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Candidates for Regression, Part 2: The Lockett Exploit

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Rams
money in the bank
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

(For Part 1, click here.)

There is no sense in delaying the inevitable bad news. The magical Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett connection can no longer get better, only worse.

I mean. They can hang out more, enjoy each other’s company more, gain a more perfect chemistry on and off the field. They can watch film together, do BBQs together and maybe even play some Super Smash Bros in their down time. But they can’t get better, statistically, than they were in 2018.

When Wilson threw to Lockett last year, he maxed out on passer rating. 158.3, for the season. Not 158.3 on those throws that turned into receptions, or for a few games, or half a season. 158.3 once the ball left RW’s hand, 158.3 on all targets, 158.3 all year. Just deciding to toss it Lockett’s way turned Wilson into the greatest quarterback of all time.

Imagine completing 80 percent of your passes, surpassing 13 yards per attempt while playing mistake-free ball. That was their combined effort last year. 57 catches on 71 throws, 10 TDs, no INT, and somehow 965 yards even though that’s clearly not enough throws to get that much yardage. Excuse me, what?

Visually, the outlier that was Lockett’s 2018 boggles a football mind.

Quarterbacks had posted perfect 158.3 connections with many receivers before, but never over such a large sample. Quick! Insert any disclaimers about passer rating with maximum swiftness, before the next paragraph begins — oh shucks too late here we are. Lockett owned DVOA and yards/target, too.

Football Outsiders’ DVOA is a stat I’d rather use on a team level than an individual one, but since 1986, Lockett’s is the highest for any wide receiver.

Out of context, 13.8 yards per target doesn’t sound special. Well, have some context then: going back to 1992, Lockett’s average was the highest ever with a minimum of 60 targets.

There’s a Jim-Carrey-dumb-and-dumber-chance our RW-TL duo will repeat 2018 again. The outcome they’re a million times likelier to produce is closer to what they enjoyed in 2015-2017.

Tyler Lockett Career Numbers

Season Receptions Targets Yards TD Yards/Target
Season Receptions Targets Yards TD Yards/Target
2015 51 69 664 6 9.6
2016 41 66 597 1 9
2017 45 71 555 2 7.8

For the previous three seasons, Wilson-to-Lockett was good for an average of 49 catches on 69 targets, for 605 yards, with 3 TDs and 1 INT. That’s nice. It’s good. It’s very good. It’s 106.3 good. Which isn’t 158.3. Not one of the seasons compares favorably to 57-71-965-10-153.8, because those are video game numbers.

So there’ll be regression, out of necessity, out of mathematical tyranny. But how much? The wild cards at play are numerous and confounding.

  • Without Doug Baldwin in the picture at all [ :( ], will Lockett’s role in the offense increase?
  • Does Lockett draw tougher defenders in 2019 because of his outstanding season and the inexperience of the Seattle WR corps?
  • Is Lockett coming into his own as a top 20 receiver in the league? He was the most efficient ball-catcher in football for a whole season, after all. What does his “mean” season look like? Better than his excellent rookie season?
  • Will Lockett be spending more time in the slot and less time outside this coming season?
  • Can he possibly improve on the mad skills fueling his celebration game?

Before I go on to discuss a regression candidate that’s actually positive for Seattle, it’s important — and healthy! — to revel in just how good Wilson-to-Lockett was last year. It’s an elite level of cooperation we’ll probably never see again, but that shouldn’t necessarily lead to sad feelings. More like exceptional, memorable, and a little mind-blowing ones. You know, while remembering it’s totally not repeatable.

Three gifs for the good times.

You bet a little flash is in order for a season we’ll never see again.

Three and out: A candidate for improvement

Not every piece of news is bad in this series of articles. Not every candidate for regression is cause for concern. There’s a performance issue from 2018 that figures to get better. It’s the nasty proliferation of three-and-outs.

The NFL average for three-and-outs is 21 percent. The recent Seattle Seahawks would have been fortunate to even sniff average.

2017: They were 29th in the league, with 29.4 percent of drives ending within three plays.

2018: They actually dropped to 30th, even though their percentage “improved” to 27.8.

For a team that ended the last two seasons 11th and 6th in scoring offense, their propensity to end drives early is unusual. Some will ascribe it to an early-down commitment to the run that sets up more third downs than the average team. Makes sense on an intuitive and memory level, so let’s see if the stats bear it out.

John Gilbert earlier this month isolated the Seahawks offense by play-calling selection on each down, and got:

1st down: 67.3 percent run

2nd down: 56.7 percent run

Seattle is unlikely to turn two early runs into a first down. It’ll happen, and it did, but it won’t happen often. So it comes as little surprise that the Seahawks faced the seventh-most third downs, 13 per game. Pair that volume with a conversion rate of only 37.6 percent, 18th in the league, and the frequent three-and-outs are a mystery no longer.

All that being said, it’s not likely for one team to continue to be bottom four in the the NFL for long, no matter how run-obsessed the coaching staff is. Regression toward league average would give the Seahawks more of that sweet, sweet time of possession Pete Carroll craves and talks about in his sleep. And probably only good things can come from it. Yes, I mean points.

Penalty Help: This is new

So many favorable flags fell on the turf last season. What? Yes. That was another under-reported plot line of 2018 — Seattle benefited from the fourth-most penalty first downs in the league.

That’s, uh, not exactly been a pattern for the Seahawks. Maybe they’re more disciplined now, or their reputation has morphed with the disappearance of Beast Mode and the LOB, maybe something else. Look at their track record.

First downs earned via penalty

Season Penalty 1st downs NFL rank
Season Penalty 1st downs NFL rank
2012 29 14
2013 31 14
2014 24 26
2015 17 32
2016 25 25
2017 31 16
2018 40 4

Pete Carroll’s teams have been suspiciously under-favored by referees at times. Every fanbase feels like the stripes are out to get them, but the Seahawks did catch the business end of the variance stick there for a few seasons. They led the league in penalties against for 2013, 2014 and 2017, setting a record that last year.

They also led the NFL in something you don’t want to accomplish — they had the least amount of penalties called on their opponents during the 2014-2015 two-year-stretch. Just 164 flags in their favor, while the next closest team was more than 10 percent behind, with 181.

Not only had the Carroll Seahawks been prone to collecting flags against them, they’d been bad at collecting the kind you want to see as well. That changed in 2018, with the pleasant first-down surprise and a 16th-place finish in penalties incurred.

(2018 had a lot of weird things go right. That’s the main point of this whole series, and I’m gonna try real hard to remember that after a few things go wrong in September. No guarantees, though.)

2018 will probably see Seattle regress to the mean, as it’s quite difficult to finish better than fourth, and if so, one could expect something more like the pre-2018 average of 26 first downs per year. It’s pretty hard to quantify how many points you’d lose with 14 fewer first downs, but it’s not hard to see it costing the Seahawks a field goal here or a touchdown there, which is enough to swing a game for a team that plays everyone close.

Part 3 will get into special teams and red zone performance. If you have suggestions of something you’d like to see addressed in this space, please submit. There’s a comment section below, I promise. Keep scrolling. Just keep scrolling.