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Squaring surrender plays and ‘Always Compete’

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It can be done.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive line play, run-pass distribution, insufficient targets to Tyler Lockett, Tedric Thompson’s inexplicably mistimed leap, head-scratching flags, dubious playcalling on downs with high yardage to go — there were plenty of legitimate grievances to be aired after the narrowest of wins in Week 1: Seattle Seahawks 21, Cincinnati Bengals 20.

But the offensive line will get better; it often does. Well, except in 2013, when it was pretty porous the whole way, and somehow didn’t matter.*

Run-pass distribution will even out; it always does. A single game doesn’t mean much in the long term when you have a coaching staff committed to splitting the pass and run selection quite evenly over the course of a season.

Lockett’s gonna catch some passes; he always does. Probably more than 16. Probably won’t finish with 16 drops, either. Let us not overreact to one solitary game with one solitary catch and sullied by one shocking drop. EVEN THOUGH IT’S ALL WE HAVE RIGHT NOW.

Thompson will either figure it out or get benched; no always needed in this clause or this case. Either way he’s probably not going to be responsible for a seven-point error many more times this season.

Bad calls are everywhere; they just are, always. They weren’t even one-sided in the Bengals game itself, if you ponder that Carson’s receiving TD and Dalton’s final fumble, both quite big plays, could easily have gone against Seattle, but didn’t.

(*Oh yeah. My pet theory about how the Seahawks survived their offensive line in 2013 is that the Seahawks’ defensive line was so good that they made opposing OLs perform just as badly as Seattle’s, leaving the game to be decided outside of the trenches.)

However, however, however, the opening paragraph’s list retains one item: questionable decisions by coaches on third and long. The men on the sidelines will be around all year, making play calls in similar situations every week. It would take an uncharacteristic and very nearly unforeseeable implosion for offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to leave midseason. It would take an act of God to remove Pete Carroll from anything, since, by the looks of his physique, he is in fact immortal, and will outlast in his position a dozen of the current NFL head coaches, some of whom are half his age.

So this surrender on third down thing they tried out Week 1, I don’t suspect it’s going away soon. Should it, even? First let’s look at the circumstances and the choices.

Week 1 third and longs

Quarter Clock Down/Distance Result
Quarter Clock Down/Distance Result
1 1:34 3rd and 17 Carson 5-yard run
2 13:25 3rd and 22 Incomplete medium pass
3 12:08 3rd and 17 Carson 2-yard reception
3 6:16 3rd and 26 Vannett 11-yard reception
4 1:15 3rd and 16 Wilson 5-yard run

How do we square the concession of a series, of five series, with “Always Compete”? First point to make is that Carroll stated, the day after the game, that he doesn’t like passing on third and long because he fears turnovers.

The humor inherent in Carroll’s statement, naturally, is that running on third down does give the other team the ball — it just delays the transfer of possession by one play. So let’s give the coach a little bit of credit and assume he means they “don’t want to give the other team the ball in an advantageous position.” Meaning, if we’re not going to convert, let’s at least make them start on their 25 rather than ours. See, Pete understands field position and EPA, even if he says things weirdly sometimes and we get to mock him a little. He can take it.

We already knew the coach was turnover averse. This just takes it to another level, where unlikely third downs are perceived as more dangerous than the average play. We’ll see if the numbers bear him out later.

Second point is that Carroll has historically shifted the playmaking onus onto his defense when the offense looks incapable or unlikely to produce a first down. (For evidence, I present to you games like the 14-9 win in St. Louis during the championship season. The Seahawks gained 135 yards, Jon Ryan punted nine times for a million yards, and the defense held on, by half a thread, by a frayed hair, by the hangnail of a child’s loose tooth.) Carroll’s defense may or may not be up to the task in 2019. We know there is no Legion, we know the defensive line is thin with injuries and suspensions. We know Bobby Wagner roams the hashmarks and beyond. That’s a start. Carroll’s going to make us trust them instead of the offense, again, and soon. Which is another form of “Always Compete,” I suppose. Just not one we’ll always enjoy.

Third point: the 2018 offensive numbers for Seattle on third and long do jump off the page. With their badness. Many observers would like to believe coaches don’t fall victim to something as simple as recency bias. But if a coach were to, he would probably be influenced by the Seahawks’ 2018 performance, relative to the league at large.

Dangerous Thirds

3rd and 15+ Pass/Run ratio 1st down % via pass TO % via pass 1st down % via run TO % via run
3rd and 15+ Pass/Run ratio 1st down % via pass TO % via pass 1st down % via run TO % via run
League 4.9/1 11.3 4.5 1 0
Seattle 1.9/1 7.7 7.7 0 0

Last year, the Seahawks were just as likely to give the ball away through the air as get the first down. Which seems out of character for Wilson, one of the least interceptable passers in NFL history. But it reinforces Carroll’s awkward statement from earlier.

It could be that Carroll not only fears a giveaway, he fears a play that swings a close game out of... closeness. And maybe out of reach altogether. The Seahawks already play a brand of football that punishes costly mistakes by both teams, since the games are already tight. Last year’s pick-sixes vs. the Bears and the Chargers were killers — the Seahawks were driving for scores to get back into the game late each time, when, after a single ill-advised throw, they suddenly found themselves down by two touchdowns and insufficient time to recover. Record with no pick six: 10-4. Who wouldn’t want to trim those?

Of course, Wilson’s three career pick sixes have all come on early downs, and somewhat neutral ones at that: 1st and 10, 2nd and 9, 2nd and 8. Of courser, RW went five full consecutive seasons without throwing one of those disasters. Of coursest, like was just stated, he’s also one of the least prone quarterbacks to an interception. Fearing that he’ll throw it to the other team at the worst possible time is somewhere between properly cautious and over-reactionary. It’s a spectrum on which Carroll’s detractors and fans will quickly locate each other at opposite ends.

So what sort of solution exists to 3rd and 15, 3rd and 20? Don’t get into that kind of mess to begin with. Easier said than done, though. Carroll talks endlessly about staying “on schedule,” by which he means to create favorable second- and third-down situations. He’s right that helps, which should come as no surprise. Passing on third down is actually overall a negative proposition.

(graphic by fivethirtyeight.com, for this excellent article with an excellent headline.)

Indeed, Seattle is better off running than passing on third down and very long, from a volume and yards standpoint as well. Check it out:

NFL, on 3rd and 15+

Average passing yards gained: 7.3

Average rushing yards gained: 6.7

Seahawks

Average passing yards gained: 3.8

Average rushing yards gained: 6.9

Throw in that Wilson’s best career downs, by passer rating, are 2nd (105.2), 4th, (105.0), 1st (99.4) then 3rd (93.9), and you have a perfect storm for reasons to a coach to call run on third down when the distance is short distance and when it’s long.

(As long as the quarterback gets to sling it down to Lockett and D.K. Metcalf some of the time, I guess.)

3rd and 15 has not been kind to the Seahawks, either way you look at it. There are plenty of reasons — maybe the line can’t pass block well enough to give Wilson time; maybe the receivers can’t get open enough against seven or eight men in coverage; maybe Wilson doesn’t make his best decisions at that time; maybe the playbook isn’t stocked with enough successful-looking long pass plays for desperate situations. It should not be surprising to see Seattle’s coaches elect to concede the series, opting to run again, and again, and again when the sticks are distant. Even if the reasons for doing so are debatable, and even if the defense isn’t what it used to be.

(NOTE: Thanks to Matt_J for statistical assistance and inspiration.)