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The Drive: A detailed look at the fumble that changed the Seahawks’ season

New Orleans Saints v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

His body falling to the ground, Chris Carson made a decision which changed the nature of the Seattle Seahawks’ season. It was a small likely impulsive decision. A failure of discipline, I would guess, a reversion from learned behavior to intuitive behavior. What he did didn’t even last a second, but the effect of the decision is striking.

Seattle’s shift in fortunes started with a punt. Thomas Morstead has been what Seahawks fans hope Michael Dickson could be. Morstead struggled in his rookie season (for the sake of simplicity I am going to conflate punter and overall punting team performance). The 2009 Saints lost 8.9 points through punting. Since then, Morstead has been above average every season and New Orleans’ punt unit has added 63.7 points. Seattle finished with 2.2 points lost in punting last season, and after last Sunday, are likely in the red this season too.

Morstead’s punt was worth 9.5% win probability. Seattle continues to use its no. 1 receiver as its primary return man, and given that over the past two seasons mediocre return performance has turned into a slow drip of lost field position, that is perplexing. To endanger such a vital and surely irreplaceable player as Tyler Lockett in exchange for almost no advantage is nigh indefensible. If truly no one can match his performance as a return man, that’s a failure of roster management.

Lockett ended up playing 94 snaps, 98% of Seattle’s snaps on offense and 41% of Seattle’s snaps on special teams, the most of any Seahawk. That earned Seattle 12 punt return yards on four returnable punts, and 47 kick return yards on two kick return attempts. That’s three fewer than would be earned through a pair of touchbacks.

Notably, Lockett’s tactic for this return was to decoy a fair catch.

It didn’t work.

Part of the value of such a deep punt is the increased likelihood that a turnover would result in points. It did.

1ST & 10 AT SEA 4(07:40)

(7:40) (Shotgun) G.Fant reported in as eligible. C.Carson up the middle to SEA 8 for 4 yards (M.Edwards).

Russell Wilson’ ability to intimidate as a deep passer is pretty cool. Here’s a look at New Orleans safeties walked in. It’s the closest they will be to the line of scrimmage, but you can see by the way Vonn Bell (#24) has opened his hips parallel to the sideline that he is about to retreat.

A second later, the snap in Wilson’s hands, the mere threat of a deep pass has earned Seattle space. Both safeties have retreated four yards.

The run itself is mostly D.J. Fluker’s doing.

He’s not the only good blocker but he’s pretty much the only efficacious blocker. Will Dissly’s doing work on the left locking up Marcus Davenport and looking like a man desperately clinging to a cliff face. It’s not pretty. It definitely involves holding. But it works. Duane Brown has squared up Bell on the second level. Justin Britt has likewise climbed ahead and initiated a good block. But the combo block by Germain Ifedi and George Fant is a total failure. We can see Fant grabbing at Cameron Jordan’s arm. And Mike Iupati was worked. Iupati and Mario Edwards appear to be dosidoing.

The run is designed to go left, and if not for Fluker’s push on Shy Tuttle, Carson wouldn’t even have somewhere to twist and corkscrew into for a minimal gain. But that’s what he does, and whatever portion of those four yards we don’t assign to Fluker, must go to Carson. He makes this:

Into this:

Which is why he keeps getting opportunities.

As for Russell Wilson’s zone read fake, no one was buying it. Wilson has once again largely lost his decoy value as a rusher. Seattle’s inability to manage his rushing is an ongoing problem. Opponents recognize that Wilson only rushes when the Seahawks are desperate.

2ND & 6 AT SEA 8(07:05)

(7:05) G.Fant reported in as eligible. C.Carson right tackle to SEA 31 for 23 yards (E.Apple, M.Williams). FUMBLES (E.Apple), RECOVERED by NO-V.Bell at SEA 33. V.Bell for 33 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

One receiver leads to a single high look from New Orleans’ defense, and that puts Bell in the box.

This time the run blocking is mighty. The abundance of Saints near the line of scrimmage bunch up. This is the beginning of a long run, for sure. Check Ifedi’s block on Mario Edwards.

Edwards gets Ifed-exed. And by that I mean union-busted.

Dissly stumbles horizontally into his second block. Which isn’t a failure exactly but it’s certainly not a success.

Iupati and Nick Vannett though are both just killing it. That cutback lane to the inside is fierce.

And now the awful series of events which jeopardized the season.

Carson’s free.

But he has almost no get away speed and is quickly surrounded.

It seems he just can’t easily get up to speed while running at an angle. In a flash Marcus Williams has tracked him down and initiated a tackled. Williams ran a 4.56 40, but has the angle and a considerable run-up to overtake Carson. Still.

This is when ... well, let’s refer to the Confucian Analects:

“The occasions on which the Master talked about profit, Destiny and benevolence were rare.” —1. of Book IX

Carson holds the ball correctly as the tackle is initiated.

But in a moment we may only guess at, he reverts to a precarious hold just as Eli Apple does what any underdog destined to win does: seize the opportunity.

It’s not young Tiki Barber bad but it’s bad enough on a rainy day to cost Seattle dearly. Of all things, Carson simply looks to be attempting to break his fall.

Here, as Paul Blarvey would say, is the rest of the story.

Ball is out. Justin Britt shows some awareness.

Seattle’s lone tackle attempt on Bell.

But who is to say if the Seahawks celebrated too early?

Not this guy, but I will say that Seattle lost a game in which they were favorites, and in which they easily could have been prohibitive favorites. Except, of course, we now must come to terms with a very unsettling fact. Seattle is not that good. The Seahawks rank 27th by PFR’s Simple Rating System, 17th by ESPN’s Football Power Index, and a robust 7th by FO’s DVOA. I wish I could believe that, and despite that rosy and out of step rating by FO, Seattle is no longer favored to make the playoffs. Good teams do a lot of stuff, including whizzing gimmes down their leg. The season isn’t decided by any stretch. But good teams do not usually whizz gimmes down their leg. And piss stains.

The special teams is a mess. Carson deserved to be benched on Sunday at the very least. If he’s the only back that the offense can fully function around, that’s bad bad bad. But what this all feels like, what it really really feels like, is a team and organization that no longer competes. The coaching, the play, the roster construction which now is rife with steadily failing draft picks, the coaching staff which no longer has anyone exciting other than Mike Solari, feels like a team built from a kind of golden-years complacence. Of wars won and a peace that can be won too.

When Pete Carroll took over in 2010 he set about flipping just about anyone of value on the roster for whatever could be had back in trade. I, rather infamously, hated it, but he won me over. The roster churn, the painfully realistic assessment of Seattle’s talent, the cutting of draft picks and elevation of good players regardless of their origin, began this great era of Seahawks football. One move I remember in particular.

It was a little moment but it caught my attention. The Seahawks had traded one of their best players (sad to say) Darryl Tapp in exchange for Chris Clemons and a fourth round pick. It was a remarkably bold move which could not easily be defended through the limited empirical evidence we had of Clemons’ potential nor the potential of a generic fourth round pick. Clemons ended up being excellent—an absolute steal, perhaps even surpassing Seattle’s trade for Marshawn Lynch. But that pick became E.J. Wilson and Wilson just wasn’t very good. And so, midway through his very first season, Seattle cut him. Seattle was neither ensnared by a mistaken notion of sunk cost nor were they beholden to optics or their initial evaluation of Wilson. He wasn’t cutting it. He was cut.

That doesn’t seem like it could happen anymore. If I’m right, Sunday’s debacling is a signpost on the highway to consistent mediocrity. Because a franchise wide complacence has gripped this team. We’ll see.