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The Seahawks settled for fewer field goals in 2017

Despite memorable misses that yanked away several wins, Seattle’s execution at the end of drives wasn’t as poor as you might believe

Arizona Cardinals v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr /Getty Images

Fair or not, I’m guessing many Seattle Seahawks fans will remember 2017 as the year of the missed kick. And there’s some accuracy to that: Blair Walsh missed eight field goal attempts on the season (21-29), more than any Seattle kicker has since Josh Brown went 22-30 in 2003. (Brown also missed seven kicks in just 25 tries in 2005, so you see how a Super Bowl run and a boatload of touchdowns along the way can overwrite these unpleasant details.)

Walsh famously missed his final attempt, from 48 yards at home against the Arizona Cardinals, which didn’t technically eliminate the Seahawks from the playoffs but did keep them from double-digit wins for the first time since Russell Wilson arrived in 2012. It put a big ghastly bow on the Blair Walsh project that indeed seemed to summarize his season.

However for me the lasting impression of that moment comes not from the miss itself but from the confounding decision to stall at the 30 yard line to set up the kick, when Seattle had two timeouts plus the two minute warning remaining and had already advanced 44 yards in the previous 18 seconds.

Process bothered me more than that outcome. Settling for whatever fraction of three points the kick is worth is bad enough when the other team causes you to do it; just folding the opportunity to score more points—or to put it more appropriately, since three points were enough to win: refusing the chance to improve an expectation of scoring and therefore decreasing the value of the opportunity—was a bigger failure by Pete Carroll than Walsh’s wide aim. Bill Barnwell identified this issue years ago as one of the scenarios when NFL coaches lose most, so it’s even more annoying to see Carroll falling prey to it.

Especially since it’s Carroll, not Walsh, who will be returning to the Seahawks in 2018.

Okay but in that case is it right to make this final letdown emblematic of 2017? Obviously not in place of the further collapse by the offensive line and the running game, or Richard Sherman’s torn Achilles, and so on. But I mean is this curling up in field goal range even representative of a problem for Seattle last year? Not really. Even Walsh’s misses didn’t end up hurting as much as they might have otherwise, because the Seahawks offense did not actually resort all that much to field goals. Indeed Seattle took its fewest number of field goal tries since, again, 2012.

Low volume could be connected to a lack of confidence in Walsh after some of his midseason bricks, but the play-by-play doesn’t really support that either: The Seahawks didn’t have an abnormally high number of fourth down attempts or punts within the “field goal range” zone outside the red zone (and if they did that concern would be further argument how slowing down at the end of Week 17 made no sense). Instead the club, for all its offensive woes, appears to have set itself up pretty well generally on the opponents’ side of the field, by continuing to convert first downs there and score.

I saw an interesting way to track this posted by Atlanta Falcons blogger Bleed Falcons Red, indexed as the ratio of field goal tries to offensive touchdowns scored:

This particular metric here serves keenly as yet another example highlighting the radical departure in efficiency for the Falcons after their wildly successful 2016 campaign. You can see the previous year’s result was extreme, but that only makes the swerve well below the 10-year standard even more than an ordinary regression. As you can probably guess from the blogger’s latest Twitter username, the contrast is meant to illustrate how poorly Atlanta offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian made use of the offense formerly finely tuned by Kyle Shanahan.

Well, Seattle already replaced its offensive coordinator since the sequence that led to the missed kick against the Cardinals, but let’s take a look at these figures for the Seahawks in 2017, with some other recent years for greater relief (I didn’t go as far back as 2008 like BFR because here it didn’t seem all that instructive):

2017: 0.74

2016: 1.02

2015: 0.70

2014: 0.93

2013: 0.85

2012: 0.63

2011: 1.00

2010: 1.11

There are some surprising outputs in these data, so let’s talk about them. First, the two seasons considered most successful for Seattle overall, 2013 and 2014, are two of the worse ratios of touchdowns to field goals in the past six years. Of course, the strength of those two Super Bowl years gets more identified with defense while this is an offensive rate, but it’s weird to think of those teams as not scoring a relatively higher number of touchdowns. And that’s because thinking that way would be incorrect. Indeed, those touchdown totals are among the highest of the set; they’re just also balanced by more field goal attempts as well. Looks like the Seahawks were just getting into scoring range more often period—I mean comma—, possibly aided by better defensive support and opponent turnovers enabling them to scoop up those chances from middling offensive possessions.

It’s not totally odd to see the numbers fall toward the Sarkisian range in the years before Seattle had a solid quarterback, but that does make 2016 all the more shocking that a Russell Wilson-led offense put up the Tarvaris Jackson type rate.

But holy smokes! Look at 2012. This 0.63 actually edges the 0.64 put up by the 2016 Falcons which started this whole thing: one of the most scarily efficient offenses in NFL history that led the league in scoring (and a top-15-ever touchdown total) while only using the fourth-fewest drives. Atlanta’s red zone rate wasn’t even that spectacular that year, just eighth, but its 65 percent still clowns the 2012 Seahawks who were 54 percent and basically league average. The ’16 Falcons 59 offensive touchdowns also dominates Seattle’s mere 43 in ’12, and it’s not like those Seahawks were turning the ball over frequently (actually zero turnovers inside opponents’ 30). So how are these groups competing at the elite edge of the FG/TD ratio?

Well it’s the field goals, silly. The team only kicked 27 times. When I was looking into the background context to see whether Walsh’s unreliability might be an explanation for the relatively low 29 kick attempts in 2017, as mentioned above, I checked what Seattle did on fourth downs inside the 40 yard line in all these years and 2012 was the consistent outlier for both punts and instances when Carroll elected to go for it. From 2012 to 2017 the Seahawks averaged 3.5 punts inside that territory per season; 2012 supplies six of those times, almost two years’ worth. In that same set, Seattle went for it on fourth down 41 times and 2012 accounts for a whopping 12 of those! No other year included more than seven such attempts. Thanks as always to Pro Football Reference for the play database.

Do these findings suggest Pete Carroll was not confident in Steven Hauschka at the time? Probably not. Hauschka had connected on 83 percent of his tries the previous year and was 89 percent in 2012, plus perfect within 50 yards. Rather, it seems Carroll was discovering this extraordinary defense growing into itself and searching for ways to use it to put pressure on opponents. (Note: the luxury of an effective running game back then doesn’t appear to have played much into these decisions since eight of the 12 plays were passes, and only four of the tries came with less than three yards to go. Carroll really was just more aggressive six years ago.) Likewise, the sheer number of extra fourth downs in opposing territory meshes with our theory about 2013-2014 that the Seahawks were in position to score more touchdowns or otherwise make these gambits thanks to its superb defense.

But you can see how the simple FG/TD ratio completely edits out turnovers and drives that either fail to reach scoring position or end in these other kinds of plays, so I’m not sure how meaningful these data are as an index of good offensive execution. But it’s one neat little angle, and it helps disabuse any notion that Seattle suffered too many drives bogged down late in 2017. Indeed, the Seahawks’ red zone touchdown percentage leapt to 12th from 24th the previous year, aided by Wilson throwing the fifth-most red zone touchdowns in the league. Rather, Seattle’s problem was getting going, as indicated by its horrific three and out percentage exceeded only by the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears.

Still, even with all the changes undertaking in this offseason with the staff already moved and likely more pieces around Wilson, it remains hopeful to see from a down year by the Seahawks this one offensive aspect again approaching, if not the extreme thrust for the end zone of 2012, at least a FG/TD rate resembling 2015 when they were the best offense in football. And hopefully a resurgence by the defense can redirect Carroll back to a more aggressive strategy in endgames and throughout.