaron Donald has looped back, nearly ending the game.

3rd & 10 at LAR 35

(0:31 - 4th) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass incomplete short right to N.Vannett.

That hit seems to affect this play too.

Baldwin is open and given that Seattle was in downs trouble, probably should have been targeted. But that DB just above the <30, Nickell Robey-Coleman, is a lot closer than he might seem, especially when the quarterback has little ability to step into his throw and that throw is to the opposite side of the field. It is likely both ends flashing around the edge and Donald’s hit the previous play which motivate Wilson to step up and then throw the ball away.

Wilson actually makes four reads. He looks off Lockett. He sees Mike Davis is free in the middle of the field. He scrambles free to his right and reads Nick Vannett before tossing the ball away. Targeting Baldwin would have made a certain sense, as would have targeting Davis, but throwing the ball away makes a certain sense too. Wilson picked scummy coleslaw from a veritable beggar’s banquet of bad options.

4th & 10 at LAR 35

(0:26 - 4th) (Shotgun) R.Wilson pass incomplete deep left to T.Lockett [A.Donald].

And then it was over.

No receiver is even ten yards down field before pressure comes roaring off right end.

Samson Ebukam is not to be ignored and Wilson’s pocket is envelope narrow.

Wilson in his scramble to escape does not see Lockett.

When Wilson finally finds Lockett, he doesn’t account for the transfer of momentum from running to passing, and badly overthrows the target.

It is sort of a strange reversal. Wilson often plants in order to check his momentum. He’s an exceptional passer on the move. But the presence of Donald, and how Wilson can not even lose a single step without risking a sack, forces him to step or rather really run into his throw, and this more properly textbook throwing motion results in an overthrow.

Seahawks lose.

Seattle did not start this drive with a very high chance of winning the game. It would be wrong to say anything which I detailed above proves that the Seahawks offense is bad. But it was quite clearly inadequate. Passing keys comebacks. Pass defense prevents comebacks.

Wilson ranks only ahead of Sam Darnold at completing passes in late and close situations. I surely angered some people, and not without cause, by charging Wilson with the overall performance of Seattle’s offense. But it is I think the standard by which Wilson would want to be measured. It is also I think the standard which though clearly flawed best approximates a quarterback’s performance. As fans, we can attempt the crude speculation of wondering how Wilson might do in a different offense, or blocked by a different line, or throwing to different receivers, but Wilson’s job, what he costs nearly 24 million against the cap to do, is succeed in this offense, blocked by this line and throwing to these receivers. Sometimes he has been good. Sometimes he has been bad. The product of that diverse performance is mediocrity, and has been for going on three seasons. That is settled; open to debate only through the use of educated guesses.

What is very far from settled, what powers both our collective embittering hope and fatiguing doubt, is whether Wilson can be great again. Can an offense built around Russell Wilson’s peculiar skill set be consistently successful without constant need for so-called “Wilson magic?” Wilson is passing more efficiently in 2018 than he did in 2017 or 2016, but right or wrong, Carroll and Schotty II have decided the Seahawks must run much more often to facilitate that. That play selection puts a drag on Seattle’s overall offense, and despite the seemingly improved play by Wilson, the past three seasons the Seahawks overall DVOA on offense has barely shifted.

Maybe Rashaad Penny breaks out. Maybe Moore develops. Maybe Schotty II is about to introduce a new wrinkle to the wide world of gridiron football and trigger a miracle run. But most likely the formula for success this season and maybe even for the foreseeable future is staying ahead, avoiding game states which force Wilson to pass without play action, and playing the kind of pass defense which protects leads, which through turnovers and field position extends leads. That is a very precarious formula for winning in the modern NFL.